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Letter to the Editor: Start being proactive to situations of oppression

By Johnathan Flowers

Administrators, faculty and staff,

Many of you have argued in statements to the campus that embodying the values of “diversity and inclusion” present in the mission of our university will protect us from the wave of intolerance that has emerged following the election.

We can see this appeal in interim Chancellor Brad Colwell’s Nov. 10 statement to the campus: “We value individuals, diversity and inclusion. Anything less diminishes all of us. Free speech is an important right and value that we should use wisely and respectfully.” In the changed climate wrought by this election, we no longer have time for this naiveté.

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We no longer have time because the entire black freshman class of the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, was added to a Facebook group named “Nigger Lynching.” We no longer have time because this climate enabled two white men from Babson College to engage in their racially and sexually motivated intimidation of students of African descent at Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton’s alma mater. We no longer have time for this naiveté because this nation, which Colwell has said repeatedly is reflected by the university, has long since decided that some individuals don’t have value.

We no longer have time because this changed climate has given license to students at New York University’s Brooklyn engineering campus to deface the prayer room used by its Muslim students with Trump graffiti. I will re-iterate: this climate has made permissible the defacing of designated prayer spaces by members of a campus community. This, in particular, should be of grave concern, administration, faculty, and staff, because our own institution provides a similar space for worship on campus. We no longer have time for administration, faculty, and staff to be “tolerant” of their colleagues’ inability to grasp the gravity of the situation, nor do we have time for them to be “respectful” of their colleagues’ hurt feelings or their guilt. The time for coddling has passed.

Do not misunderstand: by saying that we no longer have the time for doing things with “respect and tolerance,” for coddling of administration, faculty and staff, I am saying that we no longer have the time to engage in diversity work in a way that preserves the feelings of the power majority.

Put another way, we no longer have the time to continue with the present trend of relying upon marginalized faculty, staff and administrators to make clear to their colleagues their experiences of oppression on this campus in a vain attempt to promote “diversity.” Doing so places the onus of education upon those who already understand the reality of the situation of oppression they are living in.

By focusing our diversity work on the experiences of the marginalized, we preserve the feelings of the power majority by not exposing the way that they have directly contributed to the perpetuation of a society that maintains the conditions for those experiences. This is not a call for education that seeks to assign blame for the situation of oppression on those of you who might identify with the power majority; rather, this is a call for education that forces administrators, faculty and staff across all axis of identity to immediately confront the way in which they are complicit in situations of oppression.

Allow me to be crystal clear: we no longer have the time to “gently” educate you, and your colleagues, on the ways in which your failure to recognize your privileged identities directly contributes to your inability to “solve” the problems of institutionalized oppression at your institution, nor do we have the time to allow you to avoid taking responsibility for that failure.

And, if we are to be serious, we should look at the way the institution relies upon the marginalized to explain their experiences in the language of the power majority as an example of the evasion of this responsibility.

Demanding that you take responsibility for your failure to understand the ways in which your privilege affects the way in which you manage this institution, your classrooms, and its support structures is not the same as blaming you for the way that they perpetuate oppression.

Rather, it is to demand that you acknowledge this failure and move immediately to address it. It is to demand that you stop being reactive to situations of oppression, and start being proactive. This isn’t asking you to “check your privilege;” this is asking you to see that you have privilege in the first place.

If my words are not enough, then let me rephrase that last statement in the words of George Yancy, who was recently invited to our sister campus: “use this letter as a mirror, one that refuses to show you what you want to see, one that demands that you look at the lies that you tell yourself so that you don’t feel the weight of responsibility.”

Now, the content of the lies you tell yourselves isn’t important: what is important is that they enable you to evade the responsibility that I am speaking of. It is the same responsibility that faculty, staff and administrators have evaded in all their diversity programming, their seminars. It is the responsibility to recognize your own privilege and to take action.

Allow me to pause here: at this point, many of you may have started to engage in some of the defensive reactions common to members of privileged groups when confronted with their participation in institutionalized oppression. Some of you may have simply written me, and this piece, off as another one of those “deviant university leaders spouting off all this diversity garbage,” who deserves to be arrested, tortured, tarred and feathered. You may thank the anonymous students at Texas State University for that clever turn of phrase.

I’m not speaking specifically to them, or those members of privileged groups who’ve made a sport of dismissing pieces like this as “social justice warrior” nonsense. I am not speaking to those of you who I lost at the third paragraph: I am speaking to the readers, the administrators, faculty and staff who have begun to read only for the sake of generating a counter-argument.

I am speaking to all of you who call yourselves “allies.” I am speaking to the administrators, faculty and staff “allies” who express vocal support for “equality” or “equity,” take your pick, but fail to hold your fellow privileged colleagues accountable for their perpetuation of institutionalized oppression. I am speaking to those administrators, faculty and staff who will claim the title of “ally,” and then lie through their action or inaction.

I’m speaking to every administrator, faculty or staff member who will nod politely in understanding (another one of those lies I spoke of earlier) while their colleagues or their students explain time and time again their experience of oppression at this institution, yet will do nothing to incorporate the experience communicated into their pedagogical, institutional or social practices. I am speaking of what Thomas Paine would call the “sunshine ally,” or the “summertime ally” who would shrink from the responsibility of holding themselves or their colleagues accountable in times of crisis. What we need now are the “winter allies,” who are unwilling to be silent, who are unwilling to allow oppression to persist. You can thank John Kerry for that turn of phrase.

By now, those readers who are not reading defensively, will have generated an image of the administrators, faculty and staff that I am indicating in this piece. This image is likely straight, white and probably male, but given the vocal conversation about the 53 percent of white women who supported our president-elect, this image cannot be assumed to be exclusively male.

This image is incorrect. This image is a lie told by those administrators, staff and faculty who themselves are marginalized, yet consistently fail in holding members of their own community accountable for the ways in which they perpetuate oppression.

Thus, I return to the statement at the beginning of this piece: we are out of time. We are out of time for the multiply-marginalized to gently remind you that marginalization along one axis of identity does not make you immune from the perpetuation of oppression.

Let me unpack that: if you’re a queer man, you can be sexist; if you’re a Black man, you can be homophobic; if you’re an able-bodied queer Latino woman, you can be ableist. If you’re a white passing biracial Asian-American, you can still perpetuate white supremacy. We are out of time for the lies you tell yourself to evade responsibility for your internalized oppression.

We are out of time for us to work through how you can be both privileged and marginalized at the same time. We no longer have the time to engage in questions of authenticity and respectability, nor the politics based upon them. We are out of time to gently help guide you through the thicket of your internalized oppression.

We are out of time for you to predicate your allyship on the mistaken assumption that your marginalization prevents you from repeating the mistakes of your more privileged colleagues. We are out of time for the lies you tell yourself to retain your position of security, while others suffer.

More specifically, we no longer have the luxury of time necessary to figure out whether or not you will stand with the multiply marginalized members of your community without your making explicit your willingness to stand in solidarity, to include them in the work necessary to survive the social shift ushered in by the election.

Let me put it simply, we cannot assume that you stand with the multiply marginalized members of your community without you committing to action that makes clear your position. Once again, we are out of time for you to claim the title of “ally” and then lie to us through your inaction.

All of the above is not to say that we need to abandon our diversity initiatives for administrators, faculty and staff: we simply need to do them differently, and with reference to the changed social world that we all live in.

Institutionally, we no longer have the time to wait for you to cultivate an understanding of “diversity” and “inclusion” through seminars and committee meetings which are focused exclusively on your marginalized colleagues’ experiences of unwelcome. We no longer have the time to generate ad-hoc committees to investigate why your colleagues lack a critical understanding of the lived experience of their marginalized students, colleagues and superiors.

If we are going to do “diversity” differently in this changed world, we must re-center our focus on your (our) collective responsibility to understand our own privilege. The time for administrators, faculty and staff to “check” their privilege is over: they must quickly come to recognize the way in which that privilege is carried with them even in their allyship, and how best to use it in the brave new world in which many of us, students, faculty and staff, will struggle to survive.

Administrators, faculty and staff, if they are truly to fulfill the mission of the institution, must begin to think differently about diversity not merely as how to “deal with” their diverse colleagues, but how to hold accountable their privileged colleagues.

None of this is in violation of the Saluki Creed quoted so eloquently by Colwell. In fact, I would argue that this is in keeping with the following section of the Saluki Creed: “As a Saluki, I pledge to advance learning. I will practice personal and academic integrity. I will participate as an active learner to the maximum of my potential. I will demonstrate concern for others by developing, encouraging, and maintaining an environment conducive to learning.”

In my view, part of practicing personal and academic integrity is the holding accountable of our colleagues for the way in which they cause suffering for others.

Now, there is a tradition in higher education of generating “best practices” and “methodologies” to address institutional issues which can be said to inhibit the maintenance of an environment conducive to learning. We can look at these things as institutional solutions to social problems, or as a mode of “academic integrity.”

These solutions have their place, but they are often rigid and inflexible: they are unable to accomplish the goals set for them. What I am pointing to here is the need for a social solution to an institutional problem, a need for personal integrity. While I have suggested a shift in programming and seminars, this was but a minor point: the focus of this piece has been on a change in the way we interact socially through the institution.

This change, again, is accountability. By demanding administrators, faculty and staff hold one another accountable, I am not referring to the use of the punitive measures available through the institution; I am referring to the use of the punitive measures available socially to privileged administrators, faculty and staff.

Or, in the language commonly used by students: collect your people. When you witness your privileged colleagues dismissing the experiences of your marginalized colleagues, stop them. When you hear your colleagues dismissing the experience of their marginalized students, stop them.

By “stop them,” I do not necessarily mean “shout them down,” but point out the way in which their dismissal comes from a place of privilege and reinforces the very problem they seek to correct and do so publicly. The time for administration, faculty and staff to engage in inaction due to concern about putting their social reputation on the line has passed.

If you witness your colleague engaged in oppressive behavior, excoriate them publicly. Embarrass them over the list-serv. Call them out in meetings. Make clear to your colleagues, your subordinates, your direct reports that you will not tolerate the perpetuation of oppression regardless of position in the institution. Embody the very personal integrity many of you claim to possess.

If those suggestions are too much for the culture of professionalism, fine. Though I would suggest administration, faculty and staff consider the ways in which “professionalism” is often used as a tool to silence their marginalized colleagues and students. Consider who sets the standards for “professional conduct,” particularly where that conduct involves avoiding holding accountable your colleagues in the moment of their oppressive action.

Consider how the standards of “professionalism” and “objectivity” prevent you from doing more than issuing documents and statements. Consider the ways in which your standards of “professionalism” are at odds with the personal integrity you claim to embody.

Finally, if even that is too much for administrators, faculty and staff, then I might suggest simply being present. Show up and stand with your students and colleagues when they challenge institutional oppression. Attend student focused programming on marginalization. Ask for the opinions of your marginalized colleagues. Create space for them to speak in administrative, faculty or staff meetings. While this hedges dangerously close to relying upon your marginalized colleagues for their experience, many of them are simply not given room to speak their truth in the halls of administration. Creating this space, and protecting it, is the first concrete step to being an active ally.

If you find yourself unable to do any of the following, I have one final suggestion, and this might be the hardest thing of all. If you, administrators, faculty and staff, are unable to hold your colleagues accountable, perhaps you should take heed of the words of George Yancy: “take a deep breath… Try to listen, to practice being silent. There are times when you must quiet your own voice to hear from or about those who suffer in ways that you do not.” Again, allow me to rephrase: sit down, shut up and listen.

Now is one of those times when you must be silent when we speak to you. We no longer have time for you to listen to disagree or to quote policy; you need listen to incorporate the concerns of your colleagues and your students into your actions. We no longer have time to debate the “severity” of the campus climate; you need to hear us when we say we’ve been standing in the weather, and it just got a hell of a lot worse.

We need you to listen and take seriously the words I, and your colleagues are saying to you, and to act upon them: our survival as individuals, and as an institution, depends upon it.

Johnathan Flowers is a doctoral candidate in philosophy from Oak Park.

Letters to the editor can be submitted by emailing [email protected] 

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1 Comment

One Response to “Letter to the Editor: Start being proactive to situations of oppression”

  1. Francis Gatimu on January 3rd, 2017 7:31 pm

    Words cannot start to explain the revived sense of social impetus this article has given me as a marginalized minority. I am excited to join in echoing a voice for action, in unabashedly speaking against intolerance in every social circle. Thank you for your challenging words.

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