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.

A Black Feminist Critique of Bourgeois Professional Organizations…. 40 Years after the Combahee River Collective

Like all academics, I regularly attend conferences that presumably catalyze my politics and research.  Though I have presented 100s of papers now at dozens of conferences, I have spent the most time and money at two in particular: NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) and CCCC/4Cs (Conference on College Composition and Communication). I won’t be attending either this year or any time soon for that matter.   I am enraged by the politically-compromised way NCTE and 4Cs have addressed the conference’s Missouri location this year where Senate Bill 43 was signed on June 20, 2017, essentially (re)legalizing discrimination.
I was once excited to participate in these conferences at this 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective’s statement alongside our current Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). But not anymore.  I have always had issues with NCTE/4Cs and the often unmitigated co-existence with the corporatization of (higher) education. Just look at the way the conference headquarters are organized: diversity consultants, NDAs, closed meetings, agenda styles, executive committees, hierarchy of roles, budget discourses, etc.  My point here is merely to state a fact: it is a corporate ethos.  That ethos goes all around so if your contribution in the field/at the conference can be displayed on a CV/career profile/tenure packet, it ain’t activism or community organizing.  It is bourgeois professionalism.  Let’s just call a thing what it is.
The Movement for Black Lives that has shaped every part of my current teaching life and every aspect of my Black and Latinx students’ current literacies is fundamentally a Black Queer Feminist framework… and there is nothing in these organizations that complements such a framework (and if that is not clear, a basic knowledge of BLM will suffice after you have divested from the misogynist, heteropatriarchal core in the field’s relationship to race and African American culture).  Yeah, I said it… cuz that’s what a Black feminist does!
When I think of an “activist conference” or a BLM/BlackQueerFeminist framing, I mean something entirely different from the usual paradigm of “including” a few endarkened sessions in the program and/or parading a few willingly-tokenized celebrity scholars of color who NCTE/4Cs can sponsor as supposed signs of progress. My teaching-scholarly life runs deeper than that. I am packed 36 deep in my undergraduate classrooms with students who commute to campus and work sometimes two jobs.  In the first week of classes this semester, multiple students shared coming out stories, often relaying horrific stories of their treatment as Black and Brown queer people and how they managed to survive. 10% of my students are undocumented (many of whom were not in class for the NYC protests in the second week of classes this semester). As with every semester, I am checking in regularly with at least one young mother of color, most times living in a shelter, who has recently exited and/or is in the process of exiting a relationship hinged on intimate partner violence.  And, of course, I can count on young Black, Arab, and Latinx men arriving late to class after being detained by an NYPD hell-bent on profiling them as if to deliberately remind them that every obstacle imaginable will be erected along their path to a college degree. And my graduate students ain’t playin either. They are the fiercest, queerest, most in-yo-face calling-out-neoliberalism, most activist graduate students who I have ever met.  They ain’t down for the okey-doke either. Despite all of this (or maybe because of it), these are the most gracious, energetic and intellectually alive young people who I know. There is very little at NCTE/CCCC that centers this racialized everydayness in the college literacy and creative power of racially subjugated young people. So on the bright side:  I won’t be missing much by not attending. 

Far too many of the folk of color in the organization are so wedded to their own career advancement, name recognition, bourgeois credentialing, and upward university mobilities (that often gets conflated in white liberal tropes as leadership and voice) that their critiques are, at best, muffled. Yeah, I said it and will gladly say it to folks’ face too.  White folk have never been the ONLY problem.  We write statements… but we do not seem to MAKE statements.  The ways in which these willing tokens on NCTE’s/4Cs’ celebrity red carpet have particularly marginalized and “managed” dissent about the 2017 NCTE and 2018 4Cs have been nothing short of violent: 1) accusing boycotters of representing a do-nothing activism as if the Black Radical Tradition of a Rosa Parks/Montgomery Bus Boycott was about doing “nothing”; 2) suggesting that folk who leave the organization are “merely” or “irresponsibly” running away as if maroonage, fugitivity, and Harriet Tubman legacies are not deeply-rooted radical actions; 3) asking for more clarity and detail as if I have not been consistent or shy about an INTELLECTUAL critique of a field and its practitioners that have never included me (again, I mean white folk and folk of color).  These people, especially the young wanna-be chic-radical graduate students and the newly anointed/nepotistic heirs to the KINGdom, will be out here quoting folk like Fred Moten and Robin Kelley all day long and yet enact none of their ideas (or maybe don’t have the political integrity to understand those ideas).  I could go on and on.  Like I said, I am disgusted.   

The fact of the matter is that NCTE/4Cs participation is rather expensive, especially for those of us who are not at privileged universities that allot significant professional expenditures for faculty travel (and who rarely see students of color in their classrooms since their university wealth is intimately attached to the exclusion of Brown and Black peoples, not to their education).  The other fact of the matter is that NCTE/4Cs, as an organization, financially sustains itself with its conventions.  I simply won’t pay them to keep excluding the Black Queer Feminist frameworks that are literally giving our current social movements and my classrooms life; I won’t pay them for their piss-poor silence about the violence of Missouri’s SB 43, despite the assurance that “we” will do something “local” at the convention (as if anyone should trust the activism outside the venue of a conference program that is lily white); I won’t pay for the promise of some 1990s-style “task force” as a solution for 21st century racism and racial violence;  and I won’t pay them for their pre-arranged co-signing by the small set of NAACP leaders who stopped being progressive many, many decades ago.  And I won’t use the money from my institution that services mostly Brown and Black students or from my salary based on teaching those students to attend a conference that ignores us in a state that newly violates/targets us. That means I would be allowing NCTE/4Cs and Missouri to profit off the backs of the young people of color I teach. I won’t be that kind of accomplice.  Not today. Not ever.

Trigger Warning: This Post is about Academia and Its “Professional” Conferencing

I am not a fan of the professional conference at this point in my life. Between the expensive hotels and registration fees and the mall-like spatial feel, it just ain’t for me. Ima blame this one of Robin Kelley though—- his piece about “Black Study, Black Struggle” still resonates with me, namely his poignant argument that universities are NOT engines of social transformation, never have been and never will.   If you agree with Kelley’s critiques about labor, race, and empire at the American university today, then you have no choice but agree that professional organizations— housed in neoliberalist, “non-profit” corporations that professionally organize and credential academics— are even less aligned with radical social thought and action.

ccccRegardless of whether or not you were in actual attendance, all compositonist-rhetoricians know that its major, professional organization— the Conference on College Composition and Communication, often called 4Cs (or the C’s by many black folk)— went down this past weekend. It is no secret that many folk of color feel marginalized by that space, despite decades of activism for inclusion born in 1960s and1970s Black Freedom struggles.  Quiet as it’s kept though, younger white scholars are making the same claims of marginalization everywhere that I meet them: fed up with an Old Guard who do not speak to them or to their needs, embarrassed by a new White Backlash, and unimpressed by uber-professionalized middle class comforts and happiness.  Many (not all) of the chairs who organize the yearly conferences have humanized that space in wonderful ways, but that doesn’t necessarily change the organization.  As a professor from a financially strapped city/public university with a heavy teaching load rather than an R1 with its comparatively unlimited funding and leisure time, the conference isn’t designed for me (given its gross expense and time commitment) or my students (given its white, middle class content) anyway.

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¡Adelante! Digital Storytelling is…

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 8.27.07 PMI began experimenting with digital storytelling (DS) in my classrooms last spring and continued with it this spring.  For my purposes in my own classrooms, DS is a short video (4-6 minutes) that showcases a powerful story in your life (I used Cynthia Davidson’s assignment as my initial model). I am not as interested in students’ final products as I am in their processes though.  They upload their final videos to their ePortfolios but they have many webpages along with the video (about the music, the story, their images, their process, etc).   Here are some of the questions that I also ask my students to reflect on:

  1. When we combine ALL of these elements— sound, images, video, and words— what does this achieve for rhetors?  For digital rhetorics?  
  2. What makes your work part of 21st century storytelling?
  3. Your first year of college has coincided with some of most charged political events of the 21st century (bookended by the kidnapping/murder of 43 students in Iguala, Mexico to mass uprisings in Baltimore).  Local media— largely through social media/digital outlets— insist that national news coverage got it all wrong and inserted its own voice.  In many ways, you have all entered that same kind of social justice advocacy with your own digital projects. Think back on this digital project.  Does it too make an intervention?  How and why (or why not)?

For my ¡Adelante! students (a Leadership program for Latino students who I follow for two semesters in my first year writing courses), however, I asked an additional question… a rather simple one, but one that I thought most critical:

What is ¡Adelante! Digital Storytelling (ADS)?

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The “White Turn” in Composition Studies

When I first tried to publish “ ‘This the ConscienceRebel’: Class Solidarity, Congregational Capital, and Discourse as Activism in the Writing of Black Female College Students,” I must admit that I was taken aback by white resistance in composition studies— the field to which I am most closely aligned by nature of the work that I do but certainly not by the nature of my politics , aesthetics, or pedagogies.  I was not surprised that the white editors saw the work— a text that focuses on working class Black female college students— as irrelevant to the wider field.  But, I must admit: I was surprised that it was Black female scholars in the field who gave the white editors rhetorical ammunition.

black womenIt was Black female reviewers who brought up the point that most professors reading the article would be white and have mostly white students and so would not be able to relate to the content.  Yes, you heard that right.  It was Black female professors who made that claim.  And I shouldn’t have to tell you that the white editors went to town on that right there. Besides the fact that it undermines all Black women when Black women see themselves as tangential to educational research, the idea that the majority of college writing classrooms today mostly enroll white, middle class students IS FALSE!  That’s not historically accurate and it certainly does not apply to an era where higher education gets browner and browner every year. Whiteness in this field gets maintained by scholars of color as much as it gets maintained by white scholars and it’s time we start talking about it.

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