Bothered But “Unbossed”: An Open Letter to LRA (Literacy Research Association)

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.”

Professor Sandy Grande

Professor Carmen Kynard

Associate Dean Leigh Patel

A Week in the Life of a Black Feminist Pedagogy: Days Five & Six

It’s never just about the “microaggressions.”  Daily aggressions derive their political and emotional meanings and are legitimized inside of the larger contexts of dehumanization. When the white male professor down the hall accused me of stealing his little measly stuff, that happened at the same time that I watched, over and over again, Eric Garner tell NYPD that he couldn’t breathe.  They killed Garner anyway, for standing on the corner with some loosies.  Though the inability to even walk down the hall at the college where you work without being perceived as a thief is not the same as Garner’s murder, a singular social system justifies both.  When I was questioned by a hyper-privileged white administrator about my academic credentials, as if I didn’t have them, that happened at the same time that the initial jury wouldn’t convict Michael Dunn of first-degree murder of Jordan Davis. It took TWO TRIALS to rule against Dunn, a white man shooting at a vehicle with 17-year old Black boys in it. Again, my experience is not similar to Davis’s murder but the trial made the aggressions I faced all the more unbearable. The microaggressions that are sure to come as soon as school starts will be happening alongside countless other incidents: like white people, mostly white women, calling the cops when they see a Black child mowing someone’s lawn or selling bottled water . . . when they see Black folks having a BBQ in the park . . . when they see Black folk _____.  When school starts, we will be fighting today’s current fascist regime to get Brown children out of cages at detention camps.  When school starts, we will still be marching against more theft of Indigenous land and more police shootings of unarmed Black men and women.  There’s only one thing you can do in the midst of all of this when you are a college professor and work in the academy.  GET. OUT.

You’ve got to take your mind back. The microaggressions that you face everyday on campus and living your life in light of what is going on in the world will mess with your mind.  And that’s what Fridays are for in a week in the life of a black feminist pedagogy.  Honestly, you gotta take your mind back everyday, but by Friday, it gets real official for me.

Though we don’t always talk this way: as academics, we are also fundamentally scholars … writers … and researchers.  You need inspiration to maintain that.  I am talking about something different from self-care.  I mean something IN ADDITION to self-care.  Yes, you will need to know how to protect yourself from endless requests on your time and energy, long lines of folk who need something from you yet again and give nothing back, and just the general, never-ending drains on your time and energy.  You have to learn how to replenish, rejuvenate, meditate, and calm your spirit for the work that you do.  But you also need some intellectual inspiration and when it comes to radical theory and praxis where it relates to race, gender, etc, I have never found that at any university where I have worked.  Like I said, you have to GET OUT or your ideas will be as compromised as the folk who tout justice and perpetrate microaggressions like in the campus examples that I opened with.  While my students certainly inspire me, I still need to get away from the classroom at times.  When the weekend comes, I’m out.  It’s a struggle with errands and family but it’s hard to come back to work on Monday to more meaningless, inane, or violent situations unless you refilled your mind with something worthy of your people and your history beforehand.

You need intellectual inspiration in droves if you want to think new things, write in new ways, and research unexplored corners about anti-Blackness and radical futures.  And so when T.G.I.F. comes, I hit the road and get far, far away from my college.  I have even arranged my teaching schedule to accommodate my T.G.I. Intellectual Fridays and weekends.

Many colleges are lenient when faculty cancel classes, especially for professional travel. Unlike every other college where I have worked, my current institution does not play when it comes to canceling classes though.  You better have that cancelled day of class on your syllabus with a detailed assignment that students can do and understand on their own.  All kinds of other mess slides for college-level expectation at my college, but cancelling class does not, at least not in my department. I appreciate this vigilance on the part of my unit.  My students are not busting their behinds for a college degree to have professors who do not bother to show up or just let TAs do the job.  This means that I only teach on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays and get the service work done by Thursday.  I front-load the week so that come Friday, I can be out.  This way I don’t have to cancel classes and disrupt the flow of my teaching.  Allowing Thursday-Friday-Saturday for travel and other intellectual excursions is a lifesaver for my thinking.  Even when I don’t travel, I try to attend some kind of event in New York City to get my mind out of the mess my institution makes of it during the week.  It seems simple but I need to be vigilant with my time and energy too ….otherwise, I will hand over entire weekends to meetings, emails, or phone conversations coddling grown folks who dominate your time because they refuse to figure out meaningful lives for themselves.  You have to fight for the time and space to think and be.

Faculty colleagues of color are not something you can count on either.  There are either too few of them or the ones who are there are too busy soothing white egos and catering to white comfort.  I have no patience for them and am REAL CLEAR that this does not belong to the Black Intellectual Traditions of our ancestors . One of my colleagues of color told me that they were warned not to fraternize too closely with other Brown and Black faculty (i.e., sitting next to one another in a department meeting).  I’m not shocked that senior white faculty and administrators would articulate and execute these kinds of slave codes to Brown and Black professors (reminder: slave codes prohibited the enslaved from assembling without a white person present).  However, I AM surprised by how many faculty of color comply so willingly with these campus-plantation rules.  You won’t miss out on any real conversation or interaction of political depth with these Sambo types though.  This is why you need to always fellowship with the radical Brown and Black academics across the country and form a circle that extends well beyond your campus.  Like I already said, I front-load the week so that come Friday, I can be out.

I attend many conferences, but only those that theoretically and politically inspire me and that have folk of color in large attendance.  I refuse to be mesmerized by attending an intellectually-mediocre conference because, like so many academics that I see, it is the only place that makes me feel famous and important.  I also give many talks where I get to meet graduate students and faculty and hear more intimately about their work.  This also lets me see what other universities are doing and keeps me from the provincialism that would suggest that the way my university does something is the only or most contemporary way. Other times, I am just reading a set of articles or a book that pushes me to see, think, or write something in a different way.  I resist the academic rule that you need to read solely or mainly in your discipline.  You won’t grow intellectually that way— you just join the old boys’ club.  And if you are of color, you don’t have the luxury to be so closely wedded to any one field or discipline anyway since none have your people in mind (even ethnic studies often looks for its legitimation today from neoliberalism).  So on T.G.I. Intellectual Fridays, I am reading and learning.  It seems like working at a college, learning would automatically fill my days.  Strangely, it’s not that way.  You have to plan your week around thinking/ learning in order to take your mind back.

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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Oppression Born Into the System: How We Understand Race/History in 16 Points

This list was created by undergraduates at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY at the very beginning of spring semester in 2016. Our course is focused on critical race theory and this list was collectively written, modeled after the style of the blogpost— “MY (APPARENTLY) OBLIGATORY RESPONSE TO ‘FORMATION’: IN LIST FORM.”  This list captures our initial discussions and definitions of race/racism and its roots and rootedness.

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Lessons from the University of Oklahoma: The Macro of Microaggressions

For Harriet released a video yesterday, “Black Women OU Students Discuss SAE, Race and the University,” interviewing three young Black women at the University of Oklahoma: Aubriana Busby (Junior), Chelsea Davis (Sophomore), and Ashley Hale (senior), all students involved with OU Unheard.  I was delighted to watch and hear these interviews as well as the general footage that we have seen in the past week from Black student protesters on the campus.

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