Fighting Racism in Higher Education

Throughout the last academic year, incited by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and guided by the energy and example of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, students in colleges and universities across the country have increasingly turned to protest. Over the last few weeks alone, student protests at some campuses have reached important junctures, making headlines and creating a powerful moment of possibility.

The New York Times recently provided a cursory overview of some of the more high profile protests and their inciting events. I’m certain this is only scratching the surface when it comes to chronicling racist incidents at colleges and universities as well as student efforts for change.  Sadly, students and faculty at the community of liberal arts colleges where I work (and, specifically, the campus where I was a student) are facing a very similar example of our own this week.

These student protests have mostly been in response to racist incidents at the local level, but they’re not about those incidents, not really.  They’re about a larger and widely shared problem: 21st century racism in the university.

Each has its own shape and mood, it’s own set of assets and liabilities.  But these varied protests each voice part of a unified chorus of what it is like to be nonwhite in the university.  They’re about the lived realities that exist underneath the word “underrepresented.”  They’re about the feelings of inferiority, anger, and frustration incited by life in an institution devoted to whiteness.  They’re about that whiteness, an ideology our institutions do not see and, yet, can not see beyond.  They’re about the expectation for something better from institutions that sell themselves as places that are welcoming and “inclusive.”

Though these student movements are not formally connected, and while each campus has its own particular context to address, it’s hard not to view them as part of a critical moment in higher education, one forcing a reckoning with how our institutions act on issues of race, racism, and “diversity.”  One of the lessons that’s easy to take away from these (not yet concluded) struggles is that most of those in charge of our institutions of higher education are not adequately prepared to effectively hear (let alone address) students’ concerns.

Members of the student protest group Concerned Student 1950 hold hands following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign.

Members of the student protest group Concerned Student 1950 hold hands following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign.


Fundamental to this is the way these institutions view “us”–the underrepresented, the minorities, the people of color.  They languish in the conceit that they are “moving forward” and actualizing “progress” simply by opening their doors to us.  Despite the rhetoric, what is painfully obvious is that they do not understand the most fundamental truth related to their “commitment to diversity.”  That truth is this: we do not need them as much as they need us.

“Diversity” was always made to benefit them, of course.  The university who can paint its portrait with the faces of nonwhite students and faculty wears the hue of modernity and progress.  Through our presence we allow them to embody “the future” by helping them distance themselves from their white supremacist pasts.  What’s worse, we legitimate their most addictive myth–that the ivory tower is home to only the best and the brightest our society has to offer.  Our presence is proof of their contention that entrance is now guided by merit and merit alone.  We alleviate their mid-20th century inferiority complex, incited by the Black Freedom Struggle, that forced those who studied in these hallowed halls to come to terms with the fact that they were the beneficiaries of a racist system.

Our most palpable gift to these institutions is the way we animate their moral purpose.  As they admit and enroll us they are emboldened by what they see as their commitment to the “greater good.”  We’re lucky to be here, they tell us.  And how good are they to let us in!  It’s a paternalism the student of the past will be most familiar with, one that makes “diversity” evidence of their “commitments” and inherent goodness.

Of course, our presence in the university is good and it is meaningful.  We know this.  It is one small step toward something better.  It is this knowledge, in part, that fuels the current protests.  Our real and powerful value is also indicative of the extent to which they need us.  They need us to be their mirror, to show them to themselves as they are.  Only then can they move forward as institutions–as communities–and become more like the places they believe themselves to be.

We are here to give them a chance to understand how their ways of knowing, ways of being, and ways of dreaming are not the only ways.

Our colleges and universities are vessels of whiteness, proponents of an unacknowledged project of conversion.  This is the hangover of a history of formal white supremacy in the US, a system where racial prejudice became the rationale of deciding who could have power.  Even when you alter the system, if you do not actively dismantle the ideology, you risk doing little more than cosmetic change.

The palpable remnants of this ideology course through this conversion project to which most colleges and universities are committed.  They see our value only in so far as we are willing to surrender ourselves to that project and become like them.  It’s a tired notion, laughable if not for its resilience.  It deserves to be laid to rest.  If they can learn to listen to us, to see as as truly equal, they stand to be liberated from it too, from the cage it represents.  To be truly free, of course, they also have to learn to be more like us.  That’s its own struggle, to be sure, one that has few success stories.  (At least not yet.)

The student protests now taking place, and taking shape, are about this kind of liberation. But they can not make it come to fruition.  When it comes down to it, you see, that’s not our job to do.  There is no saving to be done here.  They’ve got to save themselves!  We can speak our truth and let it enable a culture of learning, even a culture of crisis.  But we can not make them learn from it.  That is a choice they have to make.  Let our voices be an alarm bell that the time for that saving is now.

What we can do is frustrate complacency and nurture empathic understanding.  That’s much easier said than it is done, not for the processes it represents but for the context in which we now struggling.  I was a “student of color” once, too.  I remember the epiphanies, the anxieties, the disappointment, and the anger.  I remember the frustration, and the exhaustion.  As a “professor of color” in the same institutions you’re in now, I remember these because they are a part of my present.  Daily I come to terms with the fact that they are also part of my future.

It’s from that place, a place of love and caring and respect, respect for what you feel and for what you know, that I offer these reminders:

Take care of yourself and each other.  Protest can be exhilarating and affirming when we experience it as a real community.  It is also tiring and diminishing.  Respect those costs and seek to care for each other through it.  Listen to each other.  Hug one another.  Make space to learn with one another.

Don’t mistake the symptom for the disease.  We engage oppressive institutions through episodes that wound the soul, instances when the realities it produces are unavoidably clear.  Each is easily removed or reprimanded without altering the system itself.  Do not let them think this is about Halloween costumes.  If we do, we lose. In fact…

The system of higher education is nimble.  It is self-critical, liberal, and able to agree with you as it defends the fundamental core of its problems.  Its reflex will be to co-opt your energy and welcome your protest because it is designed to do so by bending to give the illusion of substantive change.  Only vigilance, and an understanding of its inherent flexibility, can provide a check against this survival mechanism.

Remember that they, like us all, are learners.  Ignorance is our start in life.  Ignorance of these matters, at this point in time…that ignorance is made.  It must be unmade.  Do not let this stifle your need to speak your truth.  Do let it guide the work of finding solutions, real and meaningful solutions.

If I did not believe in the inherent value of education, as well as the ability of institutions of higher education to be better than they are, I would not be in the line of work I am in.  Change is possible.  These places can be the places they think they are, the places they need to be.  That takes work.  Real work.

As students, you have done–and are doing–more than your share, even as you know there is much more still to be done.  Let us hope the others come to realize that most of the work rests on their shoulders.  Let us hope they learn to hear and accept their part.

To the Class of 2011

I wish you a life filled with happiness and love and peace. I hope you can protect the youth and passion you nurtured so well while you were here.

You have worked hard to reach this milestone in your life but that effort coexisted in a reality framed by a series of almost invisible accidents. Whether you are lucky more than you are deserving, or vice versa, is a meaningless debate. You are privileged to have studied, to have experienced the rare joy of moments when your mind has been immersed in possibility and creativity. Never lose sight of this.

The most dangerous thing I have heard said to you these past days is “Welcome to the real world.” The person who says this assumes two things: 1) that your life in college has been absent any of the hardships and struggles of everyday life; and 2) that the assumed luxury provided to you in your years here is not, somehow, “real.” Let me assure you–both are wrong.

For those of you for whom college life has been marked by multiple jobs, battles against the insecurity of class and race, and a war against a larger system that sought to carve you into something you would not and could not be, then I need say no more. I’ve been there, too. I’m proud of you for surviving.

For the rest who have experienced a college career marked by more nurturing than opposition, even you have not been disconnected from something real. Life–real life–is struggle. It is work. It is stressful and it is disappointing. But it is also filled with excitement, love, blind joy. It is filled with moments of celebration and caring, of passion and humanism, of being you and being given the space and resources to be you. It might not be this for each and everyone of us on this globe, but it should be. Everything good you experienced in life while you were here is also part of life when you leave and needs to be more of life for more of us.

You enter the next phase of your adult career at a moment of great uncertainty and crisis. These are good times to finish college because they afford you the luxury of knowing what is important for us as a world. You have to remember the privilege you have had; you have to protect the advantages of mind, body, and spirit which have woven themselves into you. All these and more can frame for you the work that lies ahead. The benefits of your young life should not be rare.

Respect people. Be precious with their humanity. Perfect your ability to bring these tendencies out in others.

Finally, be nice to your families. As you return to the places you call home and to the people whose emotions and identities are so inextricably bound to you, remember that it is YOU who have changed more than them. If they seem to be different, act different, or not understand you, it is probably you and not them that is to blame. Just be grateful that they care, and that they will care tomorrow.

The Future of Chicano/Latino Studies

We’ve reached the end of Latino Heritage Month 2009.  Hope you had a good one.  I live every month like its Latino Heritage Month, so for me it’s been as good as life…

I thought I’d leave you with an excerpt of a historical primary source that helps us connect the past and the present in a meaningful way.  I work in the fields of Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies.  Founded some four decades ago, as a direct result of student and community efforts to remake the university and create an institution which could better serve the poor communities from which they came, these academic fields began with a political charge in mind.  As the years progressed, that charge often confronted an opposition.  Today, from efforts in Arizona to make Chicano Studies classes illegal to efforts in the Cal State system to begin eliminating the programs for financial reasons, the existence of Chicano/Latino Studies is anything but certain.

Our source comes from Ernesto Galarza, one of the first ethnic Mexicans to receive a PhD in History in the U.S.  Dr. Galarza was the Mexican and Mexican American specialist in the U.S. for much of his professional career, one that spanned academia and work in community service organizations.  He lived what he preached and, near the end of his life, as he spoke to Chicano students at UC Berkeley, preach he did…


SOURCE: Ernesto Galarza, “Student’s Responsibilities to the Chicano Community,” address delivered at the University of California, April 20, 1977, Berkeley, California.

You Chicano scholars who are here now today must recognize this drastic change on the American campus, and begin to ask yourselves, must we abandon what’s here for us?  This campus contains immeasurable treasures for all of us.  Here is an accumulation of experience that should be open to us for each one of us to analyze and evaluate and put to our own uses.

And you can’t get it off campus—these magnificent libraries and research facilities.  These are public facilities. This is public wealth organized and set up here for your use. Please think very carefully before you abandon this place because of certain difficulties that you’re having.  The thing to remember is that the training, the capability in the law, in sociology, in whatever these disciplines may be called, is available only here. Unfortunately, it is under the control, under the vigilance of people who don’t share your motivation. But that is no reason why you should abandon your claim to these resources.

You do have a claim to them. The point of view that I’m asking you to consider, of course, is not an easy one to carry out.  One of the difficulties that we as Chicanos and Mexicans have always faced is that our universe in the university is so unfamiliar and so distant from the community from which we come.  It’s awfully hard to explain to your families and to your neighbors—neighborhoods that are constantly in turmoil and in the process of change—what it is you’re up to, what you’re doing, what your difficulties are. There’s a gradual alienation between us on campuses and those in the community.

I contend that the solution or the effort to overcome that alienation is ours and not the community’s.  We understand what causes it.  We know why we are victimized by it.  We know why the community itself is victimized.  But you cannot ask a person who has not had your opportunities to become mentally critical and professionally competent to dig at, to go at the fact that you need to establish a thesis.