Over my morning coffee I read the disturbing account of yet another incident in the long list of incidents where our students of color are targeted. The Inside Higher Ed account, Entering Campus Building While Black, includes troubling video footage and a list of similar events on other campuses over the last year. In every case, those involved felt they were just being vigilant, just following usual protocols, yet these events rarely (never) seem to happen to our white students. It’s time for a little self-reflection folks.
The cascade of stereotypes that provoke these incidents are pervasive and exhausting. Our words may speak to inclusion, but our deeply held experiences of “other” are driving our behaviors. When we add the variable of gun violence in education contexts, it gets even worse. We see something/say something, but we don’t seem to see whom we’re saying something about. In recent years, large bodies of research have shown us that our incarceration practices are littered with racists assumptions and practices, and I’m grateful that we are starting to see some real reforms. It’s time to turn that attention to our own practices.
I’m not going to sugar coat this folks, here’s the deal.
Elite campuses are more likely to end up in this awful harassment cycle because the numbers of students of color are small. Admissions practices, unequal access to quality K-12 education, and plain old money makes this so. When numbers are small, people notice the otherness of the non-white student more intensely. They appear out-of-place (largely because we’ve not really made a place for them) and then they become the focus when we enforce our rules related to safety and security. It becomes a series of natural seeming steps, that reinforce our biased assumptions and practices.
But elite campuses are not alone. Even on more diverse campuses like mine, there are other kinds of targeting that routinely occur. Our Muslim students are called upon to explain Islam. Our African-American students are asked to explain racism. Our LGTBQ students must share their coming out stories. Our women are frequently asked to adjust to environments that are distinctly male. In our attempts to be inclusive, we end up creating uncomfortable situations where students are asked to be representatives of that “other” culture, asking them to speak for the whole.
Our faculty are not yet diverse enough and so those who are from backgrounds other than white and middle class are faced with the same burden that our students of color face. They become the representatives of their cultures, while at the same time serving as a refuge for students of color, who seek mentors who understand their experiences. As these faculty try to juggle the ordinary burdens of teaching, publishing, and earning tenure, the extra responsibilities of being the representative of a specific group, puts a strain on their time, making the path to tenure more strenuous than that of their white peers. And by being put in the position of being the representative of their cultures, we continuously repeat the message, you are other.
And our curriculum, well don’t get me started on that. If all of the above represents tokenism (and it does), our curriculum is the epitome of that practice. Somehow we think a few focused courses on particular groups are enough to address the long history of exclusion. We congratulate ourselves for noticing an absence in our offerings, write a course to address it, and then go one with the usual approaches and subjects.
Clearly my encounter with the news this morning made me angry. I suspect many of my colleagues feel the same way. We did not become educators to perpetuate the structural racism in our society. Most of us just wanted to immerse ourselves in the fields we love and most of us thought when we did that, that systemic bias was not really part of that immersion. Unfortunately we were wrong. Absolutely nothing we do is immune to the socio-cultural biases in which we operate. Yes, even scientific inquiry has biases built-in, so, no exceptions here.
But I’m never one to stop with just observing a problem. What are we to do? The list is incredibly long, but here are the first three steps we can take to get started.
- Don’t save meaningful encounters with diverse peoples for special occasions. Let’s develop practices that weave real encounters with people and perspectives different from our own into the everyday life of the campus. College is the ideal place to grow these habits. We engage with people who are seeking new ideas and experiences by virtue of being here, so let’s redesign how we organize assignments, groups, spaces, and time so that these conversations are not the exception, but the rule. Research suggests that just plain exposure can make a difference in our habit of stereotyping, so let’s orchestrate continuous exposure to all members of our community.
- Be much more thoughtful about curriculum. Let’s not be fooled into believing that the stories and facts we have gathered represent the totality of the human experience. Whose discoveries are we celebrating? Whose histories are we exploring? Which artists are we featuring? We all know that the digital universe has given us ever more access to information and discoveries. Our challenge is what to address right now. If we just remember that the goal is to help our students figure out how to evaluate well and argue with information, then what we argue about is really not that important. There is plenty of room in the curriculum to be more intentional about the diversity of narratives, discoveries, and social structures. Rather than being fixated on the usual stories, let’s get obsessed with just how many stories we can tell.
- Think about the habits within our disciplines that may be excluding people. Is the baseline knowledge for admission to your field something that everyone is likely to have encountered? If not, reconsider your baseline and build bridge programs where necessary. Are the paths to graduate education clear enough that anyone could figure it out? If not (and no one should be answering yes to this), find ways to make the paths more transparent for all so that we might cultivate new voices and colleagues from many backgrounds. Are the rules for academic success in your discipline (department) clearly articulated and supported? If not, make it so. That’s not just for our students, that’s for all of our peers. If we move from the informal to the formal articulation of the rules, we help level the playing field.
There is so much more to say and do, but I’m asking us to just start here. These things are within our control and they have the potential to transform our campus cultures. If we get serious about these three steps and take action, the next three steps will reveal themselves and we might be able to start cultivating the habits we need to truly transform our institutions.
I’m tired of waking up to these horrible news stories and I not satisfied with thinking this is someone else’s problem. It’s time for us to get our house in order.