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White People: Yes, It is Difficult For You To Talk About Race — That’s Part Of Racism’s Design

Source: Victoria Pickering, https://www.flickr.com/photos/vpickering/

Preface

This summer, I caused quite a stir on my university’s faculty listserv on the matter of institutionalized racism in higher education. My esteemed colleague, Dr. Bedelia Richards, wrote a terrific essay on the matter: “Is Your University Racist? Five Questions Every Institution Should Ask Itself.”

I subsequently caused another stir on the UR faculty listserv by criticizing my university’s inaction in the face of an law student group’s invitation for Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation to speak on campus for the fourth time in recent years — this time, to peddle scientific transphobia thinly disguised as legitimate legal and scientific analysis. (See my blog post on the matter here.)

Several colleagues — mostly white, heterosexual, cisgender women and men — have reached out to commend my bravery, invite me to lunch or coffee, and/or to tell me how they could never speak out so publicly and brazenly. I am grateful, but admittedly annoyed, for a few reasons.

First, I’ve come to recognize that what seems like bravery on my part is actually just efforts to do the work that my university has failed to do. Calling out institutionalized racism and cissexism falls to individual students, staff, and faculty when the university neglects to do so; and, such work looks (and is) brave.

Second, I don’t want to keep having lunches and coffees. These invitations are kind gestures, but they require more and more time and emotional labor, including the back-and-forth of multiple emails just to find a time that works for our schedules. I’m not speaking out to be praised or validated; I’m speaking out because my safety and livelihood depend upon real efforts to challenge racism (mine, as well as yours). Rarely have these one-off meetings turned into long-term friendship or even sustained support/mentorship/sponsorship/advocacy on my behalf.

And, finally, these interactions demand of me that I absolve white, heterosexual, cis people of failing to speak up in the face of injustice. I resent when privileged people confide in me about why they refuse to fight against the systems of oppression that constrain my life chances and quality of life, systems from which they benefit. What’s uncomfortable or inconvenient to you is literally oppressive and violent for me.

So, I took to Twitter once again to speak to white people on challenges (yet importance) of talking about race and racism. You can see the rant in its original Twitter form here. (Also check out my last one, “White People: You’re Racist, But This Isn’t About You.”)

What follows is a slightly revised version in essay form, reorganized to improve clarity and flow.

You Are Afraid To Talk About Race & Racism

White folks: so, you don’t know how to talk about race – but you want to. You feel paralyzed by fear or ignorance, and might decide to defer to someone who is “well-versed” on the subject matter. But, you feel guilty, and you want people of color to whom you are an ally to know that you aren’t racist (just scared).

Whatever the reason for your silence, you’ve made a conscious decision to remain silent about race, perhaps even in the face of racist injustice. White privilege allows you to feel like an individual who made a difficult decision. But, in reality, most white people choose silence. And, those individual decisions to remain silent add up to collective white silence, to white complicity in racist oppression, or even white consent to racist violence.

And, that’s exactly how white silence feels. As a person of color, I cannot discern between your fear-stricken silence and the silence of white people who don’t think that racism exists, who think that race only emerges as a topic or factor when people of color bring it up (i.e., “playing the race card), or who simply do not value the lives of people of color. The impact of your silence is literally the same as that of Klansmen, Nazis, most white Republicans, and other garden-variety racists.

You Lack The Language To Talk About Race & Racism

White folks: of course you feel that you do not know what to say on racial matters, or how to intervene in racist incidents. Very few of us are well-versed on the topics of race and racism. Even as a race scholar (academic expertise) and person of color (personal experience), I struggle to communicate the complex, structural, pervasive nature of racism to other people — even other academics. It may seem like people of color can talk readily, freely, and endlessly about race, but we just have lots of practice given our everyday lived experiences in a racist nation.

Of course you don’t know how to constructively talk about race. You don’t have to (thanks to white privilege). And, you’ve gotten little to no practice with it (thanks to white privilege and racism). It has never been a skill that white families desired to or felt it necessary to teach their children. There is no widely accessible script afforded to white people for talking about race or fighting racism. It’s like learning a new language or skill.

But, worse, racism makes it so that there are risks inherent to white people talking constructively about racism. In the past, anti-racist whites have been called “race traitors” and “nigger-lovers,” etc. The system is designed to protect itself from white individuals attempting to undermine it. So, of course you are clueless about how to talk about racism. And, of course, you are nervous to “go off script.”

Because you feel you lack the “right” language, you may be tempted to defer to someone who is seemingly better equipped to talk about and address racism. In doing so, the responsibility typically falls to whichever people of color are present for that conversation or incident. As usual, it’s those victimized by the system who are burdened with the responsibility of trying to get those who benefit from racism to give a damn, to listen, to learn, to act.

Too often, I see white people defer to others (people of color) to talk about race and act in the face of racial injustice — and, then never make an effort to educate themselves about race and racism. If we think of such knowledge as “racial literacy,” then an equivalent inaction would be realizing you don’t know how to properly use the reply-all feature on a listserv or group email but never bothering learn how. But, while unnecessary replies-to-all are annoying and inconvenient, collective white ignorance about racist oppression literally has dire and deathly consequences for people of color.

You Lack The Right Knowledge About Race & Racism

White folks: if you actually go on to educate yourself when you have been forced to acknowledge ignorance about racism, then please do not hit up the lone person of color you know to educate you. We do not get paid for this labor — and it is labor that is requested often.

Speaking from experience, I can tell you that most white folks (even the most liberal, well-intentioned ones) are not 100% open as students. So, with the labor of educating you about how you benefit from our domination, we risk your anger, frustration, cluelessness, dismissal, co-opting, resentment, etc.

Understand that you are not the only, nor the first or last, white person to ask questions of, to play devil’s advocate with, to process your feelings about racism with a given person of color. That time and energy adds up and, honestly, for too little payoff. You need to note that these conversations may be taxing, upsetting, or even triggering for us because it can feel like our safety and livelihood depend upon the outcome.

There are countless books written, documentaries and films and TV shows produced, and courses offered on race and racism, many by people of color. The widespread existence of academic programs in Racial and Ethnic Studies, Black Studies, Asian American Studies, American Indian Studies, Latina/o/x Studies, etc. tells you that there are a great deal of scholarly and creative works on our lives, and on race and racism. I recommend becoming a student of these fields to minimize the labor tasked to individual people of color to respond to the infinite questions asked by white strangers, friends, relatives, neighbors, students and teachers, medical professionals, law enforcement officers, etc.

You Feel Uncomfortable Talking About Race & Racism

White folks: please stop waiting for talking about race to be comfortable. Racism is a system of oppression. It’s never going to feel like a topic that’s lighthearted enough to absentmindedly bring up at Thanksgiving dinner.  (You’ve seen the hilarious Saturday Night Live skit, “A Thanksgiving Miracle,” right?)

As such, I encourage you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Your comfort in the face of the inhumane system of racism is an example of white privilege. Being comfortable with racism (or ignoring it) is not a luxury people of color enjoy. Personally, I don’t need you to tell me how brave I am for speaking up. In reality, I’m petrified every time I speak up! You can bravely speak up in the face of racial injustice and still be afraid or anxious or nervous. It’s not an easy thing to do — for anyone.

Your discomfort is a reasonable feeling. But, I want to caution you against confiding that fear in the few people of color in your life. You will certainly not be the first white person to say “I care, but I am too afraid to speak up.” Please, stop coming to us to absolve you of your fear-induced silence in the face of racism.

People of color have to be brave in the face of racism because our survival literally depends upon it. We don’t have a choice in the matter. But, when you let fear silence you, you’re enjoying the luxury of choosing to speak up (or not) about racism afforded to you by white privilege. The consequence of your silence and inaction is not death; in reality, the main consequence is maintaining your white privilege.

Strategies For Addressing Racism

White folks, if I may offer some strategies to those who genuinely want to challenge racism:

1) Take the time to get educated, for knowledge is power.

2) Build an anti-racist arm. Have a relative or coworker or friend who can echo your concerns when you speak up to minimize the risk of being the lone voice of dissent or concern.

3) Be proactive about developing some relatively easy way of saying “hey, wait! that’s problematic/racist/offensive!” Racism is a given, a daily reality. So, please act accordingly. Stop being surprised when it rears its ugly head — because it will, over and over again.

4) Take some time to find one good, accessible resource to share for further information, especially if you don’t feel equipped to say anything more than “hey, that’s racist!”

5) Wherever you have power, make space for people of color so that you don’t have to speak on our behalf (especially if you’re too afraid to speak about race and racism). Don’t leave it to us to do the work, but I’m noting here that there are infinite spaces in which we aren’t even allowed.

6) Don’t be so concerned with what other white people think of you. To the extent that you are trying to get the approval of other whites, you are only maintaining your white privilege. The beauty of white privilege is that you can piss off other white people by constantly talking about racism, calling other whites on their blindspots and biases, and not lose out or be harmed in the huge ways that we do (violence, termination, exclusion, dismissal, etc.). Remember, white privilege is like a boomerang. You can attempt to relinquish it – for example, by confronting a racist uncle – but, it will always come back to you. You don’t stop being white (and privileged accordingly).

7) If you speak up against racism, then don’t expect people of color to thank you and pat you on the head for being a “good white.” Our validation shouldn’t be your desired goal for fighting racism. In fact, I encourage you to learn to be OK with being called racist by people of color. Besides, “you’re racist” is a pinch compared to being oppressed by racism. So, thicken up that skin, please.

8) Recognize that fighting racism isn’t about you. Take your ego out of it. Do it because it is right.

9) Be patient with yourself (and others). Race relations are inherently tense and fraught — that’s by design. But, that can’t be an excuse to give up, to stop speaking up, to stop learning, to stop asking for assistance and co-conspirators. At the same time, please appreciate that people of color won’t necessarily be patient with you, and probably shouldn’t even grant you patience while you slowly begin addressing racism. Again, don’t get hung up on how we feel about you. We lack enough power for our feelings to be of much consequence for you — but, your silence and inaction makes you complicit in the system that devastates our lives.

10) Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. One big challenge is that you cannot try to retain the comforts of white middle-class life and challenge racism. The former exists because of white privilege.

11) Get comfortable with feeling ignorant, and owning that ignorance in front of others. Remember that your supposed ignorance about racism is yet another manifestation of white privilege — you don’t HAVE to be versed in racism. That is by design. Our social institutions reinforce that luxury: K-12 and college curricula overwhelmingly feature the lives and contributions and histories of white people; mainstream TV, film, pop culture are so, so, so white; and, businesses cater to upper- and middle-class whites tastes.

12) Start talking to other white people about racism. You have access to spaces and relationships to which we are denied full access. Even if you still lack the language and courage to readily engage in, for example, a discussion of mass incarceration as a modern day form of Jim Crow racism, you can at least invite other white people to talk about race, or even call bigoted whites on their racist comments and behaviors. At the very minimum, you can pose seemingly innocent questions in response to problematic comments or behaviors that demand other whites to explain themselves (possibly revealing initially veiled racial biases) or rethink their comments/actions.

Closing Thoughts

White people: confronting racism is hard and scary. I hear you! It entails getting your hands dirty, getting your feelings hurt, maybe alienating your racist uncle, and losing friends who voted for Obama (twice) but keep saying “all lives matter.”

A bit of tough love here — you are naive to assume it would ever be comfortable and easy. (Don’t you think we would have eliminated it by now if that were the case?) I recommend thinking about fighting racism as akin to going to war. Just as you wouldn’t expect to maintain your usual comfortable lifestyle during wartime, you cannot expect it when fighting racism. In fact, if you are comfortable while you are fighting racism, then I suspect you’re doing it wrong.

But, ya gotta do it. Ending racism necessitates real effort by white people to bring the system down. It’s not about you, but we need you.

Defending My “Right to Exist” As A Black, Queer, Non-Binary Professor at the University of Richmond

You may consider this rather long essay a follow-up to my earlier blog post, “A Response to My University President’s Essay on Free Speech.” In that essay, I responded to my university president’s essay in the Hechinger Report entitled, “Defending the ‘right to be here’ on campus.” In his essay, Dr. Ronald A. Crutcher expressed the following concern regarding limitations on free speech on college campuses:

[I]n a Gallup poll released and supported by the Knight Foundation, 92 percent of students said they believed that political liberals could “freely and openly” express their views on campus while only 69 percent of students said that conservatives enjoyed such freedoms…Overall, 61 percent of students, a sizable majority, said that their campus climate prevented some people from speaking freely. In the current climate, it appears that those most likely to be silenced are those who hold politically conservative viewpoints.

Following the bloody white nationalist riot in Charlottesville, VA just before Fall 2017 classes started at the University of Richmond (UR), President Crutcher sent a campus-wide email expressing a commitment to promoting diversity and protecting free speech. Nearly a year later, he is still citing free speech and diversity in the same breath. Historically, these values have been championed to undermine the censorship and exclusion of oppressed minority groups. Ironically, today, those who wish to roll-back protections for equal treatment (on campus and across the nation) pervert these values by calling for protections for conservative free speech and the promotion of political, intellectual, or viewpoint diversity.

In a way, I see Dr. Crutcher’s free speech campaign as opening the door for Tuesday’s talk by Ryan T. Anderson, invited by the UR law student group the Federalist Society. In the spirit of free speech, the university will be rolling out the metaphorical red carpet to a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. (The Foundation promotes conservative public policy and “traditional American values. It’s essentially a hate group, in my opinion.)

Anderson’s talk is based on his book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, which has been described as “junk science,” garbage peddled to demonize transgender people as mentally ill, delusional, and a threat to the nation. GLAAD (a national organization promoting positive inclusion of LGBTQ people in the media) has delineated Anderson’s campaign to undermine LGBTQ rights, including calling for the exclusion of trans people from the military on the basis of the aforementioned junk science, opposing same-sex marriage, and promoting conversion therapy for LGBTQ people (which is proven to be ineffective and dangerous).

Inviting “Both Sides” To Campus

When I raised alarm about the talk on an UR faculty listserv, I was surprised to hear one colleague suggest that transgender and non-binary students should attend the talk to learn from “the other side” — after all, they had better get used to facing disagreement from others. (Such indifference to transphobic rhetoric is a reflection of cisgender privilege, as my colleague is ignorant to the ways in which our trans students already endured 18+ years of transphobia before stepping foot on our campus. And, the added pain they feel in experiencing it on campus, too.) Dr. Crutcher’s essay also echoed this notion of disagreeing “sides”:

Anyone with a voice and an opinion can shout down a speaker. But listening requires patience, empathy and intellect — the building blocks of civility. If we hope to compromise, we need both sides of each argument to find common ground, and to respect the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds that color these opinions.

Following the Charlottesville white nationalist riots that resulted in one person’s death and multiple injuries, the US president blamed “both sides” (i.e., white nationalists and other bigots versus the Black Lives Matter movement and other anti-racist activists).

What is troubling here is that these sides are being treated as equal, potentially respectful parties. There are at least two major flaws in this mindset. First, there is the false equivalence of what is at stake for each “side.” On one side, you have privileged individuals (middle- or upper-class heterosexual cisgender men) promoting biblical passages, fake science, and other political rhetoric that not only questions the existence of queer and trans people, but also promotes violent methods of eliminating us. They characterize treating trans people with dignity and respect as an infringement on their civil liberties and religious values, ranging from recognizing one’s gender identity and referring to them by their pronouns to allowing trans people to use public restrooms that correspond with their gender identity and expression. On the other, you have oppressed individuals (i.e., LGBTQ people) who are crying out against discrimination, exclusion, violence, erasure, and censorship. What sort of compromise would appease the oppressor, whom is invested in the dehumanization of the oppressed?

Dr. Crutcher would have us patiently, empathically, and intellectually listen to those who are literally calling for our extermination. We know how they feel; they do not need to be invited onto our campus to let us know their views. And, it’s clear that the talk is for cisgender individuals who want “scientific evidence” to justify cissexist oppression. Meanwhile, it naively assumes that the “other side” simply hasn’t had the opportunity to listen to trans and non-binary people with “patience, empathy and intellect”; our stories are the very reason why they have set out to eliminate us or at least rob us of equal treatment under the law.

The second major flaw is that those who hold this “both sides” mindset are ignorant of the fact that there is a systematic disparity between these sides. Cisgender heterosexuals hold a great deal more power on college campuses and beyond than do LGBTQ people. These communities are the dominant focus of research and curricula taught in college classrooms. Meanwhile, LGBTQ studies research and classes remain marginal – in number, in resources, and in prestige. To my knowledge, I am the only trans or non-binary identified professor at UR, and one of just a few who do research on trans and non-binary individuals and even fewer who cover these communities in my classes.

The university is complicit in reinforcing the dominance of cisgender heterosexual viewpoints on campus, including those speakers who oppose LGBTQ rights (or even our existence). In my second month as faculty at UR, the PPEL program invited Princeton University philosophy professor Elizabeth Harman to pontificate on whether it is best if parents abort gay, Black, and/or deaf fetuses to spare them a lifetime of homophobia, racism, and/or disability and ableism. (Note that the PPEL program is partly supported financially by the Koch Foundation, which has funneled millions into colleges to promote socially and fiscally conservative ideology.) A year-and-a-half later, UR’s law school invited Ohio State University Professor of Law Joshua Dressler to advocate for the use of the “gay panic defense” to justify violence by straight men against gay and bisexual men whom they erroneously assume to be hitting on them. And, now, the university welcomes Anderson to peddle scientific transphobia, continuing a long tradition of using science to advance oppressive causes like eugenics and other forms of scientific racism.

And, the pattern extends beyond the practice of inviting bigoted cis heterosexual speakers to talk about LGBTQ rights but relatively few, if any, queer and trans experts on the subject. President Crutcher’s essay includes a brief self-congratulatory reference to inviting Karl Rove – a conservative US-born white man with a history of racially offensive commentary – to speak about immigration. That talk was one of last year’s Sharp Viewpoint Speaker Series that featured 5 highly visible/wealthy/powerful cisgender men, all but one of whom were non-Hispanic whites, who came to speak about free speech, immigration, and identity. The 2018-2019 line-up also includes one (token) person of color, as well as a conservative white man who will speak on fostering “viewpoint diversity” and a college president who pushed campus policy to ban the use of trigger warnings for material that may be upsetting for student survivors of sexual violence and oppressed students.

The privilege afforded to US-born wealthy heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities allows their views to be placed front and center in almost every context. The university doesn’t need to give them anymore of a platform than they already have. Rather, a genuine commitment to free speech would look like countering the systemic privileging of these men’s views by systematically centering the views of people of color, women, LGBTQ people, the poor and working-class, first-gen students and faculty, and people with disabilities.

In addition, our supposed commitment to diversity should drive us away from inviting speakers who peddle oppressive ideas. Calling to abort gay, Black, and/or deaf fetuses, legitimizing homophobic straight men’s weak attempts to justify homo- and biphobic violence, and promoting junk science to undermine trans rights and existence is not simply a matter difference of opinion. Such a mindset would have allowed for eugenicists to speak on campus about the biological inferiority of Black and Jewish people – ideology used to justify slavery, segregation, genocide, and forced sterilizations. How is today’s line-up of speakers any different?

The Constraints Of “Civility”

A third concern I have is that the seemingly competing values of diversity and free speech have tied our hands in how to respond to such speaking invitations. According to Dr. Crutcher’s essay, to “shout down” Anderson’s talk on Tuesday would lead the university to label student protestors uncivil. I imagine staff or faculty protests would be labeled as unprofessional, and could likely result in punishment, perhaps termination. Yet, civility and professionalism are social norms that force people of color, LGBTQ people, women, people with disabilities, and poor and working-class people to mimic the style of dress, interaction, and work ethic of wealthy white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities as a condition of their inclusion in institutions dominated by these privileged men. We are demanded to respect a speaker who stubbornly refuses to respect our existence and actually calls for our elimination.

If the university were to cancel the talk, then it would naively step into the right-wing’s assault on higher education. We would be labeled yet another liberal campus that threatens the free speech of conservative students. Dr. Crutcher’s essay would be cited as evidence that this was clearly an ongoing problem at UR. Though we’re a private institution, there might be calls for government sanction for censoring conservatives. I can only imagine that this was the Federalist Society’s intention by announcing the talk just five days before it is scheduled – a talk featuring someone with no legal experience and a reputation for controversy.

While Dr. Crutcher seems to conceive of diversity and free speech as twin goals, the very Knight Foundation survey of over 3,000 US college students he cites demonstrates that students are aware that these values, as currently understood, sometimes clash. Though the majority value an “open environment” for expressing one’s ideas on campus, most students favor policies to ban hate speech and wearing offensive costumes. And, if forced to choose between inclusion and free speech, just over half think that it is okay to promote the former at the expense of the latter. I find it unsurprising that women and Black students are even more likely to choose inclusion over free speech because they are overwhelmingly targeted by offensive rhetoric and slurs, which, in turn, create a climate that normalizes violence against them, as well.

There Is No Threat To Free Speech At UR

We must recognize that the “what about free speech?” debate has been thrust upon college campuses as a means of derailing intensified efforts to eliminate white supremacy, rape culture, and anti-LGBTQ oppression in higher education. The supposed war on conservative free speech was manufactured by the right-wing just like the “war on Christmas.”

Look around UR’s campus – whites, men, cisgender and heterosexual individuals, the wealthy, and conservatives are not under threat at UR. Look at the line-up of speakers. Look at the dominance of the (overwhelmingly white, cis male) business school (home to a few white men colleagues who cited Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” to accuse me of being racist… for referring to them as white men), while Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies remains a program without full-time faculty and the campus lacks a Black or Racial and Ethnic Studies program or department. While the majority of UR students are US-born non-Hispanic whites, approximately 240 are Latina/o/x, 240 are Asian American or Asian, 180 are Black, and fewer than 4 are First Nation. If left to chance, a given student would encounter an Asian/Asian American or Latina/o/x peer once in every 12 students, a Black peer once in every 13 students, and a First Nation peer once per every 1,000 students. However, we know that the student body is highly racially segregated, which is reflected across the social life, student organizations, party scene, classes, public spaces like the dining hall, and possibly in residential halls if students choose to live with their friends (who are most likely of the same race).

Unfortunately, the faculty are even less diverse, with just 15% who are non-white. And, off of the top of my head, I can think of no more than one dozen professors who are LGBTQ. Again, this “diversity” varies across schools and departments, with relatively little in business and the STEM fields. Faculty from oppressed backgrounds are disproportionately represented among tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions, which only further disempowers us relative to our heterosexual white cisgender colleagues (who are overrepresented among tenured associate and full professors, department chairs, and administrators).

Look at whom the university has immortalized. Most or maybe even all of the campus buildings are named after wealthy white cisgender heterosexuals, particularly men. Ryland Hall is named after Robert Ryland – a slave owner who saw enslavement as the best way to convert Africans to Christianity. There is a statue of UR benefactor E. Claiborne Robins who headed a pharmaceutical group responsible for selling an intrauterine device that sterilized 13,000 women and killed nearly two dozen after using the device. At the time when UR Trustee Paul Queally became national news for his disparaging comments about women and gay men, there was already one building named for him with the Queally Center for Admissions and Career Services in the works. Since 2014, he was selected to lead the Board of Trustees (as Rector), and the university will soon build a third building with his name on it.

Conclusion Resignation

It doesn’t matter how we respond to Tuesday’s talk. The pattern of treating bigoted ideology as a valid, equal “side” to which we should listen with patience, empathy, and intellect has already been set. Anderson is not the first, nor will he be the last, speaker invited to campus to cite religious scripture, or science, or the law, or tradition to justify inequality and violence. I will be the lone trans or non-binary tenure-track faculty member for years to come – and, that’s if I even get tenure. The views of the privileged will continue to dominate while those of the rest of us will be treated as an afterthought, but noted as an equal “other side.”

I wish I could be more optimistic at the conclusion of this very long essay. But, I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of being told that academic freedom, free speech, and “viewpoint diversity” are values that justify the debating of my very existence as a Black queer non-binary person. I am tired of the internal struggle between doing what will ensure my job security (i.e., tenure) and doing what will ensure my survival. I am tired of having to weigh between prioritizing my own well-being and speaking up for/with those who have even less power and protection than I do. I am tired of hiding in the closet of masculine suits, of toning down how much I challenge oppression in my classes, of fearing that my politics (a commitment to my survival) will cost me my job.

I’m tired of hearing my presence as a Black person, as a queer person, as a non-binary person on campus cited when it is convenient for the university, or even good for the business. (But, what about my safety, well-being, and inclusion?) I am tired of wondering when President Crutcher will deliver on the promises of being a fierce advocate for diversity he made early in his tenure as president. What happened to the Dr. Crutcher of 2015 who felt saddened “that students of color are still dealing with some of the same issues of alienation that I experienced 50 years ago.” What happened to the president who said, “once you recruit [students from diverse backgrounds], you’ve got to have an environment for them to thrive”? Why, beginning last year, did civility and free speech become equally as important to him as diversity?

These issues are highly complex, and are probably above my paygrade. But, because they have impact on my daily life, they exhaust me nonetheless.

Please UR – just do better.

White People: You’re Racist, But This Isn’t About You

Source: CLAgency, University of Minnesota.

Earlier this week, I took to Twitter while on the train returning from the 2018 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in Philadelphia, PA. I was exhausted and frustrated after the conference, but suffer from just enough anxiety to prevent me from sleeping in public. So, I decided to address one irony of the conference.

The ASA conference theme was Feeling Race, yet many white sociologists in attendance were surprisingly unreflective about their white privilege, complicity in racism, and negative emotional reactions to people of color who called them on their privilege/prejudice/stereotypes. I even witnessed some paint a person of color, who vocalized offense at the way in which another person of color was snubbed, as a villain who berated well-meaning white people.

Below, I have turned the rather long Twitterstorm into an essay.  Thanks to the MANY kind people who asked whether they could share this, nudging me to turn it into a blog post to more easily share. And, special thanks to @DamienMcKenna, who kindly put my tweets into one document, sparing me a lot of copying and pasting!  Please read on…

Envision this perhaps all-too-familiar scenario.

You’re white…

and, a person of color — let’s call her Denise — has directly or indirectly suggested that something you have done toward or said about race, people of color, or whites is problematic. Or, Denise noted that something seemingly race-neutral or otherwise unrelated to race was inherently about race. She might even have said, “you(r comments) are racist.”

Next, you feel a wave of emotions: surprise, anger, resentment, sadness, embarrassment. Denise, a Black woman, has questioned your racial politics, your allyship to people of color, your commitment to liberalism, equality, and social justice. You are hurt!

You want to do many things, but do not want to provide more fodder for the accusation that you(r comments) are racist. Maybe you to clarify for Denise, “I’m not racist,” or “you’re reading into things,” or “you’re being overly sensitive,” or “it’s not always about race,” or “you’re playing the race card.” You certainly didn’t intend to be insensitive. Doesn’t that count for something? So, you might try to further explain yourself. Maybe Denise just didn’t have enough information before she vocalized her conclusion that your comments were offensive.

Or, Denise doesn’t know enough about you — YOU! She don’t know that you voted for Barack Obama (twice!) and certainly voted against Donald J. Trump (and will do so again in two years). That you have friendly relationships with people of color, who have never said otherwise. Maybe you’ve even donated money to NAACP, marched alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s, or acknowledge the existence of your Latina housekeeper.

You’re upset because the explicit or implied accusation that you are racist lumps you in the same category with Trump, neo-nazis, and your Archie-Bunker-like grandfather who insists on referring to Black people as “niggers” or “Negroes” or “coloreds.” You know, those white people who intentionally discriminate, actively hate people of color, and feel superior as a member of the white race.

Now, you are probably so in your head. Race relations are so fraught! Why can’t we ever talk about race without someone being accused of racism? It seems to you that some people of color already come to the conversation closed, angry, reading to call out “whitey” for racism. Why did Denise have to go there?

Now that you, white person, are currently under an informal investigation for racism, let me tell you about what may be happening for the person of color who has accused you of being offensive toward people of color (perhaps even racist).

Some of us folks of color never bothered, or have stopped bothering, to figure out which white people are racist and which ones aren’t. Accusing any white person of racism often results in the aforementioned emotional response(s). White people rarely respond in productive ways. (Since posting this Twitterstorm on Tuesday, I’ve been responding to a number of whites who demand room for caveats and exceptions, who want acknowledgement of the ways in which they are victimized in an unequal society, or who really just want to put me in my “place” and shut me up.)

Instead, we pay attention to racism as a system of oppression that shapes institutional practices, policies, and cultures, constrains interpersonal interactions, and manifests on the individual level as white privilege, individual-level discrimination, microaggressions, and prejudice. It’s never been a matter of a few racist “bad apples,” a simple fix of changing hearts and minds.

We won’t waste time calling a singular white person “racist”; it’s too much of a given to waste the time that will ultimately be spent on the white person’s negative reaction, possibly even having to comfort them so that they can restore their fragile identity as a white liberal. Honestly, some of us just assume that every white person is racist because each one benefits from an inhumane, oppressive system that robs people of color of our livelihoods, our health and well-being, and our lives.

So, in this hypothetical situation — Denise, a person of color, has accused you of being racist (again, either explicitly or implicitly). It took her incredible patience and courage to do so. We know, most of the time, we will be punished for doing so, at a minimum through the exhaustion of explaining ourselves and defending our right to feel pain under the oppressive system that is racism.

This is one of those (possibly rare) moments when we feel the stakes are too high to remain silent, or when we might actually reach you. Honestly, there are infinite ways in which we let problematic shit from white people slide; it’s not worth the energy to constantly fight. I’d venture to say that we let half or more of what we endure and witness slide because of the risks of calling it out or the energy it will take to explain ourselves.

And, now, we’ve reentered an era when calling out racism and white supremacy (or not) is realistically a matter of life or death. We have to weigh the costs. And, let it be known that pointing out that something is offensive will always come with costs, none of them negligible. Denise has drawn from an already depleted reserve of energy to “deal with” your problematic view or comments. Depleted because that isn’t even her first exposure to racial insensitivity today!

Before that meeting, a white woman moved away from her on the elevator. An older white man stared at her. A white cashier wasn’t as friendly with Denise as the white customer ahead of usher A white colleague just called her Angela — the name of the only other Black woman in the office who is several shades lighter, has short hair (unlike Denise’s locks), wears glasses, and is easily 5 inches shorter than Denise.

Unlike you, for many people of color (especially those in the middle-class), our interactions outside of the house are overwhelmingly with white people who come from a range of political backgrounds and levels of ceaselessness and insensitivity about race and racism.

You just said something was “ghetto” in reference to a Black middle-class person who grew up in and currently lives in the suburbs. (Please never refer to our bodies with the reference “ghetto booty.”) And, we don’t have enough energy to clock you on the problems with conflating Blackness with poverty and “low-class” lifestyles.

You think you’ve just complimented Denise’s new hairstyle and touched it while doing so. But, she simply doesn’t have the time to educate you on the history of whites’ possession and inspection and exploitation of Black bodies, especially Black women’s.

Denise is already exhausted because her white supervisor wanted to play “devil’s advocate” — what if we focused on class instead of race in diversifying the staff because “it’s really about class” — like it’s a game for whites while it’s our livelihoods.

That discomfort you felt in being called out for a single racist comment is a pinch compared to a lifetime of beatings by whiteness and racism that people of color face. In your efforts to defend your good white liberal identity, you will inevitably enact further violence against the person of color you have offended. Telling Denise that her experience in that conversation, in life, is a form of gaslighting — and we face it 24/7.

Falling into the predictable trap of “but, I’m not racist” is an attempt to separate yourself from every other white person’s racist behaviors — for example, this morning Trump and friends called us criminals, rapists, animals, put our kids in cages, forced us out of the country. You want to be seen as an individual white person. You don’t want to be stereotyped, you don’t want assumptions made about you because of your race. Yes, the exact thing that is systematically denied to people of color — you know, because of racism.

People of color do not receive the privilege of individuality. Assumptions are made about who we are, what we do, what we want and value, how we talk, who we love and make love with, etc. all the damn time. We are a color first and, sometimes, an individual. Even as an individual, white people in our lives come to us to work through their feelings and opinions about race (while not talking to other white people). This is a form of labor which goes unpaid, on top of already receiving a fraction of wages for the same work whites do.

Whites often come to us to be absolved for slavery, internment camps, Latinx kids in cages, the Trump regime, their racist uncle, the theft, removal, forced assimilation, and genocide of First Nation people, for white guilt, for white privilege, for even being white. Somehow, whites view us as the ones who bring race into the room or conversation. Part of the package of white privilege is being able to think of yourself in spite of your race (while reducing people of color to their race).

You’re able to think of yourself as raceless. You’re able to ignore that all of your friends, family, coworkers, fellow congregants, neighbors, elected officials, teachers, etc. are also white. But, then, see people of color as “playing the race” card. You’re totally oblivious to how you refer to individuals as “diverse,” which is logically incorrect because diversity implies difference among people not within an individual person.

White person, when Denise has called you out for saying or doing something problematic, I implore you to do anything but become defensive or angry. Do not proceed with restoring your “good white liberal” identity because that makes the situation about you. Yes, that person of color is calling you out specifically, but she is also speaking to the broader system of racism. So, please don’t make it just about you. (Most situations are about white people. Take a breath. Take a seat — take several seats.)

You should relinquish the assumption that you will never do or say anything offensive toward people of color. Odds are, you will, and you will do so frequently. You won’t be able to help yourself. You studied in schools that pushed curriculum that spoke of your superiority and, if it ever reflected people of color, framed these communities as marginal, barbaric, extinct, exotic, criminal, and to be feared. The media, politics, medicine, science, religion, and various other institutions have only echoed the centrality of whiteness and the marginal, devalued status of people of color. So, let’s get past that so we can actually address racism rather than your sense of self.

It might be fair to say that the more you make what follows about you — how right you are, how non-racist you are, how wrong they are to accuse you of being offensive — the more you undermine Denise’s sense of self, perspective of the world, and sense of safety.

I’m going to ask you to do something radical: start viewing instances in which people of color call you out for being offensive (or even racist) as gifts. Denise has taken the time to let you know how she feels and she has invited you to consider rectifying the situation, to do better, to learn and grow.

What may feel like an attack from a person of color is actually a form of “tough love” in what should be a collective project to fight racism. She likely assumes you are receptive enough to hear her and do better — or at least hopes so.

What you’ll have to do is assume you already complicit in racism by virtue of benefiting from the racist system. Work on taking the sting out of the label “racist.” It’s so counterproductive to get hung up on who’s racist and who isn’t while we leave intact the system of racism.

White person, I ask that you recognize being able to feel something about racism that then is recognized and dealt with by others (especially people of color) is a form of white privilege. How people of color feel about race and racism is too often dismissed, questioned, ignored. Hell, even the research that scholars of color do on race is labeled “me-search” and suspected of being personal opinion rather than empirical research. (It seems only whites are able to maintain “objectivity.”)

Remember when Black folks felt so enraged and sad that the deaths of innocent Black children and adults went unpunished? When we eeked out “Black Lives Matter” through voices hoarse from crying? A lot of white people got mad and said, “no, all lives matter.” You made it about you. Your cries of “All Lives Matter” was you making our grief and rage about you. And, then, you made a joke of it (e.g., Black Labs Matter). Honestly, I can’t find another way to describe this than violence. Co-opting and mocking our feelings following white violence against Black bodies… sick.

I implore you to not weaponize the anger people color feel in the face of racism. People of color are standing in a pool of white tears as it is. Please resist the effort to villainize us as the “Angry Black/Latinx/First Nation/Asian American” person because we called you out (or called you in). Again, that is a form of racial gaslighting.

Now, to be clear, I am not saying do not emote. I am not ignoring the inevitable discomfort you feel after someone has accused you of being a bad (white) person. Whites’ collective identity as non-racist is powerful; being a proud racist fell out of fashion (though it seems to be making a return).

What I am taking issue with is how you then respond. I can’t stress this enough: do not get defensive; do not demand an apology or to be consoled; do not do anything that either makes it about you or that undermines the accusation you(r comments) are racist or offensive. An implied or explicit accusation that you(r comments) are racist is an opportunity for you to learn and grow. This means that you will have to listen, open your mind and heart, even beyond limits that feel uncomfortable. (Recall that it is hella uncomfortable for Denise to call you out.)

If you do not immediately understand the accusation, resist the urge to dismiss it. Rather, you should ask to hear more (if they are willing to educate you, especially if requested without compensation and in the face of personal and professional risks of calling out racism). But, you should also make a commitment to learn on your own. It is not the responsibility of people of color to educate you about racism, for you to unlearn years of racist indoctrination. Here’s a hard truth — white people invented racism to justify the enslavement of Africans, justify stealing land from First Nation people, and to limit US citizenship and other privileges of whiteness to European Americans. (Here’s a great 5-minute video made by sociologist Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza on the invention of race.)

“Please teach me” sounds innocent enough, but it misses that whites perceive themselves to be uneducated about race and the lives and histories of people of color. But, that ignorance is by design. Our stories are not included in mainstream education, history, nor portrayed in the media. You probably don’t know much about race and the lives and histories of people of color because you never had to. When people of color demand it, we lack the power to do anything more than ask you to care. Meanwhile, racist propaganda disguised as education, religion, and popular culture are shoved down our throats from childhood.

We know so much more about race, even more than white people 1) because racism is set up to ensure we are all indoctrinated into whiteness and 2) because we have to understand our “predator” as a matter of survival in a society designed to exploit and destroy us. (Check out Dr. W. E. B. Dubois’s work, especially his concept of “double consciousness.”)

Many of us deal with white people all day long, while the reverse is hardly ever true. And, most whites who do encounter people of color do so in fleeting, rare, and power-imbalanced interactions — you the manager, them your employee, you the teacher, them the janitor, etc. So, we’ve had to learn a lot about you. But, white privilege allows you to remain ignorant about us, to maintain whatever stories you already hold about us while saying to the token person of color in your life, “you’re not like other Asian/Latinx/First Nation/Black” people.

Should emotions arise after you’ve been accused of being offensive by a person of color, I’m going to ask that you place the burden of consoling you on fellow white people. You’ve got white privilege; please don’t ask anything more from us. But, to be frank here, white folks: get your people. Dole out some tough love when your fellow white folks are sobbing because they were called out for being racist. Do not feed into the white-victims-of-angry-people-of-color narrative. Do what is necessary so that they can move past the negative emotional reaction, to then focus on processing the situation effectively enough to grow from it and right whatever wrongs they’ve done if possible.

Something is wrong if you only talk about race and racism with people of color, especially if you privately express support or sympathy to us but are publicly tight-lipped about race. I’m tired of whispers of support from whites who have so much more power and privilege than I will ever have, yet sit in their cowardice as they try to maintain that power and privilege.

White people, most of your conversations should probably be with other white people. And, I’m not talking about politely enduring your Aunt Patty’s tirade about “too many Mexicans” taking up all the (supposedly non-Hispanic white) jobs. White people, you need to get comfortable with making yourself and other white people uncomfortable with the racist status quo. Watch, and rewatch, and bookmark Luvvie Ajayi’s TEDWomen 2017 talk, “Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable“; become the brave domino who pushes others to stand up against injustice.

Please do not wait until after the encounter to privately commiserate with us about how racist that was. You have far less to lose in calling bullshit out as soon as it happens, and publicly for all to hear. Please do not wait on us to speak up when something racist occurs. That is everyone’s job, especially whites who benefit from racism and want to dismantle it.

If you are familiar with the bystander approach for intervening in the face of sexual violence (including rape jokes and other more “minor” instances of rape culture), many have applied it to fighting racism: https://egrollman.com/2013/02/27/bystander-intervention-racism/ Like we do in this racist society, you should already assume your relatives, friends, neighbors, coworkers, fellow congregants, elected officials, etc. are already racist. No need to dwell on “what did he mean by that? I can’t believe she said that!” Take the shock out of it. Racism is pervasive, period.

You need to take it upon yourself to call out racism no matter how minor. Mirror good anti-racist behavior for other whites. Yes, it is scary and always will be; but, someone else may be thinking “this is messed up,” but are far less brave and/or have more to lose if speaking up.

And, in those moments that you, white person, do call out racism, you do not get a prize. A lifetime of white privilege and a history of white supremacy is more than enough of a reward. You need to give some back. Consider supporting efforts to pay out reparations.

Getting a cookie everytime you “aren’t racist” defeats the purpose. Do it because the alternative is complicity in an inhumane system of domination. Resist the urge to say “it’s not my problem/my place/responsibility.” Everyone is impacted by racism, and therefore we are all responsible for its dismantling.

Resist the urge to cave to feeling too ignorant on race issues to speak up. There is power just in saying “I find that problematic,” or asking a question that forces fellow white people to reveal what may be underlying racial bias. You don’t have to have all of the answers to have an impact in fighting racism. Even the slightest articulation of concern could force others to rethink their behavior or words.

And, don’t expect that you will have an impact. Calling out other whites’ racism may not have a positive impact right away. And, it will likely take many people in their lives calling them out to not simply dismiss these accusations. Maybe take the time to find one good educational resource on racism to recommend. This means doing a little bit of homework, but trust that many people of color and anti-racist whites spend a great deal of time, energy, and money on creating and publicizing these resources.

From my own experience with speaking up, I’ve found that being the first to do so often doesn’t mean I’m the only voice. You very well may make space for other whites to challenge racism when it occurs. But, even if you are the only one to speak up, you have to be okay feeling afraid and awkward. Racism is structured in a way that rewards you for your complicity in it.

To your credit, white-dominated institutions are designed to fail people of color. So, the burden you feel as an individual to fight racism is the product of that institutional failure. It sucks and its unfair and its very hard. I wish I could offer more than acknowledgement here.

But again, the second you think “this is hard/uncomfortable,” I want you to remember the pinch you feel is a plane crash for people of color. I want you to proactively push through the discomfort of addressing racism to lighten the heavy burden people of color feel at every turn.

Get creative about it, use the resources that are already at your fingertips. Maybe partner with a fellow white person to hold you accountable for being anti-racist; maybe to tag-team in calling out other whites’ racism. Find a way to take joy in making other white people squirm in their white privilege. (Seriously, y’all take yourselves too seriously.)

When you’re invited into a space and see few or no people of color, immediately raise that point. If you’re invited to speak, consider declining and, in your place, recommending a person of color. Examine every seemingly race-neutral context in your life for the ways in which white people are actually privileged.

The reality is, most middle- and upper-class white folks’ lives are so busy because you are committed to living the lives to which you’ve been told you are entitled. “I just don’t have the time!” means it’s more important for you to invest in your white kids’ futures and your all-white community than uplifting communities of color and promoting racial equality.

Sure, you never actively, intentionally exclude people of color. But, you are complicit when you take part in systems and organizations that are not inclusive of people of color. There is no such thing as “not racist” or “non-racist.” You cannot be neutral within a racist system.

To be at the mercy of cultures, traditions, communities, organizations, and institutions that privilege white people makes you complicit. If not a part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Of course, totally rejecting white privilege and exiting white supremacy is impossible. And, that’s not necessarily the goal here. Rather, I want you, white person, to feel empowered to leverage your white privilege in service of racial justice.

Know that the fear you feel about speaking up is the way in which white privilege (and white supremacy) protects itself. (Most) white people no longer use terms like “race traitor” or “nigger-lover” but the sentiment remains. This is the way white people keep one another in check in the white supremacist project.

The parallel from my own life is feeling cisgender men attempt to police my commitment to feminism as part of the patriarchal project. My loyalties have been questioned and, of course, I am usually assumed to be queer (because to be straight means to hate women). (For the record, I am queer AF.)

You have to let go of the need to be liked by other white people. It’s pretty messed up if you have to comply with racism in order to be liked. You’d be the person who pushed a stranger in front of a moving train to be accepted into a fraternity or sorority.

White privilege is like a boomerang. Even if you throw it away, it will come back right to you. So, fear not. Pissing off a few fellow white people who are racist won’t ruin your life and, again, the costs pale in comparison to what it costs people of color.

In summary: white folks, being called on your racism can be upsetting — but, it’s not about you; it’s part of the larger effort to dismantle white supremacy. Calling out racism may seem hard to you, but being oppressed under racism is unimaginable to you. So, when (not if) Denise calls you out/in, apologize for the impact (and don’t bother explaining your intent — it only stings more), listen listen listen, note that it won’t happen again because you will genuinely make a point to grow from this exchange and learn more about racism. Being called out is a gift — you are welcome.

A Response To My University President’s Essay On Free Speech

Dear University of Richmond President Ronald A. Crutcher,

The following serves as an open letter to you in response to your July 10 opinion piece on The Hetchinger Report entitled, “Defending the ‘right to be here’ on campus.” My hands shake from the building anxiety as I write this public statement of dissent while I should be continuing my pattern of 12-hour days to prepare my tenure dossier.

In your essay, you argue:

Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned, and have an explicit responsibility, to model substantive disagreement and dialogue that foster change — to give students information they can take into the classroom, living room, workplace and voting booth.

The true test of your publicly espoused beliefs about protecting free speech will be whether I am denied tenure in the next few months because of this blog post. Or, when I recently sparked a heated discussion on UR’s faculty listserv about institutionalized racism in higher education (including UR) after innocently sharing our colleague Dr. Bedelia Richard’s blog post on Conditionally Accepted (IHE). Or, in 2016, when I publicly criticized the university for failing to serve UR alumni CC Carreras and Whitney Ralston, who were raped by fellow students, and then blamed by university administration for the sexual violence perpetrated against them. Or even my 2014 blog post criticizing UR trustee Paul Queally for sexist and homophobic remarks that became public news and the university’s failure to distance themselves from such bigotry; since then, Queally has now been elected Rector of the Board of Trustees, and two additional buildings have been named after him. I acknowledge that some will read this blog post — coming after the president and the head of the trustees — might as well be a death-wish.

But, as Black lesbian feminist scholar-activist Audre Lorde aptly penned, “your silence will not protect you.” I see your continued campaign for your vision of free speech to be a threat to my free speech, my safety, and my career. So, writing this essay (and all of the others before it) is a risk — but so, too, is keeping my mouth shut as a good little pre-tenure professor is expected to.

Power And Oppression Are Missing From Your Analysis

Dr. Crutcher, the way that you write and talk about “free speech” treats “both sides” (to quote our nation’s president) as peers, equal in power and status. To you, it seems the Right and the Left, conservatives and liberals have equally valid points and perspectives — and each should be heard. But, all too often, what one “side” (the one on the right) has to say is not simply in opposition to what the other “side” has to say; frequently, conservatives and bigots espouse beliefs that undermine the humanity and safety of marginalized groups. By protecting the “free speech” of people like Charles Murray, you have invited a person whose perspective literally argues that Black people are biologically inferior to whites. This is not productive dialogue, or even disagreement; this is racial violence. Son of Baldwin has a very fitting view here: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

You miss the important question of who even has the right and ability to speak in the first place. Your note about the practice of disinviting controversial or even offensive speakers fails to acknowledge that marginalized populations are woefully underrepresented among those who have access to a big enough platform to be invited by a college to speak.  Certain ways of speaking and types of scholarship are systematically privileged over others.  Even in the rare moments that our own university has invited marginalized speakers — like Alicia Garza of #BlackLivesMatter, actress and activist Laverne Cox,  and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas — these individuals have achieved an almost impossible level of visibility for others like them.

You fail to acknowledge the way in which you and UR have privileged the free speech of some over others. In the 2017-2018 speaker series on “Free Speech, Immigration, and Identity,” 4 white cisgender men and 1 Latino cisgender man were featured. This signals to the university that we only value what cis men (especially white cis men) have to say. Apparently what trans women and men, cis women, non-binary and agender folx, and people of color have to say is worthless. If the views of marginalized groups are equally valued, that is not currently reflected in the university’s practices.  I’ll go one step further to say that our views should be valued even more to challenge the systemic ways in which our scholarship, creative works, speeches, and communities are devalued, dismissed, or destroyed.

Speech Isn’t Free For People Like Me

In the wake of intensified right-wing assaults on public scholars (particularly women of color), I am shocked that you — as a Black man who wields great power — are currently campaigning to make more space for conservative view points.

As a university president, I expect that you are well-versed in the literature on attacks on scholars by conservatives. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) created an entire site devoted just to the issue of targeted harassment against scholars. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed have featured multiple essays on the “outrage machine” — a network of conservative journalists who intentionally and systematically spark assaults against public scholars. Scholars (especially those from one or more marginalized communities) who do work on racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, climate change, gun control, abortion, etc. are vulnerable to this manufactured outrage, which then leads to harassment, hate-mail, calls for their termination, bomb-threats, rape-threats, and death-threats. Former Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) President Abby Ferber recently published an essay on the issue: “‘Are You Willing to Die for This Work?’ Public Targeted Online Harassment in Higher Education.”

Her question isn’t an exaggeration. It is literally a question scholars must ask themselves before engaging with the public.  The harassment I have endured for a year now recently intensified to the level of threats of violence. I’ve been trolled and mocked by white supremacists and fellow sociologists alike. Our colleague, Dr. Bedelia Richards, received hostility after penning her blog post on institutionalized racism.  (She’s fortunate that the “outrage machine” didn’t come for her; it seems the major conservative outlets like Fox News and Washington Times didn’t catch wind of what the conservative student journalists had to say.) Assuming we continue our public writing, this will not be the last time that our “free” speech comes at a cost.

I pray we are never faced with Dr. Ferber’s question.  But, at the moment, it seems all that Dr. Richards and I have is prayer because the university is ill-equipped to protect us.  You see, as you are demanding free speech for all, you are ignoring that there is a systemic effort to silence us or worse. In order to do more than say you value free speech, you must act to protect free speech.  And, increasingly, that means protecting marginalized scholars and students from the hostility we endure when we dare to speak.  What will you do to ensure that we live long enough to fully enjoy the right to free speech?

What will you do to prevent students from filming our classes without our knowledge or consent, creating fodder for right-wing attacks?  (There is literally a website devoted to shaming and ultimately targeting professors deemed too liberal.)  What will you do to end the university’s reliance on student evaluations for tenure and promotion decisions and merit reviews in light of the mounting evidence that these forms really only measure students’ racist, sexist, transphobic, homo- and biphobic, and fatphobic biases?  From personal experience, I estimate that the accusations that I am promoting a political agenda, or even a “gay agenda,” in my classes are greatest when I am the least reticent to teach material on which I am an expert. This is an example of university policy that actually emboldens bias and hate speech and silences marginalized individuals.  I lose out, and then my marginalized students lose out even more because I still end up centering my classes around what privileged students will object to the least.

As a Black queer non-binary tenure-track professor, I have repeatedly had to choose between my tenureability and my survival.  Your campaign for free speech has no bearing on my life when I may lose my job, or even my life, in daring to speak in an institution and a society that demands my silence, invisibility, and conformity.  Once again, you cannot continue to peddle these color-, gender-, sexuality-, and class-blind calls for free speech.

Privileged Speech Isn’t Under Threat, But Higher Education Is

What I see from your free speech campaign is a Black, presumably politically liberal university president who is playing into the Right’s efforts to demolish higher education in the US.  The very thing you call for — “free speech” — has been turned into a weapon.  Dr. Victor Ray (now editor of Conditionally Accepted after I stepped down) wrote an excellent blog post on the topic., “Weaponizing Free Speech”:

This basic pattern has been playing out across colleges and universities recently, as a cottage industry of white liberal columnists regularly castigate undergraduates for interrupting conservative speakers like Charles Murray or Ann Coulter, casting students as unruly, childish and nearly incapable of reason. Thus, the right ends up enlisting liberal commentators to advance their illiberal agenda.

Yet those free speech warriors are nowhere to be found when faculty of color, or those speaking out against racism, are the targets. Typically, here, critics of my position will resort to a “both sides” argument, saying that the left also stifles free speech. At times, this is true. But, to my knowledge, the left has no coordinated national apparatus that specifically and systematically targets individual professors.

Dr. Ray concludes:

It is time to stop assuming good faith in the free speech debate. The right has weaponized free speech, framing campus debates in a way that resonates with liberals to destroy the very things liberals purport to care about. By capitulating to the demands of those who threaten violence against professors, colleges and universities undermine one of their central functions as refuges for debating controversial ideas.

Beyond higher education, the Right is becoming more and more successful in using the First Amendment to legalize discrimination and fuel efforts to demolish unions.

It seems you are playing right into the hands of the Right.  But why?  Whose right to speech has been denied on UR’s campus?  Well, as I noted above, it seems to be Black public scholars like Dr. Richards and me. It seems to be students like CC who point out the persistence of rape culture at UR.  It’s others who are not wealthy white cishet men without disabilities — whether student or faculty.  I’m sure, given the constraints of being a Black president of a historically white university, it’s you, too.

As the US political climate grows increasingly xenophobic, misogynistic, transphobic, bi- and homophobic, I charge you to prioritize the speech of those of us whose lives are literally at stake for daring to speak our truths.  Please stop making a case for conservatives to be heard on campus; they are not a minority simply because their closed-minded views are debunked by rigorous empirical research.  As you allude in your title, it is not whites, men, cis people, the wealthy, people without disabilities, and heterosexuals who don’t have a “right to be here” on campus.  It is those treated as the Other who are regularly reminded that we are lucky to even be allowed to step foot on campus or, as you alluded in your USA Today opinion piece, that we are simply invited because it’s good for the business. As a condition of the generous gift of no longer being legally barred or slipping through systematic exclusion, we must keep quiet about the microaggressions, discrimination, sexual violence, and harassment we experience at UR.

Your call for free speech threatens to only welcome even more hate-speech and violence without recourse.  Oppression is counter to UR’s liberal arts mission and values; as such, the university must create platforms for marginalized students, staff, and faculty to speak without the threat of dismissal or violence. You have got a lot of work to do if you will make a genuine effort to ensure that everyone has a protected right to free speech.  I hope you will hear my disagreement with an open-mind, and that you will stand up for me (even if you disagree with my views) when the inevitable backlash comes my way.

Update, 7/29/2018 3:15pm EST:

Note that free speech should be distinguished from academic freedom, where the latter refers to the freedom to share one’s empirically-grounded perspective — freedom from professional consequences or attacks from the public. See Dr. Fulhana Sultana’s insightful 2018 essay on this distinction: “The False Equivalence of Academic Freedom and Free Speech,” in ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 17(2): 228-257.  (Download the essay for free here.)

Counter White Supremacy With Black & Brown Supremacy (For A While)

"Black Lives Matter" by 5chw4r7z.

“Black Lives Matter” by 5chw4r7z.

Did you know that white supremacy reigned even before dooms day November 8th, 2016?  Yes, even with a (half) Black man in the White House, our country continued its legacy of white supremacy — one of many things that remain constant no matter the political party or race (or gender) of the sitting president.  The election of a known racist, sexual predator, xenophobe with the same level of political experience as a newborn baby was, in many ways, the inevitable conclusion of a supposed threat to the white supremacist order delivered by the election and re-election of Barack Hussein Obama.  My gut told me that Clinton should have waited another election cycle because this one might get ugly; and, it was so much uglier than I could anticipate.  Jesus herself, if she were to run as a Democrat, could not have won up against a candidate who promised to leave white supremacy intact (or, perhaps, advance its return — “Make American Great Again”).

I have Black feminist women in my life to thank for my relative calm about what a Trump presidency will mean.  While I’ve witnessed white liberals openly weeping over the election outcome, I’m surrounded by many more Black women who have all but asked, “why would you expect otherwise?”  Certainly not pessimism or resignation, as these women, like nearly every Black woman who voted, had hopes for a Clinton win (albeit with a more subdued, “child, I guess I’m with her…”); their slight lack of enthusiasm does not reflect a lack of commitment to gender equality or feminism, as research overwhelmingly suggests that Black women are more committed to it than are white women.  Rather, a(nother) Clinton presidency would be Diet White Supremacy (sweetened with stuff you know might kill you ultimately); but, her often centrist platform (and the inevitability of working within the deeply racist system) left no illusion that she would be much of a white savior for us folks of color.

But, some white liberals are afraid now. Have y’all been sleeping as Black cis and trans women have been murdered at historic rates — while Obama has been president???  White women jumped to plan a Million Woman March, staying true to a history of co-opting the work of Black people while excluding them.  (Where were y’all in 1997?)  Others are are wearing safety pins to publicly (albeit subtly) signal their solidarity for various oppressed groups.  I’m afraid I won’t notice because I’m looking to see which white folks (cops included) may be armed.  (Will your safety pin stop a bullet?)  Stop weeping and start organizing with people of color.

Did you know that real change requires sacrifice, risk, maybe even pain and getting a little dirty?  The residual pinhole in your shirt from a safety pin pales in comparison to the bullet holes that too frequently pierce Black and Brown bodies.  Taking a day off of work for a march is cute, assuming you have a job that allows time off for a political cause.  But, these initial efforts to return America to the pre-Nov. 8th days (you know, the ones in which white supremacy still ruled, just under a Black president) are not enough to bring down systemic, institionalized racism.  Real change needs to be more than a warm smile, a good intention, or a minor inconvenience.

White supremacy isn’t just the spike in racist hate crimes the week since election day, or graffiti displaying racist messages on public buildings, or putting known racists into powerful political positions.  It is also the mundane, everyday-ness of whiteness, the treatment of white as the default.  You are complicit in white supremacy to the extent that you are complacent about whiteness operating as the default, that you are too lazy or afraid to go against the grain, and that you are too ignorant to realize other possibilities exist.  Efforts to “see past color” or treat everyone equally help to maintain the racial hierarchy, whereas ignoring the ongoing legacy of racism does anything but create a level playing field.  (Why do you think most whites oppose Affirmative Action?)

My suggestion to counter whiteness-as-default is to make Blackness and Brownness the default starting now.  To the extent that you have a choice or power to shape something, prioritize the inclusion of people of color, our voices and contributions, and our herstory.  I’ll use academic examples, as that is my own profession.  If you are selecting scholars for a panel, speaker series, or edited volume, start by looking for scholars of color (especially cis and trans women and trans men).  Prioritize the hiring of candidates of color for job searches.  Nominate students and scholars of color for awards.  Assign readings in your classes by writers of color.  Cite researchers of color in your own research, and consider collaborating with colleagues of color.  Tenure and promote faculty of color.  Develop and generously support racial and ethnic studies programs.  If you use images of people in your Powerpoint presentations, take the time to find images of people of color.  Yes, much of this takes some extra time, but consistently going the easy route (who do you already know?  who is recognized as the “best” in your field?) will consistently yield white face after white face, white voice after white voice, white idea after white idea.  Concern about your time and energy are innocent enough, but they contribute to the treatment of whiteness as the default; and, to the extent that most white academics do this, it’s a systemic problem.  Who ever said racial justice was convenient?  It’s not.

I believe the easiest way to make racial justice, rather than whiteness, the default is make self-reflection about it a standard act.  I consistently draw from a racial justice frame from the Virginia Anti-Violence Project:

How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate, and intentionally include Black people?

This is something you can use in your own life, but also ask that others with whom you live and work make this a standard reflexive act.  Imagine, if you will, that American voters asked themselves this question last Tuesday; I wonder if fewer would have voted for the racist-rapist.

I know some may take issue with the language of Black supremacy or Brown supremacy — implying that people of color are superior to whites isn’t helpful either.  (How would we know since we’ve never been given a fair shot?)  I use such strong language to emphasize just how intense your efforts will need to be to make any sort of real impact.  We need something infinitely more powerful than safety pins and a one-day march to overcome white supremacy.  Think of the possible impact of even just a year of treating people of color as the default — only nominating and electing people of color (the reverse of what happens now), only featuring actors of color on film and TV (reverse of today), only hiring talented and qualified people of color (the reverse, still), only teaching Black/American Indian/Latinx/Asian American/Muslim history (not [white] US history).  What about regularly taking the time to seek out and amplify the voices of people of color rather than other whites (you might be surprised that we have important things to say!).  Getting involved with the Black Lives Matter movement and/or other racial justice movements.  If you give to charities, donating exclusively to those that promote racial justice (especially those with inclusive leadership — meaning cis and trans women of color and trans men). Consistently and generously compensating people of color for their labor and contributions to the community.

In 2017, the year of Black and Brown supremacy, children of color would see themselves, the employment rate for people of color would go up, perhaps the racial wage gap would shrink (or at least stop growing); maybe skeptical whites would finally see the potential of people of color and begin investing in us and partnering with us.  Of course, on year won’t be enough to counter centuries of white supremacy and whites’ efforts to exterminate and decimate communities of color; but, we’ve got to do something grander than safety pins.

Here’s a tissue.  Wipe up your white liberal tears and get to work.  You’ll know you’re actually making a difference when you need that tissue to wipe sweat from your brow, dirt off of your hands, and blood from injuries you’ve sustained.  Your people elected Trump — what are you going to do about it?