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.

I have always known better than to think I was safe as a professor on campus.  Like I tell all of my Black and Latinx graduate students who cannot visibly pass for white at their new university jobs: do not plan to visit campus on weekends or move your boxes to your office after-hours.  If you are not at an HBCU, those spaces will have no practice in seeing your body as a Ph.D.ed member of the organization. On the weekends and in the evenings, security will stop you and no office staff will be available to vouch for you when these campus border patrollers come for you. And they WILL come— and it won’t matter a single bit if Obama, Trump, Hilary, Jill Stein, or Bernie Sanders is president. I especially know no Black male tenured faculty who is dumb enough to close their office doors, not even when they are in there alone (Black women fare much the same way).  Yes, Black faculty are marginalized and invisible but we are also hypervisible when it comes to surveillance and criminalization on our campuses.  No, we are not preparing for the apocalypse in the same way those reality TV doomsday preppers are getting ready simply because the danger that we forecast for the future is not manufactured by paranoia and delusion but by the very real and ever-present violence of institutional racism.

Teaching involves a level of doomsday prepping also. My syllabi for my fall semester classes were each 20-25 pages long.  Granted, much of that space is dominated by personal narrative, photos, and graphic images.  But even those space-filling texts have a rhetorical purpose based, in part, on institutional racism. No one can read my syllabus and make the mistake that my identity is not firmly rooted in Black life and consciousness… and if they don’t like it, they can move to a different course or section.  I have never had a single semester where at least one white student didn’t leave after the first class and look for another open section. I don’t even take it personal; it’s as natural as the sun shining.  Because I also use web-based materials for students’ reading materials, I have made those spaces considerably more rooted in Black visual rhetorics, Black vernacular language, and Black sonic philosophies.  Again, students can’t say they weren’t forewarned.  I spend a considerable amount of time on my syllabus explaining and showing the assessment process in my classes in a way that is almost fool-proof and easy to read.  I can’t make a misstep in any of that because if a student complains that my grading isn’t clear or fair, I know better than to think anyone at my campus will have my back.  I suspect these strategies will work well for me in a post-election educational climate, but if I need to step it up more, I will Blacken those spaces up even more.  I even create an agenda for each day of class, even on the very last day of class which is more celebratory than anything else.  When I was accused of not preparing my lesson plan during an observation from another faculty member who does not even hold a Ph.D., it was easy to refute the claim since that day’s agenda— and every other day’s agenda for the past 4 years of my teaching— is posted online BEFORE class begins in an open-access digital space that anyone with wifi in the world can see and use. These extra burdens related to doomsday planning have always been part of my teaching in the academy… I just don’t see any other alternative when you are Black.

I can also assume that all of the examples, personal experiences, and politics that I have described in this post will mark me as “bitter” or “non-collegial” or “angry” or “isolated” or “difficult” in the departments where I work.  I use quotation marks here to indicate that these are the EXACT words people have used to describe me to deans, chairs, provosts, faculty, and other university players (stuff they could actually get sued for).  These insults are meant to silence and disembody: you are supposed to be silent about your treatment and then smile and be happy as the price of the ticket for entry into these hostile spaces. If you keep your ear to the ground, all of that gossip will get back to you REAL QUICK and as it turns out, it can work in your favor.  When those folk turn around and need you (which they will), you can refuse to engage in “white forgetfulness” and instead always remember the ways they have tried to sabotage you (and make sure you NEVER forget lest you lose sight of the kind of space you really work in).  Though these pejoratives are meant to hurt you, you ain’t gotta feel sorry for yourself and let it go down that way. This particular kind of institutional racism simply means that you learn real fast never to expect allies in your unit, that you remember your college ain’t ever gon be or feel like HOME (I mean, really, what institutions could ever be THAT for Black folk anyway?), that you must seek out powerful networks and real colleagues wherever you find them in all kinds of departments on your campus and other sites off your campus, and that you build your street cred elsewhere. To be real blunt about it: I pimp out neoliberal educational structures in my own favor.  I stay on the grind, travel a lot, and find sustenance and motivation in alternative spaces. I also take a note from many of my colleagues and do the opposite: instead of shaping an intellectual and scholarly presence so that it only matters in the small, brick building where I clock in for work, I throw out a much wider net and make linkages nationally and globally.  In the thug-mentality of the neoliberal university, it’s the street cred that matters and makes you ultimately mobile and widely respected, not in-house/at-home false validation. But for Black folk in the academy, I’m talking about the difference between being a plantation slave and a maroon.  I don’t mean to romanticize the maroon community but plantation life, no matter how well liked you are, ain’t ever gon get you freedom, self-determination, dignity, or mobility.

When it all falls down, survival for progressive, intellectually-engaged, and thoughtful researchers, scholars, and teachers in a post-election academy will need to take its cues from Black faculty survivalists.  Institutional racism has always taught us to expect and prepare for the worst.

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