Just because you’re magic: A love letter to minoritized faculty in your first year

This fall begins my 16th academic year as a faculty member in the field of higher education and student affairs. I do so having attained promotion to the rank of full professor and serving in significant leadership roles in both my department and my profession. I have “made it.” Yet, as I have become known to say, I am #fullbutnotsatisfied. Attaining status and professional accolades is meaningless to me unless I can help to bring others alongside and after me. I am intent on doing what I can to help other minoritized faculty not only persist but thrive in this profession.

Toward that end, I am mindful of making evident the hidden rules of the academy, helping early career faculty to avoid fault lines, and using gatekeeper roles to both multiply the voices at the table but also expand the table’s capacity. So, I was provoked to consider what words of encouragement and caution I could offer to new racially minoritized faculty, as well as those with minoritized identities of sexuality and gender (both in addition to and apart from racial marginality), when I was contacted about a week ago by a mentee, who is a cisman with marginalized identities of both race and sexuality in his first year in a faculty role. My mentee had texted me after his first week in the classroom to share that one of his students, a cishet White man, had reached out after the first class session with a request to schedule a time to talk further so that this student might expand his awareness and knowledge, believing my mentee to possess special insights given his social identities. Immediately, alarm bells went off in my mind, but I have learned to be slow to offer unsolicited advice that can come across as paternalistic and undermining of others’ capacities to recognize dangers and their agency to make their own decisions about whether to move ahead. I probed what my younger colleague was thinking about this request and how he planned to respond. He shared that he was fine with meeting with the student, realizing that given the regional context of the institution, the student would not likely encounter anyone else like him. After reading his text, I simply replied, “Okay, just remember you have the right to set boundaries.”

My mentee shared that no one had ever said that to him before. He had never considered that was an option. I realized that no one told me that in my first year either. In fact, I was nearly tenured before I learned that lesson through the combination of hard experiences and wisdom from racially minoritized senior colleagues. Why did it take so long? Partly, lack of proximity to senior minoritized faculty. Partly, not knowing what questions to even ask until I had already had several years of experiences that confirmed that yes, there is a pattern here, and no, the problem was not me. This post then is a “love letter” to other minoritized faculty (across multiple dimensions of marginality) in an attempt to harness some of what I have learned over the last 15 years and what I hope to reflect and perfect in year 16 and beyond.

*****

Dear Colleague,

First, congratulations and welcome to the faculty ranks! You have already accomplished a significant feat by earning your doctorate and attaining a faculty position. You are now a member of a very privileged group and the opportunities and burdens of that privilege should not be taken lightly. Nevertheless, that privilege may yet be undermined by the relative visibility of the minoritized identities you hold. If sometimes you feel as though you are living two different lives – perhaps received with awe and respect in one space but greeted with disdain and rebuke in another – it is true, you are. Some days it may seem as though there must be some veil that falls from your face when you leave campus to carry on the mundane business of your daily life. In one life you are smiled at and called Dr. So-and-So. In this other life, you are cut down by disgusted double-takes and driving-while-Black, catcalled “hey girl” walking down the street, or “fucking sissy” coming out of a local bar, or simply some foul slur any given moment. These are your two lives and sometimes that second life doesn’t respect you enough to get out of the way of your first life and remain hidden. Some days, that second life will show up in the midst of an academic triumph. It is a singular achievement, living two lives at once while not succumbing to the incoherence of it all.

Living this dual-life requires some cautions, some encouragement, and some blessings. I offer these humbly, knowing that they may miss the mark, come too late, or be too early to be understood. Use what you can, throw away what misses the mark, save for later that which doesn’t make sense now. Let me know what you do with this and what lessons you have learned, so that I can learn from you.

I hope that you will set boundaries around your dual lives. No, I urge you to set boundaries. Although your life may inform your teaching, you do not have to teach your life. Your body is not a textbook. Your heart is not a 16-week curriculum for others’ to attain their learning outcomes through the toil of your devastations.

There are likely other minoritized faculty on your campus, senior faculty, who share your particular marginalities. However, they don’t necessarily understand you or see the world the same as you. The world was different (and yet the same) when they became faculty. The academy was different (and the same). They were different (and the same). The survival strategies they adopted may not be meant for you. Their worldview may not mesh with yours. Their persistence may have required compromises you are unwilling to make. They may not know what to do with you. They may be toxic. Be patient with them recognizing that their toxicity is the inevitable result of learning to swim in a toxic pool. Learn what lessons you can about the institution you have joined. But, please, keep your distance from the toxic ones.

Yes, you will have to be better than and do more than the others. You may have heard this already as you were growing up. It’s a common mantra of parents to children in racially minoritized households. If you have minoritized identities of sexuality and/or gender and are White, this may be a new and unwelcome expectation. Yes, it is unfair. It is still truth. The best anecdote to ambiguous standards and biased systems is excellence. Be excellent. This is not a call to assimilation, but rather to doing the work, consistently, thoroughly, and at such a high level of quality that your haters must be silenced. This is also not a call to loudly proclaim how hard you’re working to everyone in your department. They don’t deserve to know that. They don’t deserve to see you sweat. This leads to the next point:

Everybody has not earned authenticity from you. Ancient wisdom cautions casting your pearls before pigs. Pigs eat everything and process it all as waste. Don’t allow others to make waste of your transparency, your authenticity, or your vulnerability. Wear Dunbar’s mask, but don’t forget that it is a mask. I implore you to find spaces and people with whom you can take off the mask so that it neither suffocates nor adheres to you.

Yes, you belong here. You. Belong. Here. Even in 2016, you may be “the first” or “the only” one of your kind of “diversity” in your department. You will survive. You can thrive. Do professional and civic service that has clearly defined tasks, a specified term of service, and which can keep you grounded in the communities that birthed you. You are needed to be a “possibility model” (L. Cox) for someone else. All the while, I hope that you will grow, learn, and expand the borders of your mind. You are as limitless as you will allow yourself to be. You cannot be contained by the boxes others will attempt to put you in due to their small imaginations. And, having found just the right sized box, it can be tempting to snuggle down and stay there. I hope that you will instead continue to take risks, to scare yourself, to throw yourself off new cliffs in your research, teaching, and service trusting that your wings will grow on the way down.

Finally, be clear about your values and where you come from. Find people and spaces outside the academy whom you can trust to check you in love. And yes, as Jesse Williams has asserted, you are magic. Find the people who will remind you of your gifts and encourage you to walk in them even when you are afraid. Yet, as Brother Jesse also said, you are real. Honor your body and your heart. Take care of it. Love on it. Allow it to be loved on. You will not last if you do not. We need you to stick around for a long time. We are better with you than without you, but you must value your health and wellness over all else. Don’t let this work define you. Live a full, expansive life. Live the life your ancestors could not have dreamed of. The fact is that neither side of that dual-life I referenced earlier is real. They are both constructions of oppression, the flip sides of fetish and repulsion. Don’t buy into either. Create a life that can transport you beyond.

In love; in hope; in solidarity,

D-L

Rape, Pregnancy, and Non Sequitors

*WARNING: You’ll likely be ticked off by the end of reading this by something I’ve said. If you are deeply wedded to life-begins-at-conception beliefs, you really won’t like this. So, if you don’t like having your beliefs and the ways you’ve always read your Bible challenged, then you should probably stop reading now. And if you are going to be annoyed because they are not a bunch of links to allow you to verify what I’m saying, then you might want to stop reading now also. I figure it’s late, I’m tired, and you are fully capable of Googling all this if you doubt its veracity. I don’t mean to sound mean or hostile, I just want you to be prepared. Smile.*

Rep. Todd Akin, who is running for a Senate seat in Minnesota Missouri and sits on the House Science committee, went on record last week saying that in cases of “legitimate rape” the female body has ways of shutting down to prevent pregnancy – ergo there’s no need for a rape or incest exemption from more restrictive abortion laws. While the Republican Party is fighting like hell to get Akin to drop out of his Senate race and is distancing the party from Akin faster than Usain Bolt from his competition on the track, the reality is that Akin’s ideas are not that different than the Republican Party platform. Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick, co-sponsored a bill with Todd Akin that would drastically redefine rape to be limited only to “forcible rape.” Moreover, the Republican Party platform will announce abortion policy that would make abortion much more difficult to access while NOT exempting rape and incest.

My outrage over this has been building since Akin’s comments went viral over the weekend, but what provoked me to write this post was Mike Huckabee’s, former candidate for president, response to Akin. He has claimed that since there are people who’ve done great things that were the product of a rape, there shouldn’t be a rape/incest exemption because we don’t know what “God” might do with that life to redeem the horrible circumstances under which they were created. Sigh. I’ve got 4 issues with this that I’ll run down right quick. These four issues are in addition to the idiocy and ignorance that led to Akin’s comment in the first place. Basically, I find these comments to be about as ludicrous as the DirecTV commercials but not nearly as comical.

Issue 1: I take issue with the ideology that every conception is a blessing because God is present at every conception. Okay, I know I just lost about half of you. Hear me out, please. In the Bible, it is written that when 2 or 3 are gathered together in my Name [God’s], there am I [God] in the midst. Well, I simply do not believe that rape –any kind of rape, stranger, date, forcible, deception, manipulation, incest, incapable of consenting – sets up the conditions that meet the criteria for God’s abiding presence. Just saying. Therefore, every conception isn’t necessarily a blessing. Besides, blessings don’t just exist inherently. To name an experience, event, circumstance, or situation is a blessing or not is to engage in constructive meaning-making of that experience, event, circumstance, or situation. Basically, what may be a blessing in my eyes, may not be a blessing in yours and I can’t push my interpretation on to you.

Issue 2: I take issue with the ideology that says that the ends justify the means. To make it sound religious, I’ll use a phrase I grew up hearing: “God writes straight with crooked lines.” Now, I just lost about a quarter of the rest of you still reading this. If you’ll bear with me, I think you’ll see what I’m saying. I do believe that good can come out of evil, however, that is not a justification for abetting the evil. You do not use what *might* happen that could be positive as justification for continuing to victimize the woman who’s been raped. She did not consent to the sexual act, she therefore did not consent to the pregnancy, and therefore she should not be forced to consent to give birth. Period.

Issue 3: Now for the other half of what’s wrong with this idea that if you abort the fetus that is the result of rape, you might be depriving the world of its next great thinker, scientist, freedom fighter, etc. I have three words for you: Get. Over. Yourself. Let me expound. As much as I have grown to love the movie, I blame “It’s a Wonderful Life” for this narcissistic belief that the world would be irreparably damaged if you (or anybody else) weren’t born. One thing I do know is that God will find someone else to fulfill your role in His divine plan (if there is such a thing – personally I just think that the grand plan is to get us to treat each other with justice and equity and we experience things that we can choose to allow us to push toward greater equity and justice or push us away from it). Besides, in the movie “The Butterfly Effect,” it’s eliminating someone from Ashton Kutcher’s character’s life that finally sets everything right.

Issue 4: I take issue with this ideology that a woman shouldn’t have the right to choose what happens with her own body and more so that she should not elevate her needs over that of the fetus inside her. In the words of moral development theorist Carol Gilligan, higher levels of moral development centered around an ethic of care, involve women seeing themselves as morally equivalent to others instead of continually sacrificing themselves for others when doing so results in self-harm. What I see in the Republican Party’s anti-choice platform (because let’s be real, they’re not pro-life), is a denial of women’s moral equivalency. And that is just oppressive.

P.S. – I know I’m missing a #higheredWed post, but that will have to come tomorrow. I’m still trying to get the hang of keeping to my writing schedule while I’m doing my archival research. :/

#higheredWed: Top 10 Don’ts for Diversity Workshops

This week’s #higheredWed blog post is about the diversity trainings and workshops that are going to be part of incoming students’ orientation experiences during their first few days on campus and mandatory elements of most trainings for new and returning residence life staffs. I’ve participated in a number of these trainings either as a student, RA, or professional staff member and have had to plan and facilitate a fair number as well. From my own experiences and conversations with friends and colleagues who facilitate these sessions, I’ve learned a number of pitfalls that seem to beset a lot of these trainings. I’m hoping this short list of cautions might make these important and necessary sessions better and more effective for all involved.

10. DON’T ASSUME KNOWLEDGE. Many of us who work in higher education and student affairs talk about issues of diversity, inclusion, and social justice on a regular basis. We are familiar with the terms, know the lingo, and are comfortable with the concepts regardless of whether we are of like-mind regarding how to implement them. However, as I was reminded this summer teaching the students in our university’s leadership scholars program, most other folks don’t share this familiarity with the language of social justice. Concepts such as pluralism, social justice, and inclusion, as well as distinctions between sex, gender, gender identity, and gender expression are not part of most folks’ everyday conversation. Take the time to explain what terms mean and how they are being used in the context of your institution.

9. DON’T FORGET TO MAKE CLEAR, REASONABLE LEARNING OUTCOMES. Start with the purpose of the session and your institutional context. Are you working with incoming first-year students on a residential campus who will need to learn how to live together effectively across lines of differences which may be unfamiliar to most of your students? What have been the major fault lines around diversity at your institution and in your local area in recent history (the last 5-10 years moreso than the past 25-30 years)? Are you training staff who will have to do educational programming and be prepared to mediate conflicts around issues of diversity? What are the specific foundational skills the RA staff need to effectively serve as first-responders and to build awareness and foundational knowledge through active and passive programming? For RA staffs, keep in mind that you’re asking them to do a lot of cognitive development and emotional maturity by putting them in the position of educating their peers and mediating conflicts about issues that they themselves may have only been introduced to a year ago. Meet them where they’re at, not where you need them to be; build the bride that will get them there. And then remember that people in your group, even that incoming class, may be at different places in their knowledge and understanding. Know what you need to accomplish with the group in this session and then plan to build on it later through successive workshops and programs.

8. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE EMOTIONAL LABOR INVOLVED. For first-year students, this may be the first time they have ever been asked to think and talk about issues of race, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, social class, and/or religion and faith in a formal setting. For some students, their college experience may be their first real, extended engagement with others who don’t share their race, gender identity, sexuality, social class, ability, or religious beliefs. Remember what it felt like when you first had your paradigms about what you had been taught and had assumed to be “normal” challenged and upended. These conversations bring up feelings of confusion, frustration, anger, sadness, guilt, shame, doubt, fear, and anxiety. As Sherry Watt has discussed about difficult dialogues and privileged identity exploration, people’s egos are often threatened in the midst of these discussions. You must prepare for that and make room for it in your learning outcomes and as you plan structured experiences.

7. DON’T SHORTCHANGE TIME FOR REFLECTION. I remember being formally taught this in class with Dr. Bob Rodgers during my master’s program at The Ohio State University. I remember really learning the value and importance of applying this caution after failing to apply it more than once in diversity workshops and trainings. I would have the group of students, or staff, do an activity and only leave 15 minutes to process it when usually at least 45 minutes were needed. This goes along with #9 and #8. If you only have two hours, you can’t try to squeeze in 2 activities that are going to be not only cognitively challenging, but also emotionally fraught and expect to get through them both effectively and with people’s hearts and minds still intact. If you only have two hours and can’t extend the time, you probably have just enough time to do some kind of short introduction activity and one structured experience.

6. DON’T GIVE IN TO THE BLACK-WHITE BINARY. I think particularly in predominantly White universities in the U.S., race and ethnicity easily become the lightning rods for diversity workshops. Racial and ethnic diversity are typically the most easily visible differences within a group and because racism is embedded in the foundations of this country, race easily takes all the focus. Moreover, discussions about race, especially in certain parts of the U.S., become only about Blacks and Whites, while other racially marginalized groups are ignored. Latin@s, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Native American and indigenous peoples, and multiracial folks all share histories of racial segregation, exclusion, and discrimination in the U.S. Moreover, systems of oppression affect myriad people on the basis of other social identities other than and intersected with race (e.g., sex, gender, sexuality, ability, age, social class, language, nationality and immigration status, convictional belief systems, to name just a few). There is no value in running an oppression Olympics; there’s no prize for being the “most oppressed” group and every system of oppression is equally unjust, hurtful, damaging, and destructive to developing and sustaining inclusive, pluralistic communities. Helping students understand the dynamics of oppression generally also helps avoid the next don’t, #5…

5. DON’T FORGET THE INTERSECTIONS OF PRIVILEGE AND OPPRESSION. Another consequence of getting trapped in the black-white binary or only discussing racial oppression, is that the White folks get the message that they have not experienced any form of oppression and the people of color in the room tune out of the conversation. First of all, as my friend and social justice mentor, Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington says, “just because you are doesn’t mean you understand.” Everybody has a learning edge in these discussions; people of color are not inherently more sophisticated about how privilege and oppression work just because they may be more likely to be recognize and acknowledge the affect of racial oppression. Second, most everybody in your workshop or training session is the member of one or more groups who receive privilege (i.e., unearned advantages and conferred dominance ala Allan G. Johnson), including people of color. ALSO, most everybody in the room holds group membership in one or more groups who are targeted by systematic and structural oppression, including white folks. The result is that everybody has privilege that needs to be examined and challenged and everybody can probably connect an unfamiliar knowledge about one system of oppression to another system of oppression with which they are more familiar. You may have to help folks see their privilege by getting them to reflect on ways they are NOT privileged first. Being transparent about your own intersections of privilege and oppression as a facilitator can go along way toward helping everybody understand on a deeper level.

4. DON’T MAKE GETTING ALONG AND HAVING FUN THE ONLY GOALS. Educating for diversity and social justice and teaching people about privilege isn’t about labeling some people bigots and other people victims (see #5 above). It’s also not about challenging whether people are “nice” people who can “tolerate” difference. You can be a nice person, donate your time and money in the service of others, bake a mean apple pie, and show civility to everyone in the room and still collude and enable systems of oppression to hurt, harm, and demean others. Moreover, getting people not to use offensive language and to hang out together in diverse groups is not the end goal of social justice. Multiculturalism is not achieved because you’ve got mixed race friendship groups in your residence hall or the jocks came to the Safe Zone Workshop and signed the pledge to be allies. I would hope our goals in higher education would be a little higher. We need people who are able to recognize and challenge oppressive practices and systems, advocate and make change, and to do so while building and sustaining relationships across lines of difference by practicing building trust and rapport founded in the active belief that every person is worthy of dignity and respect. Just because people seem to “get along” doesn’t mean that they are committed to pursuing equity. And, yes, I’ll say it, using “celebrate diversity” paradigms that put the focus on type-cast food, music, dancing, and festivals while ignoring education about structural inequality won’t lead to substantive, enduring change for social justice.

3. DON’T CONFUSE BEING SAFE WITH BEING COMFORTABLE. Also related to #4 is this caution about safety and comfort. We talk a lot in student affairs about “safe spaces” and creating such spaces for learning to take place. But being safe doesn’t mean you’re going to be comfortable. In fact, if you’re really learning anything, you’re going to feel pretty damn uncomfortable at some point in the process. Learning provokes discomfort, especially when the learning concerns diversity and social justice (see #8). Safety is about creating an environment where people feel that it is going to be okay for them to be vulnerable, to feel afraid, to experience discomfort and know that’s not going to be mocked, held against them, or judged by another participant in the session or by the facilitator. Safe spaces, yes. Comfortable spaces? Let’s hope not.

2. DON’T FORGET TO TAKE TIME BEFORE AND AFTER TO PREP AND RECOVER. This one is for those of you facilitating these workshops and training sessions. Even if you’ve done these trainings for a dozen years or more, it’s better to take the time to get yourself in a space to function as a tutor, mentor, guide, and support for these conversations. As another friend and mentor, Dr. Kathy Obear has discussed, you need to manage your triggers. What are the things that set you off? Prepare yourself ahead of time to deal with that trigger effectively so that the learning goals for the session are wrecked because you didn’t have yourself in check in advance. And then, once it’s over, give yourself time to recover. After I’ve taught a class session or run a workshop about these issues, I have learned that I must take time before and after to get centered, to remind myself of who I am and what I know, and to allow myself to feel whatever hurt, pain, or offense may have been inflicted unintentionally during the course of the session by a participant or co-facilitator. And that reminds me, if you’re working with someone else and facilitating the session together, take some time – a good deal of time – beforehand doing prep together, sharing each other’s triggers, and developing strategies to help and support each other during the session. After, schedule a time to debrief the session and again, help and support each other’s recovery process.

And finally, the #1 DON’T for diversity workshops…

1. DON’T FORGET THAT THIS IS JUST ONE STEP IN A LIFELONG PROCESS. You’re not going to transform that group of green first-year students into powerhouse social justice activists in one session. That group of RAs is not going to be able to effectively develop a diverse community on their floor, design compelling and provocative educational programs, and resolve every conflict like a thirty-year veteran after your day-long training. This is step one, or step two, or step ten, but it’s just one step. Becoming competent with diversity and social justice is a lifelong process. I’m still on my journey. So are you. And so will they. Use this session to plant a seed, or water the baby shoots, or do some weeding, or prune the branches. And then trust that another experience will come along to keep the process going; trust that they will seek opportunities to grow and learn more.

On Being an Angry Black Woman

Yes, I am an Angry Black Woman and I’m not sorry for it. Last Monday, The Root featured an article from Clutch Magazine by Shayla Pierce titled, “Sorry to Disappoint You, But I’m Not an Angry Black Woman.” This immediately piqued my interest and I read both the short excerpt on The Root’s website and the full article online at Clutch Magazine with a fair bit of wary curiosity.

In the article, Pierce recounts an encounter with a waiter while having lunch at a restaurant. There was something amiss with her soup, a foreign body floating in the broth, and Pierce called the waiter over and asked for her soup to be replaced. Pierce says that the waiter then became very tense, asking her to calm down, and everything would be taken care of. Now Pierce doesn’t recall getting loud, being contentious, or doing anything that would have provoked such a defensive response on the part of waiter. In her estimation, the waiter responded to the stereotype of an Angry Black Woman, instead of to the dissatisfied customer who was in front of him, who happened to be a Black woman. I recognized this in my own life; I have been told usually by White women that they find me “intimidating” and even that they were “afraid” of me. Like Pierce, I am pretty sure I’ve never given a public display of rage or even a level of impatience that would justify that kind of reaction. Granted, I don’t mince words often and I enunciate when I speak so that I can be heard and understood clearly; I don’t let my voice rise at the end of a declarative sentence as though I were asking a question and I don’t get easily intimidated by someone cutting me off while I’m speaking. None of this has to do with me being “angry” and I think a lot of it comes from being born and raised in New York City, attending high school at an all-girls school (Convent of the Sacred Heart), and being socialized in Black rhetorical styles on the playground, at church, and foremost in my own house. All of this upbringing has shaped my personality such that I’m usually somewhat stern at first glance and speak clearly, directly, and don’t take anyone’s b.s. Guilty as charged.

However, Pierce’s key point was to assert a certain way of being as a Black woman. As the title indicates, she’s sorry to disappoint those who expect her to become enraged at the slightest provocation, the epitome of what I guess she thinks it means to be an Angry Black Woman. She says, not necessarily incorrectly, that the Angry Black Woman is a myth, a stereotype, and she proactively and assertively disputes the stereotype through deliberately refusing to display anger, especially when White people are present. I heard a mid-level student affairs professional, a Black woman, express a similar sentiment in a training I did last Monday. She confessed that sometimes, many times, she would hide her authentic reaction to a situation fearing that if she were to show up authentic in that moment that she would be seen as the Angry Black Woman and lose her credibility as a professional working with a staff of predominantly White people. Pierce also acknowledges that Black women’s anger is often dismissed, causing real, substantive issues to be ignored while folks focus on the display of anger being performed and judge it to be a farce.

Hmmmm.

Anger does make people awfully uncomfortable, especially when they and their actions are the target of that anger. When marginalized groups get angry about their oppression, dominant groups tend to get jittery. In the same vein, anger is not always the appropriate response to every situation. As Pierce recounts in her article, something floating in her soup that wasn’t on the menu wasn’t much cause for rage. However, there are many issues and situations in life where anger and rage are not only appropriate and justified but are demanded.

I find it interesting that anger has been used to negatively stereotype Black women, “saucy” Latina women, Asian women, indigenous women, lesbian women, PMSing women – do you see a trend here? Yup, they’re all WOMEN who are systematically oppressed because they do not fit into the ideal trope of hegemonic femininity. Women aren’t supposed to be angry apparently and when they are angry, it’s a farce, a ridiculous display of inappropriate emotion. Moreover, women aren’t supposed to clearly and directly express the changes they want to see in their lives and in the lives of those around them (I’d like a new bowl of soup please). Women must control themselves and not be intimidating (read strong) otherwise people (read people with power) won’t take them seriously (read won’t be able to see them as cute anymore).

Oh please.

Several years ago, I read a book by bell hooks* called Killing Rage. When I first saw the title, I thought killing was meant to be a verb and assumed the book was going to be about squelching rage. Consequently I read it with a fair amount of apprehension; this was meant to teach me how not to be angry and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that. But no, killing is being used as an adjective in the title and as a verb. Once I realized that, reading the book became very transformative for me. In her book, hooks justifies the need for what she calls a killing rage – a rage that is inspired by recognition of oppression and a passion for justice. This kind of rage should be stoked, not for the purpose of destructive violence, but rather to maintain one’s fire when you want to give up. But that’s just half the lesson of the book. hooks also documents the ways in which dominant systems try to squelch, or kill, the rage of marginalized groups for the purposes of maintaining the status quo. The first step to maintaining power and control is to diffuse people’s anger.

So, sometimes, when it’s warranted, I am an Angry Black Woman and I am not sorry for it. I am angry in response to systematic oppression and privilege, not because there’s a fly in my soup, Aldo’s doesn’t carry men’s size 6 in stock in Toledo, or even because somebody stepped on my foot in a crowded line outside the World of Coca-Cola. I am reclaiming the Angry Black Woman because her anger is useful and historically and presently justified as a fitting response to the killing and maiming of her sons and fathers, the raping of her daughters and sisters, the drying up of dreams like Langston Hughes’s raisin in the sun, and the constant threat of horror upon horror unleashed by an oppressive state.

I am not giving up my anger. As that participant said by the end of the training, it’s time to stop caring what everybody else thinks and show up authentic. Being angry doesn’t mean that I could be subject to psychotic rage at any given moment – that’s the stereotype, the farce that makes for high ratings on reality TV. Real anger, bell hooks’ killing rage, is fuel for action. Bayard Rustin didn’t school Martin Luther King, Jr. in nonviolent protest tactics because they weren’t angry, but because they knew how to use their anger as fuel, as motivation. Anger isn’t the absence of love, either. Both anger and love are rooted in passion, but moreso, anger is an outgrowth of loving something so much that you can’t stand to see it fail to fulfill its promise. Anger is also a sign of hope and faith that says you have not resigned yourself to the inevitability of the outcome. As Popeye used to say, “I can’t stands it no more!”

I think we all need to get angry so that we can all make change happen on behalf of justice.

Next time on #higheredWed, my response to the Penn State controversy.

*bell hooks intentionally does not capitalize the first letters in her name and so neither am I.

Preparing Tomorrow’s Leaders Today

This summer I have had the pleasure of teaching a cohort of incoming first-year students at Bowling Green State University who are participating in the Sidney A. Ribeau President’s Leadership Academy (PLA). These twenty-five students are merit scholars, mostly from Ohio and Michigan (Detroit, in particular). This racially diverse group (mostly either Black or White) spends their very first summer at BGSU getting an introduction to college, taking classes in writing and communication, leadership, service-learning, and information technology and library skills. For the past four years, the summer session has also had a workshop series on diversity. This year, the diversity component is a class, four sessions of 90 minutes each, and is being graded along with the other classes they are taking.

This is my first year teaching in the summer program and I’m their instructor for the diversity course. My objectives are simple (or so I thought): to expose them to issues of difference and diversity beyond race; to help them see each other’s diversity and the ways that systematic privilege has differentiated their lives; and to set them on the path toward allyship and acting as leaders amongst their peers for promoting pluralism and social justice. We’ve completed two of four sessions and the twenty-five students in my class have taught me a great deal about how much they don’t know and haven’t been taught.

For instance, the terms privilege and oppression were themselves foreign concepts to many of them. They seemed surprised to consider that biracial and multiracial people don’t have to choose one race or the other and that race itself isn’t a biologically determined fact but a social construction – like gender. And then they didn’t know the difference between sex and gender – although this is hardly surprising since most adults don’t know that and the terms are consistently conflated in the public discourse, including survey items (see my forthcoming article in TRUTH magazine for a more extended discussion of this). We spent nearly forty-five minutes in Q&A expanding their dichotomous assumptions to include intersex and transgender people and ideas like androgyny so that they thought of sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation as continuums instead of binaries. Explanations begat more questions, which begat further explanations and further questions. Finally I had to just stop the discussion because I had to explain an assignment that’s due on Tuesday. And then that prompted more confusion.

Students weren’t confused because I was trying to force them into believing some kind of liberal ideology that didn’t reflect their realities. Each of them could name the social groups they were members of and, for the most part with the exception of social class, they knew whether those social groups were privileged or marginalized. There was no rejection of the concepts, no refusal even to recognize that groups they weren’t members of were marginalized. (Whether they believed that marginalization was unjust is a different issue that I didn’t have time to dig into – yet.) Most of them just had never had anybody talk with them about any of this before, in a class, before this summer. They aren’t just confronting these kinds of issues in my class either; the leadership class instructors are also delving into these issues as they introduce them to Astin’s Social Change Model of Leadership (here’s a book by Susan Komives based on the model) that PLA is based on.

All this got me thinking about when is the right time to start these conversations. I hesitate to make the argument that multicultural competence is one more thing that K-12 isn’t doing right and should be doing. Sorry, you won’t catch me beating up on K-12 educators. Yes, exposing young children to diversity and teaching them that they don’t have to be afraid of difference and they can stand up to bullying and unfair treatment can be taught in elementary, middle, and high schools. AND there are lots of good teachers out there who are doing just that in classrooms across the country (check out this great example of a school in Oakland, CA that introduces the concept of gender diversity, though not without controversy).

However, that’s not the end of the line and higher education has a duty and responsibility to continue students on that journey. Research has indicated that understanding diversity beyond superficial, dichotomous, value judgments requires both psychosocial maturity and cognitive complexity that is simply not present prior to college for most young adults (Baxter Magolda & King, 2005; Chickering & Reisser, 1993; King & Shuford, 1996). Moreover, groups like the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) assert the need to include knowledge and appreciation of diversity and skill with relating across lines of difference in their essential learning outcomes and a plethora of research demonstrates the positive growth and development associated with exposure to diversity-related experiences in college (Bowman, 2010; Denson, 2009; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006).

Yet, all too often whether to include any focused discussion on diversity, multicultural competence, and social justice is subject to debate and academics from different disciplines struggle to agree upon what constitutes appropriate language, pedagogy, and outcomes. Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague at another institution during which she explained that multicultural competence wasn’t a required part of the curriculum that was taught in the honors program there although it was included as a learning outcome. It seems that for some administrators and faculty in colleges and universities, diversity and multicultural competence are not seen as learning outcomes, but rather as recruitment goals and retention tools.

If we don’t deliberately equip college students – of all ages – with the multicultural awareness, multicultural knowledge, and multicultural skills needed to effectively live and work in an increasingly diverse global society, then we cannot say that we are preparing good leaders, or leaders at all. That equipping must begin early in their college experiences, yes, even their first semester on campus. Therefore, battling through the frustration, confusion, and blown lesson plans is worth it to help get at least this cohort of students a little further in the journey toward realizing a just society. Hopefully, some of this will stick and as they continue through their time at BGSU, they’ll build on the foundation we’ve laid this summer. Hopefully.

References:

Baxter Magolda, M. B., & King, P. M. (2005). A developmental model for intercultural maturity. Journal of College Student Development, 46(6), 571-592.

Bowman, N. A. (2010). College diversity experiences and cognitive development: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 80, 4-33.

Chickering, A., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Denson, N. (2009). Do curricular and co-curricular diversity activities influence racial bias? A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 79, 805-838.

King, P.M., & Shuford, B. C. (1996). A multicultural review is a more cognitively complex view: Cognitive development and multicultural education. American Behavioral Scientist, 40(2), 153-164.

Pettigrew, T. G., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 751-783.