White Academia: Do Better.
Over the past couple of weeks, our nation has been confronted with ugly truths and hard history revealing how systemic racism rears its head in almost every space. Since the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down our typical lifestyles, people seem to be listening.
This moment feels very different from other situations when we had to address human rights in the context of race relations in the United States. With that comes a host of emotions that White people have rarely had to deal with because of their racial privilege, and this includes White people working in academia.
Like many Black faculty, and Black people in general, I have received messages and texts from White colleagues apologizing, expressing their guilt and remorse, and asking what they can do to support their Black colleagues and friends.
Quite honestly, this at times is very overwhelming and seems like White people are projecting their guilt onto Black people.
White people are struggling with what to say or do. It is understandable that White people feel overwhelmed, guilty, sad, and frustrated.
Yet this moment we’re witnessing across the country is not about White feelings. It is about the constant trauma, historic pain, and dehumanization that Black people experience, and frankly, have been experiencing long before the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery.
Your Black colleagues and students are not okay.
If you are a White academic or higher education professional, there are some tangible actions you can take to support Black faculty, staff, and students.
I’ve listed 10 below as a starting point:
- Stop asking Black people what White people should do at this moment and just admit you don’t know what to do because you’ve never had to think about your White privilege or anti-racism.
I know this sounds harsh, even contradictory to the purpose of this article.
Yet the question of “what can White academics do to help Black academics” is very perplexing to me given the institutions where we research and teach.
As academics, we occupy some of the most privileged spaces in the world. We have access to ground-breaking research included in top-tier journals.
We are scholars. We are educators. We are researchers.
We have Ph.D. degrees, medical degrees, and master’s degrees.
Academics are highly intelligent and yet we cannot somehow figure out how to engage in anti-racist scholarship for personal and professional growth.
Read and truly engage with relevant work produced by your colleagues and scholars across the nation. Incorporate it into your own classrooms and research program.
Do not expect all Black people to do anti-racist work for you. If they volunteer to educate, make sure you properly reward and/or acknowledge them for their emotional and intellectual labor. Failure to do so adds to the assumption that Black people are your go-to racial expert and contributes to emotional fatigue.
Yes, Black people are exhausted!
You might get tired of hearing this, but Black people get tired of saying it, and more importantly, experiencing it.
We know you are “well-intentioned”, but the fact remains that it is incredibly insensitive to ask Black faculty to help you become an anti-racist while we are experiencing collective trauma on top of collective trauma (systemic racism, anti-Black violence paired with the COVID-19 pandemic).
Black people have agency to say yes or no to your anti-racist labor request.
2. Do the work to become an anti-racist.
By now, you might have heard this a million times in various tweets, Facebook posts, and articles because it’s true.
It will not be easy.
You’ve been socialized into White supremacy, which, as as Dr. Robin DiAngelo defines it in her book White Fragility, “does not refer to individual White people and their individual intentions or actions, but to an overarching political, economic, and social system of domination. White supremacy is more than the idea that Whites are superior to people of color; it is the deeper premise that supports this idea-the definition of Whites as the norm or the standard for human and people of color as a deviation from that norm.”
You should watch TED and TEDx talks about race: TED and TEDx Talks About Racism and Actions to Eliminate It
You should read books that focus on anti-racist work: 7 Books On Anti-Racism Recommended by Educators and Activists
You should listen to podcasts that discuss race, specifically whiteness: 5 Podcasts to Listen to If You Really Want to Know About Race in America (I would also add “Seeing White” to that list).
People of color in the United States have to think about what it means to be non White in a society that prioritizes White people.
Yet, White people struggle to understand what it means to be White and how they actively participate in maintaining White supremacy, and this includes the “good White liberals.”
You can take 3 hours to read about what it means to be Black or a person of color in a society built on White supremacist ideologies. Black people spend their entire lives adjusting and policing their actions, words, and bodies to fit into Whiteness in order to make White people feel comfortable.
While doing the work, avoid seeking validation from Black colleagues that you are a “good” White. Our job is not to validate White “virtue.”
Stop trying to show us how “woke” you are by talking about race-related issues with just Black colleagues and how you’re up to date with Black popular culture. Again, my guess is that you’re not telling the same story to your White colleagues and friends.
You should begin discussing race with other White people, especially the unearned social, political, and economic benefits due to White privilege.
Yes, you will lose some social capital and make some White people uncomfortable, which might in turn make you feel uncomfortable.
That is because you are violating a “code of Whiteness” where it is understood that conversations about racial privilege among White people do not or even should not happen. Referring back to Dr. Robin DiAngelo, she argues that Whiteness/White supremacy has power because it often goes unnamed.
3. Listen with humility.
Avoid getting defensive and making the discussion about your experiences.
Do not engage in the “Oppression Olympics” by saying statements like “I understand the Black struggle, I am a White gay man” or “I am a White woman, I know how it feels to be marginalized” or “My Russian ancestors were enslaved.”
Right now, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are oppressed and dehumanized.
If someone points out your racial privilege, thank them for taking the time and energy out to make you a more well-informed person.
4. Diversify your curriculum.
Consider the importance of inclusive teaching practices, by incorporating culturally-relevant and diverse examples in your classroom.
Stop blaming textbooks or other content factors for your failure to implement culturally-relevant/responsive and inclusive pedagogy.
As you go about your class design, think about whose voices you’re centering and as a result, whose voices you’re placing on the margins. Reflect on your conscious and unconscious bias that might be reflected in your course.
Your Black students and other students of color need to actually see themselves reflected in class content. This leads to more engaging learning. It also helps broaden the education of your White students.
The overrepresentation of White Western examples to explain concepts is just not going to work for our students anymore.
5. Promote more Black people in academic leadership positions including department chairs, deans, provosts, etc. (without tokenizing us).
Please do not blame the lack of Black people in high impact positions on a pipeline issue.
If academia can somehow always seem to find a Black woman to lead imperative diversity and inclusion efforts, institutions can surely find a way to promote more Black people in other academic leadership positions.
Furthermore, create conditions and environments where Black people can actually thrive in those positions. History tells us that Black academics in leadership positions have particularly toxic experiences.
Think more critically and intentionally on how you can retain Black faculty and administrators. This is an opportunity for your unit to look inward and ask critical questions that will hopefully lead to a more inclusive environment.
6. Collaborate with Black scholars (again, without tokenizing us).
Invite us to present, keynote conferences, and/or speak at other premiere events. Ask us to collaborate with you on grant projects. Collaboration is at the core of what we do in the academy. Cite the work of Black scholars.
7. Do not touch your Black students’ hair.
Yes. This does indeed happen. My Black students have told me.
It’s appalling. We are not animals.
And it’s sad that I even need to write that.
8. Do not praise your Black student athletes on the field as you willfully stand in your White privilege and cannot advocate for their human rights or support their racialized experiences.
No further explanation needed.
9. Acknowledge the role higher education institutions play in maintaining systemic racism.
Simply call it what it is. Admit to the ivory tower’s shortcomings and failures.
Recent statements of solidarity for Black Lives Matter from colleges and universities often come across as just symbolic gestures.
Develop a task force or committee (without placing most of the labor on people of color) and create a corrective action plan that strategically shows how your unit will address systemic racism over the next year, 5 years, and 10 years.
Furthermore, institutions need to implement meaningful diversity, inclusion, and equity parameters and efforts.
As Sydnee Crews, diversity and inclusion leader states, this involves not only valuing the uniqueness of various lived experiences but also inviting everyone to sit at the table (figuratively and literally), being heard, and working toward a common goal that benefits a wide variety of populations.
It also involves the work of centering the marginalized and the process of accepting contributions from diverse groups.
It’s not enough to tout a diverse workforce when there is a systemic failure to create an inclusive environment where Black faculty (and other people of color), staff, and students can thrive, fully participate, and bring their whole self to their role.
Black people need to feel physically and psychologically safe in spaces of higher education, and sadly, this is often not the case.
10. Provide space, unique support, and culturally-relevant/responsive resources for Black students, faculty, and staff.
This is particularly important to the advancement and well-being of Black people in higher education because we constantly navigate spaces where we are “the only,” or “the other” and feel compelled to validate our worth, intelligence, and existence. Consequently being Black in academia is an extremely isolating experience.
Your Black colleagues and students are exerting energy to these situations, which takes away from using it to create, lead, and contribute to society in exemplary ways.
This concept is discussed in the TEDx video: Women of Color Could Save the World by LC Johnson.
If you notice a lack of racial diversity in your unit, call it out. Discuss this with your department chair and/or dean.
Again, Black academics cannot continue to be the only ones who are doing this labor if institutions truly value equity, diversity, and inclusion.
This is a shared responsibility.
The aforementioned advice is certainly not a comprehensive list, but it is a start if you’re serious about addressing systemic racism in the academy and the experiences of Black faculty, students, and staff.
Furthermore, this is a career-long commitment that transcends however long these issues will be covered in the media in the upcoming days and weeks.
It is my hope that the recommendations will help in developing a type of racial literacy that will enable meaningful engagement with others and realize true structural change.