Rage Against the Narrative: "I don't do diversity, I do triage"
On November 3, 2015, Jonathan Butler, a graduate student at the University of Missouri’s flagship campus in Columbia, Missouri, launched a hunger strike. Fed up with “institutional racism” and the university’s unwillingness to seriously tackle it, he stated that he and other black students “felt unsafe” on campus. Mizzou’s students recounted scary drive-by insults, being called the n-word, and racist “pranks” as regular occurrences.
On November 9, 2015 Yale students protested. It was sparked by a white girls only frat party and an email from “associate master” of Silliman College Erika Christakis saying that Halloween costumes, such as black face, are a matter of free speech. Further, she wrote, “there should be room for a …young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate and yes, offensive.”
By late November, students from Duke, Princeton, John Hopkins, Ithaca College and many more had launched actions. As historian Barbara Ransby wrote recently:
On most campuses, there was a specific incident that sparked protests; the real issues are much broader and ongoing. The protesting students are not simply angered by a single incident or racial epithet; they are fed up with duplicitous campus cultures that tout diversity and tolerate pervasive racist practices, symbols and policies.
Within a month, student-led coalitions issued demands of at least 82 institutions. As Ransby points out, “Black student struggles historically have had deep roots and strong ties to movements beyond the campus.” Many black students are from communities that James Baldwin termed Occupied Territory, so it is not surprising that movements for black lives would inspire students to stand up on the campuses that they attend.
This notion of living in “Occupied Territory” hit home acutely for Mizzou students, many of who grew up in the Ferguson/St. Louis area. Jonathan Butler was particularly outraged that black people, both on and off of campus, were experiencing “racially motivated … murders, assaults, and other things while the university leadership remained silent.” It was not until the Mizzou football team and their coaches of this Division One institution threatened to boycott the season that university President Timothy Wolfe stepped down. Since his appointment in February 2012, Wolfe had been an unpopular President. A corporate appointee with no higher education experience, he closed the esteemed University of Missouri Press and attempted to cancel insurance polices for graduate students. Thus, his resignation was the result of multiple sites of pressure.
In his bizarre resignation speech Wolfe stated, “This is not the way change comes about….” and “We stopped listening to each other.” Yet, it was his administration’s reluctance to “hear” the concerns of black students (and others) that unleashed the protests. By default, protest became the only way for students to be heard. Ironically, it is common for institutions to claim change as an institutional initiative after it has occurred, although change that benefits people of color, like in other parts of US society, comes only after protest or some sort of disruption. This dynamic has been a source of frustration for students.
A student once asked me, “Why didn’t they love us enough before we protested? I would have preferred that.” When I asked why, she said, “because love coming under duress is probably not sincere.”This inability or unwillingness to hear black and other marginalized students is pervasive. The fact that 82 student-led remonstrations occurred in a month points to a system-wide crisis especially at Historically White Colleges and Universities (HWCUs), also called Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). The demands made by the current coalitions are varied but have similar thrusts: more faculty and staff of color, non-Eurocentric curricular innovation, institution-wide anti-racist training, intercultural competency as part of assessment and promotion for faculty, safe space centers, greater mental heath supports, and conduct protocols that hold those who practice racist/hate speech and actions accountable.
In the face of student protest, most college and university presidents appeared contrite and committed to addressing the issues. However, Missouri Lt. Governor Peter Kinder was more combative. After voicing that “racism has no place at a public university,” he bellowed that he was not going allow “a dissident few to drive the actions …of the future of …our …university,” and that he would maintain, “law and order” at all cost.
Racism & Erasure
The epigraph above – “I don’t do diversity, I do triage” – was a statement made by Donte Hilliard at a Kalamazoo College sponsored Social Justice in the Academy Think Tankin 2012. I was six months into my new position as Academic Director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership (ACSJL) at K College and wanted to benefit from the experiences of others doing similar work.
Almost to a person, participants said that they felt misled, frustrated, saddened and angry by their experiences with institutional “diversity” initiatives aptly described by Ransby as “duplicitous campus cultures that tout diversity” on the one hand, yet “tolerate pervasive racist practices, symbols and policies” on the other.
Hilliard’s point was therefore well taken. Most academics of color find ourselves patching up the psychic cuts, bruises and broken spirits that students of color get in dining halls, dorms and classrooms. Often called micro-aggressions, because they are not intended to hurt, the way these incidents land on students of color can feel like a punch to the gut, especially as they accumulate.
Why? Because racism, intended or not, is fundamentally an attack on one’s humanity.
In a poignant expression of solidarity with their students, Black faculty at Michigan State University wrote “An Open Letter of Love to Black Students: #BlackLivesMatter” in December of 2014. The letter went viral and ended up with nearly 1000 faculty and staff signatures from around the country and Canada. It began with this:
We know the stories of dolls hanging by nooses, nigger written on dry erase boards and walls, stories of nigger said casually at parties by White students too drunk to know their own names but who know their place well enough to know nothing will happen if they call you out your name, … stories of you having to explain your experience in classrooms—your language, your dress, your hair, your music, your skin—yourself, of you having to fight for all of us in classrooms where you are often the only one or one of a few, stories of you choosing silence as a matter of survival. We see you. We hear you…. In our mostly White classrooms we work with some of you, you who tell us other professors don’t see, don’t hear you. You, who come to our offices with stories of erasure that make you, break down. They don’t see me, you say. They don’t hear me. We know and don’t know how to hold your tears.
Silencing, ignoring, and trivializing the history, lived experience and the voices of people of color IS an act of erasure and institutionalized racism. Institutions of Higher Education don’t seem to grasp that this is at the core of the crisis. Erasure or “Sous rature” as discussed by Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida is something scratched out though the ‘line through it’ remains; meanwhile “silencing [aspects of] the past” is a dynamic act of omission, according to Haitian scholar Michel-Rolf Trouillot. Thus for people of color, the claim of visibility and humanity is battled along the hard line of erasability and silencing.
While some members of PWIs are blind and deaf because of malice, most are blind and deaf simply because it’s normal. White blindness is one of the disorders of “white institutional culture” at PWIs, according to the extensive research conducted Dr. Diane Lynn Gusa. White blindness, Gusa argues, is linked to everything from curricular choices to the erroneous notion of color blindness. In an open letter to university administrators, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva wrote that “after hundreds of years of all white EVERYTHING (demography, curriculum, symbols, traditions, etc.), the white structure and culture of PWIs did not change their practices much after they were integrated…Thus, the main problem … is white normativity … doing things as usual which reproduces the ‘racial order of things.’”A key part of white institutional culture has been to render black people invisible. This is why current racial incidents are deemed “isolated,” because they only become visible to power and privilege (and/or the distracted) when a spotlight is forced upon them. As student demands point to white blindness, knowledge of the histories and lived realities of people of color is rarely, if ever, a part of employee evaluation or promotion protocols. In fact, it is quite possible for a dean, a provost and even a president to never have read any books on Black, Latino, Indigenous and Asian peoples.
Lt. Governor Peter Kinder, therefore, engaged in an erasure of black and other marginalized students when he chose to not speak when a swastika was drawn in feces on the wall of a residence hall or when black students registered loudly that they were being called the n-word. Maybe, for him this seemed normal and therefore uneventful. Yet when students of color disrupted the “racial order of things” he spoke harshly to them, saying that their views “will not drive the future of the university.”
Erasure is also the only way to explain the writings of Yale “masters”, Nicholas and Erika Christakis, on free speech and offensive Halloween costumes. After Erika Christakis was critiqued for her defense of black face, her husband, Nicholas Christakis, penned this, “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” He totally rendered invisible the history of power and racial violence in the US. As student protestors noted: they have faced threats of physical violence when they have questioned their classmates’ costume choices just as blacks who challenge racism have historically faced violence. Does Christakis not know this history? Or does he want students, black and white, to get hurt? Commentator Samuel Adams sums this up beautifully:
When you live in a society that does not acknowledge the existence/humanity of Blacks, …protests are viewed as nothing more than disturbances to mainstream society’s daily routine rather than the pleas of disenfranchised citizens. Black people must realize that they are not just waging a war to express that Black lives matter; they are fighting a battle to destroy the comfort zones created by White blindness, which has rendered so many Whites incapable of empathizing with the pain and suffering of non-Whites, especially Blacks.
On Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging
A consensus is brewing among practitioners and scholars that the narrative of diversity, inclusion and belonging, which swept through Higher Education over the last 20 years, is bankrupt. Many students, faculty and staff know “what is going on” and are frustrated that so many institutions refuse to address whiteness and racism in their diversity plans. Diane Lynn Gusa’s extensive research illustrates that colleges and universities spend an inordinate amount of time doing focus groups and campus climate studies; yet refuse to wrestle with the findings that “White actions” and “White racial identity and ideology” are the cause of the chilly climate. “Acknowledging Whiteness, not just difference,” she argues, “is the first step to uprooting it.”
This is also the conclusion of Sean R. Harper, Executive Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Center for the Study of Race and Equity who wrote a biting essay just a few weeks ago, entitled “Paying to Ignore Racism” in Inside Higher Ed:
Over the past decade, center researchers and I have [developed and conducted focus groups and climate studies] … at dozens of predominantly white institutions across the United States, including community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, large public research universities and Ivy League universities. When their top administrators call us, we presume it is because they seriously want to know more about how people from different racial and ethnic groups experience their institutions — and that they are going to use our findings and recommendations to finally deal with longstanding racial problems on their campuses. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that this assumption is at times erroneous.
I really want campus leaders to stop wasting their money and our time on climate studies they will never use. … We don’t want to spend our time doing research for leaders who aren’t seriously committed to equity, campus climate change and institutional transformation. We never exaggerate our findings; we instead commit ourselves to truthful representations of insights that people generously offer to us about the realities of race on campuses.
Harper also gave one example of a university that paid the Center $25,000 to conduct a climate study. After submitting the report, the center received an email, which said, “My colleagues and I think your findings are too harsh.” He responded by writing: “The findings are what they are.” He was then asked to tone down the report. He refused arguing that to do so would be academically dishonest. This university, then, decided to not release the report. He concludes:
These realities were too much for the administrators to handle. They were not ready to hear the truth….The sad reality is that [they] paid us an enormous sum of money to remain in denial about [their] racial problems. This had happened to us before and has occurred again since.
Toning down the realities of race on campus, or putting white comfort over the needs of students of color, is a central contradiction in diversity work. White emotional fragility – the stress caused by facing institutional racism- has long been prioritized over black pain, trauma and anger. Every person of color who has attended or worked in PWIs has experienced this, even if many will not openly share these experiences in situations where they do not feel safe. When one does gather the courage to make visible an act of institutional racism, the institution’s first response is often one of indignation. Rather than hearing, we are sorry, what can we do; the person of color is greeted with how dare you? This is sad, because it tends to silence the very dialogue that needs to happen for real transformation to occur. “This is why years pass, but racial things stay the same,” at least for people of color, says Bonilla-Silva.
I would even go as far as to say inclusion initiatives, no matter how they start, tend to gravitate towards the interest of white-identified students, who it is hoped will learn tolerance from meeting others from different backgrounds, and of white donors, who Amer F. Ahmed argues often have a nostalgia for the time when they were in college which had less diversity than today. I will never forget a white colleague years ago telling me that if protestors got rid of Chief Illiniwek – the highly offensive dancing mascot of University of Illinois – that it would completely betray her college experience, which was so linked to this caricature.Yet, students of color are not given a “how-to” guide on how to handle these engagements, which can be freighted with hurtful blindness, stereotypes, and ignorance. This is a huge burden. As Jonathan Romero, a Kalamazoo College alum and member of its first POSSE Scholarship cohort, said: “I came to college to learn, not to be your diversity.”
In her 2014 piece Faking Diversity and Racial Capitalism, Nancy Leong advances this argument:
For decades now, it’s been fashionable for institutions of all kinds to showcase their racially diverse constituencies [in promotional materials]. But behind the smiling, diverse faces, many institutions also share a dirty little secret. A lot of the diversity is the result not of the institution’s inclusive practices when it comes to recruiting, hiring, admitting or whatever other word is appropriate. Rather, it’s the result of Photoshop. Even when schools don’t actually use Photoshop, they often find other ways to boost the appearance of diversity. For example, a recent study of 371 college and university view books found that black and Asian students were overrepresented by 50% in photographs relative to their actual presence in the student body.
In Leong’s longer 2013 piece called “Racial Capitalism” she defines racial capitalism as “the process of an individual or group deriving value from the racial identity of another person.” Recent student protests have reflected anger over how students of color are presented in college materials, as happier and more integrated than they actually are.
There is also another narrative at play hidden in plain site. This is that students of color should be grateful and quiet and assimilate into the structures as they exist. That existing structures are skewed and erase and hurt them is rarely acknowledged or understood, and if it is, students are told to ignore it, get over it and stop whining. They are fortunate, the narrative goes, to even be in college so don’t rock the boat. This reminds me of a recent piece written by Science Magazine advice columnist Alice Huang, a virologist, who was asked by a female graduate student how to deal with an adviser who kept looking down her blouse. Huang told the student: “As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can.”
This narrative of acquiesce was recently articulated in a New York Times thread, written by Dr. Jerry Hough. While most of his critics marked his remarks as racist, which I think they are, I am more interested in his notion of assimilation and integration. “Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes his or her desire for integration,” he says in his first post. “Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration.” Later, in response to his critics, he wrote:
The Japanese and other Asians did not obsess with the concentration camps and the fact they were linked with blacks as “colored.” They pushed ahead and achieved. Coach K did not obsess with all the Polish jokes about Polish stupidity. He pushed ahead and achieved. And by his achievement and visibility, he has played a huge role in destroying stereotypes about Poles. Many blacks have done that too, but no one says they have done as well on the average as the Asians. In my opinion, the time has come to stop talking incessantly about race relations in general terms as the President and activists have advocated, but talk about how the Asians and Poles got ahead–and to copy their approach. I don’t see why that is insensitive or racist.
What is so interesting to me here is how earnest this professor’s remarks are; and as such, they provide a good representation of the “normalcy of Whiteness.” Dr. Hough is a very accomplished senior professor at Duke University. He appears to be a scholar of Europe with a specialization in the Soviet Union and has published over 10 books during his illustrious career. His remarks reveal a number of “simple old American” assumptions.
One is that the US is an entity in which persons of color and even Poles have to integrate and assimilate into, as if they are on the outside of it, and not a part of its very core. This of course is an erasure of huge proportions, given that the first Africans came to this country in 1619, and that the labor, blood, sweat and tears of millions built the wealth of this country and the buildings of many PWI’s. The first wave of Polish immigrants came in 1608, and Kazimierz Pulaski, a Polish military leader in Europe, joined the American Revolution, and became a General.
Class and capitalism, therefore, are also part of Dr. Hough’s insider/outsider view of the US. For him, only the cultures of those who profited from enslavement are American, not those from whom these profits were extracted. For instance, the official seal of Harvard’s Law School is the family crest of Isaac Royall, Jr., a plantation owner who bequeathed a professorship and land to Harvard that led to its founding in 1817. This was done with profits attained through the enslavement and trading of black people as chattel. According to historians, Royall, Jr. owned dozens of slaves and brutally repressed a slave revolt in Antigua, including burning to death the uprising’s slave leader. As Craig Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities adroitly details, enslavement was economically and socially integral to the establishment of the Ivy League.
The notion of who “belongs” and who does not at Predominantly White Institutions is a serious illogicality. While Professor Hough believes that students of color should work to assimilate into his view of a “simple old America”, students of color rightfully claim that they are already that. Given the history, cultural contributions and exploitation of their/our peoples, their/our place should be secured, without accommodating racism. In fact, students argue that it is the racist structures that should be transformed to accommodate them, not the other way around.This came up in 2011, when Christopher Abreuwrote a piece about racism at University of Pennsylvania. It came up in the 2013 I Too am Harvard photo campaign and at the 2014#webelonghere drive at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. In December 2015, Dean Mary Spellman of Claremont McKennaCollege, ended up resigning after she wrote an email to a Latina student that said she would serve those who “don’t fit our CMC mold.” While Spellman appears sympathetic to all students, she clearly saw Latinas as outside of the CMC mold. Given that the indigenous, Mexican, Asian and Chicano history of California predates this institution’s 1946 founding by centuries, it is a huge act of colonial erasure to say those whose ancestors are buried on that land do not belong. As student, J.C. Perrin, said, “Part of me says that I’m used to this shit. But you never really get used to being systematically excluded from the spaces where you want to feel safe.”
A cautionary and somewhat tragic tale on the contradiction of people of color acquiescing and assimilating into racist structures emerged recently at Yale on November 5, 2015. Dr. Jonathan Holloway, like Dr. Hough, is an accomplished scholar. He has published numerous books and has edited key works, including the new edition of WEB DuBois’s classic Souls of Black Folk and is also the first black Dean of Yale College. A recent New York Times profile described the dean as a “quintessential Ivy League insider” who describes himself as “a team player.” Yet he is also a scholar of black protest movements and “a popular sounding board for students.” As protests erupted on campus, he appeared caught in the moment’s contradiction.
“It’s not easy to hear your stories,” he told protesting students. ”Not because I disagree with them or because I don’t understand them. I do. It’s difficult to know that someone who’s vested with the responsibility to take care of everybody, that you felt the need to tell me that. It’s painful for me, but I’m glad you did.
Student protests from earlier generations paved the way for Black studies and diversity initiatives. But some gains like affirmative action have been under attack as universities across the country opted forrace-neutral admissions over the last decade. And while affirmative action was an important step in increasing the enrollment of students of color in higher education, it was never the end all be all. Much deeper transformation was and is needed.
The recent eruption of student protests make clear that institutional racism is alive and well on college campuses. Academic administrators like Dr. Holloway were caught off guard by the intensity of student protests, and like their historical counterparts, students are once again leading the way as they insist #BlackLivesMatter on (and off) campus.
There is hope at Institutions of Higher Education, if we are brave enough to “disrupt the mainstream cultures” on these campuses and “topple traditional hierarchies” as Professor Clifton Conrad of University of Wisconsin, Madison argues and if we do what Dr. Jaime Grant has called “transformative engagement”.
Recent students-of-color led movements are multi-racial, multi-classed, queer, multi-issued and have strong faculty and staff support. They/We are ready. Administrative Leaders, are you?
 Marquis Griffin, Facebook Post, November 12, 2015.
 Sigma Alpha Epsilon is the national fraternity that was captured of video at the University of Oklahoman making a racist and violent chant. SAE at University of Oklahoma.
 Jacques Derrida, Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, University of Chicago Press, 1987; Michel-Rolf Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Beacon Press, 1997.
 Diane Lynn Gusa, White Institutional Presence: The Impact of Whiteness on Campus Climate & The Relational Context of White Institutional Presence, Dissertation, College of Education, Department of Education Theory and Practice, University of Albany, State University of New York, 2009.
 Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Facebook Post, November 19, 2015.
 Samuel Adams, “The Invisible People and White Blindness”, Rolling Out, January 30, 2015.
 Mary Elizabeth Pope, “I am NOT just like one of the family… The Black Domestic Servant and White Family Dynamics in 20th Center American and South African Literature”, Safundi: the Journal of South African & American Comparative Studies, November 2001. Pope uses this analysis to explain how domestics who live within familial hierarchies are able to “know” the race/class contradictions in ways that those at the top of the hierarchy do not.
 Jane Hoinville, “White Institutional Presence: The Impact of Whiteness on Campus Climate by Diane Lynn Gusa – A plain language translation & summary,” pdf.
 Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol. 3 (3) 2011, pp. 54-70.
 Bonilla-Silva, Facebook Post, November 19, 2015.