On Graduate Admissions and Whiteness: A Love Letter to Black/ Brown/ Queer Graduate Students Out There Everywhere

Dear Black/ Brown/ Queer graduate students,

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 false reality.  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.

When White People Drop the N-Bomb

DeenBetween packing up my office, moving to a new university, and participating in the protests related to Trayvon Martin’s murder, I missed an important diss-able moment here: doggin out PAULA DEEN.

Black folk on twitter kept me afloat during that time and I’m not even on twitter.  And in case anyone was confused about this, yes, we are laughing AT Paula Deen, not with her.  Everything about her— her dishes, her health, her children, her Bubba— got publicly dissed on every social network site imaginable.  It was the most lovely way to treat a white supremacist.  The memes alone inspire deep pride for me. It made it that much easier to dismiss all those “liberals” saying black people were too sensitive or blowing things out of proportion. If my recent trip to Savannah, Georgia is any indication, then it seems safe to say that social networking brought down Deen: every time I passed a Paula Deen Tour Bus, it was E-M-P-T-Y!  Personally, I think all of those very public disses of Paula Deen should be a model for how we treat anyone who thinks we should dress as/be slaves, serve them sweet potato pie (and everything else), and/or maintain confusion about the N-bomb.  Descriptions of Deen’s racism are hardly over, including the ongoing testimonies of black women in the recent NYTimes who Deen exploited while thiefing their recipes and expertise as cooks.  It seems like Deen’s empire really was run like a plantation: the exploitation of black labor, ingenuity, and skill while she sat back, rich and fat, grinning for the public as if she had herself pioneered something.  A plantation, indeed.

Like I said, Black Twitter was a thing of beauty, but my heart goes out to AfricanoBoi who gave the best commentary on Paula Deen yet!  For all non-black folk, no, you can not laugh at this but you do get to hear how WE HEAR white supremacy.   For all black folk: yes, you can roll all over the floor and laugh your hearts away!!!  I know I still am.  Sometimes, laughing back and talking back go hand-in-hand because, given all that is coming to light about Deen’s labor practices, AfricanoBoi might not be exaggerating that much.

Public & Private Writing on New Plantations


See 2008 South Carolina State Museum Exhibit

My graduate advisor, Suzanne Carothers, is one of the most thoughtful pedagogues that I know, someone who thinks about the education of pre-school and elementary black children in strikingly alternative and radical ways.  In a recent conversation, she reminded me that black children’s role on slave plantations was to take care of white children close in age group.  Until that conversation, I had not thought of the wide-ranging ramifications of this.  It immediately triggered the countless histories and narratives I have read of African American adults explaining how they learned to read and write in slavery via the required chores they had to perform as children: carry  white children’s books for them to school; stand outside the schoolroom and wait for white children to finish school and carry their things home; stand in attention while white children learned or played, eagerly awaiting a command from them.  We know from the archives that black children used these moments to eavesdrop on school lessons, learn the alphabet, and trick white kids in disseminating the information white children had learned.   We have not talked enough though about what this relationship between white children and black children as learners meant for the epistemological construction of plantation life.  What is most interesting to me is the way in which Carothers marks this relationship as central to classrooms today: black children are still always expected to teach and help white children understand race or African American lives.  In my teaching context, I am talking about those moments in the college classroom where the issue of race or black history comes up and all the white people in the classroom turn to look at the one (or two or three) black student(s) in the room.  Or, there is the moment where a certain theory or issue comes up that is so obviously racialized, but it is up to that one (or two or three) black student(s) in the room to point it out, not the teacher’s role, and the room (or digital interface), of course, just goes dead silent. This seems like a story every black college graduate I know can tell and you can read about this kind of psychic warfare in countless educational accounts of black students’ experiences in schools.  I don’t think, however, we are often inclined to call and link these experiences of black students to slavery in the way Carothers has for me: these kind of moments in classrooms are simply the vestige of a plantation economy of knowledge and learning in the context of white dominance. That kind of framework pushes me to think about race and classrooms in a whole different way and question how, when, and where white children are made dominant.


Slave Children on Board the “Daphne”

I would like to hold myself accountable to offering black students something different from this “plantation economy of knowledge and learning in the context of white dominance.”   What this means concretely, for instance, right now is that in the first three weeks of my current class, my students do print-based writing (there is an informal writing assignment due each class) that they can email or hand in to ONLY me.  They are not posting their stuff online anywhere for the class or the world to read.  I need to see, hear, encounter their racial ideologies first and take them on.  I need to see who and what I am working with first.  I especially need to see the work we will need to do as a classroom before we can educate people outside of our classroom.  It is a seeming contradiction that so much, if not ALL, of my class depends on digital spaces; yet my students are not writing in the same open, digital spaces that contains the class materials (not yet).   To put it most simply: NO STUDENT in my class will be waxing on online with anti-black comments.  I am thinking here about my first semester teaching graduate classes where white male graduate students wrote quite freely in their weekly seminar papers about how lazy black people are and how slutty black women are.  I deal with that quite readily and willingly on my own, and pretty regularly (and have been able to count on white faculty not noticing or caring).  In my second year as an assistant professor, I encountered a white male student who had text-messaged sexually vile statements to the women of color in one of his classes where students were required to put their numbers on a class-distributed phone list.  When I reported his behavior, it was clear to me that I alone— the only untenured member of the department of the time— had to work with the women to file a complaint and would have to deal with the student alone in my own class in a way that would make sure he didn’t pass my class and, therefore, lose his position in the program— a program that certified teachers to work in urban high schools.  Like I said, I KNOW I am alone on all of this but I am also very clear: such students will not unleash racial violence and distribute their texts online in digitized classroom-discussion boards or in public online spaces as part of the work that happens in my class.  Not. On. My. Watch.  From my perspective, teachers need to be held accountable for such digital texts when white men such as the ones I described go online with this stuff. It is not the job of black students in the class to challenge them, to help them, to push them, all of which, as Carothers helped me to see, is a kind of ongoing plantation logic and relationship system.   Despite the liberalism that would say everyone is speaking their own minds, it is not a democracy when black people are being dehumanized.  I am not talking about the alternative liberal universe either where we don’t talk about race at all (hence, no one noticing the ideas of white male students I am talking about except me).  What I am talking about here is a kind of AfroDigital consciousness that works against these public spaces when the violence of racism is fully alive in classrooms.  No teacher’s classroom and no teacher’s assignment are ever innocent!

My class this semester always enrolls a large number of black female students, probably more than any other class on the campus (I learned yesterday that mine is the only class about black women).  I will not expose them to students who espouse anti-black/anti-black-woman diatribes on class digital, discussion boards. I know the damage that does given how many students of color come to me to talk about exactly such experiences in their other classes (I won’t even tell you how many white students have dropped my classes, no matter the subject, after the first day seeing me and seeing my syllabus).  Black women get enough of this kind of hostility elsewhere; they don’t need more of it in my classroom too.  As we move through the semester, I strategically choose when and where students will go public with their writing—whether with the class or with the wider digital universe.  I think this is especially relevant given a kind of liberalist mantra in my field about the general goodness of all, real audiences when students write digital texts.  I ain’t tryna hear that.  I experience writing and audience in very different ways.

I want to see teachers (and in my field, this means mostly white teachers) held accountable for the epistemological violence their students inflict on black bodies.  I am not suggesting that it is the fault of teachers when their students espouse racism but when they do that espousing within a public assignment that is teacher-required, then teachers need to be held accountable.   In fact, I think it is a crucial aspect of an AfroDigital pedagogy to further this kind of accountability.  It ain’t democratic to let students say and do racism; but we can surely ensure democracy by checking them and their teachers on it.  An AfroDigital pedagogy  does not comfort and take care of white children on our newest plantations in ways that maintain racialized hierarchies.  It must achieve the opposite.