What We Talk About When We Talk About Race

I came to work at a California Community College during an exciting time. In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown began allocations of $100 million annually to address equity at community colleges across the state. When I showed up at my first set of meetings last year, we had a keynote on systemic racism in American education. Each campus now has a Student Equity Committee deciding how to use our funds and looking at research-based plans on how to correct institutional mistreatment of historically disadvantaged populations. Having been in higher ed at a liberal arts college (undergrad), an R1 (grad), and now a CC (faculty) I can say that I have never seen such institutional attention paid to equity. Rather than a hollow diversity celebration, it seems that California Community Colleges are both acknowledging and addressing (with funds!) their abysmal histories of exclusion.

Barbara Bitters provides some useful terminology to get at what is meant by educational equity:

“The educational policies, practices, and programs necessary to: (a) eliminate educational barriers based on gender, race/ethnicity, national origin, color, disability, age, or other protected group status; and (b) provide equal educational opportunities and ensure that historically underserved or underrepresented populations meet the same rigorous standards for academic performance expected of all children and youth.”

I felt a real sense of hope that my career took a turn in the CC direction just as this funding became available in the state. My research area is assimilationist policies of the US government at off-reservation boarding schools for Native Americans, and my teacherly commitments are steeped in anti-racist praxis. I joined the equity committee and have been largely optimistic about the early responsiveness of colleagues to race-based discussions.

Then I went to a statewide equity conference.

Maybe it’s my Gender Studies, Black Studies, Native American/Indigenous Studies background, but as a white woman, I generally acknowledge that I should not be the central voice in discussions of racial inequity. Last weekend I sat in a room of 4 equity committees from different regions as we worked with a presenter from the Penn Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. The session was called “Facilitating Conversations about Race” and then, all of sudden, we were having a difficult conversation about race. We could not get to the level of thinking through why these conversations are difficult because we were completely derailed by racist comments that needed to be immediately addressed.

Let me give you a sense of the room- 3 out of 4 committees were largely white and composed of upper level administrators, faculty, and institutional researchers. One committee was made up entirely of faculty, student-services staff, and administrators who self-identified as people of color. This college had deliberately and powerfully placed folks of color at the center of the equity decision-making process. We should all be this college.

Why? Here’s why. The committees composed largely of white faculty and administrators took up most of the talking space in the room. I watched as colleagues insisted that they have no students or faculty of color on their campuses to whom they could turn for guidance on race/ethnicity issues (btw, pretty much impossible in CA). One researcher said, “even our black and Latino students act white!” A member of a different committee lamented that they could not have conversations about race on their campus because there was this one angry woman of color who always made it about blame and didn’t use the right tone. She said “we are all hoping this person will leave so we can have a civil conversation.” She actually said that. No self-awareness whatsoever.  I had to deploy all 4 types of Dr. Stacey Patton’s collegial side-eye.

Here’s the thing. This. is. the. equity. committee. These are the people tasked with addressing systemic racism on their campuses. But I don’t know if many even had a working definition of systemic racism, let alone a sense of their complicity with systems of oppression. They got called out, and it appeared this was a new experience for most people there. Folks scrambled defensively to restate their problematic point, again, and again, and again. We didn’t get very far. I have an impulse towards empathy- to say that they were learning, and therefore needed to be able to make mistakes. But I have decided that this is the wrong impulse. How long can higher ed leaders claim that they just didn’t know that they were saying something wrong? We have the internet, and decades of scholarship on white privilege. There is no excuse.

Here is my plea. If you are a white person. If you are in a position of institutional power (teacher, scholar, administrator, student services provider. etc.). Please do your homework. I fall short in my own accounting of my privilege all the time, and I have absolutely been that clueless and damaging white voice. I have been and I will be again. But do the work. And if you’re on the equity committee, do extra work. Do all the work.

Here are some places to start/continue:*

Discussions of Educational Inequity

Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia

Why I No Longer Eat Watermelon, Or How a Racist Email Caused Me to Leave Graduate School

Indigenous feminist and undergraduate philosopher Erica Violet Lee’s brilliant blog 

Diversity is Dead, and Whiteness Killed It

Resources for Teaching

Asao Inoue’s book Race and Writing Assessment 

bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress 

Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Resources for Facilitating Discussions on Race and Ethnicity

4 Agreements for Courageous Conversations about Race

Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

Shelly Tochluk’s Witness Whiteness book and companion site 

Dear White People, 2014 film

Intent Vs. Impact

*This list is very preliminary/filled with gaps as I have focused on resources that have been particularly useful for me and are in the forefront of my mind. Feel free to supplement in comments with resources that have been helpful to you.


5 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Race

  1. This is a great post.

    While professionally I work as an electronics design engineer, I happen to work in my free time with several Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) women on an ethnography/linguistics project. Both women are native speakers of their language. The family has been severely and directly impacted by the effect of the Canadian residential school system, which attempted, and largely succeeded. to rob the Blackfoot of their traditional culture, religion and language.

    Over the years, this family has lent themselves to an exhaustive number of projects and spent thousands of hours collaborating with anthropologists and linguists to support work on which they have never been noted as an author. They have also never been paid for their work.

    Although highly educated and articulate, the family struggles economically. They deal daily with ignorance and outright racism about their culture, religion and language.

    Important ethnographic information, of world significance, goes unfunded and undeveloped because professional anthropologists and funding bodies somehow cannot acknowledge that what this family knows within their Blackfoot knowledge system is equivalent at least to having an advanced degree. Funding bodies completely refuse to consider the idea that directly funding this family to develop and revitalize their knowledge system would constitute a valuable research project.

    I have been to several AAPA diversity meetings and was not impressed by what I saw.

    While the situation for Native people in Canada is not good, the situation in the US is worse, because the assimilation model, and the notion that Native Americans did not possess sophisticated and comprehensive systems of knowledge, is still heavily implanted within American academic anthropology.

    Overtly racist and prominent anthropologists such as Henry Harpending and Gregory Cochran continue to poison a subset of academic researchers against Native Americans, and other people.

    Given that Native Americans served bravely in both the First and Second World Wars, and were crucial in several roles, including as code talkers, this continued negative attitude toward Native Americans is appalling.

    And by the way, Leonard Pelletier is still in prison after thirty years. Whatever his guilt or innocence, I do think that we have to consider the context of the time and our very poor record on Native Americans, and how that might have motivated Leonard’s actions. It’s time to let Leonard out of prison.

  2. Hugely important post – one of the best I’ve read on TSW. Thanks for writing, sharing your experiences, and compiling so many links and resources. This is timely for me personally, as someone considering a career in California’s community college system as I wind down my PhD.

  3. Sigh… it seems to be another case of people in power (eg even on a committee) “telling” others what they “should” think, rather than sitting down and really listening, and “asking” them what they really think. But the asking isn’t enough without the listening.

  4. There’s one final eye contact one can utilize in that situation.
    I refer to it by its origin, “the NCO glare”. Used by non-commissioned officers to subordinates that say or do something mind boggling in stupidity or non-compliance with a directive. At higher rank, even used against superiors, which causes them to quail against their idiotic statement. It’s a glare that utterly dismisses any argument that could be posed, causes the subject of that glare to freeze and reassess their position rapidly, in compliance with one’s prior statement.
    In civilian terms, it’s a glare that says, “I’m resisting to the best of my ability from reaching down your throat and punching your head back out of your rectum – now get with the program!”.
    Followed by, “So, you are waiting for someone angry over repression and lynchings that have occurred during my lifetime to leave, rather than address that anger and hence, perpetuating it? That isn’t being part of a solution, it is perpetuating the problem and is intellectually and morally bankrupt”.

  5. Pingback: Linkfest: 13 February 2016 | Tea 'N' Mango Juice

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