I am an associate professor of English at St. John’s University. I am a former high school teacher with the New York City public schools/Coalition of Essential Schools and college writing instructor at the City University of New York (CUNY). I have led numerous projects focusing on issues of language, literacy, and learning: consultant for the Community Learning Centers Grant Project in Harlem, educational consultant and curriculum developer for the African Diaspora Institute/Caribbean Cultural Center of New York, instructional coordinator for the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, seminar leader for the New York City Writing Project, seminar leader for Looking Both Ways. If the conversation is truly about multiple literacies, political access/action, justice for racially subordinated communities, and critical pedagogy, I am all in! My first book with SUNY Press (2013), _Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacy Studies_, makes Black Freedom a 21st century literacy movement.
As a group of concerned faculty, we are deeply disturbed at the recent allegations of unchecked racial and gender discrimination and open hostility at TCU. We stand in solidarity with current and former marginalized undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff who are speaking out and demanding an immediate change. We want to affirm our students, who have clearly laid out the changes that they need to see (click here to see the demands). We know all too well that, in times like these, institutional racism quells students’ progressive visions for their education rather than uplifts them. We also recognize that trauma begets trauma; the unaddressed transgressions of TCU’s past have led to this painful present. We speak out today in hopes of preventing future trauma, knowing that our many Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) faculty are uniquely qualified and ready to lead dynamic and difficult discussions about race. Fort Worth needs healing. TCU needs healing. Let us help.
To students, we stand in solidarity with you and Jane Doe #1 (click here for information about the lawsuit and click here for the text of the actual lawsuit). While we refrain from commenting on her lawsuit as it moves through its own due process, we want to affirm that students of color and students of other marginalized backgrounds HAVE and ARE being underserved and undervalued at TCU. It is not just in your head. We, too, are devastated by your isolation, lack of social and literal physical space, and the infuriating stories you have shared with us during our office hours and in passing about what you experience in the dorms, in class, and while trying to obtain services on campus. We are in awe of your resilience that we wish you did not have to have in the face of routine micro- and macroaggressions on campus; reinforced white supremacist frameworks that you experience daily at the hands of your professors and peers. As faculty, we are invested in helping you navigate processes for improving the conditions in the classroom and across this campus. In addition to bringing to bear our knowledge, we extend our collective and individual support to you in whatever form that may take.
To our fellow faculty members, we must all stand up and be agents of progressive change at TCU for the betterment of our students, staff, and one another. As other recent lawsuits have laid bare, faculty, too, are harmed professionally and personally by long-standing ideologies of white supremacy, fascism, patriarchy, queerphobia, xenophobia, and ableism (click here for information about lawsuit). As BIPOC faculty, we are confronted daily with the gross realities of TCU’s deep-seated history of systemic racism — from unchecked racial terror and hate speech espoused in our own classrooms and on-campus by students and visitors, to being saddled with higher teaching loads than our white or male faculty counterparts that stifles promotion, to unrecognized and uncompensated service work that we are tasked with by administrators to hold TCU together. And, it is apparent that this culture of exploitation and negligence has made it grossly difficult for TCU to not only recruit and retain students of color, but faculty of color, too. We must stop with the band-aids, and be brave enough to put forth and implement bold, holistic and transformative prescriptions for eradicating the systems of oppression that have a grip on our workplace.
To the administration, we continue to be committed to eradicating the various obstacles that students of color, especially Black and Brown students, face at this institution, but we need your expeditious and explicit support. In order to advance equity and justice on-campus in the best interest of our students, strengthen the university’s academic profile and reputation (a stated goal in the Vision in Action Strategic Plan), and ensure the recruitment and retention of BIPOC faculty, we call for:
❖ Joint hires, cluster hires in the research areas of Ethnic Studies (i.e. Asian American, Black, Native American, and Chicanx/Latinx Studies)and Gender and Sexuality Studies,
❖ Immediate investigations into salary gaps in and across departments and colleges, and a public commitment to closing those gaps and ensuring pay equity across all units,
❖ More transparency about salaries and start-up packages across the university, including digitally published and regularly updated classifications and pay scales,
❖ Better workload standards across departments and colleges (i.e..2-2 standardized teaching load for all faculty, 1-2 for new faculty),
❖ Clearly defined and quantifiable criteria for tenure & promotion across departments,
❖ The recognition and compensation of invisible labor—i.e. mentorship of historically marginalized students, departmental service work, and other duties that often go unaccounted for in faculty annual reviews and tenure & promotion,
❖ The creation of a university ombudsperson’s office and the development of fair and transparent processes for filing and resolving complaints (i.e. Title IX, EEO, Dispute Resolutions, etc.), including the annual reporting of received Title IX complaints and greater compliance with other civil rights and anti-discrimination laws,
❖ The hiring of much more student affairs and academic affairs staff to meet the personal and professional needs of our students so that faculty, in particular BIPOC faculty, who are not trained to provide those types of professional services, are not left shouldering the weight of student growth and development,
❖ An end to the ongoing slashing of faculty benefits, which disproportionately harms junior and BIPOC faculty; we need comprehensive medical care (including mental health care) that is culturally responsive, accessible and affordable and more medical health providers on campus who reflect our state’s demographics, and
❖ Daycare services and after school programs provided on campus to support faculty, staff, and students with children.
You have heard from an abundance of students (as well as BIPOC faculty that have left TCU after having similar experiences), who have offered accounts of their experiences of systemic racism on this campus. Do know that these stories are not surprising to us and many of them we have personally supported students through. Our students’ trauma directly affects faculty productivity and well-being, both of which can lead to burnout. If TCU is truly committed to being among one of the best places to work in the nation, as often touted, we feel strongly that mechanisms to address structural racism operating on campus need to be implemented and/or enhanced without delay. The cultural deficit discourse that frames marginalized students goes regularly unchecked at both graduate and undergraduate levels. Diversity is not an obstacle to be navigated in our academic and professional careers. It must, instead, be a transformative core value of this institution.
We see, affirm, and offer our support to the vision of the students, faculty, and staff, who are working towards a truly transformative education here at TCU.
Carmen Kynard, Ph.D. – English Brandon Manning, Ph.D. – English Jeanelle Hope, Ph.D. – Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies Rima Abunasser, Ph.D. – English Jane Mantey, Ph.D. – Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies Melanie Harris, Ph.D. – Religion Brian J. Dixon, M.D. – TCU-UNTHSC School of Medicine Hanan Hammad, Ph.D. – History Stacie McCormick, Ph.D. – English Santiago Piñón, Ph.D. – Religion Adam McKinney, M.A. – Dance/College of Fine Arts Eric Fisher Stone, MFA— English Jason Helms, Ph.D. — English Sarah Robbins, Ph.D. — English Ann George, PhD — English Brad Lucas, Ph.D. — English Regina Lewis, B.A. — English Sharon Anderson Harris, Ph.D. — English Charlotte Hogg, Ph.D. — English Carrie Liu Currier, Ph.D. — Political Science Jessica L. Fripp, Ph.D. — Art/College of Fine Arts Gabriel Huddleston, Ph.D. — Curriculum Studies/College of Education Suki John, Ph.D. — Dance/ College of Fine Arts Max Krochmal, Ph.D. — History and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies Nino Testa, Ph.D. — Women and Gender Studies Linda Hughes, Ph.D. — English Wil Gafney, Ph.D. — Brite Divinity School Lori Boornazian Diel, Ph.D. — Art/College of Fine Arts Lauren Mitchell, Ph.D. — TCU-UNTHSC School of Medicine Jennifer Martin, Ph.D. — Social Work and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies Babette Bohn, Ph.D. — Art/College of Fine Arts Angela Towne, Ph.D. — Women and Gender Studies Breinn Richter, MBA — Management and Leadership/Neeley School of Business Neil Easterbrook, Ph.D. — English Claudia Camp, Ph.D. — Women and Gender Studies Rebecca Sharpless, Ph.D. — History and Women and Gender Studies Annette Wren, Ph.D. — TCU Writing Center Alex Hidalgo, Ph.D. — History Kurk Gayle, Ph.D. — Intensive English Program Layne Craig, Ph.D. — English Gene Allen Smith, Ph.D. — History Sylvia Mendoza, Ph.D. — UTSA and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies Bonnie C Blackwell, Ph.D. — English Shweta Reddy, Ph.D. — Fashion Merchandising/College of Fine Arts Sara-Jayne Parsons, M.A. — Art/College of Fine Arts Rhiannon G Mayne, Ph.D. — Environmental Sciences Jill C. Havens, Ph.D. — English Jessica Zeller, MFA, Ph.D. — Dance/College of Fine Arts Mary Twis, Ph.D. — Social Work Katie Lauve-Moon, Ph.D. — Social Work Lynné Bowman Cravens, MFA — Art/College of Fine Arts Sheriee Parnell, B.S. — TCU-UNTHSC School of Medicine Matthew Pitt, MFA — English Margaret Lowry, Ph.D. — Women and Gender Studies
I hope this letter finds you
both well. Since spring 2019 was my last
semester, I am writing to share some of my experiences with the hope that my
insights might offer you a different perspective of life at the college for
BIPOC. Since my campus interview in 2013
up until my departure, I worked under two presidents, three provosts, three
deans, three chairs, and four program directors. To say that the university was unstable in
those six years is obviously an understatement, so I admired the peace that you
were trying to instill which, in turn, motivated my decision to reach out to you
here. I am not expecting a response to
this letter, but I felt it was imperative that I write it anyway.
My sincere apologies that I could not write this letter sooner as family issues got in the way. I never had any intention of choking my voice and always planned to offer you an image of the structural oppositions that people who look like me face in the predominantly white and hostile departments and programs that permeate the college. In my inability to write this sooner, I fear that yet another dominant, racist white narrative at the college has gone unchecked: namely, the willful ignorance surrounding the racial delusions that my departure, as well as that of other folk who look like me, was rooted in the simple desire for better resources and prestige elsewhere. You must know better than this.
You must know better than this!
For far too long, the conversations about retaining BIPOC faculty at the college have centered on support for tenure. This logic assumes that tenure and promotion are something difficult for us. I assure you that this has not been the case for me or my peers. My generation of successful Brown and Black professionals are a mobile generation and the most decorated amongst us do one thing when an institution continually devalues us: we leave. This is as true for academia as it is for law, medicine, and business, especially for successful Black women, as I am sure you are both well aware given the ready availability of such statistical data. This is also especially true for people like me who worked for six years at a salary much lower than male counterparts when their comparative CVs did not justify their higher salaries. While there were no attempts to correct this wrong against my labor and intellect, there were plenty of ploys to get me to do MORE uncompensated work far beyond the scope of what would ever be considered reasonable or equitable. All of this is just to say that Brown and Black faculty are not out here struggling with tenure and promotion requirements; none of us would have made it into and out of PhD programs, racially exclusive and hostile as they are, if we were struggling with research and writing processes. Like most places, the college excelled in: 1) the continuum between outright neglect and layered silencing of BIPOC faculty; 2) shrouded guidelines and continual shifts around tenure and promotion requirements; 3) unacknowledged exploitation of uncompensated BIPOC labor towards service and away from scholarship (resulting in a white-racialized structure of who is supported materially and symbolically as a serious researcher/ scholar/ writer), and last, but certainly not least; 4) the chronic mismanagement of hot-mess departments that couldn’t direct somebody through empty traffic much less a university procedure. When my former colleagues and administrators claim that I left the college because this is just my personality, you must know that this is merely a cover-up for all that is wrong with them. When top administrators feel emboldened to declare that a Black woman professor is only leaving because that’s her personality (that was said to me), that is a sure sign of the institutional incompetence in retaining them and will require a radical facelift in the colleges’ rogue team of untrained/untheoried leaders who have vacated a research expertise of their work. I have only ever left a university when I found its racialized exploitation, anti-blackness, organizational incompetence, and misogynoir intolerable. Any discourse about my departure that deliberately ignores the hostile and inept environments that make a place unbearable for faculty of color like me obfuscates the college’s failure to develop effective recruitment and retention models for BIPOC and promotes the racism that the institution sustains. After teaching at multiple universities in the NJ/NY area, my experiences at your college remain the whitest and the most alienating. Any explanation for my departure outside of these terms is just another example of routine gaslighting or, to quote Mary J. Blige, some real basic hateration/holleration in this dancerie. When non-Black faculty and administrators insist that positive, racial change has arrived to campus and yet struggle to recruit and retain Black, tenured faculty, the empirical evidence is simply not on their side. I share these experiences to contend that a university which does not value we high-achieving Brown and Black scholar-researchers is not a place that can ever critically educate students who look like us either.
Real basic hateration!
The fact of the matter is
this: being a professor at the college meant career and financial
sacrifice. Even the difference in the
larger contribution that my previous university made to my retirement funds
(though I worked at your college longer) was SIGNIFICANT. For sure, we do not choose the City University
of New York (CUNY) to become rich and famous; we know that the resources and
salaries will never be competitive. And
truth be told, with the exception of those who have wealthy spouses and/or
family backgrounds (a significant percentage of the faculty, by the way),
employment at CUNY cannot financially sustain even basic housing in NYC
today. When I look at all of the
professional and financial sacrifices, just to be at a place where I was
ignored, disrespected, and marginalized, I have real questions about the
institution’s commitment to diversity and equity and why any BIPOC stay. The
most strong-willed will leave or, when that is not physically possible, find a
way to do the work they are called to do in scholarly communities far away from
the campus. Attrition rates do not even
begin to convey what you have really lost.
It is not my intent here to
run a discursive style that might sound like I am singing an old Lou Rawls
tune: You’re gonna miss my lovin. Institutions pick up and go along as if we
were never there, but they do so at the grave risk of repeating past mistakes
and never truly moving forward. My
experiences as woman of color/Black Feminist/first-generation college-goer/working
class Hip Hopper/AfroDigital Humanities teacher illuminate more mistakes than
successes. Though my negative
experiences have been countless, I will share a few instances here.
More than attrition!
I’ll begin with my last semester at the college as part of the Gender Studies advisory board who attempted to revise the undergraduate major in Gender Studies, particularly those parts that promoted horribly whitewashed and white colonized historical content. In fact, the history curriculum in Gender Studies was more Western European in its content and racist in its outlook than anything I had witnessed in schools, even going back to when I began teaching in NYC public high schools in 1993. The response to our curricular revision in Gender Studies was met with such hostility from white faculty and administration that I felt the need to address the issues in a letter to the dean (that letter is attached here… click and read this mess). After learning of our proposed changes to the Gender Studies curriculum, history faculty secured letters from faculty across CUNY (with the HIS chair praising their efforts) about our work in Gender Studies. The most prominent CUNY faculty who wrote letters in support of HIS faculty rescinded their support after learning what these HIS classes really entail. That formerly supportive faculty also informed me that the HIS faculty themselves wrote the prose, merely asking faculty across CUNY to cut and paste their words into an email to the Dean. When they began quoting from these letters, they knew that they were, in fact, merely referencing their own words. When the advisory committee withdrew the revisions to the curriculum, the HIS department then sent emails to their original letter writers thanking them with the following message: “we accomplished our goal.” The only thing that they seemed to achieve was a bullying of the faculty who volunteered without any recognition or compensation to run an interdisciplinary program and the maintenance of a recalcitrant white colonized curriculum. This kind of curriculum, pedagogy, and discourse are quite literally rewarded and protected at the college and it is an embarrassment.
This particular instance with Gender Studies serves as an example and
not an exemplar. I arrived exhausted by
the battles and racist attacks that I had witnessed and fought at my previous
colleges. Your college only added new
dimensions and taught me that I can trust no institution to treat BIPOC well
and hence I no longer expect it. That pessimism is, in fact, the only gift that
your college gave me.
It was simply routine for faculty of color to describe senior white faculty who had reprimanded them for congregating with other faculty of color in the physical spaces and meetings of the college. I am not sure what shocked me most: 1) that POC faculty obeyed these plantation-styled surveillance regimes; 2) that the university does not face more discrimination law suits, or; 3) that the college has chosen these same white faculty as administrators today. I mean, really, this is the kind of stuff that made Marvin Gaye write songs like “What’s Going On” because this kind of madness needs its own whole melody. The outrageous behaviors of hostile faculty against BIPOC went unchecked in all of my encounters, especially in the first semester of my arrival with a dean and chair who remain the most unsupportive of any that I have encountered. I tape-recorded the discussion of my first classroom observation and, unsurprisingly, the tapes revealed major discrepancies between what was said and what the administrator recorded as evidence of the discussion. I secured a lawyer to review my legal options given the egregiousness of the encounter and the final record. I only decided to forego pursuing the obvious legal breaches so that I can present and write freely and openly about the events on a national stage. Since then, I have advised countless Brown and Black faculty to consult their state laws about recorded conversations and their allowance in court rooms, a lesson courtesy of my experiences at your college where a routine classroom observation did not follow basic, ethical employment guidelines.
In my time at the college, I was further accused by a white faculty member of stealing his property. My mail was opened and damaged on three, separate occasions. Since these three items included a paycheck, an honorarium, and a contract, it seemed obvious to me that my mail was targeted. On yet other occasions, when I would, for instance, inadvertently leave a text on the photocopy machine in what was then a locked room in the department (that only faculty could access), my papers were shredded with careful attention paid to ripping words and sentences that represented racial critique by BIPOC. I have actually kept these pieces of paper so that I can show national audiences exactly what macro-aggressions look like for BIPOC. None of these events are particularly surprising or new, but these kinds of routine experiences call into question the college’s market campaigns about “educating for justice” with a predominantly Brown and Black student body in a city with the highest concentrations of Black/Brown populations in the country. To keep the old skool R&B playlist running here, I’ll go with Keith Sweat on this one: “sumthin, sumthin just ain’t right.”
…Sumthin sumthin just ain’t right!
As a discourse community, the
culture was further troubling. I heard,
on countless occasions, faculty and administrators describe their desire for
administrative work in terms of being able “to get out of the classroom.” When I arrived, I had left an administrative
position with a 1/1 load, then turned down a more competitive offer at a state
university campus with a 2/2 load and smaller classes, just so that I could get back into the classroom. I chose the college for the heavy teaching
load and for its students and ended up traveling all over the country to cull
and share research-based ideas and theories about 21st century Brown
and Black classrooms because there was NO such intellectual exchange at the college.
To say that I was disappointed would be a compliment. It was also incredibly difficult to listen to
faculty talk about minimizing their time in Brown and Black classrooms while
performing a self-congratulatory righteousness that they were doing the greater
good by racking up years of course releases with their “service.” A very specific language was consistent and
repetitive: doing administrative/leadership work meant getting out of teaching
and being able to pick up one’s children in time from school (and in each of
these instances, the speaker meant an expensive, private or parochial
school). I heard so many public,
paternalistic pronouncements about us doing “the best that we can” from faculty
who sent their children to elite and/or private schools and colleges (even
expending extra endowments to them) that it became nauseating. What does it mean to celebrate doing “the
best with what little we have” for what education scholars call “other people’s
children” when you would never call those same things good enough for your own
children (or the children in your segregated neighborhood)? I share these
re-occurring instances as an indication of the kind of toxicity experienced by
a woman of color who had to constantly hear the students of color and people in
her communities discussed in this way.
It also became increasingly
more intolerable to hear faculty comments about the allegations of sexual
misconduct that were investigated in 2018-2019.
I appreciated the Climate Review process but did not feel safe in
attending a focus group with faculty given the nature of many of their
attitudes. On multiple occasions, faculty initiated conversations with me
defending the actions of the male faculty members who were investigated. Most often, faculty insisted that each of
these three men, naming each of them separately as longtime friends/colleagues,
had consensual sexual relations with the undergraduate students who filed the
complaint. I did not solicit these conversations and yet these were the
so-called “facts” presented to me. I
heard very little sympathy for the accusers, but all manner of excuses for the
accused. I didn’t know what to say to my faculty peers other than to simply
insist: my momma taught me betta than
that. At one point, the lawyer of one
of the accused emailed countless faculty, explaining that the accused did
research in poor and Black and Brown communities and learned to mimick these
people’s lingo and affect for greater street-cred; students, in turn, merely
misinterpreted the casual, street vibe.
As someone who comes from these po folk and these very same streets, I
can assure you that we do not look and sound anything like what this lawyer
suggested and we most certainly were not groomed to commit acts of violence to
people under our care as representative of our “street lingo.” Like I said before, we were taught betta than that. Listening to all this became, in of
and of itself, another form of violence.
It should come as no surprise that for someone on the outside of the
old-crony gangs that roam the college, and as someone on the outside of the
mainstream/ whitestream ideological apparatus that seemingly dominates all
space there, the campus climate just became more and more unbearable.
It deeply saddened me to
leave the young people at the college who gave me life for six years. My entire career has been dedicated to the
education of Black and Brown youth so it was an honor to do part of that almost
30-year career work at your college. Though it was difficult to leave them, it
was more difficult to watch institutional actors refuse to see or match
students’ brilliance in ways that are commensurate with a culturally-sustaining
and critical education rather than the current colonial,
rudimentary-skills-based, vocational training that racism and white settler
logics have designed for them. My only
salvation today is in knowing that the communities and ancestral heritages that
myself and BIPOC college students represent have sustained far worse and will
survive and thrive despite these new colonial regimes.
My heartfelt wishes for the
work ahead of you!
p.s. You should know that I plan to go public with this letter (of course, omitting all specific references to the college) in the hopes that my unsilencing helps other BIPOC faculty out there somewhere. You should also know that when my former colleagues reach out to me to assuage their white guilt or racial complicity, I have no intention of responding to or comforting them.They have done enough damage and will no longer have access to my mind, body, or spirit. I have refrained from using the names of the perpetrators who I have catalogued here because they simply are not important enough (they are merely generally representative and not especially individual in their routine acts of violence), but should you ever want to know who I am referencing: I will be more than happy to spill that tea.
A BLOG NOTE: Part of my desire to write this letter has also been to add to the archive of Black and Brown feminists who have taught at CUNY. There is increased interest, for instance, in the archives of Black feminists like June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Barbara Christian, and Toni Cade Bambara who started their teaching/writing/activist careers at CUNY. We learn important things from these archives: 1) that radical Black feminists were treated with disdain and disregard in their time at CUNY, despite the public celebrations performed for them decades later; 2) that radical Black feminists left behind a record such that their critiques and larger visions could never be appropriated without the truth behind their experiences; 3) that radical Black feminists worked with their students, often in isolation, to imagine alternative definitions and processes for a transformative, critical education for Brown and Black youth. I aspire to follow in their footsteps and also leave behind my own record. I hope that CUNY will someday end up on the right side of history when it comes to a radical Black feminist presence. It didn’t see it in my time there, but I remain hopeful that CUNY’s students might one day experience a culturally-sustaining and critical education. In the meantime, we can get real about what stands in the way.
I would say that what this essay is about – the imperative to develop an ethical and dogged practice of honoring the intellectual and emotional labor of people of color in rhetoric and composition and beyond – is a new thing. But that is not the truth. Instead, as Carmen Kynard remarked to me recently in one of our sadly TOO MANY conversations about the exhaustion of having to say the same thing over, and over, and over again: “[y]ou been writing this critique for a LONG TIME because this bullshit is so constant and unrelenting.” As usual, she tells no lies.
Indeed, if I had a nickle for every time someone has
complained about the epistemological violence of being a person of color and publishing
in rhetoric and composition, in the words of legendary House/Ballroom scene
Mother Pepper Labeija in the documentary Paris
Is Burning, “I would be rich for coins!” This is the very problem being
illuminated and powerfully checked through movements such as #CiteASista and
citeasista.com, whose “praxis is the inclusion and validation of the voices and knowledge” of
all Black women, which they give specificity to the fact that Black trans women
are women and that the knowledges and voices of women beyond the academy are
just as valuable.” Indeed, the only thing as regular as scholars
of color having our intellectual and emotional labor erased and capitalized on
in the field of rhetoric and composition is the regularity with which people
either 1) twist themselves into pretzels to deny its occurrence, 2) respond
with the usual fragility go to of outrage, tears, or gaslighting to hopefully
squash any attempts at accountability, 3) or offer the nominal and passive
statement “I am listening,” “I hear you,” “I’m here to learn,” or whatever
other performative activist-scholar phrase that gets them much but risks them
little. In short, the constant and unrelenting nature of this exhausting
practice is like clockwork, as are attempts by those on the margins to create a
rupture and diligent practice to honor all of our labor, humanity, and
potential for a beautiful collective future through doing the work of truth,
justice, and accountability through the praxis of love and ancestor-led
intellectual practices. But here I/We go again.
Why again? Because, as Maya Angelou said, “Do the best
you can until you can do better, then when you know better, do better.” Also,
why: because I believe in miracle work, the everyday work of activism that my
ancestors, elders, and their descendants across numerous movements for social
justice have done in their efforts to create the world we all deserve. This
miracle work is what Marianne Williamson, in her book The Law of Divine Compensation: On Work, Money, and Miracles,
defines as “a shift in perception from fear to love.” And what I know is that
the kind of energy, regardless of intent, that creates a space-time in which we
are literally not present to or acknowledging the magnificence of the humans we
share life – and in this case an academic field with – is the energy of fear
manifested as exclusion, gatekeeping, erasure, and the literal disposal of
whole people and what they bring to this world. I reject that with everything
I’ve got. I believe that the work that will make the kind of intervention that
will last is heart work. As a Black queer femme and feminist “community-accountable”
(Alexis Pauline Gumbs) and ancestor-led writer, teacher, scholar, learner, and
alchemist, I know, as Williamson has said, that miracle workers “know what
changes the heart and if we know what changes a heart, then we know what
changes the world.” My intention here is to hopefully change some hearts, including
my own. Indeed, there certainly had to be some molecular shifts in my heart,
mind, body, and soul to write this post. People who know me well will affirm
that while I love people and take seriously creating space and community, I am
also very introverted, including in the digital realm. I prefer to mind my
business and be about the work I am here to do on the page, in the classroom,
and as I engage and collaborate with my kindred. Thus, the energy and cycle
that blog posts can send one through is not the context in which I like to
engage. Still, writing is my joy. That too has been true my whole life. And
while this is not an essay I wanted to write, the exigences that led to it were
so egregious I had no choice, my ancestors and my truth will not let me rest.
As a forever student in the school of ancestor-led
intellectual practices, what I also know is that my ancestors too have been
here before, here being speaking truth to power about the siphoning of the
intellectual and emotional labor of women and queers of color without
In this moment I am present to June Jordan and Audre
Lorde’s solidarity in holding accountable the lesbian feminist magazine Chrysalis, as discussed by Alexis
Pauline Gumbs in her guest essay for GLAAD’s blog “LGBT Black Feminist Legacies
in Publishing.” As Gumbs shares, though Lorde served as poetry editor for
Chrysalis, she ultimately “quit the publication in frustration with the shady,
disrespectful and racist behavior of the otherwise all-white editorial board.”
Jordan, an honorary advisory board member, publicly quit Chrysalis’s board,
writing to the magazine’s editorship “I hereby resign as Contributing Editor of
Chrysalis. I take this action in absolute support of my sister, Audre Lorde.”
Jordan concluded the letter daring the editorial board to prove that Lorde and
her critiques of them were wrong, saying: “Tell me/show me how your hopelessly
academic, pseudo-historical, incestuous and profoundly optional, profoundly
trifling, profoundly upper middle class attic white publication can presume to
represent our women’s culture.”
notes, Lorde and Jordan’s actions leave us with many questions to consider for
our own self-reflection when we inevitably find ourselves in the same position:
What would it mean today for LGBT writers of color to refuse to be tokenized by publications that do not demonstrate accountability to the communities we love? What would it mean to refuse to be the next token when our comrades are burnt out by the racism of well-resourced organizations and publications?
What would it look like for us to stand for excellence, transformative inclusivity, and true accountability from our movement publications with passion and audacity?
As they have so many times before, by ancestor
helping spirits – in this case Lorde and Jordan – as well as the loving yet
hard truth in the questions posed by Gumbs, are what I had/have in mind in this
moment. Through the transformative work of Black queer feminist writers and
pedagogues like Jordan and Lorde, I know that regardless of what scarcity,
careerism, opportunism, and other forms of fear say to me, another way is always
possible. And I/We get to choose.
This is a story about a choice I made. A
choice I am still making as I write to you. A choice to honor the intellectual
and emotional labor of myself and others. A story about a response I received,
and a story about my sense of how we move forward collectively in miracle work
toward creating the world we all deserve. As always, I trust that the
story I am telling and the specificity of experience will make my meaning
In February 18, 2019, I was invited by the journal Literacy in Composition Studies (LiCS) to join their editorial board. The invitation was warm in stating “We are familiar with your work and would be honored if you would serve on our editorial board. Your scholarship represents the kind of intellectual commitments we would like to see in the pages of our journal, and we trust your judgment to take the journal in exciting directions in the future.” Having previously published in the journal, and having read, cited, taught, and shared other work published in its pages, I would ordinarily have received such an invitation with great joy and happily accepted. Unfortunately, the context for my receiving this email was different.
Just one week prior to receiving this invitation, LiCS began to circulate this call (click here) for papers for a special issue on “Queer and Trans Embodied Literacies.” The special issue was to be guest edited by Zarah Catherine Notter-Moeggenberg with Brenda Glascott, managing editor of LiCS. While I began to read the call with great excitement and interest, it was not long before my reading the CFP, for many reasons, turned to an all too familiar experience of disappointment and exhaustion as a Black queer femme and Black queer feminist studies scholar in rhetoric and composition.
As I wrote
on February 21, 2019 in an email
to the LiCS editorial management
team, as well as the two guest editors of the special issue, “the planned
special issue had not referenced race, women of color feminisms, queer of
color theory, or the lives of queer people of color in ways that were
meaningful and vested with the criticality we have brought to queer theory and
trans studies from their inception in composition and rhetoric and
in the interdisciplines of Queer and Trans Studies writ large.”
I also noted that reading this CFP was the second time in just that same week
that such an occurrence had transpired. Indeed, the very same week another
rhetoric and composition journal had published a queer theory special issue with
its own forms of erasure and exclusion of work by queer people of color in the
Having, at this point, been in the field as a Black queer femme and a Black queer feminist theorist and pedagogue since 2004 and been witness to and pushed back on such actions; having suffered any number of epistemological and interactional violences from queer theorists and critical race theory scholars alike; having seen this same stuff two times in the same week after having written a whole book and numerous essays that talk about this very violence, my spirit couldn’t look the other way. So, I did the only thing I know how to do, I wrote the aforementioned email, which I link for you to read in its entirety. But to briefly summarize the email’s most salient points, I discussed how race was only mentioned twice in the entire CFP and the bookended violence of fetishizing of Black queer death on the one hand and the complete erasure of queer of color scholarship in rhetoric and composition on the other. I noted that in a special issue focusing on queer and trans embodiment, the CFP did not demonstrate an understanding of race and embodiment, and excluded research by women of color feminists – many of them queer and trans women of color – who had contributed so much to understandings of embodiment long before the existence of sexuality studies, queer studies, trans studies, or critical race theory. Indeed, in the whole original CFP not one queer of color or feminist of color scholar was cited.
epistemological violence of the original CFP, I asked that LiCS retract this CFP and reissue a revised one that explains why
it was being reissued, arguing “that there
is a real opportunity for LiCS to be a thought leader here
and not simply contribute yet another collection of queer studies work
that makes queer, trans, non-binary, and two-spirit people of
color, and analyses of race and ethnicity, a spoke in a wheel
that turns only between erasure and tokenization. Rather, LiCS can move
the conversation forward in ways that really should have happened 23 years
ago. Let me be clear: my request is not and does not
have to be punitive. Rather, this can be an example to the
field of a future for the field, and for queer and
trans theorists in particular, about how we can act ethically, with
humility, and productively when mistakes are made.”
As for the journal itself, I provided quantitative evidence that it too needed to address the fact that since its 2012 inaugural issue “only 1 in 5 articles published in LiCS were authored by visible people of color (that is 13 articles of the 64 published in the journal since its beginning),” only one book authored/edited by a scholar of color was reviewed in its pages, and that with regards to queer and trans theory, the only books reviewed in the journal were written by white authors “despite the fact that recent books by scholars of color who work on and engage queer and trans people of color and two-spirit literacies and rhetorics and women of color feminisms have been visible award-winning works and were not included. (Note that I do not mention my own work). Finally, and most egregiously, I had to note that if I were to accept their invitation I would be the only Black person on the board, and thus also be replacing the previous only Black person on their board. As such, I noted, “[u]nfortunately, this means that unless the plan for LiCS is to take concrete steps to rectify these exclusionary practices, I cannot accept this invitation at this time.” To conclude I acknowledged then, as I do now, that “I can imagine that hearing or reading these words are difficult. I can only ask that they be received with the intent by which they are offered, which is with the sincerest hope that LiCS and the field does change, because we can change. All that is required is a desire and consistent effort to do so, and to go through the difficult but necessary growing pains to create the field and world we all deserve.”
I did receive
an immediate and gracious response on February 21, 2019 from two members of the
six members of the journal’s editorial management team. One editor, Holly
That same day Brenda Glascott, LiCS’s managing editor and also an
original editor of the special issue, wrote to me:
To which, on February 22,
2019, I responded:
And then on February 25,
2019, Zarah C. Moeggenberg, the other guest editor of the original special
issue proposal, wrote to me:
I never heard back from the
journal again following this last correspondence.
If you are attentive to the scholarly developments in rhetoric and composition you may know then that LiCS did retract the CFP, removing “embodied” from the title and reissued a CFP for a special issue on “Queer and Trans* Literacies.” The reissued CFP notes that two additional scholars Wilfredo Flores and Collin Craig – both people of color – will guest co-edit the issue with Zarah C. Moeggenberg, one of the two original guest editors of the special issue. I, for one, am excited about the publication of the issue and the possibilities for how it will prompt prospective contributors to author work that could make interventions that take queer and trans research in literacies, rhetoric, and composition in meaningful and long overdue directions. However, given all the details I’ve shared thus far you might surmise that there is a “But,” and you would be correct.
One concern about the new
CFP, which dovetails back to the larger overlooking of the intellectual and
emotional labor of scholars of color, is the lack of a direct link between
queer and trans literacies and women of color feminisms. Indeed, at the
conclusion of the reissued CFP the coeditors ask “How might we consider citational practices as a
form of queer/feminist literacy? As queer literacy practices and histories and
rhetorics are bound to privilege, to which working class queer literacies may
our field more readily attend? What queer and trans* literacies have we
overlooked, silenced, and erased?” They also express a desire for the special
issue to “elevate the queer literacy practices we have overlooked, silenced,
erased, and colonized…we call upon other LGBTQ+ scholars and accomplices to
challenge what we know about queer literacy.” Given this reference to and call
for self-reflexive citational practices, and attentiveness to amplify what has
been silenced, the lack
of citation of Black feminist women scholars in literacy, composition, and
rhetoric who, as I noted in my letter to LiCS,
are (along with other women of color feminists) owed a debt by queer and trans
theory, is unacceptable. While the work of Karma Chavez and Sarah Ahmed are
cited, no Black women or women of color in the field who have published work on
queer literacies and composition, are cited. For example, the work of Samantha
Blackmon, Carmen Kynard, Gwendolyn Pough, and Adela Licona receive no
recognition. Given that intersectionality and work at the intersections of
sexuality and race owes much to the contributions of women of color feminists
in literacy studies, this oversight is especially egregious. In fact, while the
CFP correctly states, as I say in my email to LiCS “[w]e see
this special issue as an opportunity to ask the questions our field has needed
to ask for more than 20 years,” the CFP does not acknowledge that many of these
questions – at least those that center race/ethnicity in their analysis – were
in fact introduced more than 24 years ago by Harriet Malinowitz in her book Textual Orientations: Lesbian and Gay
Students and the Making of Discopurse Communities, the first book on
lesbian and gay literacy, composition, and rhetoric. Malinowitz’s work is not
cited in the CFP. As I note in my book, while gay and lesbian students of color
were central to the argument and analysis of Textual Orientations, unfortunately, queer literacy, composition,
and rhetoric research did not pursue Malinowitz’s important lead and include or
center queer and trans people of color.
In addition, queer of color
and decolonial feminists outside the field who make intersectional work
possible within all fields, including literacy, composition, and rhetoric, such
as Barbara Smith, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, Cathy Cohen, Sharon Patricia
Holland, Eve Tuck, E. Patrick Johnson, Mae G. Henderson, C. Riley Snorton, Jax
Cuevas, Kai Green, Sandra K. Soto, among others are also omitted. Importantly,
and consequently, the activist roots of the queer and trans literacies the
special issue seeks to embrace and illuminate are completely untethered from
the critical genealogy in the citation practices of the CFP. As such, ancestor
activists like Lorde, Jordan, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Toni Cade
Bambara, Gloria Anzaldúa, Grace Lee Boggs, some of whom worked outside the
academy and others who worked inside and outside the academy, are not given any
credit for what they have done to make our expressions of queer and trans*
literacies and scholarship on that work even possible. The same is true for
contemporary activists such as CeCe McDonald, Reina Gossett, Che Gossett, Yolo
Akili, Adrienne Marie Brown, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Alok Vaid-Menon, whose
activist literacies evidence and inspire so much life to contemporary queer and
transgender studies scholarship, pedagogy, and cultural activism.
Relatedly, I must note also that while both the initial and
reissued CFP for the LiCS special
issue centers trans* literacies, some key work on trans* literacies is not
cited. For example, the many publications of KJ Rawson on the topic of transgender and queer
literacies, rhetoric, and composition is not mentioned. There are a few other scholars
in rhetoric and composition who have published transgender literacy, rhetoric,
and composition research, especially those working on literacy pedagogy, and
those too are not included for some reason.
A separate though related
point I wish to make about the recognition of the intellectual and emotional
labor is about the ways some practices of citational politics enable, albeit
perhaps unintentionally, a practice of rhetorical tokenism that leads to a lack
of recognition of the fullness of people’s contributions. For instance, when
people talk about addressing the politics of citation, sometimes the response
to that is to insert a name where you can. And while this is preferable to
complete non-acknowledgement, listing a name does not amount to citing people’s
work in a meaningful and substantive way that disrupts problematic citation
practices. This requires a deep engagement with a person’s work, otherwise it
is rhetorical tokenism that is superficial and doesn’t do the work, though it
may in fact allow a scholar to feel they have done their due diligence. In the
reissued CFP, for example, G Patterson is mentioned for their scholarship that
addresses “the university’s neoliberal
diversity agenda.” However, G Patterson has consistently produced scholarship that
has discussed needing a constant intersectional analysis of trans and
non-binary identity that constantly needs to be in conversation with an
analysis and deconstruction of other forms of inequality such as racism, not
just cisnormativity. Acknowledging that work and depth is important because
that’s where the cutting edge is and that is what should be animating a call, not
contributing work that has already been offered. We are more than a hamster on
the wheel. The function of a CFP is to engage deeply with the work and say
where does it take us now. Even if the citation is parenthetical or signposted
in notes as for further reading, this is a practice that can maneuver well with
the conventions of citation in a genre that leave us time to do little more
than cite a name and work.
I confess that, as with
citational erasure, I am especially sensitive to rhetorical tokenism because of
personal experiences. In recent years, and also in the reissued CFP from LiCS, I have seen my own work uncredited
or not properly recognized for the totality of its contributions. For example,
in the reissued CFP the concept of “literacy normativity” that I introduce in
my book Fashioning Lives: Black Queers
and the Politics of Literacy, is cited, however, at no point is my work
connected to any of the CFP’s discussions about Black queer literacies,
composition, and rhetoric, which is all anything I have ever published has ever
been about. The takeaway, to an uninformed reader, would be that the only work
cited on the topic of Black queer literacy, rhetoric, and composition is all
that has been published, which would not be true given my work and the work of
others beyond the scholar cited. Similarly, I have seen similar such citations
of my work in other publications where it is cited as literacy and
“intersectionality,” which is not incorrect, but when untethered from the
intervention it has made through its labor to make space for Black queer
literacies, composition, and rhetoric research, it potentially undermines those
interventions I have labored long and consistently to make. As I say multiple
times in my book, while my work is an example of Black LGBTQ literacies, I
never intended nor could it say all the things about Black queer literacies
that we still need to have said. I also say my work would not exist if not for
the important interventions made by my intellectual ancestors, elders, and
peers. To signpost this for my readers, I write amply about the people and
scholarship who made my path clear, and in the conclusion, I note where folks
in the future could go and should go for future projects because there is still
so much left to do. Also, in an interview about my work in 4Cs for Equality’s
Zine “Writing for Change,” I am clear to name the work of multiple scholars in
rhetoric and composition and also literacy education who are researching and
writing on Black queer literacies, composition, and rhetoric. Why is this
important? Because labor – emotional and intellectual – must be honored. As
David Glisch-Sánchez, my partner and a specialist in the field of the sociology
of emotions, Latinx Studies, and Queer Studies has taught me, one of the most
inhumane scholarly practices is to ignore and minimize what someone’s
intellectual work and full presence in the space-time we share with them has
done, is doing, or can do.
I wish also to return to the last
correspondence I received from LiCS,
as a way to highlight a concluding important way we must be attentive to the
intellectual and emotional labor others perform and the responsibility we all
have to acknowledge that work. Recall
that in the message from Glascott, on behalf of the LiCS editorial management team, I was told that LiCS planned to come back to me about
their plans to move forward. As I said, they have not. Instead, Moeggenberg
circulated the new CFP on Twitter with the following message:
In the tweet Moeggenberg assigns the reason for the CFP
being retracted and revised to the mentorship she and the other two coeditors
received from the LiCS editorial
team. To be clear, I do not doubt they received feedback and guidance from the LiCS editorial management team on the
initial and the second/reissued CFP. But, what is clear from the email record
is that the only reason any effort was made to even consider, and ultimately retract
the CFP, and revise it, was because of my initial letter and feedback. This
tweet erases my intellectual and emotional labor, and also the goodwill I
demonstrated (for which Middleton, Glascott, and Moeggenberg thanked me) when I
chose to go to them directly as a courtesy to offer a shared opportunity to do
better. Even though I find there are problems with the second CFP, despite the
improvements, I never believed that my feedback had to be acknowledged. But,
when Moeggenberg chose to give all credit to the editorial team, and once they chose
to do so and thank someone publicly (which is their right) ethically they
should also acknowledge all the sources of feedback received. As such, given
their decision to go semi-public, I do have an expectation that I be
acknowledged and I think it would be fair for anyone else to have the same
expectation. The nature of my comments did not have to be noted given the
substance of my contribution, but it would have been appropriate to acknowledge
all sources of feedback. Instead, not only was my feedback not acknowledged,
surprisingly, I didn’t know they were even reissuing the CFP until I saw it
online. It was also forwarded to me by colleagues who were asked by the special
issue editors to submit their work and circulate the CFP to others. What this teaches us is that in order to truly
form coalitions and be community-accountable, people need to be impeccable with
their word, to quote a tenet of Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. I would have shared this directly with the LiCS editorial team or the special issue
editors if LiCS came back as they
said they would.
Finally, in addition, note
that the reissued CFP mentions that the initial CFP was retracted, however no
explanation was provided. In the absence of this key information, the fullness
of what we could all stand to learn from LiCS
choosing to do better is lost. The reissued CFP seeks to claim space for
doing the work of addressing their initial error, but does not say what was
wrong in the first place. I would argue that the proverbial “teachable moment,”
one that was dependent on truth and reconciliation, is lost in the partial
truth and partial mention of the CFP. As my colleague Rasha Diab often said
when we were graduate students, “you cannot have justice without claims to
injustice.” The reissued CFP tries to have justice, but silences the claim to
injustice that animated it in the first place.
Practices of benefiting from, yet not
acknowledging, the intellectual and emotional labor of people happens with far
too much ubiquity, and especially happens consistently to scholars of color,
women, and queer and trans scholars who do so much mentoring and emotional
labor behind the scenes that is either not acknowledged or ignored, and it has
I speak the truth of the faculty of color who
have graduate and undergraduate students attend office hours to “pick your
brain” for the scholarship they should be reading to do a thesis/dissertation project
in your research area, only to then choose your white, male, cisgender, and/or
heterosexual colleagues to make up their committee to your omission.
I speak the truth of the graduate students of
color in seminars across the country, who do the emotional and intellectual
labor in their classrooms to teach their peers and their teachers, and then
have to make do with the little energy left to put a balm to heal the
spiritual, physical, and psychological wounds they have to face just to obtain
a graduate school education.
I speak the truth of the scholars of color
who work on race/ethnicity who have been asked by journals to review work
submitted for publication in your area of expertise, only to have your own work
gate kept out of those same journals or not even have your work cited in the
publications sometimes by editors, sometimes by reviewers who were clearly
chosen just to make sure you were not published in that venue.
I speak the truth of those people who, like
I, have the undeniable receipts in hand that when it comes to scholars of color
the field has engaged in this practice of not acknowledging our intellectual
and emotional labor for decades, and rather than tell the truth and do the
work, what we see are them ushering graduate students and junior faculty of
color onto the same red carpet of tokenism that they used to exhaust their mentors,
elders, and ancestors in the field on endless committees, task forces, and
performances of doing the work that are nothing more than a cloaking device so
that they can remain unaccountable and leave you with no energy to serve your
I speak the truth of the women and femme
colleagues who get asked to do the administrative work that makes the wheels
turn at our institutions and in the field every single day, and not only are
they never recognized, but their work is in fact also used against them in the
processes of tenure, promotion, and award.
I speak the truth of those who speak truth to
power and have people say they appreciate your feedback and are listening, only
to show through their actions they resent that you told the truth while
simultaneously benefiting from your labor.
I speak the truth of the Black feminists in
the field who have seen “intersectionality” leveraged on whole panels and
plenary sessions at conferences without one Black feminist included in the
discussion, as if “intersectionality” is not Black feminist intellectual and
I speak the truth of the queer of color
scholars in the field who have seen their white queer scholar peers either
ignore queer of color and two-spirit critique altogether or nominally cite the
work of queer of color scholars outside the field so as to check the citational
politics box, as they simultaneously offer no recognition of the intellectual
and emotional labor of the very scholars who work alongside them in rhetoric
I speak the truth of disability studies scholars
and people with disabilities, who have witnessed professional organizations and
institutions use their work and activism to pat themselves on the back to claim
they are doing the work to address ableism, while simultaneously holding
inaccessible conferences and offering no challenge to the ableist policies and
practices all around them.
I speak the truth of the activist
scholar-teachers – faculty and graduate students alike – who have devoted
countless hours to national service for professional organizations, with the
enticement that their labor will change things, and yet somehow the intractable
status quo preserves itself and their labor is exploited.
I speak these truths because, despite
mounting evidence to the contrary, I am and will always be optimistic about the
human potential – and the field’s potential – to do and be better.
Less anyone believe that my comments here are
exclusive to my experience with LiCS or
its editors, I want to be unequivocal in saying that my point here is an
indictment of and call for all to do better. There are a number of stories from
myself and others about their own exhaustion with the ways that other journals
such as College English, CCC, Composition
Studies, Rhetoric Review, and Rhetoric Society Quarterly, as well as
professional organizations including CCCC, NCTE, RSA, and NCA have engaged in
the violence of ignoring or minimizing the intellectual and emotional labor of
those maligned on the basis of identity and difference. Also, let me state unequivocally
that I have no interest in gatekeeping. I suffered the wounds of that practice
so much in my experiences as a graduate student and junior-scholar in the field,
and what I know that the people who tried to silence me and my work chose not
to know, is that there is nothing to gain from gatekeeping other people and it
also will always be unsuccessful. The work – the miracle – will always be born,
gatekeeping be damned. It will profit the gatekeeper nothing but the bad karma
they clearly are choosing. I want more people to publish in queer and trans*
literacies, composition, and rhetoric, and in critical race and ethnic
literacies, composition, and rhetoric. We need more people to do that work. And
I am grateful to LiCS and to the
special issue editors for the reality that they will be giving someone an
opportunity to publish in those areas who I and my students will learn from.
Still, what I know is that it is possible for that work to be done without
doing harm to one another, and my spirit cannot accept less.
As people read this, I hope that we will
individually (at first) and collectively finally get down to the business of
assessing and evaluating how we have contributed to this toxic and harmful
dynamic, regardless of intention. Practices like this sow the seeds of
resentment, fear, anger, and in its most extreme form, despair. Whether
conscious or not doing these things are a way of saying to people that they do
not matter, and that is by definition a toxic and harmful practice.
I trust that deep down the vast majority of
people do want to honor the humanity and labor of those around them but we must
also contend with the reality that we are rarely taught to do just that, and in
some cases, we are encouraged through norms, institutional structures, and ego
to do the opposite. Still, we can learn and choose to better. It is my hope
that something I have written here will find your heart, and find also my own,
and that we will at last do and be better, together, infinitely shifting from
fear to love as we create the world and field we all deserve.
Please note that all comments at this site are closely moderated and vetted by Carmen Kynard.
I see you. That seems like such a small, trite acknowledgment in the face of the institutional oppression that you must confront. Nevertheless, I needed to say that today. After spending the last week reading almost 295 applications from candidates hoping to pursue a Ph.D. in English, I am appalled and disgusted by what happens on graduate admissions committees. My indignation has always been there but this week, it got newly recharged.
If nothing else, I just want to affirm today that for every moment you feel like you are alone, like the other supposedly Black/ Latinx/ Queer folk around you are merely white-passing or race-miscellaneous, like your racial/gender/sexual perspectives are not taken seriously, like white language/ discourse gets treated as intelligent even when it is utterly meaningless, like the mostly white faculty prefer white-passing performers who have no real connection to communities of color, like the cards have been stacked against you, KNOW. THAT. YOU. ARE. RIGHT. Know this deep in your core and never doubt it, no matter how many white folk and white-passers act as if you are paranoid. As Black/ Brown/ Queer folk, we are not always behind the closed doors where racist processes, justifications, and policies are designed, but we feel their slight each and every single day. Trust what you feel. You ain’t crazy.
I got to see it all firsthand this week. For one assignment on this particular admissions committee where I served, a group of us professors had to select three candidates to recommend for special funding from the university’s program for underrepresented groups. Notice that I said UNDER-REPRESENTED. For those of us who understand race and higher/graduate education, we know that these funding programs are a minuscule attempt to get more underrepresented groups into mostly all-white graduate programs but are necessary nonetheless. Of our 295 applications, 34 applicants qualified for this special review. Our committee read the 34 applications and scored them in order to whittle down these 34 apps to a smaller list of nine. When the scores got tallied up to determine the Divine Nine, I got mad. Once I tell you how it looked, you’ll see more of the ways that racism and whiteness in admissions are really working against us:
Of the six Latinx candidates chosen for the Divine Nine, four were White Latinx folk who study whiteness and/or Europe. In fact, only one of these White Latinx candidates even had a Spanish surname and it looks like this person’s family is directly from Europe— Spain. This was the largest racial category in the Divine Nine, but not in the pool of 34. These four candidates pass completely for white… in name, content, epidermis, and family history. There was even a comment from the committee that we should not be guessing folks’s identities and identifications. But here’s facts: White Latinx with an Anglo surname is NOT under-represented no matter how you identify. Latinidad here is overwhelmingly accepted, but only in its complete embodied devotion to whiteness.
Only one of the Divine Nine self-identified as Queer, though three others expressed an interest in Queer Theory (mostly the White/Latinx candidates). While more of the Divine Nine may also be Queer, it seems likely that the program will imagine itself representing Queer Theory without Queer bodies of color. Queer theory, as named by the white-passers in the Divine Nine, is just a new, chic (white) thing to know, not a way that life can be lived and re-imagined.
Of the three Black/Non-Latinx candidates, two of the three identified as multiracial. One of the multiracial candidates marked Indigenous, Asian, and Black on the application but wrote a statement identifying solely as Chinese+Black. The other marked Black on the application but wrote a statement identifying as Indigenous, Black, and Anglo. Black was just a box that you check off and then move away from, one row over from Rachel Dolezal. You can consume it, mix it, and use it up in any way that you like, kinda like a plantation owner. Neither Indigenous-Mixed candidate talked about themselves as an enrolled member of any First Nation; neither described lineal descent; neither connected to a reservation or Indigenous language community. While I am not suggesting that Indigenous people have to prove their membership or adhere to white-settler blood tests, I am also not willing to co-sign institutional processes where Indigeneity is another box to check so that we can reproduce the likes of another Andrea Smith (click here for more of what that means). No one on the committee even mentioned the problematic way that Indigeneity was mobilized. It wasn’t even noticeable.
Of the Black/Latinx comp-rhet candidates (my field) in the pool of 34, none were chosen to be part of the Divine Nine. Unsurprisingly, NONE of these comp-rhet candidates was white-passing or apologetic about their research interests in Black/Latinx communities. This also means that the department has single-handedly promoted a system where white doctoral students will teach and write about non-white students in comp-rhet studies.
I’m sure we have all learned enough theory by now to say that we can appreciate that the Divine Nine show the complexity of race, ethnicity, and identity. However, the ideologies and practices of white-passing and/or mixed-race-passing (itself an approximation to white-passing) are real simple here. This white-passingness did not represent the entirety (or quality) of the 34 applicants. All in all, only one Black-Mixed-With-Black person was allowed entry into the final pool; only one Aztlan Latinx candidate was allowed passage; and Queer (male) AfroLatinidad was allowed expression only once. Always remember this: this is a carefully CONSTRUCTED falsereality. These nine candidates may not even, in fact, get accepted and more of the 34 may score higher into the program’s ranks given the organization of admissions. However, none of that changes the ideologies that produced these white-passers as the highest scorers. This is who reads your application. This is why you didn’t get accepted and if/when you did, you end up just feeling like you entered a hostile realm.
In many ways, English/Humanities programs, at least where I am currently employed, are worse with this particular kind of whiteness. Historically, English (and the rest of the Humanities though not to the same extent) have sustained the imperial gaze on English as a language system. All you need is white discourse, white skin, and the ability to quote Lacan or Derrida and you will be rendered as someone who is intelligent and, oddly, as someone who possesses the keys to understanding oppression in all forms of life. You see this person in almost every class. Don’t get it twisted: they ain’t sayin nuthin. In the zeal to distance themselves from the Brown and Black young people who are the majority in my urban context, whiteness gets performed and embraced in more extreme ways so as to ward off any association with the Black and Brown youth masses that surround us. When the staff/faculty talk about the lack of “diversity,” they will, of course, site their high standards of excellence. It’s all a bit ironic though. This white classical core can barely fill its classes, offer its students viable employment opportunities, or sustain itself in the academy and yet it is the site of Brownness and Blackness that is scapegoated as the location of low standards and problems. Don’t get that twisted either: it’s a blatant lie.
There are some things to learn from this mess. Just like I had a list of grievances, I have a list of actions to take.
First, we need to remember that every time we join a program, department, or school as a Black/Brown person, we increase the diversity numbers. This looks good for everyone except us. Many places will use large numbers of Asian students and faculty as proxy for Black and Brown folk, but they do have to disaggregate those numbers behind closed doors based on a single vocabulary word: UNDER-REPRESENTED. Every time you apply to a graduate program, you increase the diversity of the UNDER-REPRESENTED applicant pool. You are being counted and represented as progress. Don’t waste your time applying to a school that only chooses white-passers. Stop making them look good while they do you bad. And please note that the data I provided in my four bullets above represents a PUBLIC university in the USA’s largest Brown and Black metropolis. They don’t do no better than the most, private elite schools so you can’t believe these places that claim they are progressive and down for the people either. They still ain’t down for YOU. In a similar vein, colleges will be given diversity credits for interviewing you as a Black or Brown faculty candidate down the line even though they have no intention of hiring the likes of you. Many of them need to keep a revolving door of Black and Brown faculty interviewees, not because they want to INCREASE diversity, but because the BEST Brown and Black faculty keep leaving the school. It’s a ponzi scheme using your Brown and Black body for exchange purposes. Stop making them look good while they do you bad. Do the due diligence and find out what is going on behind the scenes with folk of color. Some schools do not even deserve to count our bodies in their application tally. Be vocal about that. Choose a different school. Stop helping them by applying to them. They ain’t lettin you in no way.
The second action is gon require that white graduate students get called out on their racism. The fact of the matter is that there were equally qualified Brown and Black candidates who never got chosen simply because they did not perform whiteness in the way that white applicants do. White graduate students (and their faculty/staff cronies) need to stop assuming that they wrote better essays, got better test scores, had better letters of reference, or had better anything. They only had whiteness. There is nothing wrong with the “pipeline” either. The only crisis in the pipeline is that white folk clog the drains: as the folk who get chosen and as the folk who do the choosing. There is always a pool of qualified folk of color in the cohort who are rejected for white benefit. White graduate students (and later, as college faculty) need to be called out for writing about and/or teaching people of color when they went to all-white research programs where their whiteness was deliberately over-represented and over-privileged. The white folk who resist and fight back can expect backlash. Tell them that they must welcome that and see it as a sign that they are doing something RIGHT. It is nuthin in comparison to what folk of color go through everyday. White gate-keepers will make life difficult for resistant white faculty and graduate students too (and even some folk of color will respond in ignorant, coonish ways). Like I said, it ain’t gon be easy for allied white folk to speak back because racist white faculty and their compatriots of color silence everyone. Don’t let them.
Lastly but not leastly: we have to REFUSE. We need to re-imagine resistance, especially as faculty of color, which you will someday become. Not a single one of the Black and Latinx candidates who I liked best in the 295 scored high or even made it through the admissions committee. A seat at the table didn’t mean a damn thing for me. The dinner had already been served; the entrees had already been overcooked. In my context, I am an appointed member of this graduate program, not a central member so I receive my salary from elsewhere. This means that I have the luxury of happily never returning to this program and facing no consequence for my decision. Even without that luxury, I would be done though. I’m just not here for the mammy labor. Overwork my abilities but deny my humanity at the same time? Nah, not me. There is no reason to continue to go back to the committees, policies, and programs that refuse to listen like many of my accommodating colleagues have done for so long… and all to no avail since nothing has changed. We have to say no and let the white walls that we didn’t build crumble to the ground from their own collapsing integrity.
To all the Black/ Brown/ Queer graduate students (and applicants) out there everywhere, I say all of this NOT from a place of discouragement, but from a love that insists on what the academy and its graduate training will not give you: TRUTH.
I have been suspicious of the exclusionary and anti-justice impulses of academic/professional conferences for a long time now. Here is my most recent lesson/letter about the violences that whiteness commits in these spaces.
Dear Members of the Executive Committee of the Literacy Research Association,
We write to publicly express our deep dissatisfaction with the LRA board’s handling of our invitation to the LRA conference and the events that led to the eventual cancellation of the panel.
To review: We were each initially invited to participate by Dr. Haddix in late 2017 and we gladly accepted, in large part due to our respect for her leadership, vision, and integrity. On February 26 of 2018, we were each provided contracts that offered a stipend, registration fees, accommodation for the duration of the entire conference, roundtrip airfare, and travel related expenses. We each signed and dated these contracts. Up to this point the process was fairly typical as most of us book speaking engagements about a year in advance. At least one of us accepted this invitation over others (with higher rates of compensation) given the quality and promise of the LRA panel.
On October 23rd, we received the following email informing us that our contracts had been “revised”:
I hope this note finds you well. I wanted to reach out to you with an important change regarding your participation as a speaker in the 2018 LRA Integrative Research Review session that is scheduled for Saturday, December 1st from 10:15 – 11:45 AM in Palm Springs, California.
Attached you will find a letter on behalf of the Conference Planning Committee detailing the change. Feel free to let us know if you have any questions.Additionally, please confirm receipt of the email by Wednesday, October 24th, 2018.
Since there was no mention in the subject line or body of the email that there had been a significant change in compensation, not all of us were immediately aware of the degree of “change”or responded right away. The new contracts informed us that only one night of accommodation would be covered. In other words, no flight, hotel, or general travel fees and no stipend. The reason provided was that the original contracts were found to be in contradiction with an LRA bylaw.
If the new contract had been the original terms, we would have had opportunities to apply for funding from our institutions to help shoulder the cost. Moreover, since the conference was barely a month away, early registration was no longer possible, the hotel was nearly booked, and plane fares were exorbitant (at and over $1000 per speaker, sometimes with multiple stops requiring anywhere from 14-24 hours of travel for just one leg of the trip). As such, each of us experienced this “revision” as an effective dis-invitation and we independently sent emails expressing our disappointment and dismay regarding the new contracts and with being forced to withdraw from the panel.
In addition to the material costs of this cancellation (and lost opportunities to accept other invitations) we each registered concern about how the actions of the board not only undermined our professional lives and commitments but also Dr. Haddix’s vision for the panel and the conference. As we understand it, Dr. Haddix’s work, along and in communion with many other BIPOC leaders in LRA, has affected important discursive and material shifts in the policies, culture, and impact of LRA to something that prioritizes Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and responds critically to nonbinary ideas and embodiments of gender and sexuality. This has been long needed in LRA, and it is beginning to take shape, form, and space.
All of us are women of color who employ radical and critical scholarship and, as such, this is not the first time we have been disinvited. We are not mollified by the explanation of a just-discovered bylaw as we are quite familiar with how the dismissals and erasures of whiteness happen. For example, even though we framed our responses in terms of structural, policy and material costs, this was the response that one of us received:
“I can certainly understand your concerns and why you feel so hurt by the last minute change…it was definitely not (the) intent to harm you or make you feel unwelcome”
The move to frame what is structural critique into an issue of “hurt feelings” is a classic mode of white resistance; to psychologize what is fundamentally structural. This mischaracterization of our experience partly inspires this response – we want to be sure that the intellectual work we put into our decisions to withdraw was registered publicly and in our own words. Although we imagine our absence spoke loudly, we felt it important to add nuance and analysis – and to come together as a collective – to address the situation with the hope that it might be broadly instructive.
While we hesitated to bow to an unprofessional withdrawal of material support, we also knew that we could not, with integrity, pastiche together a space that was envisioned to truly be integrative, rigorous, and generative under such unreliable board leadership. We regret any impact that our withdrawal may have had on Dr. Haddix, the STAR program, and the many sessions that involved us, particularly Dr. Kynard’s several sessions. Since LRA, we have seen only further leadership, grace, honesty, and vision from Dr. Haddix and we continue to support her work.
To put it plainly, we are disappointed, bothered but “unbossed” (Shirley Chisholm), by the actions of the board. We hope our words add to the call for this association to be in right relationship to its discourse of “community.”