Source: Elon University.
I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first time I have publicly written about the (recent media attention to the) crisis of police violence against Black men and boys in the United States. Why have I remained silent for months? From August onward, different reasons have come to mind to explain (or justify?) my self-imposed silence:
- I was a nervous wreck the days leading up to the American Sociological Association annual meeting in San Francisco, held just a few days after police officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. And, while at the conference, there was little discussion of Brown’s death — at least that I encountered. It seemed, as a discipline and academic organization, sociologists were surprisingly silent about the murder and subsequent riots. Fortunately, some sociologists were talking about Ferguson, and some were even making a plan to act as sociologists. Still, our collective action pales in comparison to other discipline’s efforts.
- My father is a white police officer. I have struggled to reconcile what I know about the sometimes scary realities of his work life with the everyday lived realities of communities that have been anything but protected and served by police. I have struggled to separate individual (white) police officers from widespread racist bias and violence in US law enforcement.
- As protests spread across the US, and hostility toward a legacy of racist police violence reached a boiling point, I continued to remain silent and, admittedly, out of touch. Teaching three classes, including one new course, while attempting to stay productive in my research, felt too overwhelming to sacrifice my precious personal time. Maintaining work-life balance is hard enough without national crises.
- As the body count increased, and the murders of Black men by police officers
became remained legal and state-sanctioned, it became difficult to remain focused on my usual professional responsibilities. How could I carry on teaching about the medical institution (in one class) and research methods (in two other classes) when my mind was clouded with a sense of total vulnerability as a Black gay man in a racist and homophobic society? When white students challenged me about a few points they had lost on assignments, I thought, “you privileged asses don’t know — they’re killing us! Fuck your 2 points.”
I excused my silence and, frankly, my self-imposed ignorance about the national crisis. Anxiety about conference presentations. Mixed boy problems. Raw pain. I had reason after reason, excuse after excuse. Eventually, I was forced to name the root issue: fear. (Ah, and as the tears instantly began forming after typing those four letters, my suspicion is confirmed.)
I make a point of talking about current events and new published studies at the beginning of my classes — well, at least those that are undeniably related to the course, and usually only in my substantive courses (e.g., Medical Sociology, Gender and Sexuality). In teaching Medical Sociology and Sociological Research Methods this semester, I never felt comfortable bringing up the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, and … (too many). These tragedies did not seem relevant to lectures on sexual health, or multivariate analysis, or the decline of medicine, or qualitative data analysis; so, I never brought them up.
I suspect, at some level, I feared that a student would even ask, “how is this related to our class?” Or, that some would later criticize me on course evaluations for focusing too much on racism (when the course has nothing to do with it). I have been challenged by students enough for this fear to feel at least somewhat rational. And, as my own pain and outrage grew, I worried that I was not “removed” enough from the tragedies to have a “neutral” conversation with my students about them. I knew well enough that the pain was too raw to risk having a (white) student demand to know, “why are we talking about that issue here?”
Eventually, I was presented an “excuse” to even utter the word Ferguson in my Medical Sociology class. At my university, a forum was held to discuss the Grand Jury’s decision regarding Darren Wilson and, by the time of the forum, that regarding the murder of Eric Garner, as well. I mentioned the event to my class, strongly encouraging my students to attend, but made it clear that I did not want to have a discussion in class about it.
At the forum, I admitted my embarrassment for going almost the full semester without ever discussing the national crisis. And, I pushed back on the few other staff and faculty who attended to stop implicitly asking why the students were so quiet on the issue and, instead, ask ourselves why we had not provided students the space and resources to discuss it and (if appropriate) to act. I know I am not alone in failing to discuss these important, urgent events in my classes — not in being afraid to do so (as a pre-tenure young Black gay man) and not in feeling it was “irrelevant” to my courses.
Do #BlackLivesMatter In The Academy?
Do Black lives actually matter in academia? No and no. On the one hand, Black students, staff, and faculty are woefully underrepresented in higher education. Nominal diversity aside, there are too many academic institutions that fail to fully include Black people, to offer equal resources and opportunities, to protect Black people from harm. On the other hand, Black communities and their contributions to society and history are rarely presented as legitimate, primary areas of inquiry in higher education. Sure, there are a few courses in the social sciences and humanities that focus on race and racism; but, too few schools even offer degrees in Black, racial and ethnic, or cultural studies (sadly, my own university doesn’t, either). At many schools, students are simply not afforded academic spaces to frankly discuss race, racism, ethnicity, and xenophobia.
The absence of Black people in academic institutions and in academic curricula are compounded for Black scholars. Some of us are accepted on the condition that our Blackness is downplayed, contained, silenced, or erased. We run the risk of losing our jobs or being sued if we dare to discuss racism as a legitimate area of academic study. We risk being dismissed as researchers for studying our own communities, our work mocked as “me-search” while our white colleagues’ research on their own communities is seen as legitimate, mainstream scholarship. And, despite our credentials and prestigious position in institutions of higher learning, we would be naive to expect to be treated better than a common nigger once we leave our campus offices.
Since Black lives seem to matter little in academia, I should not be surprised by my own silence about the ongoing national crisis of police violence against Black communities. The culture of academia fails to prioritize and celebrate Black lives. So, I regularly feel as though I am defending my right to exist before a jury each time I teach about race and racism. But, I am further exhausted by attempting to toe the line of neutrality, for fear of retaliation from racist- and even “post-racist”-minded students. My mainstream academic training, which prioritized prestige (i.e., journal rank), theory, and method over activism, social justice, and marginalized communities, did not include critical race theory or much of anything that made race central, nor skills for discussing current events like Ferguson in my classes. And, my current institution did not make explicit support for me if I decided to discuss the national crisis in my classes. (As a matter of survival, I do not assume the absence of explicit hostility or opposition necessarily implies the presence of acceptance or support.) Academia, in general, is not designed in a way that would make such discussions obvious material for one’s courses, whether or not they are explicitly focused on racism.
Can you blame me for being afraid to speak? Without appropriate training and support to speak up, I knew that doing so would be at my own risk. And, the question is, do I risk my job by speaking up or do I risk my life by remaining silent? Whether you sympathize with me, or pity me, or even think I am full of shit, I have blamed myself — and, still do somewhat. I let pain, fear, and uncertainty prevent me from providing my students one of probably few possible spaces to speak about the national crisis. I contributed to reinforcing the message that race and racism are not worthwhile topics in the classroom, particularly if “race” or some similar term is not in the course’s title.
We Must Make #BlackLivesMatter In Academia
I suspect some may wonder why instructors should talk about Brown, Garner, Rice, and Brisbon in the classroom. I respect others’ academic freedom and, thus, am hesitant to claim that others should or should not discuss this crisis with their students. But, there are a few reasons that I think others should consider.
First, we should resist the temptation to see this as a recent, temporary, and isolated series of murders. Police violence, particularly against Black and brown bodies, is not new, and certainly not limited to these four murders (nor to men of color). I imagine that there is a sizable body of research on race, racism, and law enforcement that should appease educators who are skeptical to engage current events. Second, by bringing these conversations into our classes, we may equip our students to be able to connect those events with their own lives and communities. Perhaps we can further chip away at the myth of racial equality and meritocracy in higher education. Third, we would be contributing to students’ awareness of events and phenomena outside of our classes, even outside of the ivory tower.
But, facilitating a discussion about Ferguson, for example, is radical. It is radical to the extent that one is pushing back against the hegemonic academic culture of racelessness or “post-raciality” (which, in reality, is simply white supremacy). So, doing so likely requires some amount of strategizing beyond, “hey, I should probably mention this really quickly in my class.” Below I list some ideas, mainly from the efforts of others who were brave enough to act and speak up, as well as some that would, in hindsight, have helped me to feel empowered to speak up:
- Before you talk about the murder of Michael Brown, talk with other instructors first (or at least friends or family), and do your homework about the facts and timeline. One danger of talking about Ferguson for the first time in one’s classes is not having thought through one’s own perspective and emotions, and not being prepared to hear possible counterperspectives and inaccuracies that students may offer. Talking with others at your institution first could help to glean the degree to which you are supported and, implicitly, to garner support in case things do not go well in your class discussion. Speaking for myself, the regular sense of isolation in academia exacerbates my fear and self-doubt in front of the classroom; I imagine I would have felt more empowered if I had already spoken with colleagues about the events that unfolded in Ferguson.
- But, do not assume that students are not paying attention; yet, do not assume that they have received accurate facts about the murders, either.
- See what other academics have done. Read everything on the #FergusonSyllabus. And, everything that Sarah Kendzoir has written about Ferguson, MO.
- Use peer-reviewed literature and books about racial violence in your classes. But, also consider using readings that feature personal accounts and the voices of Black people, either in anthologies or even blog posts and news articles. We must go beyond the recent murders that garnered national media and social media attention.
- When discussing the crisis, make clear that it cannot be thought of in either exclusively academic or exclusively personal (i.e., non-academic) terms. Our conversations should not become so focused on the aggregate patterns and problems that we forget about the particular victims of racist police violence; but, we also do students a disservice by discussing these individual murders as isolated events, or purely in terms of our emotions about them. It is crucial to give social and historical context for these events to prevent our conversations from dissolving into simply interrogating victims’ and perpetrators’ backgrounds, biases, and emotional states.
- Set an appropriate and safe tone in the classroom for any discussion. Make sure that you feel prepared to address problematic, offensive, or triggering comments that may be made during class discussion. Upon reflecting on your class’s dynamics, if it does not seem the conversation will be unproductive or unsafe, consider eliminating discussion to either simply lecture or allow students to privately reflect in writing. Or, simply forgo any discussion at all if you do not feel it will go well or that you are not adequately prepared.
- Besides classroom dialogue, consider other ways on and off campus, and on and offline, to act and speak up. But, also prioritize self-care so that your professional livelihood is not jeopardized by the psychological toll of yet another racial crisis or scandal.
- Help students to connect the the racist police violence that has recently captured media attention to their own lives, including racial disparities in policing and disciplinary actions in schools. You can also draw on stories of racist police violence in your own city or state that have likely been overlooked by mainstream media (but, perhaps has been covered on social media).
In some ways, I feel this post is “too little, too late.” What does writing about my five months of silence add to conversations that have ensued since (and long before) the murder of Michael Brown? At a minimum, I wish to name the professional, social, and emotional constraints I regularly face as an academic. I am confident that I am not alone in feeling that my supposed academic freedom is undermined by racist academic norms and practices, isolation, lack of support, as well as the resultant fear and self-doubt. To others who remain too afraid to speak up, you are not alone.
Ideally, I hope to also make clear how academia is complicit in the silence and ignorance that surrounds racist police violence, and racism in general, in the US. We fail to provide our students with the critical lens necessary to connect what they learn in the classroom with what is featured (or ignored) by the media. We fail to demonstrate the relevance of academic scholarship to the “real” world, and to take serious topics such as race and racism in the academy. White students are not challenged to see their own racial privilege, and how their actions and inactions contribute to the perpetuation of racism. Many Black students do not see themselves on campus or in their textbooks. This is in the midst of academia’s role in perpetuating racial inequality, while producing a generation of “post-racials.”
Finally, this post serves to break my silence. I have once again learned the hard way that my silence does not protect me.