In 2017. You don’t have to be teaching a class about race for race to come up.
School is starting all over the country. Diversity will be artificially created again as thousands of students from different geographic locations, gender, class, ethnic and citizenship backgrounds converge into dorm spaces with thin walls and shared toilets. Somewhere fraternities are putting up fences covered in black plastic tarp, gearing up for a back to school party complete with highly surgery and definitely alcohol-filled punches.
But there is another type of preparation also happening within universities. I wonder if it will be enough.
I remember in 2014 as I was undergoing orientation for my role as a resident live-in fellow in an upperclassmen dorm at Cornell University. It was on the heels of Mike Brown and I felt extremely anxious. I felt the dissonance of being surrounded by people who weren’t worried. I also felt the jitteriness from the administration. As part of our training, we met many university support staff who try to prepare for the basic operations of our job as well as a plan of action in the worst-case scenarios. We met with EMTs. Learned how to use a fire extinguisher. We also met with the campus police. I remember asking what the campus police would do about making black students feel safe. They nodded their heads, the kind of nod you give when you understand the question but are also hoping the nod sufficed as an answer. It was a “We know. We’re trying- but don’t really know and we’re hoping you don’t find out.” that kind of nod. Besides this acknowledgement, that’s as far as the conversation went. I wasn’t willing to press the issue and they weren’t prepared or willing to give a more instructive answer. No one wanted to engage but the tension was still there.
That semester and every semester, we stayed on the lookout for signs of any kind of “isms”. You hope that having a diverse staff will rule out having any members of your population feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. You internally pray that the worst problem that comes up is that someone leaves an open can of sardines in the common room and pissing off everyone else on the floor. Or someone gets locked out of their room while only wearing their bath towel. You know — light-hearted dorm shenanigans. What you’re hoping DOESN’T happen is that your floor is the location of a underage drinking party with several underage students passed out in a closed bedroom. Still, these are the types of situations that you might feel an ounce of preparation and for some even a sense of college nostalgia.
But how can you prepare for a semester like this? When universities were thinking of new vocabulary to introduce to their students, I doubt they thought “neo-nazi” or “antifa” would be one of them.
The staff of Student Life at any college are the unspoken heroes of everyday college life, the last standing defense between crisis and academic success. Right now, RAs, TAs, faculty, and administrations are being trained on how to respond to standard situations of student crisis. Sexual assault. Roommate difficulties. Domestics Violence. Academic Probation. Hazing. Schools have numerous brightly colored, optimistic pamphlets on protocols on all of these things. But what we don’t have (and what people aren’t being trained for) is how to deal with difficult conversations around race. It’s as if we’re still in the bubble of “color blindness”. We don’t see color so it doesn’t exist. Since people don’t have a pamphlet for this situation, they don’t feel comfortable engaging. These issues may get brushed off to other people. And not engaging…well that might be how we got here.
We need to update our training manual. In 2017, college students are willing to risk felony charges to bring down confederate statues, and willing to show their face and publicly announce that they are white supremacists. This is not a time for being color blind nor is it a time to for taking a deep breath because nothing has happened at your university (yet).
We need training on de-escalation, programs that provide safe spaces for difficult, facilitated conversation. We need protections for faculty and staff who put in the extra work to support students, the kind of work that prevents full-blown turmoil but isn’t valued during the promotion process. We need training to define the boundaries of freedom of speech in everyday practice (because everybody is acting like they are Judge Judy when it comes to law). Not only should these programs be amplified but we need buy-in from faculty, students, and administrative staff.
Anyone who has worked on a college campus knows that, everything *needs* updating. Working in the academy is its own Game of Thrones saga. But it bears repeating — in 2017, college students are willing to risk felony charges to bring down confederate statues, and willing to show their face and publicly announce that they are white supremacists. I’m caught between saying this is a new day and yet feeling like I just woke up in august 1963. Regardless, the tension is high. The stakes even higher. This needs to be a priority or it will be our peril.