By Laurian & Beth
Below is part three of our series on Audre Lorde in which we use Lorde’s work to reflect on race, feminism, and anger. Our session today touches upon institutional racism, academia, activism, guilt, and building commonalities.
Beth: Let’s talk for a bit about racism and sexism on college campuses. Recently, faculty members Eve Dunbar and Kiese Laymon at Vasser College wrote articles about racism on their campus. Laymon expresses rage and heartbreak as he lists his and his students’ experiences of racism on and off campus. “There’s an immense price to pay in and out of so-called elite American educational institutions” he writes, “the depth of this price differs based on sexuality, gender, race, access to wealth, and the status of one’s dependents.” He further asserts that “to keep winning, to keep our soul and sanity in this terror-filled coliseum, at some point we have to say fuck it. We have to say fuck them. And most importantly, we must say to people and communities that love us, “I love you. Will you please love me? I’m listening.”
Dunbar connects the hazing she experiences as a black woman faculty member and former Associate Dean of Faculty to the tradition of the institution itself and to our nation as a whole. After the institution called the police to question four black teenagers who were in the Vassar library without ID, Dunbar initiated a system to document racial profiling on campus. “These issues must be seen by administration not singularly, but as part of the institutional fabric, formulated within a national fabric sickened by white supremacy, misogyny, heteropatriarchy, and old-fashioned elitism. It’s a matter of having a leadership and communities able to wrestle deeply with the fact that racial and gender violence are foundational to all American institutions and, as such, must be driven out through constant, caring vigilance. “
I think what they have written is still surprising to some people. And why wouldn’t it be? For example, white people will not be, in Laymon’s words, “racially terrorized” simply for being on campus. If anything, the liberal veneer of a place like Vassar makes it more possible for administrative rhetoric to deny student and faculty experiences of racism.
Laurian: There are so many places in academic institutions where conversations like these need to happen, and they need to happen at the same time: in our classrooms, among students when they are outside of the classroom, between faculty, with administrators and perhaps most of all, with the board of trustees. A lot of misfires are taking place. Data shows that diversity is important to an academic institution (in a variety of ways) but I think many people believe that diversity simply means having a modicum of visibility of certain groups. And that if those groups are more visible on campus, they just melt right into the culture of the academy. Faculty, staff, students and just about any person part of a group that has not been historically part of the institution feel their difference immediately. And there is an ideological framework that needs to be specifically unpacked. What is the impact when the institution and its stakeholders proffer a sentiment that those “new” groups should somehow be grateful that the gates have been opened for them? That, in my opinion, is what underlies all the pushback to the “problems” because they were unnamed before people of color/queer/working class and many other Others, arrived.
B: Lorde wrote about the assumption that on campus “racism is a Black women’s problem, a problem of women of Color, and only we can discuss it.” Is this true now and how do we get at this assumption? How do we talk about who gets to speak and who is expected to speak about race and racism?
L: I have come to expect that people expect me to be the person sitting at the table who will discuss equity and access in relation to race, gender, or sexuality. I often ask people to unpack their assumptions before I will even address their question. The idea that I have to be an expert on all things black makes me want to immediately ask for a raise. Because clearly I am not making enough money if suddenly I am speaking for all black folks. I often ask people to question the homogeneity of the space they inhabit and to understand that these are not coincidences. I go hard on people for not questioning the institution at all. Or for defending the institution while at the same time acknowledging that there are problems. That’s white supremacist thinking right there. I am at a place that if people aren’t invested in fundamental shifts in how an institution functions and fosters equity, then I feel they aren’t really interested. Perhaps that’s a defeatist attitude to have, but the gradualists really get on my nerves. Micro change when vast majorities suffer is not a goal to be proud of.
B: I also wonder how the dramatic increase in productivity expectations for educators impacts activist work on campus and shapes the ability to forge academic-community collaborations that are long-term and sustainable. Racism and sexism on college campuses result from structural oppression built into our society as a whole. Activism on campus necessarily needs to connect to wider activist efforts.
L: You have written about the increasing demands and expectations of the academy here at Envision. The gate keeping that happens between academics and non-academics, higher education and other institutions reminds me of how academics herd one another and lull each other into the belief that activist work that happens on campus is “enough.” For example, I attended a conference where someone said that their level of productivity had gone up once they decided to only spend their time doing work that accomplished at least three things. And everyone, myself included, initially marveled at how “smart” that was. This is one example of how an academic attempts to accommodate the reign of flexible accumulation, which demands extensible bodies that are high specialized, but also quickly adaptive. So for example, if someone asks this person to give a guest lecture, they might accept only if they can use the lecture as a way to flush out a research idea that they are working through for publication, if it is a high profile event where they are able to have better access to higher-ups in order to make some requests AND if the honorarium is “enough” to make them feel like they’ve spent their time wisely.
On later reflection, I realized that nowhere in this person’s reasoning was there a dialogue about community engagement, information-sharing or building greater access to the institution, communities or collaborators. Those things were expected to be organic, while the triple-whammy of utility of why we engage with publics beyond our institution was seen as checklist that had to be marked to legitimate your choice. And even more important, there was no room to even think about whether or not you WANT to do certain things. Instead, we are expected to make decisions based on how to further the institution or a discipline. All requests are immediately assessed and dissected to measure how well said event or occasion fosters one’s self-promotion.
B: I remember a colleague once asked me how my course on race and racism was directly parlaying into a publication. She encouraged me to discontinue the course if it wasn’t accomplishing this and to teach only material that would feed directly into my own research. While this unsolicited advice makes sense due to productivity pressure, it made me sick and angry. I did not teach material in the classroom simply because of self-interest, but because the material is necessary and transformative and worthy in its own right. The same colleague also discouraged me from supervising a student who had a practicum in my field of expertise because it was a time drain. I decided to take her suggestion as an acknowledgment of the vast amounts of unpaid labor that academic positions demand—more so depending on where and how you are positioned. But this is not how she meant it. She didn’t think the student’s interest in off-campus activism was academic enough.
B: In the college classroom, I have seen anger, erasure, and other emotions endemic to experiences of racism become “enlightenment” fodder for white and privileged students. “Teachable moments” can embed the objectification of people of color, poor people etc… in the process of teaching those who have it to recognize their own privilege. This process of objectification, or tokenization—even when students readily share experiences of oppression or micro-aggression—simultaneously presumes the “innocent niceness” of white and privileged people. For example, unless we push back, students can presume the desire to learn about racism through the experiences of people of color is automatically a righteous one rather than what it often can be: an act of commodification or an act of consumption.
bell hooks so nicely explains a similar phenomenon in Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance: how the created “primitiveness” of people of color (including anger) by white people/colonists was and remains a conduit for white people to access the very aspects of human existence that have been coded “black.” What has been your experience with this process?
L: Last semester, while teaching a course that spent a great deal of time in discussions about race and racism, I noticed a pattern where white women students would sit quietly in class and then come to my office hours in order to unpack their rage and anger. Before mid-semester I noticed the pattern. A conversation might be heated and I would notice some white women students who would seem to “check out.” They sat back in their chairs, when they’d previously been seemingly attentive and upright. They would begin to stare into neutral spaces in the classroom, no longer making eye contact. And sometimes their faces would redden. Then, whether hours or days later, they would quietly knock on my office door, ask if they could close it behind them and once closed, the rage and angry emotions would spill forth.
Only in the quietness of my office with the door closed does the secret conversation begin. And whenever I asked why they didn’t bring an issue up in class, they would often say, “I don’t want to be rude.” Or they didn’t want a classmate to become angry with them because of what they might say. I sometimes struggled with those conversations because this is an instance where race and gender are slamming into each other and indexed by the teacher-student dynamic that is happening in our interaction. In this arena, is it my job to teach students about racial awareness and white privilege, yet at the same time, racial scripts are playing out.
B: It is interesting that this also happened to me when teaching about race and racism. I often had white students who would come to office hours to confess their discomfort with class discussion. Students of color also came to office hours to express rage and sadness at the near-constant racism from white students or the ways in which they were never taught about histories of racialization. I also had angry white students. We are not raised on honest discussion about racism and when some light begins to break through about the sheer enormity of how race shapes us, it can be terrifying. I also think that anger can be disruptive against the colorblind complacency around us. Some students can express anger in the classroom in a way that may not be safe for them to do in other spaces.
I do think that sometimes white students expected a different reaction from me as a white professor: sympathy or empathy for their fear maybe? I also had white students who expressed sophisticated notions of themselves as allies, who often spoke up and with confidence but were less able to listen. It is always challenging to facilitate a safe yet critical classroom discussion about race: to balance when students speak and when they need to listen in loaded discussions, especially when there is such a long and complicated history of silencing the voices of PoC. AND to then move this discussion beyond the classroom, into daily lives and into sustainable social change.
Racism, Privilege, and Guilt
B: Lorde touches upon some interesting things about guilt and the purposes it serves for white people and white women in particular. How can guilt be productive beyond masochistic pleasure? To function in guilt, as a way to promote racial understanding and justice is a farce, it is limiting at best. We need to recognize privilege, but we also need messier conversations in which presumed dyads leave us uneasy, not in a hair-shirt kind of way, but one in which morality is not judged from a platform of guilt.
L: I think guilt has currency. In my younger years and still now, I have moments when I relish in the pain. Guilt may be limited, but I do think guilt can shore up one’s resilience in the face of opposition. I think that white people’s guilt is kin to people of color’s shame. And to move through each of these emotions is to locate one’s self in larger processes. We internalize structural norms, they become deeply personal and “ours” so much so that we own them as personal flaws and limits. But I think that starting with a deeper understanding of guilt is to begin to question the history and socialization that has led to the moment we are in now. It moves away from the self-worry to a wider social concern. I also think that guilt plus knowledge plus action can be motivating and affirming of the growing pains you experienced to get to where you are.
Growth requires a shift in how people think of themselves as human. How do we recognize where we are and also move through it into something more radical and more meaningful?
B: To deal with privilege is to confront fear — fear that you might be wrong, or might get called out, or might still have something to learn, or many things to learn, from someone else. To deal with privilege—and this can come from many things not limited to how our presumed racialized characteristics are perceived in our daily lives—is to accept ourselves as in process.
In the end, Lorde and others (and I am thinking here of contributors to This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color) remind us that anti-sexist and anti-racist and anti-classist work is truly the work of people who are sexist and racist, classist or homophobic. We are, ultimately, responsible for our own education, for the constant de-colonization of our thoughts.
L: I think that the fear also comes along with anxiety about loss. It’s like, I recognize that it sucks that some people don’t have privilege and I empathize with that narrative, but I don’t want to feel it. Those with privilege have to confront the fear of what their day-to-day worlds will look like without it. And for some, it feels like a nightmare. When people accept that privilege is unearned advantage, I think people are seriously afraid. They have lots of questions. Like, would I have fewer things? Will equality mean I end up with less confidence in my abilities to succeed? How will a diminished entitlement play out in social interactions? Can I even take that? It’s the same reason that “leveling the playing” field efforts to build broader access without taking away structural advantage always fail. These micro-changes are sculpted as successes if there are a few Others within the system. Because it allows those with privilege to maintain their status and feel like progress is happening (for some).
B: bell hooks asserts that sisterhood—the idea of solidarity between women because of sexism and despite differences—can operate as a rationale for ignoring racism. This iteration of sisterhood operates as a form liberal racism, one that works to exaggerate similarities and ignore structurally created difference. Moralistic arguments against racism (we are all alike under the skin) do little to help activate change. For students, faculty and administrators to acknowledge that they have racial or other privileges is not enough. We all work and operate within systems built upon social inequality. Acknowledgment of this without action often leads to a cul-de-sac of guilt or, worse, complacency. Knowledge alone is not the answer to sustained efforts of radical social change. We need also to do the work of building commonalities. As Dunbar wrote in her piece about Vassar, “We—from the highest ranking administrator to faculty, staff and students—have to be vigilant in bending ourselves toward equity and care for the most marginalized members of our communities. We cannot avoid implicating ourselves in the way we have contributed and benefited from race and gender inequity and inequality.”