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.
“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
Resources for Teaching
Resources for Facilitating Discussions on Race and Ethnicity
*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.