Walking out of a screening of “12 Years a Slave,” the people of color in my group couldn’t even speak about what we just saw. As we silently shuffled out of the theater, unable to think of anything but the horrifying images of violence committed against Black and brown bodies, I overheard a white girl nearby say that she really, really connected with the movie. Why? Because it was “like, basically everything I’m studying in my African-American studies classes.”
This past May, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Public Policy with a focus in Gender and Race in Policy. What does that mean in terms of my ability to organize, raise consciousness, or write about and critique racist and sexist power structures? Well, I’ve read books, learned the vocabulary, can write an eight-page essay on race’s relationship with welfare policy. But my degree doesn’t help me understand oppression from within. My degree can’t provide or override my everyday experiences.
At Michigan, we had a program called Community Action and Social Change (CASC). The description for the minor boasts lovely, lengthy buzzwords like “multidisciplinary framework” and “multicultural communities” and “social justice values.”
Unfortunately, all too often, white students in the CASC program hid behind their degree. Or, more accurately, they used it as a shield against suggestions that they themselves might be perpetuating racism and sexism in the classroom. I watched as white CASC minors in my classes cried about racism and wondered if they realized how unproductive their tears were, how their white guilt did nothing but shift the focus to them and silence people of color in the room. I listened as white CASC minors in my classes acknowledged they were taking up too much space and yet proceeded to deliver long soliloquies. I noticed as white CASC minors in my classes spoke of needing safe spaces and wondered who they thought needed to be kept safe, and from whom.
Because my school was in Michigan, many of my friends and classmates went on to work in Detroit after graduation. One told me that she knew a lot of white people go to Detroit thinking they can save black and brown children while standing on the very backs of those marginalized communities, but she wasn’t like that. She had learned about the white savior complex in a class. She couldn’t be a white savior, because she had read about white saviorism.
People use their degrees to legitimize themselves, but worst of all, some people use their diploma to reassert their position of power and privilege. I recently spoke with a group of people about why I hate when white strangers ask me where I’m from. I’ve lost track of how many times strangers have approached me in coffee shops — at parties, on the street, when I’m on a date — just to ask me where I’m from. My mixed racial background lends me a hard-to-place physical appearance that apparently fills white people with an irresistible curiosity, because I look so exotic, different, unique — all just ways of saying “not white.” When I spoke about this, I described my personal experiences as a woman of color who feels reduced, objectified, and othered by the question. I talked about how the question has been pounded into me like a nail, breaking me open so that all my insecurities come pouring out.
Within seconds, a white man stepped forward to volunteer that white people, too, face questions about their background — a story that not only shifted focus to him, but waved away my experiences as a woman of color. He noted he holds a degree in International Studies with a focus in culture and identity. Oh, WELL, I thought: a degree! In International Studies! With a focus in culture and identity! I must be the real racist here after all.
Even outside the glossy bubble of a liberal arts institution, I hear and read people touting their degrees in Cultural So-and-So and Community Blah-Blah-Blah as proof that they couldn’t possibly be part of the problem. There was the man with the International Studies degree who told me I have no reason to be angry when people ask me where I’m from — that my anger was “blinding me.” There was the woman who, in the same conversation, tried to make the argument that white people asking me where I’m from isn’t an example of othering. How was she sure? Because of a class she had taken. Here I was, a real human being in the flesh, telling her how I felt, and yet the echoes of her required readings and well researched essays drowned me out and made me feel small. There was the friend of a friend who, when I called him out for racial stereotyping, explained that he was only making a joke. He was allowed. Because he took a history class about race relations in America. He got it.
It’s hard to argue with these people. Their Ivory Tower credentials make their racism enlightened and hard to untangle. They use all the right, robust words like “intersectionality” and “non-normative” and “anti-colonial.” They know to preface everything they say with “your feelings are valid,” and yet still follow it with a slicing “but.” They insist they’re my allies and they wear their degrees proudly and loudly, not noticing how their howls might contribute to the way in which women of color are socialized to be quiet, reserved, to never let our anger come spilling forth like hot lava. They talk and talk and talk because in all those lectures and seminars, they never really learned how to listen.
Your degree, your reading list, your completion of a single course at a university can’t automatically make you my ally. Allyhood requires action and understanding. Tell me you’re my ally, and I’ll ask you how you work to end racism and sexism in your everyday life. You can’t dismantle systems of oppression by reciting Angela Davis quotes.
I don’t mean to entirely negate the significance of education. Academia can be a powerful tool for raising consciousness and challenging the dominant narrative. Not everyone learns from their own lived experiences, because not everyone experiences institutionalized oppression. Education can fill those gaps.
But academic education is also necessarily incomplete, and often bound up in red tape. The University of Michigan asks students to fulfill a race and ethnicity requirement, and many other institutions have similar baseline requirements. But as with most university decisions, the process of determining which courses count and do not count toward the race and ethnicity requirement is bogged down by confusing bureaucracy. My course on “Black Feminist Thought and Practice” did not count, while “Introduction to Women’s Studies” — which touched on race only just below surface-level — did. The race and ethnicity requirement is just another box to check off, and far too many students regard it as their stamp of approval from the university, proof that they now know everything there is to know about race and racism.
Requiring students to learn about race is crucial, and the existence of the CASC minor is equally significant, necessary even. But I also think it’s necessary that we tell students very directly that their coursework alone won’t earn them any social justice gold stars. We need to be more explicit when establishing safe spaces in classrooms where race is being discussed: ”safe spaces” should not mean spaces where students can say racist things and be absolved of blame. They should be safe spaces for marginalized voices. White guilt, white tears, and white saviorism have no place in these classrooms. We need to teach students not to just understand what the master’s tools and the master’s house are, but what they mean.
Most of all, we need to recognize the limitations of academics. We need to teach students to listen, to be vulnerable and admit fault. Academics can fuel action. I consider all of my friends to be fiercely intelligent. They’re thoughtful and well-educated, and profess to be progressive. But some of them are also the kind of people who remain silent over Israel’s attacks on Gaza, worried that speaking out could hurt their job prospects. Because American individualism seems to be one lesson universities struggle to unteach.
A degree can’t be used as proof that you “understand my struggle.” A degree can’t be used as a shield against criticism. Most of all, a degree can’t be used as a weapon to invalidate my lived experiences. How can a piece of paper on a wall weigh more than the burden I carry just for existing as a woman of color? Your degree counts for something, but it’s not enough.
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