This spring has been hard.
We have had to process the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. We watched the premeditated attempt to endanger the life of Chris Cooper. We are also experiencing the violent response against Black Lives Matter protesters while armed anti-lockdown protestors were met with discipline and restraint by police. All of this is amidst COVID-19 a global pandemic from which Black people are dying at disproportionate rates.
On the minds of most people, are questions about the movement for Black lives that is currently spreading across the globe. To be clear. The current fight isn’t against police brutality per se. Rather it is against a system of white supremacy that allows (and encourages) militaristic policing, vigilantism, inequitable healthcare, and the devaluing and dehumanization of Black (and Brown) people.
Remorse and sorrowful feelings are insufficient in addressing our long history of racism. At our own institution, after a Town Hall to address a recent racist act by a faculty member, one of our Sacramento State students, former Black Student Union president Adwoa Akyianu, stated she wanted our “apology in actions.”
Over the past few days, I have been contacted by several faculty members sending love and positive energy; colleagues have asked how, in this moment, they can help. It is in this spirit, I am inspired to share my thoughts about ways for non-Black faculty members and academic leaders to #valueblacklives during this time (and quite frankly all the time).
This list is targeted toward academics, but could be relevant for other folks interested in making change. All you “life long learners” … these strategies might be helpful to you.
1. Do your own work first — don’t expect Black people (especially students) to do the emotional labor of explaining racism to you. There are so many books, articles and resources to better understand racism and white supremacy. Read them. While you are doing your research, don’t forget to examine your own biases. This is best done with others (an accountability partner, coach or group). Finally it is not enough to say you are not racist, sexist, gender-oppressive, ableist, elitist, classist, adultist, etc. You must actively be anti-all of these things!
2. If you are able, show up. It is exhausting for Black people to always be at the forefront of the movement. Stand behind Black people, ask for permission and direction; ask Black folx what is needed. When you do show up check your educational and class bias. You must support and center all Black lives not just those who present as “college students”. Be intentional about supporting those who are most historically marginalized including; Black boys and young men; Black women & girls; Black queer and trans folx & femmes; individuals who are disabled; and Black people who are incarcerated or systems involved. Racism has heavily impacted all of these experiences.
If you can’t show up physically, sign petitions, ask local organizers what they need, and give money to individuals and organizations fighting for justice.
3. Recognize the trauma and give space for healing. Black people are not ok. We are not ok showing up at work and students are not ok in class. We have become experts at putting on a mask (especially in university settings) and code-switching our feelings.
As California State University East Bay student, Tanisha Dozier states, “We are expected to be numb to the killings of our brothers and sisters; no we are not okay …”
Additionally, Black people sometimes use work and class to escape. We likely don’t want to discuss our feelings about Black death in our chemistry class, or on a Zoom meeting, but it would be nice to know we could. Don’t make assumptions. Ask how people are doing and offer support and understanding. Remember non-Black people of color are also impacted by racism and systemic oppression. Check in with your students and colleagues. Black death is not an elephant in the room to be avoided or ignored. Being silent about issues of injustice speaks extremely loud.
4. The system of white supremacy has permeated every one of our academic disciplines. Explore how your area of expertise has done harm. Call it out and commit to doing no more. Make sure your syllabus and reading materials center Black authors and are inclusive of Black people’s lived experiences. Examine your program’s admissions processes and hiring practices to ensure inclusivity.
Within the social work profession for example, there is a long history of white supremacist practices. Our social work curriculum should not only reflect our racist past, but challenge current practices that continue to bear this fruit. Some examples include: the impact of white supremacy on child welfare; and deficit based, carceral mental health models that continue to oppress, detain and dehumanize Black trauma. We must acknowledge these racist practices and make them a specific part of our syllabi. We must also be more intentional about embedding social justice in our teaching and not render this core social work value to a unit, or portion of our curriculum.
5. Write & conduct research that uplifts Black lives. Write about police brutality, anti-Blackness, racism and white supremacy. Ensure any research project you are working on includes the disaggregation of data by race. Be intentional about inclusion. Color blind = exclusion & invisibility; both of which are tools of white supremacy.
Make sure the language you use doesn’t oppress or uphold systems of violence. Recognize the difference between “students of color” and Black students. Antiblackness exists even within communities of color. Call that out also. Use words that uplift. Refer to #1 to make sure you are being inclusive and anti-racist in all of your writing. Language is important.
6. Work with grassroots organizations and Black folx to document & research the current movement. Use your platform to push out specific research that positively impacts Black lives. Offer your services to grassroots and community organizations who are fighting for freedom. Bring your expertise, whatever it may be: dancing, writing, poetry, engineering, agriculture, art, medicine, nursing, law … all of our disciplines are important. We can choose whether we use our expertise to help or harm. There is no neutral zone.
7. Get involved in local politics. Leverage your relationships to impact policy and system change. When you sit on college committees unapologetically uplift the needs of Black students. Examine any trauma and suffering you may be initiating by your decisions. Work with your Diversity and Inclusion office if you need ideas about ways you can impact institutional change.
8. Use a Critical Race Theory lens, rooted in an understanding of intersectionality and antiblackness in your syllabus development, programming, policy development or research. As you are building curriculum, ensure you are actively being anti-racist. If you are unfamiliar with these terms see #1.
9. Remember small wins are not a victory. People and organizations have long been battling to shift racist and inequitable policies. Be aware of statewide and local policies that impact Black lives. Pay attention to the legislative cycle; write letters, make calls, attend hearings, and encourage your colleagues to do the same. Recognize that many people are also tired of reformism. Small, watered down, wins are not a victory.
10. Use your platform to support funding and policy changes that value Black lives. Be mindful about how you discuss the current uprisings in person and on social media. Realize students in your classes are putting their lives on the line for what they believe in. Honor them in your dialogue. People you know vote. Use your privilege to engage with them in conversation that values black lives in every area of our society. People listen to you.
This list is offered as a way to use your academic privilege to impact the trajectory of your institution, and society as a whole. The suggestions are ways you can apologize with actions. The list is by no means exhaustive. Please share and add your own suggestions. Leave a comment below.
Dr. Stacey Chimimba Ault is an Assistant Professor at Sacramento State University and Founder/Executive Director of the Race and Gender Equity (RAGE) Project.