Striking a Nerve

By Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt

When Inside Higher Ed’s “Conditionally Accepted” column published my op-ed “A Checklist to Determine if You Are Supporting White Supremacy,” I was warned of potential backlash. Then it went viral.

While my piece was shared by hundreds of colleagues around the country, especially faculty of color, marginalized faculty and those who are committed to various equity, diversity and antiracist initiatives and interventions, it was simultaneously shared on right-wing media platforms that actively support structural, institutional and cultural racism and discrimination.

By Jan. 13, 2018, the next day, Campus Reform had picked up the piece and retitled it as “Prof Creates Checklist for Detecting White Supremacy.” This retitled piece had already been shared 1,500 times on various right-wing social media outlets.

The College Fix, The Washington Times, Barbwire, Reddit, The Blaze, The Gateway Pundit, Liberty Unyielding, Legal Insurrections and The Rightly Reportrepublished the article on their sites under different titles. The National Sentineltitled its piece “Campus COMMIE: Lib Professor Claims Meritocracy is WHITE Supremacy.” The various headlines in these right-wing and alt-right publications quite correctly defined me as a “liberal” or “left-wing professor,” while others like The National Sentinel mistakenly marked me as an academic pushing “Communist” ideas in the classroom. Some right-wing critiques suggested that op-eds like mine are a clear indication that “Serious study is being replaced with social justice activism.” The College Fix made a point to emphasize that “Gender studies coordinator offers ‘checklist’ to determine if you support white supremacy.”

The above headlines proved my central thesis on white supremacy and two other significant points:

  1. These backlashes against social justice scholarship and activism are a reminder of the pervasive nature of everyday white supremacy in our culture.
  2. Social justice activism is not divorced from “serious study” — it is “serious study.”

There were also confessions from self-proclaimed white supremacists. In Renegade Tribune, “WhiteWolf” commented, “I’m White so of course I support White supremacy. If Whites aren’t supreme then that means that other races are supreme over us. Why would I want that?” Joining WhiteWolf, thousands of self-proclaimed white supremacists doubled down on their racism, but also confirmed some features of white supremacy as noted in my “checklist.”

By Jan. 16, 2018 (just four days after the publication of the op-ed in Inside Higher Ed) conservative millennial Allie Beth Stuckey debated former Missouri Democratic state representative Don Calloway on Fox News, using my op-ed as a premise for discussing white supremacy, white racism and liberal bias on various college and university campuses. In their conversation Stuckey commented on how liberal professors are using “bias to drive their curriculum rather than honest dialogue” and concluded that “liberal colleges teach white shaming.”

While those who teach about racism and conduct antiracist work grounded in sociological and historical findings are repeatedly charged with “white shaming,” what is also ironic is that such work (both academic and activist) is often marked as promoting “reverse racism.” Sara Ahmed in her book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life makes a poignant remark on “how the creation of diversity as a political solution can participate in making those who speak about racism the cause of the problem.”

These outbursts and outrages against liberal professors who have written or spoken about white supremacy in America have become routine. Scholars like Steven Salaita, Saida Grundy, Johnny Eric Williams, George Ciccariello-Maher, Amanda Gailey, Dorothy Kim and, most recently, David Palumbo-Liu have all been subjected to severe right-wing media scrutiny for their stances against white supremacy, white privilege, settler colonialism and fascism.

Furthermore, many scholars, and particularly those who are faculty of color or marginalized, have received little to no support within their own institutions that proclaim to protect the academic freedom of their faculty members. Their experiences mirror what Arianne Shahvisi has called “epistemic injustice” within the academy.

It should be noted that it is not just these attacks, but the chilling effect it produces on academic freedom that is detrimental to all faculty. While some institutions have taken strong positions to protect the academic freedom of their faculty members, there are other institutions whose reactions have been lukewarm. On her blog, Tressie McMillan Cottom points out quite succinctly “how woefully underprepared universities are to deal with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals, or public engagement.” Joan W. Scott (in an interview given to Bill Moyers) concluded that the treatment scholars is receiving today are worse than during the McCarthy era. “The internet has made possible a frightening practice of threats and intimidation — threats of unspeakable violence and death … McCarthy’s were violent threats at a more abstract level. These are specific threats.”

So rather than depending on institutions to respond, I want to suggest a few safeguards if you want to enter the public discourse of critiquing white supremacy. These safeguards will certainly not eliminate any attacks or threats but can certainly minimize it.

  • Be sure to remove from your institutional page your email address, telephone number, office address, office hours and any personal information that can easily be assessed by internet trolls.
  • Make your Twitter account private and set your Facebook setting to “friends only” before the publication of your piece.
  • Forward your piece to your president, dean or provost, head of the campus security, and media relations office as soon as it is published. This allows them to prepare a strategy to protect you and the institution before they start receiving thousands of phone calls and requests to fire you.
  • As you start receiving the first wave of backlash, remind your administrators of the institution’s policy on academic freedom and request that they keep you informed about any outside interventions or threats made against you.
  • Forward your administration AAUP’s recent publications on targeted online harassment and “What You Can Do About Targeted Online Harassment.”
  • Avoid hyperlinks to any alt-right and right-wing media outlets. By linking to them, you not only invite the digital mob to make you a target for their attacks, but also promote their revenue stream.

Just alerting the administration will not be enough. You will have to safeguard yourself from the emotional stresses as a result of the various threats and comments made on social media about you.

  • Do not take each comment made by the trolls seriously, but do report the serious threats to your administration.
  • Expect some of your own liberal (white) colleagues to be a bit nervous around you. Many of them will not want to discuss your article, although they may have read it. Give them time to process what you have written. Most of your colleagues are well meaning but simply are not trained to discuss race or white supremacy.
  • Do not take it personally if people you thought were your allies are hesitant to share your piece on their social media spaces. Some of them have conservative friends and family members, and sharing your piece (which your allies actually endorse) may also invite some ugly conversations on their own social media space.
  • Welcome the new group of allies who will thank you for your thoughts and share with you some of their own experiences.

Last but not least, stick to your conviction about what you have written and said and remind yourself what Angela Davis once declared: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things that I cannot accept.”

 

Bio

Photo of Reshmi Dutt-BallerstadtReshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt is a professor of English and also co-coordinates the gender studies program at Linfield College in Oregon. She is the author of The Postcolonial Citizen: The Intellectual Migrant. Her most recent pieces of public writing are “On Being the Right Kind of Brown” and “When Free Speech Dismantles Diversity Initiatives,” both published in CounterPunch. She also has a blog called On Being Brown and Out/Raged.

A checklist to determine if you are supporting white supremacy

For faculty of color, women and particularly those scholars who are outspoken about dismantling the master narratives of white supremacy within our colleges and universities, playing by the rules is neither an option nor an obligation. It is, in fact, a terrible burden. A burden to allow an oppressive system breathing down our necks, while we continue to work within institutions that treat us as mere bodies representing “diversity” or what Patti Duncan has called “Hot Commodities, Cheap Labor: Women of Color in the Academy.”

My own cathartic moment arrived when I was able to write about my experience and those of other postcolonial scholars in my book, The Postcolonial Citizen: The Intellectual Migrant, in a chapter titled “Threatening Bodies, Dangerous Knowledge, Legal Interventions.” It was 2001. The problem of exclusions and a lack of “due process” experienced by various postcolonial scholars were widespread.

After many years and many battles, and after much thought, I have created a list of qualities and attributes of those that overtly or covertly support or contribute to a culture of mundane and everyday white supremacy within our institutions. Such mundane acts manifest themselves in who is hired, who is tenured and promoted, whose scholarship is (de)valued, who receives the campus awards for teaching and service, whose voice is heard, whose ideas are policed, who is tone policed, and who is called out as not being “civil” — a coded word for speaking against the status quo of white privilege.

Participating in acts that enable white supremacist structures to exist obstructs the social justice and antiracist work that many of us are trained to do within the academy. We are marked as troublemakers when in truth we are trouble identifiers.

Here then is a list of 15 “troubles” that I have identified to help others in academe recognize your (un)conscious contributions to white supremacy.

  1. You work in a position of power in a predominantly white institution, and while you claim to be working for social justice, you do nothing to change the white supremacist power structures within your departments, committees and institutional decision-making process.
  2. When your colleagues who are marginalized complain to you about their “oppressive” work conditions, you think that they are difficult.
  3. When your colleagues and students claim that they experienced microaggressions, your response is “I am so sorry. This is unbelievable!”
  4. When you are asked to nominate your students and faculty colleagues for awards or leadership positions, your first instinct is to nominate those that are “stellar” (mostly men) and obviously “white.” It doesn’t occur to you that you are implicitly supporting a logic of meritocracy that is built on this racist assumption that everyone has had the same access and opportunities.
  5. When it comes to understanding your own white privilege, you get very angry if a faculty member of color points out to you where and how your privilege is operating. You deem such critiques as “uncivil” and as not supporting a collegial environment.
  6. You are aware of the many wrongs that you see your institution is doing to your marginal faculty and students, and while you sympathize with people of color and marginal students and faculty members behind your closed door, you never openly confront your institution.
  7. When a professor of color stands up in your faculty meetings and expresses their frustrations about inequity, you go to your trusted colleagues (the next day) and ask, “Why is s/he or them always so angry?”
  8. When you are on a hiring committee, you think that the writing samples by your white candidates of choice are stellar, while what is “stellar” about the candidates of color is, of course, their ethnicity.
  9. You never fail to articulate publicly your commitment for increasing diversity within your institution, but when on a hiring committee you express your strong hesitance to let go of your stellar candidate in exchange for a candidate who you perceive as only adding to your institution’s diversity mission.
  10. When people of color (faculty members and students) complain to you about discrimination and racism, you actively discourage them to report their cases, and often try to convince them that “it must be a misunderstanding.”
  11. You think of yourself as an ally to your faculty of color colleagues, but cannot understand why your white students are so upset when professors of color teach and critique sites of white privilege.
  12. In your institutional reviews for tenure and promotion cases, you advise and critique your faculty of color colleagues to be more sensitive and mindful in respecting the viewpoint of our students. By “our students” you really mean “our white students.”
  13. You benefit so much from the system that you have decided to stay out of all of this “identity politics.”
  14. You have never thought of yourself as an ally to any of the causes of faculty of color and you never have any time to go to any events that they and other marginal folks have organized (where they express their everyday struggles). But you will happily go to an event if Ta-Nehisi Coates is speaking in town.
  15. Claudia Rankine, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire and Teju Cole’s “The White-Savior Industrial Complex” — all rub you the wrong way.

If you have made it to this point, you are probably feeling quite hypervisible or fragile and have decided to have some hot chamomile tea from a cup that reads “White Tears” or “Black Lives Matter.”

Bio

Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt is a professor of English and also co-coordinates the gender studies program at Linfield College in Oregon. She is the author of The Postcolonial Citizen: The Intellectual Migrant. Her most recent pieces of public writing are “On Being the Right Kind of Brown” and “When Free Speech Dismantles Diversity Initiatives,” both published in CounterPunch. She also has a blog called On Being Brown and Out/Raged.

Classrooms Must Be A Frontline In The Fight Against White Supremacy

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Nicole Truesdell is the senior director of the office of academic diversity and inclusiveness, and affiliated faculty in critical identity studies at Beloit College. Her general interests are in radical pedagogy, academic hustling and social justice. Her research focuses on the intersections of race, racism, gender, class, citizenship and the modern nation-state, higher ed, and radical black thought in the US and the UK. Her latest co-authored article, “The Role of Combahee in Anti-Diversity Work,” is forthcoming in Souls.

Recent events in Charlottesville, Va., and Shelbyville, Tenn., show us the modern face of American white supremacy. Rather than marching under sheets or lurking in the backwoods, today’s white supremacists stand proud in their tan khakis and white polos with tiki torches in hand. No longer are sheets needed to masks their faces as white men and women boldly shouted racist chants like “blood and soil.”

Instead, we see a disturbing trend emerging in larger society to label this speech and action as opinion-based ideology with no social, political or economic ramifications. While some people will look to the current U.S. president as the source of this normalization, his administration is not the only location to push “both sides” rhetoric. Instead, we can also look to colleges and universities as sites that help both disseminate and normalize racist hate speech.

Alt-right/white supremacist speakers and organizations are choosing to use and abuse colleges and universities as locations at which to speak and recruit. Speakers like Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter spew their hate-filled opinions from college lecture halls, relying on academic free speech as their alibi of legitimacy in these locations.

Colleges and universities that allow these speakers on their campuses say they are committed to upholding “free speech” rhetoric, no matter its consequences to the students, faculty and staff members who live and work in these places. “We welcome a diversity of opinions” tends to be a favorite tagline of places that invite these controversial speakers to come and set up shop, signaling a welcome to (and normalizing of) hate speech. Yet when those who are committed to antiracism, antioppression theory and practice — such as Lisa Durden, Johnny Eric Williams or Tommy Curry — use these same locations to push back against this toxic rhetoric, they are met with death threats, job loss and/or lack of support from those same institutions.

Why are colleges and universities prime and targeted sites for white supremacist speakers and their allies? Because it is in these locations where administrators saw diversity as a problem and not, as Christina Berchini says, “the symptom” of the ways white supremacy is embedded in the structure of higher education. Students across the country organized and began to protest and create sets of demands on the various ways they saw this inequity within their colleges and universities. In response, college administrators and boards of trustees have created “diversity and inclusion” strategic plans and initiatives to placate student demands. Many of those plans have not focused on structural changes but instead have relied on Band-Aid approaches that give just enough to student demands while never addressing the racist structural barriers that created the issues to begin with. In the process, many colleges and universities are now invoking “academic freedom” and “dialogue” as a way to “speak and hear” across difference in order to stop “divisive” rhetoric from taking hold.

Yet the implementation of such initiatives seems one-sided, and, instead of making space for students, faculty and staff members at the margins, they have ended up further marginalizing the demographic groups that demanded change in the first place. Instead of moving institutions forward, both diversity/inclusion initiatives alongside pleas to have more neutral stances inside and outside the classroom focus more on making majority students (namely, white students) comfortable at the expense of those who took the risk to protest injustice in the first place (usually black, brown, queer and trans students who sit at multiple intersections) because they sit in institutions that were not made for them. In this process, structures of oppression are never interrogated and instead everything is rendered “opinions” that can be “debated.” This process of deflection has helped normalize (and even welcome) hate speech on campuses, making them prime locations for white supremacists to target.

Many people call for an end to politics in the classroom, as this is seen as the source of the problem. Rather than address systemic and structural oppression and discrimination, faculty are being asked to take “neutral” stances and just teach our disciplines, leaving politics to social media and in-person conversation. Yet for many scholars, this is our work. Many of us are trained to see and then speak on institutional and structural systems of oppression. I have been trained specifically to see and call out institutional racism through an intersectional lens. If we are being told to just do our job, then we are. So the real question becomes, is society ready to accept the true point of an education, which is to develop a group of critically thinking, conscious citizens? Is higher education ready and capable of taking on this work?

That is the true point of education, what James Baldwin meant when he said in 1963, “The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” As educators, it is our job to teach students how to think critically so that they can engage with larger social issues. That is not confined to just the social sciences, but has an impact on all academic disciplines and departments. Yet as Baldwin also said, society is not always that anxious to have a mass of critically thinking and engaged people, because “what societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.” That is why education matters more so now than ever as a location that should be unapologetically committed to developing students to become true critically engaged thinkers who learn how to apply those knowledges, methodologies and skills to locations outside spaces like this.

It is on college and university campuses, and within our classrooms and through our programming, where resistance to this encroaching normalized white supremacist ideology must be challenged. Now is not the time to side with neutrality. In my office, we have taken up this challenge head-on through our programming and work with students. This academic year our #GetWoke series is focused on Organizing and Activism During 45. We created an open-source syllabus to accompany the panels we host around this theme, using both music and accessible reading pieces to guide and contextualize each of our panels.

Our goal is to have the campus and community understand what organizing and activism are, why individuals and groups participate in these practices, and what possibilities there are or can be when we engage in other ways of knowing and being. In doing so, we hope conversations and actions move away from partisanship and into understandings of what we want humanity to be. What humanity should be.

Teaching About Trauma & Sexual Violence As Contingent Faculty

Photo by Erik Mayes

Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, dancer and sex educator. Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, women’s folklore, and the body in folklore. Her work in/on sex education addresses professional boundaries, the intersections of belief and sexuality, and understanding the cultural and historical contexts informing public sex education. She is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted, Patheos and MySexProfessor.com. You can follow Dr. Jorgensen on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

Teaching Trauma While Contingent

I have been on a trauma-research kick for a couple of years now, and the topic has found its way into my teaching. But as an adjunct professor — thereby lacking job security — I must be mindful of the potential professional costs of teaching about trauma.

I am especially concerned about teaching triggering material because I am an adjunct. I worry about complaints from students, parents and perhaps colleagues — not for mishandling contentious material (which would concern me, too), but for bringing it into the classroom in the first place.

Adjuncts often teach on semester- or yearlong contracts, lacking the job security of a guaranteed renewal and the protection of tenure. In an earlier blog post, “Adjuncting and Academic Freedom,” I reflected on how that affects my ability to teach contentious subjects: “At some point, the merit of the individual adjunct scholar ceases to be a factor in the decisions of large institutions, and negative press might be a factor.” When we choose or feel compelled to teach about controversial issues, we become vulnerable to negative responses that could hasten the end of our time at a given institution.

Sexual violence and trauma are still, in my experience, considered edgy or controversial topics to include in one’s curriculum. While it is certainly possible to misstep by handling those issues poorly or insensitively, merely including them should not be a risk. I say this based both on their deplorable prevalence historically as well as on my work today in the sex education world, which has taught me that trauma-informed education is essential.

Based on lessons that I have learned while teaching as an adjunct about trauma (mostly related to sexual violence), I offer the following advice to other contingent faculty members.

Start creating a civil classroom environment immediately. I do not usually lead with trauma topics on the first day or even in the first week of the semester. Instead, I begin to craft a civil classroom from day one, trusting that it will support discussion of tough topics later.

I share my guidelines for discussion in lecture, and the students and I talk about whether we should add anything to this shared agreement about how to comport ourselves in class. It contains basics of adult communication: things like using “I” statements when discussing your response to topics, respecting people’s boundaries and so on.

Instructing students on how to interact with difficult topics and each other is not a panacea. But it does give me something to fall back on if I need to intervene in a discussion in which someone begins to say something that sounds like victim blaming.

That relates back to the precarity of teaching trauma as a contingent faculty member because, if nothing else, we can point at our scaffolding and preparation as evidence that we did our best to create a safe classroom environment. Our best may not be good enough when facing a hostile administration, but it is something.

Learn about and implement trauma-informed approaches. In my time among sex educators and therapists, I have learned that trauma-informed approaches are a must. That means being aware of how trauma impacts the brain and memory, knowing what flashbacks and triggers are, and understanding how to provide social support in appropriate ways. (For example, if you are an educator, then your tool set is different than a clinician’s.)

I have blogged about crafting trauma-aware interactions. Whatever the situation, it boils down to giving the people with whom you are interacting agency in terms of what and how they disclose, and not judging or diagnosing them.

I guarantee that, in most classrooms, you will have someone who has a trauma history, whether it is neglect or sexual violence. It is so statistically likely, especially compounded by intersectional factors (e.g., with college students more likely to have experienced sexual assault), that we need to adjust our teaching to account for this.

Unfortunately, most adjuncts do not have the time or resources to pursue training in trauma awareness. I have attended workshops on my own dime to acquire that knowledge. That is a disservice to students, but I do not see college administrations changing their orientation toward trauma awareness any time soon. And even if that were to change, I cynically believe that full-time faculty and staff members would see the first wave of trauma training before adjuncts and part-time faculty would.

If you only read one book on trauma, I highly recommend Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. It is my guide to teaching about trauma.

Destigmatize the experience. I spend a lot of time thinking about what counts as normal and how normativizing discourse is deployed. I appreciate Dr. Debby Herbenick’s Tumblr project, Make Sex Normal, which aims to normalize the daily discussion of sexuality topics. I also think my colleagues who take issue with the word “normal” have a point in stating that it can have negative connotations, implying that normal is something for which people should strive.

For those reasons, I prefer to think about destigmatizing the study of sexualities and its various practices/experiences. I have received some pushback here, but luckily it has not come with consequences (yet?). It has mostly come in the form of students relaying parental complaints at my assigned reading for being “trash” when it focuses on alternative sexualities.

In a gender, women and sexuality studies course I taught on sexuality in fairy tales, we did a unit on abuse and incest in fairy tales, drawing on both texts from the Grimms’ collection and recent rewritten tales. Students spoke up about their own abuse in class and how it was helpful to see trauma and abuse reflected in literary and cultural sources.

When teaching about sexual assault and trauma, I try to destigmatize the very widespread experience of surviving abuse by including statistics about its prevalence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That helps students to realize how common it is, which can lead to a conversation about how we handle the topic. Hopefully, this also makes students who have experienced it — whether they disclose — feel seen and included rather than marginalized.

I have started to incorporate trauma every semester I teach, because it relates to most aspects of human experience. While I am still learning the ropes, I believe that following the aforementioned methods has been helpful, both for my own experience and for my students’.

Recently, I did an hour-long lecture about trauma and folklore in The Forms of Folklore, my large lecture class at the University of California, Berkeley. I was only a visiting lecturer without the possibility of renewal, but I believed that my students deserved to have access to information about how trauma works and how it might impact their fieldwork experiences while collecting folklore. It was nerve-racking for me to prepare this lecture, but it went extremely well. Lots of people thanked me afterward, including a few who identified as survivors.

It can be disheartening to study and teach sexual violence and trauma, especially when faced with the apparent contradiction of administrations who are either apathetic about what we as adjuncts do in the classroom or unduly vigilant about controversial topics that might damage the brand. But students need access to this information as humans traveling a world that is rife with abuse. Knowing that this helps students makes it worthwhile for me to teach trauma, no matter how precarious my situation might be, and I am curious to hear if it is the same for others.

Bringing The Political Self Into The Classroom In The Era Of Trump

Note: this blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts in March and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed today. Dr. Katie L. Acosta (@KatieLAcosta) is an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, where she teaches courses on race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and family. She maintains her own blog at katielacosta.com.

Bringing In The Political Self

Shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I attended a meeting at my institution designed to explain the boundaries of academic freedom to faculty members. A second goal was to collectively brainstorm best practices for creating a civil classroom environment that presents students with a balanced picture of contemporary political happenings. The session covered a lot of ground, but the general gist of it was that we should try to appear as neutral as possible when discussing political candidates and issues.

This is where we are in higher education under a Trump administration. I am supposed to teach my students about their social world, about racism, gender, sexuality and the family — all while remaining neutral on the hostile and deeply offensive statements that our president made during his campaign and since he was elected. But herein lies the problem: my political ideologies are shaped by my sociological lens, and my sociological lens is shaped by my personal experience. These three things do not, nor have they ever, existed in separate spheres for me. Arguably, this is what makes me a good professor, or at least it is what fuels my passion for what I do.

Sitting in the aforementioned meeting, hearing the suggestions being made, brought me back to the morning after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. I was an assistant professor at Tulane University at the time, and that morning I was scheduled to be in my Introduction to Sociology undergraduate classroom teaching about racial bias. I remember my heart racing as I scoured social media, learning the details of this awful tragedy: the murder of an innocent teenager. I desperately wanted to cry, but instead I pulled myself together and walked downstairs to teach.

I made the tough decision to avoid the murder entirely. I was certainly not in any position to have a “balanced” conversation about it with my students. Avoiding the topic was the only way that I knew how to keep myself from feeling my pain. Inevitably, however, 10 minutes into the lecture, a student raised their hand and wanted to discuss the events. Most of the class still did not know who Trayvon Martin was. And as this student explained the events that transpired, I remember looking at their mostly blank, white faces, first with perplexity and then with anger.

I began to feel myself shaking behind the podium. How could so many students have such blank stares hearing about this innocent boy’s death? My rage regarding this incident is deeply personal. As a mother of a black teenage boy, I imagined my son walking at night with a bag of Skittles. But my rage was also fueled by my sociological understanding of this incident as part of a larger systemic problem in our society — of this country’s fear of black men and boys, and of this country’s failure, time and again, to give them the benefit of the doubt during such encounters.

Channeling my sociological lens and harnessing my personally driven passion helps me bring intellectual material to life for my students. It allows me to make their learning about more than just words on a page, key terms or lecture notes. It allows me to make their learning about something real, tangible and consequential.

How do we get our students to understand the consequences of political happenings without letting them see why we are invested in these issues? I would never want a student to feel alienated in my classroom, but I have no interest in perpetuating an idea of myself as a disembodied worker whose personal life and work life do not intersect.

Keeping our political selves out of the classroom also presumes that our bodies do not advertise this self. I am an Afro-Latina queer cisgender woman. Don’t these identities speak for me even if I do not? How many of my students believe they know my political leanings before I ever open my mouth? And if they make assumptions about my politics, then why not make my political ideologies clear in the interest of transparency?

I spent the first few weeks of last semester stumblingly awkwardly over how to teach my courses without being “too” political. But I do not believe it has done me or my students a bit of good. Instead, it has flattened my delivery and robbed me of the passion that used to come with every lecture I delivered. So now, this semester, I take a different approach. Our democratic system as it currently stands is the most illustrative example I could possibly come up with for the prevalence of racism in the United States.

Rather than ignoring political happenings, I can draw connections between sociological theories about racism and our contemporary reality. Now my students are unpacking the executive orders, cabinet picks and proposed legislation that the Trump administration has planned or implemented since the inauguration. For instance, I do not mince words in exposing the religious and racial intolerance of Trump’s travel ban. Only in a country that refuses to take an honest and direct look at the deep-seated racism that plagues it can we have fertile ground for lawyers, judges and politicians to defend a ban that bars entry to the United States for citizens from targeted Muslim-majority countries.

This past spring, I had my students read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter in opposition to Jeff Sessions’s nomination for a federal judgeship. It was important to me that my students read it, particularly after Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, was prevented from doing so on the Senate floor. I wanted them to understand Sessions’s role in disenfranchising black voters and, subsequently, Senate Republicans’ willingness to overlook those actions and confirm Sessions’s appointment as U.S. attorney general anyway. Such political happenings speak volumes about the crisis of race relations we are currently experiencing in the United States — where whites give themselves and others permission to overlook the racial disparities that they are complicit in creating in the interest of preserving their power.

Only in a democracy that is largely run by rich heterosexual white cisgender men who refuse to acknowledge their privilege do we see such willingness to overlook the racist, Islamophobic, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and classist actions and policies of Trump’s administration. I do not have control over that. But I do have the opportunity to ensure that the next generation does not so thoroughly miss the boat in understanding the covert and overt ways that racism exists and persists in our country. I will continue to encourage my students to engage in respectful dialogue with me and with one another on the many issues we currently face — not with a forced or feigned sense of neutrality but with the promise of respect and integrity and in the spirit of understanding. For creating this environment in my classroom, I apologize to no one.

Academic Blackballing – Censoring Scholars Who Critique Inequality

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column for marginalized scholars on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Sandy Grande is a professor of education at Connecticut College, where she is also director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Ever since National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during a pregame national anthem last year as a form of protest against police brutality and racial injustice, he’s been the target of boycotts, death threats and fan backlash. Consequently, despite his talent and performance, he remains conspicuously unemployed, even while less accomplished quarterbacks have been signed. The situation has led many to speculate that Kaepernick is being blackballed and possibly even colluded against by the NFL.

Kaepernick’s story resonates with faculty members, particularly faculty of color, who have also suffered backlash for speaking out against injustices within and outside the academy. Some have similarly become the subject of national media storms, death threats and intimidation and found themselves suddenly unemployed.

While such severe cases capture the spotlight of media attention, I focus here on the more quotidian forms of backlash, or what I term academic blackballing: everyday acts of silencing, gaslighting, bullying and “mansplaining” that not only serve to marginalize and exclude but also limit or outright deny opportunities for professional growth and advancement.

As a professor who has worked in higher education for more than 20 years, I have been both witness to and target of academic blackballing, the experience of which, as detailed below, shares things in common with Colin Kaepernick’s.

Tone Policing and Victim Blaming

Just as Kaepernick has endured criticisms that he brought the blackballing on himself by choosing the “wrong” form of protest, professors who speak out are also often subjected to this form of victim blaming. The justifications sound something like this: “If only you had spoken in a more reasoned tone” or understood that “there is a time and place for everything,” because in the university “we” value “civil discourse and debate” and not “emotional” diatribes.

Such tone policing functions as a means of redirecting attention away from the injustice itself to the method of protest, a form of silencing that suggests emotion or expressed anger is what is intolerable, not the inequity, prejudice or bias that is being named. But what exactly is the “right” tone for expressing frustration over the fact that, in 2017, the professoriate remains more than 75 percent white and 60 percent male? That the college graduation gap for students of color is still growing? That ethnic studies still struggles for legitimacy in the academy? That (hetero)sexism remains rampant?

Lest we forget, Kaepernick chose a silent mode of protest and, in the month immediately following, 15 more black people died in encounters with police. What kind of measured tone should we, as a society, strike to raise questions about the nearly 600 Americans killed by police in 2017, particularly when the combined total of such deaths in England and Wales across a nearly 30-year span is 67?

History bears witness to the violence that nonviolent protest has generally garnered. Similarly, within college and university settings, it does not seem to matter whether one chooses a direct form of protest or plays the role of good university citizen — you still pay a price for speaking truth to power.

The Distraction

Kaepernick has also been labeled a “distraction,” meaning his politics distract from the teams’ focus on the primary work at hand: football. Some well-meaning “supporters” have even suggested that perhaps Kaepernick prefers his activist work to his day job. Outspoken academics, often perceived as “activists,” receive similar messages from their colleagues, and grad students from their advisers; they are told either tacitly or explicitly to concentrate on their work and leave their political activities for a more appropriate space and time.

The problem with such advice is that it fails to understand that we are women, people of color and otherwise minoritized faculty all the time, not just between the hours of nine and five. And whether we speak out while on the job or not, there are still consequences for just being who we are. The struggle to be perceived as rational, reasonable, collaborative and nonthreatening in environments where even the mere utterance of the words “racism” or “sexism” is experienced as injurious is constant. And the dilatory effects of carrying the weight of this struggle are well documented.

Conditional Acceptance

At the same time Kaepernick’s blackballing carries on, so does its denial, explained away through arguments that it is his lackluster performance and not his politics that is in question — despite all evidence to the contrary. In other words, his blackballing is justified because it isn’t blackballing at all; it’s just what happens when (suddenly) your skills are found to be subpar.

Academics who speak out similarly experience the questioning of their qualifications and performance either directly through denied promotions or indirectly through the disparagement of their scholarly expertise. That is, in the court of public opinion, one is typically found guilty until proven innocent. To the extent that it does not seem to matter if words are misconstrued, taken out of context or grounded in empirical evidence and historical facts, institutions often capitulate to public outcry before they stand behind their faculty. The outcome is the same: if you find yourself the subject of academic blackballing, your skills — the ability to teach and conduct research in a manner suitable to your profession and field — will be called into question.

Paying the Price of Admission

Insofar as the default setting for American society is defined by hierarchies of race, class and gender, then the work of social justice, by definition, requires disruption. Yet disruptive actions, whether in the form of public protest or speech acts, are rarely experienced as necessary or productive interventions — as moving us toward more just and equitable outcomes. On the contrary, they are viewed as un-American, disloyal and uncollegial.

To be sure, under such precarious work conditions, staying silent and keeping one’s eyes focused on the “prize” of tenure, promotion or other forms of academic recognition makes sense. But for as long as racism, sexism and other forms of oppression continue to negatively shape the work-life conditions of both American colleges and society, there is a stronger case to be made for staging protests of multiple kinds. We need to keep speaking up and out because the alternative — the ascendance of the authoritarian state and the neoliberal university — is unacceptable.

That said, it is also incumbent upon people in positions of power to reject the narrative of “disruptive” acts or speech as categorically negative and unproductive and, instead, embrace it as an important and necessary strategy for positive change. They need to support faculty and staff who come under attack, because once threats of lynching, bombing, death and rape become the regular consequence for the expression of ideas, we will have solidified our decline into pure despotism.

Acts of disruption and pedagogies of dissent are vital to the health of a democracy. Thus, as faculty, we owe it to our students and society to insist on “thinking dangerously” and to engage critique as an essential mode of inquiry. We need to ensure that campus leadership understands that education has never been a neutral enterprise, diversity and inclusion are only starting points, and that study by definition requires struggle.

We need to recognize that the story of Colin Kaepernick is our story and work ever more assiduously to connect across various justice projects. The future of democracy and higher education depends on it.

Understanding The Recent Slew Of Attacks On Public Scholars

Note: this blog post originally appeared on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His research examines race and gender discrimination in organizations. His commentary has appeared at Newsweek, Boston Review and Gawker. He is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted.

Weaponizing Free Speech

The political right has developed a coordinated network to systematically target the free speech of presumably left-wing professors. Over the course of the last few weeks, this network of activists has launched a vicious series of attacks, leading to intimidation, calls for firing and even death threats. Colleges and universities have shut down operations, while scholars have canceled speaking engagements and even gone into hiding with their families.

Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, Johnny Eric Williams, Sarah Bond, Tommy Curry and George Ciccariello-Maher are the most recent targets of the right’s campaign against higher education. As the attacks have spread and intensified, the American Sociological Association joined the American Association of University Professors in condemning the targeting of individual professors and calling on universities to protect those whose speech is targeted. Jessie Daniels and Arlene Stein have written an excellent overview of why and how universities should support these scholars, and Eric Anthony Grollman offered a model for scholars to protect their colleagues from public attacks.

The specifics of these professors’ statements have been covered and analyzed elsewhere. My concern here is twofold. First, it appears that free speech is policed differentially based upon the identity of the speaker and whether they are supporting or challenging power. Second, the right is exploiting these manufactured outrages, using free speech as a wedge issue as part of their years-long strategy of delegitimizing higher education itself.

There is little doubt that some on the right disdain the institution of higher education. We, as faculty members, are regularly caricatured as effete, out-of-touch liberals with an overabundance of leisure and job security. By attacking faculty of color in particular, these organizations have brought a Southern strategy to higher education. Research shows that allegedly principled free speech arguments are often thinly veiled defenses of racist attitudes.

As Steven W. Thrasher argued in The Guardian, free speech is often a disingenuous framing device, with racial and ethnic minorities’ speech less likely to be protected. Wendy Moore and Joyce Bell document this selective application of free speech, showing that protected racist speech promotes a hostile racial climate. Campus Reform, the National Review and Fox News gamble, correctly, that the magic of racial alchemy will silence so-called principled free speech activists.

The disingenuousness of this strategy is apparent in the worry about hypothetical bias against white students, while ignoring the well-documented, ingrained, pervasive and routine bias against people of color on and off campus. The fake news outlets promoting these attacks outsource violence to maintain a veneer of plausible deniability. They hope to silence critics and make an example of those who stand up. White supremacy becomes frictionless.

This basic pattern has been playing out across colleges and universities recently, as a cottage industry of white liberal columnists regularly castigate undergraduates for interrupting conservative speakers like Charles Murray or Ann Coulter, casting students as unruly, childish and nearly incapable of reason. Thus, the right ends up enlisting liberal commentators to advance their illiberal agenda.

Yet those free speech warriors are nowhere to be found when faculty of color, or those speaking out against racism, are the targets. Typically, here, critics of my position will resort to a “both sides” argument, saying that the left also stifles free speech. At times, this is true. But, to my knowledge, the left has no coordinated national apparatus that specifically and systematically targets individual professors

The broader political climate has emboldened white supremacists. And their fellow travelers’ violent attacks from the right are supporting and driving official policies. The full impact on academe writ large is of course unknowable, but I fear their use in undermining tenure, diversity and the very notion of empirically verifiable knowledge. The well-publicized sabotaging of faculty governance and proposed cuts to funding are furthered by the selective policing of free speech. These manufactured outrages are quickly leveraged into attacks on higher education. Legislators have already seized upon them to call for the firing of tenured professors, and Trinity College has placed Johnny Eric Williams on leave. Those academics without the protection of tenure face greater speech restrictions, as they often lack even basic employment protections.

It is time to stop assuming good faith in the free speech debate. The right has weaponized free speech, framing campus debates in a way that resonates with liberals to destroy the very things liberals purport to care about. By capitulating to the demands of those who threaten violence against professors, colleges and universities undermine one of their central functions as refuges for debating controversial ideas.

Planning To March For Science? Bring A Mirror.

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

On Earth Day – April 22nd – droves of scientists are scheduled to march in Washington, DC, with satellite marches scheduled around the world. Many organizers and possible attendees have clearly stated that there is nothing political or partisan about the march. (They are just scientists after all!) Rather, they are taking to the streets to challenge the current presidential regime’s threat to scientific advancements, funding, and academic freedom.

As one of my tweeps (Twitter peeps), @DrCBurton asked, “if science isn’t political why the hell march?!?

Figuring out whether the very act of a political march is… well… political is perhaps a secondary concern to the longstanding debate over whether science itself is political. If science supposedly stays out of politics, and vice versa, why go political now?

Another tweep of mine, Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos (@OtherSociology), pulled back an important layer to these debates. “Why are they marching? Oh ‘Science is under attack.’ Read: now White male scientists affected, let’s march.”  (Dr. Zevallos has continued to offer important critiques online.)  Now the scientific profession is taking to political action – namely, against political interference – because the most privileged scientists (i.e., white men) are affected for the first time.

I should be clear that the concerns to be addressed by the upcoming March for Science are important, urgent, and noble. From the march’s main website: “Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”

Scientists are unifying to emphasize the benefits of scientific advancement to all of society, of science education, of accessible scientific research, of public policy informed by science. The future of our nation – particularly in these tense and uncertain times – rests upon inclusive, accessible, and well-funded scientific research and teaching.

“The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue,” that same website continues, “which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter.” They are neither politicians nor activists. Heck, they don’t even bring their values, ideologies, identities, or subjective experiences into their labs. They are objective!

And, that is where many academics of marginalized backgrounds roll their eyes. Being able to see science as an apolitical enterprise is either the product of social privilege or naiveté (or both). To its core, science is an inherently political affair. The systemic exclusion and marginalization of women, people of color, queer and trans people, and working-class and poor people from the profession is a prime example of the political workings of science. Let me cite just a few examples.

Let’s reflect on who gets to become a scientist in the first place. Of course, we must note active, intentional efforts to keep marginalized students out, namely interpersonal discrimination and sexual violence. But, we must also note other factors that contribute to what is known as a “leaky pipeline” – the systemic “leaking out,” particularly of women and racial and ethnic minorities, at each stage in the scientific career pipeline. They are not equally encouraged to take the harder classes, to pursue lab assistantships and internships, to apply for graduate schools (especially the most prestigious programs), to apply for postdocs or present at conferences or any other opportunity that will advance their career.

Even outside of withheld support, marginalized students and scholars face the burdens of lack of role models like themselves, of stereotype threat, which undermines their confidence and, ultimately, their performance. Later, women who have children will be undermined by the “motherhood penalty” – being viewed as less competent and committed than women without children and men without or even with children. I would be remiss to gloss over the rampant sexual harassment that occurs in the sciences and other academic disciplines, with serial predators getting a free pass from universities and academic societies.

Besides getting in the door in the first place, politics are at play in awarding grant funding and citations. Researchers have documented racist and sexist biases in both domains, with women scholars and scholars of color being penalized compared to white men scholars. Women scientists are also penalized in co-authorships, which further hinders their careers. You can’t dismiss these facts as anything other than the curse of not being a white man in a racist and sexist profession.

So, suffice to say, my fellow feminist, queer, trans, and Black and brown scholars in the sciences were well aware of the politics at play within science well before Trump. I cannot help but see the parallels with the recent women’s march, widely attended by white heterosexual cis women who were surprised by the harsh reality of oppression as indicated by this new regime. Women of color, queer and trans women, and poor and working-class women already knew what was up in Amerikkka. Trump has picked a fight with the scientific community, and suddenly white heterosexual cis men scientists know what censuring is, what fear is, what suppression is.

I’m sorry to say that your march is too little and too late. But, if you’re going to march, be sure to bring a mirror. I implore you to take a hard look at the politics within your supposedly apolitical, objective science. These barriers to scientific advancement existed well before the Trump era.

I will close with a few items desperately needed for the March for Science agenda:

  • Address bias in hiring, tenure, promotion, course evaluations, funding, citation rates, and other formal evaluations and opportunities for advancement.
  • Eliminate sexual violence in the classroom, lab, department, and at conferences.
  • Actively promote marginalized students and scholars in the sciences. Yes, that means diversity (numbers), and yes that means inclusion (climate); but, it also means real structural and cultural change.
  • Stand up against political and public interference in the work of your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Perhaps Trump’s threat to the natural sciences is new, but, as a sociologist, I’ve long known threats to eliminate government funding.
  • Commit to reversing the adjunctification of academia and ending the exploitation of contingent faculty.
  • Actively resist new and ongoing threats to academic freedom, including the Right’s new war against tenure. Even if you do not teach seemingly controversial subjects, your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences are all too familiar with political and public interference in their curricula and scholarship.
  • Make peace with the death of the myths of meritocracy and objectivity in academia. Y’all are scientists; if you are too grown to believe in Santa Clause, then you are certainly too grown to believe that you leave your biases at home and that every scientist has a fair shot at succeeding.
  • Even though you just teach science (not sociology), take note that the majority of white college educated voters cast their votes for Trump – the very threat against which you are now marching. These were students you educated, trained, and mentored and who, in turn, basically voted against science, truth, and critical thinking.  Maybe you could take a little more responsibility in preparing the next generation for living in a diverse, increasingly global society?
  • Next time you march, march for all academics – not just your damn selves.

(Marginalized) Professors Were Already Being Watched

Photo credit: Intel Free Press

Photo credit: Intel Free Press

“I always feel like somebody’s watching me //
and I have no privacy.”
~Rockwell, “Somebody’s Watching Me

Thanks to the growth and increased visibility of this blog, we simply have too many posts in line to be published to devote any time to fleeting current events. That’s why you haven’t seen any posts about reactions to the election of a known sexual predator, misogynist, racist, xenophobic bigot. And, for the same reason, I held off writing about that damn Professor Watchlist. But, then I read George Yancy’s New York Times op-ed, “I Am A Dangerous Professor,” and another NYT article on how this list threatens academic freedom. As many scholars – particularly scholars of marginalized backgrounds – know, this list is nothing new; or, maybe it’s just a new, more organized way of continuing to watch us.

That’s right – we were already being watched, damn it.

In case you’ve missed news of this new surveillance effort, let me provide a brief overview. The new Turning Point USA project aims to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The organization claims to “fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish.” But, they continue, “students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” These individuals are invited to submit a tip (as though reporting a crime), but the site appears to be revised to focus just on “incidents” of anti-conservative bias and radicalism that make it to news headlines.

I have so many thoughts. Where to begin? Perhaps something more articulate than, “the fuck?”

First, let me continue my point that this isn’t new. Organizations like Turning Point USA and sites like Professor Watchlist are becoming a dime a dozen these days. Two conservative student news sites, SoCawlege.com and CampusReform.com, have been attempting to expose the supposed liberal bias across US college campuses for some time. The latter is a project of the Leadership Institute – another organization that sets out to train the next crop of conservative activists; it has ties with the Heritage Foundation – a hate group disguised as a conservative think tank. I’m sure if I had more time, I would find other troubling links, and probably other well-funded and well-organized conservative organizations set on infiltrating politics and higher education.

On the surface, what seems like concerned students and concern for students is actually a front for a calculated effort to silence, threaten, terrorize, and eliminate seemingly liberal academics. I’ve written about this formula before. Take one conservative white man student reporter who aims to expose “liberal bias and abuses at Texas colleges.” Have him write an article criticizing a Black woman pre-tenure professor at a different university, located in a different state. Then, he can take to Twitter to try to make her “a thing,” stirring up conservative (read: racist and sexist) rage with an appropriate Twitter hashtag thread. If successful, he will have initiated a conservative media assault on the professor, her reputation, her scholarship, her politics, her identities, and her menstrual cycle. And, he will have kick-started an internal process at her university that could ultimately lead to her termination – yes, simply by tweeting the president of her university.

Zandria F. Robinson. Saida Grundy. Steven Salaita. Shannon Gibney. Larycia Hawkins. Anthea Butler. Brittney Cooper. Perhaps others whose names I don’t know because the conservative assault launched against them did not reach national news. But, that’s why we have the watchlist now, right?

A second point that I want to make is that this attack on presumably liberal and radical professors is particularly targeted at those who speak and teach about and do research on Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism, and perhaps other systems of oppression. By extension, that means that scholars of color, women scholars, Muslim scholars, and immigrant scholars are particularly vulnerable to this surveillance. Of course, there is the issue of numbers; marginalized scholars are overrepresented in fields that study oppression and marginalization. But, conservative scrutiny appears to be heightened when you have, for example, a Black woman scholar speaking openly about racism and sexism relative to what her white man colleague would experience.

The external “watching” by conservative activists, working through conservative students, is actually secondary to surveillance that occurs within the academy. Every instructor does their work in public, so to speak, under the gaze of their students, their colleagues, and their administrators. We (including our presumed political leanings) are regularly evaluated by students through course evaluations. Students also take to sites like RateMyProfessor.com, which already offered a form of “watch list” for instructors of color, women instructors, Muslim instructors, LGBTQ instructors, and others assumed to be promoting a radical agenda. Our departmental colleagues and university administration evaluate our teaching, scholarship, grant activity, and service, in turn making decisions about pay-raises, tenure, and promotion. These supposedly meritocratic forms of evaluation severely disadvantage marginalized scholars, especially those who do critical or radical work on oppression. Implicitly, they serve as a way of watching us to ensure that we are conforming to standards that arguably reinforce the status quo in academe and beyond.

The site’s implied goal – I assume to be to create McCarthy-era fear among academics – will likely be achieved for many in the profession. But, a substantial number of us were already living in fear. We have had little reason to assume these racist, sexist, heterosexist, Islamophobic, cissexist, and xenophobic sentiments disguised as anti-intellectualism disguised as anti-liberalism do not exist inside of the Ivory Tower, too. So, they have created another website. Am I in any less danger than I was a month ago? It’s not a new problem, just a new manifestation of the ongoing problem.

Finally, in case it isn’t obvious, what these conservative activists are framing as bias against conservative students is the cry of the dominant group as its privilege is threatened. For example, I can count on a reliable one-third of my introductory sociology students to accuse me of being biased or at least spending too much time on sex and gender, sexuality, and race. These classes of students who are overwhelmingly wealthy, white, cisgender, and heterosexual are not used to critical discussions of racism, heterosexism, cissexism, classism, and sexism. The students complain of feeling uncomfortable. They feel a pinch of discomfort – a mere 75 minutes of not hearing about themselves for a change – and complain of a calculated assault against them and their interests. Conservative activists have successfully advanced a zero-sum game framework for conceiving of diversity and inclusion in higher education; any minor advancement for oppressed students is described as a full-out assault on privileged students.  The dismantling of oppressive ideologies in the classroom is deemed discrimination against individual conservative students.

Similarly, there is a not-so-subtle anti-science rhetoric underneath the accusations of the advancement of a radical agenda. Teaching, for example, on race as a social (rather than biological) fact and racism as a fundamental organizing principle of society is characterized as an anti-white agenda. The decades, if not centuries, of critical race scholarship upon which these ideas are founded are dismissed as nothing more than an ideological, or perhaps political, agenda. With this, the battle has moved into an arena wherein laypeople are deciding what constitutes knowledge and what doesn’t. This would explain why every one of my lectures on race feels like a defense, often spilling into a plea for my own life. (Black Lives Matter, please believe me my precious 18-year-old white students!)

I have made this point before, but I’ll conclude with it here again: academic institutions are complicit in this surveillance and assaults on individual (marginalized) professors. We have armed students with evaluation instruments in order to participate in our surveillance. But, that’s not enough, so they’ve created websites and rely on word-of-mouth to discredit certain professors deemed too radical. We buckle to alumni and donors’ threats to withhold money if a certain undesirable (read: radical scholar of color) is not terminated immediately. We treat academic freedom policies as a pesky obligation to tolerate what our colleagues do and say, yet still don’t go far enough to protect them from public backlash. We delude ourselves into believing meritocracy is law despite consistent evidence of disparities in tenure, promotion, pay, grants, publications, student evaluations, and admissions. We worship objectivity as the ultimate scientific paradigm, which simply treats privileged scholars’ work as truth and marginalized scholars’ work as “me-search,” opinion, or political agenda.

Yes, I am arguing that we have allowed conservatives to feel empowered enough to up their surveillance efforts. Every time a university took seriously a challenge to one of its faculty members’ work, we gave more and more power to outsiders to dictate what we can do as scholars. And now that the country has elected a racist rapist who leads like a petty toddler with no self-control, I imagine we will only continue to lose the battle against outside surveillance.

Fuck you, and fuck your stupid watch list.

Opposition To “Trigger Warnings” Reinforces The Status Quo

tw

Source: Everyday Feminism

Please don’t be fooled by the surprisingly firm assertion made in this post’s title.  I prefer to pose it as a question because I do not actually know for certain.  You see, I decided to stay out of the debates over the use of “trigger warnings” in college classrooms since first reading an argument against them.  I know too little about the experience of being emotionally or physiologically triggered, as my training is not in psychology and I have very little personal experience with sexual violence; so, I have remained silent on the issue, assuming it was a fad to discuss it in academic circles that would ultimately pass.  (Aren’t there more pressing matters, like access to college, diversity, sexual violence on campuses, making curricula accessible, etc.?)

Trigger Warnings Are A Threat To Academic Freedom???

I am making an exception to my self-imposed silence about trigger warnings today.  Alice Dreger’s Aeon essay, “Without tenure, professors become terrified sheep,” caught my eye, with an obvious, yet bold claim in her title, and an associated picture of a University of Wisconsin building — subtly pointing to state’s decision to do away with tenure in the traditional sense.  Dreger makes important points, most significantly that academic freedom goes out the door when faculty lose job security — something of urgent concern, considering the adjunctification of the academy.  But, she mentioned examples of threats to academic freedom that not only surprised me, but also greatly concern me:

Meanwhile, on the left, identity-politics activists are using devices like ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ to shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous. In my campus visits around the US – aimed at emboldening the students, faculty, and administrators to push for academic freedom – I’ve been told time and time again about staff being reported by left-leaning students for teaching ‘uncomfortable’ ideas that have been taught for generations.

For example, one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported for teaching the ancient Greek tale Leda and the Swan. The alleged discriminatory offence? Not first warning students that the story includes a symbolic rape. Others at public universities described being reported for stumbling over students’ preferred pronouns. Some historic women’s colleges have given up trying to produce The Vagina Monologues because of complaints that the 1996 play doesn’t reflect the breadth of transgender experiences. (It doesn’t; it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.)

I want to note that these examples seem out of line with Dreger’s argument about tenure.  Are tenured faculty freed from the pressures to create safe spaces for oppressed students?  From offering preemptive warnings that some content covered in their courses may be triggering?  Are tenured faculty no longer expected to make efforts to include transgender students in campus events, as well as their classes and curricula?

One could infer from these comments that Dreger’s version of tenure grants faculty freedom to practice discrimination, or at least to ignore oppressed student groups’ demands for equality, inclusion, and safety.  And, tenured faculty can stop being concerned about the well-being of survivors of sexual violence — as though there was an institutional mandate to care while they were pre-tenure.  It’s problematic to conceptualize these examples as mere politics (i.e., left-leaning versus right-leaning students); survivors demanding a safe classroom environment and trans students demanding inclusion is not the stuff of political games — it’s about their survival and well-being.

Faculty Are Clueless

I will grant Dreger and others who have taken the time to publicly oppose trigger warnings this.  The responsibility falls on faculty to appropriately warn students of potentially triggering material. And, the responsibility to articulate the need for such a warning falls on students.  Thus, I understand the concern about how far we should go to offer trigger warnings.

On a few occasions, I have had a student approach me to express concern about material that was triggering for them.  “Will the [research methods] textbook keep using examples of research on domestic violence?”  “Can we avoid talking about suicide today?  Today is the anniversary of my friend’s death.”  Initially, I was annoyed by these students’ comments, as they came just moments before class started; textbooks were already assigned, lectures were already prepped.  Besides the last-minute nature of the concerns, I wondered whether the students’ triggered reactions were enough to change my classes to accommodate them; indeed, I felt the implied or actual requests that I change my classes in a major way were imposing, if not inappropriate.  What I offered instead was that the students could continue to advocate for themselves — they could drop the class (since there were no alternative textbooks, and coming up with alternative material seemed too demanding of my time) or skip the classes they felt would be triggering.

In hindsight, offering for them to just leave feels insensitive; but, my limited teaching training left me with no other appropriate courses of action.  Rather than leaving it to faculty to decide whether and how to use trigger warnings, an ideal approach would be to teach graduate students how to handle these issues.  To me, accommodating the needs of survivors of sexual violence and other traumatic events fits within the broader initiative to make classrooms accessible.  Colleges and universities might expand their sexual violence prevention work and disability services to include resources for survivors to avoid or at least cope with triggering classroom material.  These offices, as well as teaching and learning centers and professional development centers could offer training for faculty to support survivors of sexual violence, and other students who have experienced trauma.  That is, one way to ease the burden on students to speak up for themselves (risking some ill-informed faculty member of dismissing them as overly sensitive), and the burden on faculty to devise proper warnings for triggering material, is to make it an institutional effort.  (And, by that, I don’t mean an institution-wide ban on trigger warnings, and a letter to students to toughen up.)

Opposition To Trigger Warnings Is A Defense Of The Status Quo

But, I want to return to my title’s claim — that the opposition to trigger warnings reinforces the status quo in higher education.  I believe the rise of trigger warnings reflects success of survivors and their allies to call attention to the ways in which college classrooms may be a part of the problem of rape culture in higher education.  And, like Dreger’s dismissal of students’ demand for the use of correct pronouns, those in the mainstream — or specifically members of the dominant group — often react to change with anger.  They dismiss the demands for change by saying things like Vagina Monologues need not include transgender people (not even trans women) because “it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.”  In this case, trans people have no right to demand inclusion because it has always been that way.  They resort to mocking the group demanding change — how silly these trans people, demanding that we use pronouns in an inclusive way.  I suspect that is what we are seeing in the opposition against trigger warnings; there is a knee-jerk reaction to defend the way it has always been, to ignore that a sizeable minority of students have been raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, or experienced other forms of violence.  Generation after generation of students has been reading [X “classic” text that includes triggering material], so why should we eliminate it or assign it with a warning now?

I would argue that the opposition to trigger warnings is part of a larger trend of belittling college students, particularly their political efforts.  The flip side of concerns about entitlement and helicopter parenting is critiques of students who challenge the status quo on their campuses.  We now have the term “crybullies,” dismissing contemporary forms of protest as a mere demand to protect one’s feelings and presumably fragile ego.  The following cartoon perfectly captures this patronizing sentiment:

crybullies

The supposed consequences of these “crybullies” — that logic, reason, actual education, and academic freedom go up in flames — is captured in this more damning cartoon:

crybully

Wow.  The underlying logic is that women, queer students, students of color, and others who have demanded safety, protection, and inclusion are the equivalent of overly sensitive babies — pampered babies, if you see the noticeably tan child holding the social justice sword and “racist!!” rattle.  Clearly, these groups have no right to challenge the status quo because, well, these must not be serious problems.

Some of this strikes me as the tired “us vs. them” generational divide — in this case, a war waged against millennials by… well… every other generation.  These babies are pierced, tattooed, and have colored hair.  Eventually they’ll grow up and have real concerns!  Maybe I haven’t resorted to this kind of finger wagging because, by some accounts, I am a millennial myself.  I’m pierced and tattooed and have carried the sword of social justice and demanded safe spaces and leaned into my “special slowflake” identity.  But, I haven’t chosen a side because it’s played out.  The hippies pictured in the first cartoon were criticized in their day, too.  Their political demands were mocked and criticized by older generations.  Suddenly, their demands for peace and love seem reasonable compared to demands for safety from violence and triggering material, and for inclusion and equal treatment.

Closing Thoughts

Can we pause for a moment on the trigger warning debates?  Even well-intentioned liberal professors who have taken issue with these warnings are merely echoing the larger conservative opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts to identify and eliminate microaggressions, to demands for justice survivors of sexual violence, to demands for safe spaces for queer students, to recognition of and access to facilities for trans students, and so on.

At this moment, we — as faculty — have a choice.  We can choose to be dinosaurs and old-farts who mock students who are advocating for themselves, who are following the tradition of protest on college campuses for greater inclusion.  Or, we can actually listen to what the students are saying, we can find ways to support them and navigate around (and dismantle) institutional constraints.  Too few of us understand trauma to adequately decide how to support traumatized students; so, we should be figuring out how to support them rather than dismissing or mocking their concerns.

Further Reading