How Institutional Racism Trained Me to Be a Doomsday Prepper

I have never watched a full episode of one of those reality shows featuring doomsday preppers, the over-the-top survivalists who prepare for the end of civilization, nuclear invasion, or natural catastrophe.  I am however very familiar with preparing for the inevitable racial targeting that comes with being a woman of color working in educational institutions.

Many people at universities today are thinking critically about the safety of racially marginalized groups on campus and the threats to teaching politically-charged content in this post-election moment.  I don’t mean to suggest here that this critical care and thought are widespread though.  There are just as many places that move forward— business as usual— with their love affairs with classic Europe, administrivia, departmental parties, and neoliberalist regimes of outcomes assessment.  Academics doing the work of questioning and thinking through where we are today, those who commit to pedagogy as something more rigorous than an anemic list of suggestions about teaching tolerance, are a rare gem. It seems to me though that institutional racism has long prepared us for the coming doomsdays on university campuses.  The very campus protests related to #BlackLivesMatter showed us students who challenged their administrations to deal with the racism they were facing and not simply dismiss campus-wide white supremacy under the auspices of (for-whites-only) “free speech”?  The very history of Black college student protest, dating back to the 1920s, connected off-campus racism with the treatment Black students face on campus.   As an undergraduate in 1989, I never walked alone on campus, especially at night, not simply because I was a woman, but a Black woman.  As women, we know we are always the potential victims of sexual assault, but as a Black woman, you also know that no one will care or notice when that happens.  Black men on campus certainly weren’t any safer; Black masculinity does not offer that.  They didn’t travel alone either for fear of the campus police who had no ability to see their bodies as part of the student population.  Doomsday was always here.

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Culture, Care, and Competence

chartI walk through the main entrance of my college’s main building each day. There are three entrance points for the public in this ten-story building. We don’t have many campus buildings; space is limited in NYC so we build up rather than out, giving a large body-traffic flow at this main building.  This is my fourth semester teaching at my current college and, though this may be a strange observation, I have never entered or exited the building when the student in front of me did not hold the door open for me.

I noticed this pattern right away.  It is something that I have never witnessed at any other university.  It happens every single day.  And, if I am standing on line, the students let me go first.  I do not know any of these students, but they recognize me as a professor right away.

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Still… Teaching to Transgress

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about bell hooks’s book, Teaching to Transgress, in part based on her series of taped, public dialogues that she has been doing at the New School (and her upcoming keynote address at NWSA) and, in another part, based on my own current teaching location.

I have felt for a long time now that if we want to talk about a radical, transformative education for young people of color, we need to be teaching in the schools that actually enroll them in large numbers.   I have said it and I have meant it. And I do not mean after-school programs, though our presence there is vital. I mean bearing witness to the day-to-day of current schooling regimes as an insider there, not merely as an academic researcher/note-taker. You can call me an Old Skool Black Studies Scholar in that regard, because I just can’t see giving all that I know how to do solely to white students at a privileged university, no matter how much they might need to see and hear someone like me.  I have worked now in three spaces as a tenure-track professor at colleges whose enrollments are largely or mostly students of color from racially subordinated groups: a state university (not the flagship campus, but a space trying to be that); a private university; and a city university. Teaching to Trangress in these spaces is more than just a notion, especially when it is so dauntingly unwelcomed by what Sylvia Wynter would often call “the grammarians of the social order”— those academics whose intellectual lens are so deeply ingrained with dominant reproductive modes of racism and social stratification that their sole, intellectual job is the maintenance of our current systems of logic. You don’t even need to strain your mind and imagination to recognize who these folk are.

Today, I have been looking at the ELA Regents exam in New York State, the state exam in English Language Arts.  Here is the August 2014 exam posted on the state website:

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Same Rats, New Holes: A Story of the New Digital Divide

There are some things that you just never forget.  Your first day as a teacher is one of them.  My first day was in a junior high school in the South Bronx which was then (and now) the poorest congressional district in the country.  I taught in what was considered the “worst district” in the Bronx in the “worst” middle school.  It was the bottom of the bottom of the bottom, or so they said.

That First Day

hole 3My first day was staff development day.  I had to attend various sessions like everyone else but, as the new teacher that year, I also had to pick up my keys and set up my classroom.  As soon as I opened the classroom door, a rat the size of a terrier dog ran across the room and behind the coat closet. I was horrified (I don’t do rodents, insects, OR snakes!) but for some reason, I didn’t flinch.  I moved the coat closet and saw a hole the size of a dinner platter in the wall.  I went outside to the public pay phone, called my father to ask him the easiest way to plug up a hole in the wall (without needing sheetrock), went to the local hardware store, and bought steel wool, chicken wire, and plaster (I also bought roach spray since I have always seen roaches and rats travel in pairs).  The local hardware store owner did not recognize me and so I introduced myself and my dilemma.  He gave me a 50% discount on the materials and so I went back to my classroom and plugged holes.  I had seen enough at my interview and the “teacher development” sessions to know that no one there would help or care.hole 1

After fixing holes in the walls, I started arranging students’ desks. My classroom was huge which I always like— it gives you more room to decorate: a science wall, a graf writing wall, a memoir wall, a history corner, a library with bean bags.  There was room for ALL of that!  I was ecstatic.  There was a problem though.  My roster of sixth graders who I would first see indicated 36 students.  I only had 29 desks/chairs.  I was, however, assured by the administration: “these students don’t come to school, you won’t need more chairs.”  Sensing that the parents in the district didn’t trust us, I did what I saw and heard white suburban teachers do before school started.  I called every home and introduced myself to whatever adult was taking care of the child on my roster.  I told another teacher of my feat and she told me that I was crazy.  I never made the mistake of telling her or her crew anything again.

This story I tell might sound like one of those Hollywood movies that pathologizes students of color in the hood and enshrines whiteness, but those stories get nothing right.  I witnessed the violence inflicted on those students not as a white and/or privileged teacher driving in from her “safe” neighborhood with no real connections to or life experiences in communities of color; I experienced that violence alongside those kids, right on that first day of school, all because I needed 7 more seats in my classroom.

The Number 7

There was still time before school started, so I worked on my classroom each and every moment that the school building was open before the kids officially began. No one thought I needed more desks and chairs but since I insisted on making this request, I was told to go down to the second floor (classrooms were on floors 3-5) where there were extra desks and chairs lined up along the walls. I could get some exercise or put in a work-order that would take 1-2 weeks to fulfill, despite the fact that students were starting in less than 72 hours!

On one of my trips to this second floor, a white female administrator of some sort appeared.  I no longer remember her title, just her face.  She was yelling obscenities, but I really didn’t pay her any attention because I had stuff to do: I was carrying 7 chairs and 7 desks up and down a flight of stairs to my third floor classroom.  As I was surveying the desk in front of me (did it wobble, could it be cleaned, etc), I realized she was yelling at me, screaming that I had better be gone by the time she reached me and the desks. I stepped away from the desks, asked her who the F–K she thought she was talkin to, promising her that I would stand right there and wait for her.  She walked towards me very menacingly and I was ready for her, just like I was ready for that rat that I holed up.  The newly appointed dean happened to see what was going down and raced over to us, yelling at this white woman: “she’s the new teacher, she’s the new teacher, leave her alone.”  She looked confused and then just started laughing: “I thought you were one of the students.  You don’t look a day past 16.”  I wasn’t laughing though.  Why on earth would any 16 year-old child in the South Bronx break into a school building (all doors were locked and only teachers were buzzed in) and steal them raggedy desks and busted chairs?  And, more importantly, what on earth gave her the right to think she should and could talk to any child in this school or any part of the neighborhood this way?  I said as much to her, insisting she had hit a lucky strike with the dean saving her from what she had coming.  I was simply regarded as too sensitive and offensive— a kind of over-reactionary, Black Nationalist-styled militant.  My credentials, abilities, skills never mattered there… I looked like the people in the neighborhood, I AM the people in that neighborhood, and was criminalized alongside them.  Sensitive and offensive?  So those were the new words for us, huh?

Same Rats, New Holes

7 is a number I will always remember, not simply because of the desk situation, but because all 36 of my students showed up.

All I ever heard in that building was what the students could not or should not do.  If it wasn’t one thing, it was another: their k-5 schools had been so horrible that they needed drills and drills ONLY; these kids didn’t value books so you should use textbooks/basals, not novels; these kids weren’t ready for project-based learning because they needed the basics; writing process theory and every other progressive educational theory (no one could actually articulate any of that though) was for suburban kids, because these kids only needed grammar worksheets; these kids couldn’t go on field trips because parents wouldn’t chaperone and/or they wouldn’t behave; these kids couldn’t learn about activist movements, social justice, or cultures/histories/languages of communities of color because they needed to see the “classics,” not themselves and the people in their neighborhoods.

I stayed most close to the Black and Puerto Rican teachers who were doing transformative stuff in their teaching and made sure not to let the main folk in that building know too much about me, what I do, or how I do it.  I knew how all that white paternalism and racist pathology targeted my students and me and I wanted no proximity to it.  My students did ALL of the things that they were not supposed to do. When the school year started, my 6th graders had tested as the bottom class; when it ended, they were the top… without a worksheet or drill in sight.  My only regret is that I can’t go back in time: I would do even MORE of the things we weren’t supposed to do.

holes 4Now some 21 years later, I wish I could say that things look different in my life as a college teacher, but they don’t.  Not at all. The only thing that is new is the way that our newest technologies figure into just another one of them things that racially subordinated, working class/working poor students supposedly should not and cannot do.  Same rats, new holes.

The Current Divide: Savage Inequalities Continued…

In the 1990s, we talked about the Digital Divide as barriers to computer and technology access.  Today, that talk has shifted to differences in kinds of access.  Latin@s, for instance, lead the US embrace of mobile devices and African Americans lead the US embrace of Twitter.  You’d be lying to yourself if you saw these groups on the fringe of new technologies and digital living.

I don’t mean to suggest that issues of access are not still prevalent. We know that fewer black and Latin@ students have broadband in their homes in comparison to white students, though the use of mobile phones begins to equalize this.  Talented and committed teachers, however, have been using Facebook and platforms like teachers.io (which helps you make a homework app for your classes) to communicate with their mobile-savvy students.  Principals in urban city-centers have teamed with companies to provide students with laptops.  By 2000, we already saw Apple partnering with elementary schools in impoverished neighborhoods to provide students with laptops.  Apple seems to eat this up since they can attract a new, young generation to Apple products.  I counted 4-5 students in each of my three writing classes this fall whose high schools had exactly such a program. I suspect that number will continue to grow with each entering college freshman class.

The Digital Divide, as I experience it, has to do with how teachers and institutions postpone or altogether reject complex and/or current digital work for racially/economically subordinated groups.  Once again, we have the thing that “these kids” can’t and shouldn’t do.  Since they don’t have the “basic skills,” we need to give them that first and, coincidentally, all the time spent on them basic skills means they will never get beyond such levels of minimal competency.  This is not simply my sense of things, but things said explicitly to me just this past school year.  Like I said: same rats, new holes.

If it THIS threatening when students of color do CULTURALLY RELEVANT and sophisticated digital work in their 21st century classrooms, then you know it’s the right thing to do!  If that means I am being sensitive and offensive all over again, then so be it.

When History Weighs In…

History gives us some important lessons here.  I take us back to public higher education in the South, an outcome of Reconstruction, with the Morrill Land Grants Act first initiated in 1862 that awarded each state land-grants for higher education (at this time in history, African Americans mostly lived in the south).  Black citizens formed part of the population base that was used to create the monetary formula for Morrill benefits. Each of the fourteen former slaveholding states established a black land grant college (the only colleges that Blacks were allowed to attend) that, in turn, made the state eligible for more grants.  By 1900, the expenditures to white colleges exceeded those for black ones by a ratio of 26:1. This calculated impoverishment of the colleges black students attended didn’t stop there though.  Black colleges weren’t allowed to use their funds to do liberal arts curricula; only white colleges could do that. Historical hindsight lets us see how wrong this was (well, it lets some of US see how wrong this was) but, at the time, the philosophers, theorists, scholars, and educators had a lofty discourse to justify these savage inequalities in access and opportunity: blacks needed basic skills to enter this unequal world; black students were too far behind in their educational access to catch up to white students’ college curriculum.

It should not take a huge leap to question this stated goal of offering blacks an equal education when procedures and curricular offerings deliberately prevented black college students from receiving the education that white students got.  If that is obvious to us, then it seems we would question any person or system that uses these same rhetorics to deny access to our era’s newest educational technologies.

Many have made the tragic mistake of assuming that what the white officials saw and recorded when they came to visit these black classrooms funded through Morrill was what happened everyday.The Black teachers who were interested in social transformation had sophisticated political understandings into the criminal underfunding of their land-grant colleges.  They critically understood that the ban on liberal arts curricula for black students was not for the purpose of learning but for the purpose of maintaining a racialized economic system under white supremacy.  Despite the dangers and threats cast against them, they DID SOCIALLY TRANSFORMATIVE CURRICULUM AND INSTRUCTION ANYWAY!

Digital technologies are/will be the new battle for a progressive, transformative education for students of color. Like those black teachers more than 100 years ago who defied the white power structures that sought to miseducate their communities, we can stand on the right side of history too!

 

… learning western technology must not be the end of our understanding of the particular discipline we’re involved in. Most of that west shaped information is like mud and sand when you’re panning for gold!

The actual beginnings of our expression are post Western (just as they certainly are pre-western). It is only necessary that we arm ourselves with complete self knowledge; the whole technology (which is after all just expression of who ever) will change to reflect the essence of a freed people…

See everything fresh and “without form”–then make forms that will express us truthfully and totally and by this certainly free us eventually…

~Amir Baraka, “Technology & Ethos”

Big Mac, the Heart of Whiteness, and Composition Studies

I recently spent a good deal of time reading the last year’s issues of one of the prominent journals in my field, rhetoric-composition studies, and found myself unpleasantly surprised.  There was, of course, the usual error in representation of a black student, in this case an adult returning student whose vocabulary of her writing process was described as simplistic (the researcher did not culturally interrogate the student’s vocabulary) while a white male adult student was described as sophisticated.  I wasn’t surprised by that, however.  It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a white researcher called us simple and it won’t be the last time either.  I was a bit taken back, however, to see two articles in the same year about ONE writing program.

Since we are talking about 16 articles for the whole year of the journal, two articles, not just about the same college or from researchers at the same college, BUT two articles about the SAME PROGRAM accounts for more than 10% of the year’s content.  I am not an editor and never want to be since it is excruciatingly arduous work.  My problem here is with the school in focus and with how the editors of my field understand, in contrast, colleges that serve working class students of color.  And since these editors were selected “democratically” by peers in the field and articles are peer-reviewed, these editorial choices cannot be regarded as merely individual phenomenon.

hithereI have always worked at schools that serve large or ONLY serve working class, first-generation, working, and/or racially marginalized students. And for as long as I have worked there, I have gotten editorial and peer responses across the board that question how THAT student population, or how the university where I work, is relevant to the kind of classrooms most compositionists see— white middle class kids.  The problem is that this is a lie.  White, middle-classness is not what MOST colleges and universities today look like and it is not going in that direction either.  This is merely a white myth that the field maintains as part of its possessive investment in whiteness, to riff off of George Lipsitz.  Given the activism, widespread outrage, and speak-out against our current student debt crisis, it is unfathomable to me that we are so ahistorical and still choose to see colleges and universities as the sole bastion of the elite.   Casting today’s college student population as white and middle class serves political and ideological needs, not statistical needs, and does the work of maintaining existing white social networks (see Robert Jensen here).

big_mac_meal

This university writing program that saw two articles in one year simply isn’t relatable to the kinds of universities where most of us work so why the need to keep casting such spaces as the model?  Let me break it down.  I won’t name this university, I’ll just call it MidWest Big Mac, so as not to retract from my larger focus.  Midwest Big Mac is a selective public university, a very large research-extensive university.  Only them 1 or 2 flagship state universities across the country can relate to THAT!  So, off the bat, we are talking about 60-80 colleges and universities.  That’s just NOT where the majority of us teach.  In the past ten years, 4.7% of the undergrad student population at Midwest Big Mac has been black, 4.4% Latin@, and 0.2% Native American.   If you are at a school that is trying to keep its demographics in keeping with the national demographic or a school whose population reflects a local or historical population, you cannot relate to this school.  25% of admitted students had a 4.0 high school GPA and most of the students scored above 1700 on their SAT.  97% attend full time with their first year retention rates at 96%. Given the conferences and consultants who are all focused on the singular experience of the first-year experience and general retention, these statistics put you in the elite ranks, not the common ranks.

At 26K tuition per year with room and board, Midwest Big Mac will cost a family/student at least 100K by the time of graduation.  Even if that is relatable to many universities in the country, here is something that won’t be. With an endowment of $8.4 BILLION at the end of the 2013 fiscal year, MidWest Big Mac does not seem to feel the effects of the recession.  It is the second-largest endowment in the nation among public universities and the seventh-largest among all U.S. universities.  Only 6 other colleges can relate to you, MidWest Big Mac!  And yet the premier journal in my field constructs this location as the predominant college composition experience.  If you were ever wondering how a discipline maintains its whiteness or how educators maintain a system that is completely non-responsive to non-white, non-middle class, non-elite peoples, I encourage you to  think of this example.

Academic Culture vs. Educational Change

Popular meme created by college students

Popular meme created by college students

In my first academic job, I arrived after a 2-3 year commission of faculty who evaluated that university’s core/ liberal arts curriculum.  That commission wrote a report detailing what the challenges were.  The administration reflected on that report for another year. I was later assigned to a new committee that would discuss the commission’s report.  That took another two years.  When I left that committee and university, a new committee was designed to come up with a report that outlined a plan on what to do next.  5 years of students graduated and nothing changed; it looked like the next five years would promise more of the same.

I noticed some strange stuff in my first year of department meetings when I was an assistant professor.  I once had a question about students’ progress in the program (which was a certification program) so I saw my question as vital and requiring an answer… as in, ASAP.  It was a two-hour meeting with lots of discussion but I was confused by the end and said as much.  I had class the next day and needed to tell my students something and needed to ACT on a decision.  So at the end of the meeting, I asked: what did we decide here?  The answer was this: that we need to keep talking about this.  In the three years that I was there, I never got any answer to that question; we just kept talking. I stopped asking and got annoyed with even listening since the circuitous, nit-picky-do-nothing-and-go-nowhere dialogues just gave me pounding headaches.  I designed my own process with my students in my classes, processes that the department could have learned from and adopted had folk not spent their time trying to standardize a curriculum that couldn’t work. When I realized there was no way to do real or important work in that space with infrastructural support– whether it was from colleagues, the chair, or upper levels of academic administration/management— I left.  It was a good call on my part too; with no sense of urgency or political vision, the department has all but folded now.

Popular meme created by college students

Popular meme created by college students

I still remain stunned by the unwillingness of faculty to fight, to see education as a way to critically intervene in the world, to think politically about what literacy and learning mean in the 21st century, or to actually engage polemics and research on higher education and learning.  It’s frightening, especially since the current educational system we are in is one predicated on our demise as teachers.

This kind of culture in the academy was just not something I could get used to:

  • The kind of culture that says everything is okay and, if not, we can just ignore everything, make gradual changes, or just talk for a decade (I mean this literally) about what we will do.  There’s a kind of white bourgeois privilege here that does not imagine there is an urgency or danger to other people’s livelihood and progress when all you do is talk and stall.  I am reminded of that infamous text that seems to populate all composition textbooks: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  Bourgeois “progressives” are still all about waiting while other people suffer.
  • The kind of culture that says let’s just find a way to co-exist with the existing social forces, even if we do not want to.  I hear this kind of selling-out from many white liberals in relation to assessment and standardization in schools today.  I find it utterly irresponsible…and stupid.  What exactly do we think black communities have been doing all along since Brown v. Board of Education?  We have been making our peace with a system that promised improvement but gave very little, if any, for a longlong time now.  Making peace with the way things are could only be a perspective that comes from white privilege; that’s the only perspective that could see ACCOMMODATION as something new… or viable.
Popular meme circulated amongst college students

Popular meme circulated amongst college students

What gets clearer and clearer to me is that the majority of the white liberal bourgeoisie, the PMC, who makes up the professoriate has not had and will not have the tools to challenge or even understand the most corporatized university structure we have ever had.  I suppose if you take the arguments about the PMC to their logical conclusion though, the PMC was never interested in waging a challenge anyway.  However, the PMC is no longer invited to the table; holding on to the delusion of privilege seems a high price to pay.

I am thinking about these things because I was recently on another committee to evaluate the core.  As one assignment, we had to write about what we think students should be doing/learning in Core/Liberal Arts in the 21st century.  I liked the homework assignment and plan to move forward on my ideas in my next classes:

  1. Take on current information about new global markets and the connections to 21st century imperialism
  2. Fully immerse ourselves in a digital empire in ways that (re)center self-determination and community-control (see the National Conference for Media Reform)
  3. Speak to and locate racial oppression in a Post-Katrina nation-state
  4. Speak to and locate male dominance in new Benevolent Patriarchy (women are outnumbering male college students more and more, but this is not bringing us any closer to gender equality in higher education… can we talk about this?)
  5. Craft new rhetorical mobility and design competence in a multi-media and digital universe
  6. Develop new worker consciousness in current modes of capitalist production (are we going to keep ignoring our students’ increasing debt, students’  increasing inability to find a job or one that can pay off those debts, and the corporatization of professions that makes professional jobs today look more like factory assembly lines?)
  7. Reframe the standardized education students have received (this is the most tested and standardized group of students in the world and ever in history) and work toward counter-standardization as an educational and human right
  8. Internalize and apply real tools for cross-racial dialogue and alliance in a multiracial/multilingual world
  9. Make daily decisions about the planet with an eco-consciousness that will not destroy the environment we take for granted (it’s not an option to just ignore this)
Popular meme circulated amongst college students

Popular meme circulated amongst college students

Of course, right-leaning white liberals will accuse me of indoctrination but this will be what my curriculum for first year writing does and interrogates in the future anyway. I am not looking for student agreement here, just engagement, something I think I am pretty good at.  I suspect that, once again, the curriculum and strategies that I devise will be ignored while faculty sit on more commissions and committees, talking about and doing nothing.  I’ve seen how it goes down.

Obviously, I think these nine points are the role of a liberal arts curriculum, work that I think traditional disciplinary structures do not even come close to.  We keep talking about the theories of Freud, classical literature, Greek empires, blahblahblah that students need to know and the students keep asking us about their debt, about the world in which they live, about their livelihood and living wage, about the realities of digital design in their lives.  My definition of a liberal arts/core curriculum has nothing to do with the disciplines and their canonical texts/ideas at all.   A liberal arts/core curriculum is the framework for the intellectual culture of a college… it is a deep, meaningful, intellectual engagement with ideas and contemporary social issues, not a set of isolated skills to measure.

What I am left with now is not so much about student identities or ideas about what students need to do. I am thinking more about faculty identities and what faculty need to do.  As faculty, we need to ask ourselves: What should Core/Liberal Arts FACULTY be doing in the 21st century?   We will need to fight for exactly the kind of intellectual and political culture that I am describing here … an intellectual and political culture diametrically opposed to our current corporate models of higher education.  At best, we faculty of the PMC have been D students in achieving this.