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.

Race, Reproduction, Reparations (The 3 Rs)

One of the things I love about blogging is that it gives you a chance to use this experience/practice/process of writing to get closer to what you think and what is important to you.  Granted, I am a writing teacher, so I may be biased, but sometimes you just gotta write it out to ride it out.  That said, I get inundated with the academic school year and all I am writing are project guidelines and comments to student writing, rather than tracing the path of my thinking.  Despite the avalanche of things I need to do, I just gotta stop and pause to reflect on one of the many things I have been following lately: Jennifer Cramblett’s lawsuit.

jennifer-cramblettBy now, everyone has heard of Cramblett’s lawsuit. As a recap, here is the basic gist. Cramblett and her partner are suing a Chicago-area sperm bank after she became pregnant with sperm donated by a black man instead of a white man she had picked. I can’t help but be curious to see how this case will go. Race, reproduction, and the law have always been intimately linked. As early feminists have always told us, the family (the nuclear family) is always a kind of surrogate for the nation-state and all of its attending politics and values about which race, gender, class is most worthy and most human— and therefore, legitimately replicable. I have so many questions because the outcome of this lawsuit will mean so many things. Here are just a few of these questions: Continue reading

Politics/Politricks of White Innocence: Life under Institutional Racism, Part III

TMImagine you are a professor at a large, urban university.  Space is always tight in such places so this means you must share an office with other professors.  You come in early one day to grade papers and do your other work when another professor who shares this office opens the door, sees you, and seems VERY displeased. You keep working; after all, you DO have things to do.  Ten minutes later, a band of security officers comes for you.  They have been told that a Hispanic male broke into your office.  You, the Professor, Ph.D. in tow, stack of papers to grade, student conferences lined up, are THAT Hispanic male.  You see, some of us do not need to imagine this scenario because we live it.  This is NOT a fictional story.  This happened to a very good friend of mine at an urban, public college that serves mostly Latin@ students. It would take me years on this blog to relay the many stories like this that I know.

Nothing ever happened to the white male professor who made this security call against the “Hispanic burglar” who was actually his Puerto Rican office mate. There was no apology or regret expressed from anyone at the university to my friend.  There was no recognition or acknowledgement of racism from any corner of the campus.  The predominantly white faculty moved forward as if nothing had ever happened. Convinced of their utmost dedication to their “minority” student population (which actually constitutes the majority at that college), white faculty simply ignored what had just happened in their own department, a racist event instigated by one of their own colleagues who then turned around to go teach a class of predominantly Latin@ students.  Meanwhile, my friend, whose life on campus bears a striking similarity to George Zimmerman’s 911 call when he saw Trayvon Martin in the neighborhood, was marked as “difficult” for expressing his outrage at campus racism.  When he kept to himself (I mean, geez, why would he want to be friends with these people?), he was simply called non-collegial.  In this paradigm, folk of color ARE the problem, not racist white folk.  When he left that college with joy in his heart, too many white folk acted perplexed and surprised that he had been so unhappy.  The sheer stupidity of racism never ceases to amaze me.

In every professional space where I have met another white professor who knows my friend, they have ALWAYS described him as “difficult.” In fact, a white person has called every vocal Black or Latino male professor who I personally know DIFFICULT.  You KNOW you have NO sense of audience (and maybe just NO sense at all) when you are telling ME this.  I always make a few mental notes about such a speaker and their campus:

  1. this campus looks like any other space that racially profiles and terrorizes people of color
  2. this white faculty member (and all of his homies) are as happy as clams and choose to ignore the processes of the campus’s racialization that benefit them
  3. the politics and politricks of white innocence are in FULL effect… so BEWARE!

white privI am borrowing this language and concept of “white innocence” from Thomas Ross’s 1990 legal theory article called “The Rhetorical Tapestry of Race: White Innocence and Black Abstraction.”  I have always found Ross’s arguments compelling.  Though he is offering a rhetorical analysis of white discourses surrounding Brown v Bd of Ed, I think his analysis applies directly to the opening story I have narrated.  Ross believes that whites’ refusal to historically contextualize the experiences of people of color works as a language that protects white supremacy.  Whites are offered a kind of material innocence in the very real day-to-day workings of professional settings where a Puerto Rican male professor’s experiences match a larger history of targetted surveillance and racial profiling.  Like I have already said, George Zimmerman is not an anomaly given the experiences of this professor on his campus.  The professor’s experience is supposed to just be one, isolated, abstract event that he is supposed to accept and get over, a requirement that would obviously benefit white guilt more than it could ever psychologically benefit him. Whites move on, as if everyone can and should just start all over again, as if a brand-new beginning is possible. Ross makes the bold claim that this abstraction works as the path and process for more racism.

Faculty at U.S. universities and colleges will insist all day long in their highbrow academese that race is just a social construction (i.e., there is no biological or genetic differences between races), claiming race as just some kind of ethereal thing out there, not real or seen.  In the quest to NOT essentialize or naturalize race, the very REAL “materiality” of race is always right there in front of us, deciding who can rightfully be, think, and work and who cannot.

My reading of this event would not surprise or particularly enlighten faculty of color who I know and who have seen exactly what I describe.  This ain’t news for them.  My major concern is with the college students in these classes who need to learn to read these events and actors in exactly the same way as I have.  Their sanity and mental health depend on it.

Frat Boy Culture: Life under Institutional Racism, Part II

Though working at a conservative, denominational university could never have been a very good fit for someone like me, I must admit that I miss some of the piousness of a religious institution. A strange confession, surely, but it was a nice reprieve from what I call the frat-boy culture of academia.   I began to really notice frat-boy culture in graduate school, though that culture plagued my undergraduate years as well. As an undergrad, I just assumed frat-boy culture was what folk would someday grow out of. No such luck.

I was, quite honestly, floored by the nature of sexual activity in graduate school where everyone was sleeping with everyone, married or single. When you are the one drop of chocolate in the flymilk, you know better than to think you have enough privilege and power to participate in this culture… though I have certainly seen more than a few black men get fully entrenched (grad school has a way of making them forget that they are black, but they usually get THAT reminder soon enough). Here we were in graduate school and a man could sleep with 3, 4, 5, 6 different women in his program/college and not even think twice about it… AND even get a few of them pregnant! Professional conferences are no different. It’s all fray-boy culture. You can see why a religious university, for all of its problems, was a nice, short breather in between all of that. I never once suspected my chair, directors, dean, etc to have slept with every young woman/man who walked past them and I am the type of person who once I SUSPECT it, I know that that ish has gone down. It’s not to say that power and whiteness are not everywhere exerted and celebrated in other ways on such religious campuses, but it is not inserted THAT way.

inferiority complexI am NOT talking about upholding respectability politics here, which really just becomes a buy-in of black inferiority.  Critiquing and rejecting respectability politics does not mean we lose the critique of frat-boy culture and its role in maintaining power and inequality. Notice here how I am critiquing male dominance and not women who use their sexuality to manipulate and vie for power (think Kim Kardashian, Mimi Faust, or the “video hoe”). It is just TOO played out to keep castigating individual women or, on the flip side, to call them sexually revolutionary or powerful (all the while, of course, ignoring that race determines which women will be most denigrated for these sexual choices). Insomuch as white fraternities have been marked with the most economic and political power in U.S. history of higher education and beyond (go to any campus and see who has the biggest and nicest frat houses…or who has them at all), then I connect frat-boy culture with whiteness and patriarchy.

frats on FOXFrat-boy culture is about power that gets controlled through sexual domination. For sure, religious universities are still controlling sexuality (with the Bible), which explains why whiteness and power were not ruptured in any way on a campus where the men kept it in their pants. But when you are in a closed-door meeting with a white man and woman who have surely had (maybe still have) sexual relations, let me tell you: THAT shit is palatable. You are navigating a whole other kind of terrain when they vie to maintain their whiteness and position over you. Like I said, I KNOW frat-boy culture so I can spot this in a minute. That’s the most powerful position you can be in though. When you are in the academy and workplace, you need to be able to read the hell outta EVERY aspect whiteness and power… sexuality is always a marker. That’s how frat-boy culture and inequality work.

Lessons from Natural Hair & White Women’s Ongoing Racism

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"My Natural Sistas"

“My Natural Sistas”

This is that time of year when I spend a great deal of time online watching videos and reading articles on how to moisturize my hair.  Between the on-and-off again single-digit cold weather, my hair is dryyyyy.  It’s the typical saga of natural hair for black women in cold winters.  Because my hair has changed its length and texture since my no-heat commitment, it seems that what worked last year doesn’t work this year.  This isn’t a lament about black hair though, because I actually like looking at these blogs, articles, and videos.  The images are stunningly beautiful, the sistas are often funny as all get-out, and the advice is ON. POINT.

Naturally GG

“Naturally GG”

It’s the language of it all that fascinates me.  It’s always in the language, like these phrasings and positioning:

Protective styling (and headwrapping)

Avoiding over-worked hair

Understanding and mixing shea butter

Letting the scalp heal (especially if newly non-relaxed)

Working and nurturing the roots

Cherish My Daughter

“Cherish My Daughter”

I’ll just go for broke and say it straight out: only black women could and would talk about HAIR— their bodies— this way… and digitally so AT THAT!  It’s a discourse wrapped in notions of freedom from work and destruction.

It should not come as a surprise that my conversations with black women, from the compliments to the sharing of styles and product purchases, are qualitatively and quantitively different.  Those conversations are so foreign to most white women around me that this may as well be a language other than English. In many ways, this IS another language. We are talking Afrikan experience.  What other women would make the healing of roots, self-protection, and rejuvenation with shea butter the road to survival?

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You can see then why I was so stunned by a recent blog article circling the internet about a young white woman expressing her turmoil when she realized, during yoga, that the “young, fairly heavy black woman” behind her must resent her thin, white body.  Yeah.  You can’t make this up!  On top of living a racist delusion, she has co-opted a spiritual, non-western practice, YOGA (we seem to forget that yoga was not invented by middle class white women), to experience a false racial superiority.

Charyjay

Charyjay

Now, can sumbody please tell me why women who invent and design practices and languages just to maintain non-white alternatives to their HAIR—with digital tools to educate and sustain one another about it— would be pining away at white women’s bodies?  If that weren’t enough, this white woman also configures herself as an advanced yoga practitioner, but if this is where her mind is during the process, what the hell kinda yogi is this?  I enjoyed Kristin Iversen’s discussion who critiques the commercial white feminism of the journal alongside white colonization of yoga. I also value Tressiemc.com’s review of research on black girls who also have a critique of white standards of beauty at a young age. That’s why I am confused by the black women who perceive this moment as a possibility for good dialogue.  Good for whom?  Black women?  This moment replicates nothing more than Sylvia Wynter’s now longstanding critique of white femininity in her analysis of the Tempest in its depiction of Miranda: the only woman in the New World/Island, the “mode of physiognomic being” that gets canonized as the only “rational object of desire” and “genitrix of a superior mode of human life.”

I won’t mention this woman’s name, because she is not worthy of that.  Just trust that her own physical appearance in no way matches the admiration and awe that she thinks her body engenders.  I ain’t sayin she ugly, but she sho ain’t cute. For black women out there who do aspire to whiteness, this ain’t the white woman they would be aesthetically mimicking (especially when she is sweaty and funky.)  How does someone of such absolute visual mediocrity become convinced she is the center of physical attraction? As is so strikingly evident here, it is a pathologized, corporeal white-thinness alone that is supposed to mark aesthetic power and desire. Truth is, this little dumb blog post isn’t worth the attention it has received (and brought the writer into focus in ways she was perhaps too young to understand, though the journal surely did, with the intimacies of her personal life now publicly on display, i.e., drug abuse).  For my part, I will keep moisturizing my natural hair and using a black woman’s language with black women to navigate the world.  I won’t be standing behind any white woman any time soon with the desire of being that.  I have my own self and black women’s language to sustain me. [/ezcol_1half_end]