***UPDATE — 4/25/2016: The ideas expressed in this blog post and some of the content written here, though expanded, has been published in a feature article in the March/April 2016 issue of About Campus (DOI: 10.1002/abc.21227) under the title “It Matters Who Leads Them: Connecting Leadership in Multicultural Affairs to Student Learning and Development.” The author’s note for that article that gave attribution to this blog post was removed during the production process. It was not and is not my intention to give any appearance of self-plagiarism or any form of authorial unethical practice, so I have added this note to the original blog post in an attempt in the forum where I do have total control to acknowledge that this blog post is the origin of the ideas and some of the verbiage even used in the now more formally published piece.***
On Thursday, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit by video conference with Dr. Marc Johnston’s Student Development Theory class at my master’s and doctoral alma mater, The Ohio State University. After my visit, I posted to Facebook about it, remarking that I had only answered two questions in the time I had with them because those questions hit nerves that tend to send me off on rants quite easily. The two questions involved who should be doing the work of social justice education (should privileged people work with privileged people and marginalized people work with marginalized people) and how to deal with resistance to such educational initiatives. In the comment thread that ensued, I gave really brief summaries of what I shared with this class of first-year student affairs master’s students. Here’s what I posted:
“So, this is a hot button issue for me. My basic contention is that it is actually a vestige of racial oppression to presume that POC are somehow inherently qualified to lead these sessions and that people whose social identities are different can’t learn from each other. It’s also racist to assume that all people of X ethnic group are going to automatically have instant rapport; we don’t make that assumption for White people, so why do we do it for POC? We need to look at skills and what self-work people have done – regardless of their social identities – as the primary criteria for whether they are the best person to put in front of a group. That being said, I also believe that sometimes, depending on where students (if that’s the audience) are in their own development, they may best hear someone who is similar to them. Regardless, we need to stop delivering diversity workshops in such a way as the presumed audience is White, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class, Christian and able-bodied.
To the 2nd question about handling resistance, I said that we have no choice but to be prepared for resistance and that we must stop seeing resistance as automatically negative or as something we should try to reduce. Resistance is inevitable because it is part of the learning process. Everything new we have ever learned was first resisted. I challenged them to deny that they did not resist some of the things they were taught in their first semester in graduate school and told them that I would call them boldfaced liars if they did (that might have been a bit much, lol). We need to invest energy in acknowledging resistance, helping people to realize that they will likely resist something (maybe everything) they hear at first and that doesn’t make them bad people, and then prepare to effectively use the resistance to promote transformation and learning.”
Apparently, some folks appreciated my perspective; this comment itself got 42 “likes” on the thread. One thing I forgot to say to the class and write in my Facebook post later, was that I have come to deeply appreciate the power of having teams of facilitators leading social justice educational workshops. When 2 or more facilitators (depending on the size of the group) who have between them a mix of privileged and marginalized identities (we all have both) and balance those identities across them, it can lead to richer experiences for the participants and provide helpful support and checks for the facilitators. I have witnessed the effectiveness of this both as a participant in the Social Justice Training Institute, where I first saw this strategy used, and as a co-facilitator with Dr. Kathy Obear in a workshop we did with staff at the University of Baltimore in 2013.
A former student later posted to my thread requesting that I please engage the perspective shared in an article published in The Student Affairs Collective by Jared Green. You should take a moment to read it too.
I read the article later that evening, quickly jotted down a few notes in my journal before going to bed, and read the article again this morning, as well as the comments that followed it. Many people might think I am going to pen a searing disagreement with Jared Green, based on this line in my comments on Facebook: “We need to look at skills and what self-work people have done – regardless of their social identities – as the primary criteria for whether they are the best person to put in front of a group.” Nope, wrong. I don’t totally agree with Green either. The issue is far more nuanced than a (dare I say it) simplistic and dualistic, you’re right or you’re wrong (the approach used by most of the commenters to Green’s article). My response to Green is likely to make people on both sides of this debate, and perhaps Green himself, annoyed, disappointed, or frustrated with me. I’m more than okay with that, because it likely means that everybody left with something to think about and be challenged by and dealing with that resistance, dear reader, is essential to learning.
I love engaging master’s students in dialogues like this, especially those in their first year of graduate preparation who have often just completed their bachelor’s degree. These students are still early in experiencing the world around them and understanding the complexities of institutional systems and how those systems interact with individual actors to constrain or empower individual and community agency, development, and transformation. I love engaging them because they are raw and honest. In today’s parlance, they keep it 100. Learning begins with such authenticity. I don’t know where Green is in his master’s degree education, but what I admire about him and his article is that he is still keeping it 100. This is how he feels and I’ll be damned if I don’t affirm his right to express how he feels and why. It takes courage to share what I am sure Green knew would spark a lot of heated dialogue in such a public forum and attach his real name, his picture, and his Twitter handle online in this Yik-Yak, trolling age. So, a word of warning to would-be trolls: You come for Green and I’m coming for you. You can trust and believe me when I tell you, you are not ready for that.
I want to begin with the last line of Green’s essay. This line, to me, is the crux of Green’s argument and the reason he holds the opinion that he does. Green wrote, “I’m tired of applauding White people for cultural appropriation and being saviors of people of color or recognizing that race relations is more than just a people of color issue.”
I’m totally with Green on that. I’m tired of it too, young brother. If I see another White-person-as-savior movie, I might just flip out in the theater. [Or not, because unlike White people who actually flip out in theaters and kill random people, I wouldn’t get to walk out alive and be taken into police custody to stand trial for my terrorist actions.] I am Fannie Lou Hamer-tired of White people getting credit for doing basic human dignity and enlightenment. I am also FLH-tired of cis men getting credit for knowing how to do laundry, change a diaper, and cook dinner for their children at the same time, straight folks getting credit for supporting queer-owned businesses who are the best in their local area, cis folks getting credit for knowing gender-neutral pronouns, and temporarily able-bodied and neuro-typical people getting credit for not using the R-word. It’s a factor of privilege that it seeks to be acknowledged, to be credited, to be rewarded for being “liberal.” Jesse Williams has been oft-quoted as once saying that it is not his purpose in life to “tuck ignorance in at night.” I love that and agree. I will take another step and say that it’s not my purpose in life to pat benevolence on the back.
And as a couple of Green’s commenters agreed, Leigh Anne Tuohy does not need to be anybody’s director of multicultural affairs ever, anywhere. Nor should anyone who thinks like her. It takes a lot of self-work to get to where Leigh Anne Tuohy is and I believe she was doing the best she could in that moment. But as I’ve heard my dear friend and brother, the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington say, just because it’s your best doesn’t make it good. It takes a lot MORE self-work to move past where Leigh Anne Tuohy is to be the kind of person that Green is looking for as a multicultural center director, someone who can perceive and effectively name and disrupt the kind of racial microaggressions that Tuohy perpetrated against those two young Black men in her restaurant and that Green recounts in his essay. In my personal experience, which like Green’s has been in predominantly White educational and social environments since I was in high school (that’s over 25 years), very few White people that I have encountered have done that level of self-work and are continuing to do it and aren’t looking to be patted on the back for it. Very few. Those that have, I would trust to be OMA directors if they were to apply for such a position. But for the rest, I’m with Green – this is not the job for you. I would hazard to guess from Green’s essay that he doesn’t know any White people in his life that have the depth of multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills to be more than Leigh Anne Tuohy was in that encounter in her restaurant or Green’s White liberal associates who racially isolated him at a function where he was the only non-White identified person. Not a single commenter acknowledged that, though several recognized the problematic issues with Tuohy’s interaction. I find that very interesting. [Side question for those White liberals: Why are you even comfortable in a place where there is zero racial diversity? Your comfort with that is the first sign that you are not ready to lead multicultural change efforts on anybody’s college campus.]
Now, if you think you are such a White person, don’t be mad at Green or at me that our lives are not surrounded with people like you. Be mad at the majority of your White kinspeople who have let YOU down by not being examples of empowered, critically conscious White folks who have reconceptualized what it means for them to be White in ways that no longer rely on White racial superiority and dominance. Maybe you should get to work within your own community instead of chastising Green for failing to imagine a bevy of such White allies.
I think Green raises a provocative issue concerning the role of allies in social justice work. It is his contention that allies do not belong at the front of the brigade. I think there are instances where I would agree with that. There are other instances where I might see a place, even a necessity, for allies to lead change efforts. Multicultural student services offices do not present an obvious resolution for this issue.
I don’t know if Green’s graduate preparation program is using the book I edited in 2011, Multicultural Student Services on Campus: Building Bridges, Re-visioning Community, or my friend and colleague Lori Patton Davis’s edited text, Culture Centers in Higher Education: Perspectives on Identity, Theory, and Practice published in 2010. I think both texts could be very useful for Green and others who are debating who should or should not be directing such centers.
Most of the opposing comments to Green’s article either contend one of 2 points: One is that Green is painting White people with too broad a brush. To that see my previous point: What are you doing to develop more White people’s racial consciousness, without needing to be the director of OMA? [And for those who are tempted to snarkily counter that you could say the same to me – just don’t. For your own sake, just don’t. You. Are. Not. Ready.]
The other comments typically cite that Green fails to recognize – in their view – that OMA is no longer just about race, so the director doesn’t need to reflect a marginalized racial group anymore. First, yes, as depicted in the chapter that I and Brian Bridges wrote in my book referenced earlier, the set of responsibilities that multicultural student services (MSS) units have been charged with have expanded – mostly on larger, public campuses, to include programming and support services beyond race and ethnicity. The second section of my book includes chapters about the continuing centrality and relevance of race in MSS work (by Lori Patton, Jessica Ranero, and Kimberly Everett), and the addition of sexuality and gender (by Chris Purcell and Nick Negrete), religion and faith (by Jenny Small), and the need for an integrated and intersectional approach (by Mary Grace Almandrez and Felicia Lee). So, yes, MSS or OMA does more than just race work anymore.
However, I find problematic the accompanying contention that therefore the director can now be a White person. I find this problematic because what I hear in this very familiar argument is a refusal to grant racially minoritized people a full humanity beyond race, which is a belief that is racist at its core. It presumes that racially minoritized people are only composed of their racial identities, while White people get to be composed of multiple identities beyond race (usually to invoke marginalized religious, sexual, and/or gender identities), which can then be proxies for racial competence. Let me unpack that a bit.
I experience this on a regular basis, both from White people and from racially minoritized people who have internalized this oppressive construct. I wish I could borrow a page from my friend now Dr. Z Nicolazzo and coin a neologism, but I can’t pull that level of creativity out this morning. I would love a term that described what happens when racially minoritized people’s racial identities are used to substitute for and erase all other social identities they may carry, making them at once wholly and only their racial identity, while denying and erasing other salient identities thus rendering those other identities as presumed normative (maybe it just works to call it racism). For example, a Black person who is director of OMA is presumed to be heterosexual, cisgender, patriarchal, able-bodied and neuro-typical, and Christian and therefore only suited for an OMA unit whose primary mission remains race-centered, because you know those racially minoritized students are all heterosexual, cisgender, patriarchal, able-bodied and neuro-typical, and Christian, too. A White person though, could be lesbian or gay, maybe even trans*, perhaps a feminist, and/or a secular humanist – any of which get to proxy for “getting it” about race and racism too. So that White person can be the director of an OMA unit and serve everybody because now those other (White) students with non-racially marginalized identities can be served.
Whether the MSS/OMA unit has a race-centered mission or not has nothing to do with whether a racial majority person can or should be director of said unit.
What is missing from both Green’s article and any of the comments I read is discussion of the purpose of MSS/OMA units. Bettina Shuford’s chapter in my text discusses the evolution and philosophical differences among MSS units. Here’s where I think Lori Patton Davis’s book comes in as essential to the discussion. Cultural centers (the topic of Lori’s text) and MSS/OMA units are not necessarily one in the same on a campus and therefore may have different purposes and different missions to carry out their work. Cultural centers may focus primarily on culturally-specific programming and cultural support and resources for the identity-based group(s) they are serving. MSS/OMA units on campuses that have ethnic student centers and/or LGBT resource centers, may be primarily focused on administering scholarship and other financial aid programs, academic support services, educational programming and ally-building among privileged campus populations, and working across campus on increasing access to and promoting greater equity and inclusion for the populations covered under the unit’s umbrella (whether restricted to race or not).
If we’re talking about an MSS/OMA unit whose purpose and mission is focused on the latter set of tasks I’ve named, I see no reason why the social identities (including the racial identity) of the potential leader are a significant determinant over and above what administrative competencies one possesses and what multicultural competencies one possesses to be effective in the role.
It seems from Green’s discussion, that cultural programming and cultural support services, especially cultural support services, may be uppermost in his mind. For these services, I can see why Green would prefer there to be a racially minoritized person in that role. We know from a litany of racial identity development models that there comes a point where there may be a high degree of resistance to approaching a racial majority person for support with dealing with racism. Resistance and suspicion of even White allies is part of the process of development. Students in that developmental place, may not well-receive a MSS/OMA director who is White. But other considerations must factor in first.
As a hiring officer makes a decision about hiring a new MSS/OMA director, that person must first know what the institutional climate is and how pervasive racism is on campus, how embattled racially minoritized students are due to microaggressions, and what the students are looking for in terms of leadership in this area. Now is not the time to be supposedly innovative and progressive and decide to saddle the campus with a White MSS/OMA leader just to fulfill some desire to “break stereotypes” or not practice “reverse racism.” Consideration of the factors I’ve just noted makes the social identities of a potential candidate quite relevant.
On campuses where one unit carries out all these functions (typical for small, private liberal arts colleges, like Kalamazoo College where I attended, and where I cut my teeth as a professional working in multicultural affairs at Kenyon College before going to graduate school), it’s much more difficult to say who should lead. As I’ve presented with a colleague before, such a person is often a “messiah” expected to be all things to all people. That’s a high expectation to live up to, regardless of one’s racial identity. On such campuses where the MSS/OMA unit is often just one person and there is already a paucity of racially minoritized people as faculty or staff on campus, I think one is hard-pressed to make an argument to hire a White person as the director and sole occupant of that office over a racially minoritized person who is equally qualified. Sometimes, institutions use that position to help to racially diversify their staffs (or maintain that diversity) when the position comes available or is created, as that office sometimes has higher turnover than the directors of other units in the divison.
But there’s another factor to consider in this discussion that is almost-never named. Where else will you see POC on campus, if not in MSS/OMA? Where else will you see a racially minoritized person in a leadership position on campus, with an assistant dean title or even associate dean title, if not as the director of the MSS/OMA unit? (Sometimes not even the MSS/OMA director gets a dean-level title even if every other unit director in the division does, but that’s another story.) It is a fact of institutional racism and systemic racism within student affairs as a profession that it’s almost impossible to find a racially minoritized person who is a unit director, let alone an assistant/associate dean, outside multicultural affairs. This is getting better, but it’s not where it needs to be. Racially minoritized people have been consigned (some even say ghettoized) to MSS/OMA units, at the same time as White people now are pressuring for the right (which is such a reflection of privilege to think that it’s your right to have any position anywhere, to demand for it – ugh, check your privilege please) to lead such units. It’s the student affairs version of professional gentrification. We’ll look around one day if we’re not careful and have all-White student affairs divisions and people will claim to not know how that happened but talk about how progressive it is and how social justice-oriented they are. I can’t think of anything more insidiously racist than for White people who already occupy 90% of student affairs positions on campus to lobby for the right to also occupy the other 10% as well, while not lobbying for more equitable racial representation of the other 90% of positions in the field.
I can’t even.
Do I know White people who are doing good work as directors of MSS/OMA units on their campuses? Yes, I do. I think about Jennifer McCreary Ford who is the director of the MSS unit at Texas A&M University. She is a White, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied and neuro-typical, and Christian, woman. We went through SJTI together and were in the same core group and there and since then, I have come to know her to be a strong advocate who is continuing to do her own self-work to dismantle internalized dominance and recognize patterns of oppression, and who has earned the trust and respect of her students and colleagues at A&M and has sense enough to know that she needs staff around her who reflect the diversity of the students her office serves.
These are the fundamental and necessary qualities for EVERY and ANY person who aspires to be the director of a MSS/OMA unit, I don’t care how they identify racially or anyway else.