Classrooms Must Be A Frontline In The Fight Against White Supremacy

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Nicole Truesdell is the senior director of the office of academic diversity and inclusiveness, and affiliated faculty in critical identity studies at Beloit College. Her general interests are in radical pedagogy, academic hustling and social justice. Her research focuses on the intersections of race, racism, gender, class, citizenship and the modern nation-state, higher ed, and radical black thought in the US and the UK. Her latest co-authored article, “The Role of Combahee in Anti-Diversity Work,” is forthcoming in Souls.

Recent events in Charlottesville, Va., and Shelbyville, Tenn., show us the modern face of American white supremacy. Rather than marching under sheets or lurking in the backwoods, today’s white supremacists stand proud in their tan khakis and white polos with tiki torches in hand. No longer are sheets needed to masks their faces as white men and women boldly shouted racist chants like “blood and soil.”

Instead, we see a disturbing trend emerging in larger society to label this speech and action as opinion-based ideology with no social, political or economic ramifications. While some people will look to the current U.S. president as the source of this normalization, his administration is not the only location to push “both sides” rhetoric. Instead, we can also look to colleges and universities as sites that help both disseminate and normalize racist hate speech.

Alt-right/white supremacist speakers and organizations are choosing to use and abuse colleges and universities as locations at which to speak and recruit. Speakers like Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter spew their hate-filled opinions from college lecture halls, relying on academic free speech as their alibi of legitimacy in these locations.

Colleges and universities that allow these speakers on their campuses say they are committed to upholding “free speech” rhetoric, no matter its consequences to the students, faculty and staff members who live and work in these places. “We welcome a diversity of opinions” tends to be a favorite tagline of places that invite these controversial speakers to come and set up shop, signaling a welcome to (and normalizing of) hate speech. Yet when those who are committed to antiracism, antioppression theory and practice — such as Lisa Durden, Johnny Eric Williams or Tommy Curry — use these same locations to push back against this toxic rhetoric, they are met with death threats, job loss and/or lack of support from those same institutions.

Why are colleges and universities prime and targeted sites for white supremacist speakers and their allies? Because it is in these locations where administrators saw diversity as a problem and not, as Christina Berchini says, “the symptom” of the ways white supremacy is embedded in the structure of higher education. Students across the country organized and began to protest and create sets of demands on the various ways they saw this inequity within their colleges and universities. In response, college administrators and boards of trustees have created “diversity and inclusion” strategic plans and initiatives to placate student demands. Many of those plans have not focused on structural changes but instead have relied on Band-Aid approaches that give just enough to student demands while never addressing the racist structural barriers that created the issues to begin with. In the process, many colleges and universities are now invoking “academic freedom” and “dialogue” as a way to “speak and hear” across difference in order to stop “divisive” rhetoric from taking hold.

Yet the implementation of such initiatives seems one-sided, and, instead of making space for students, faculty and staff members at the margins, they have ended up further marginalizing the demographic groups that demanded change in the first place. Instead of moving institutions forward, both diversity/inclusion initiatives alongside pleas to have more neutral stances inside and outside the classroom focus more on making majority students (namely, white students) comfortable at the expense of those who took the risk to protest injustice in the first place (usually black, brown, queer and trans students who sit at multiple intersections) because they sit in institutions that were not made for them. In this process, structures of oppression are never interrogated and instead everything is rendered “opinions” that can be “debated.” This process of deflection has helped normalize (and even welcome) hate speech on campuses, making them prime locations for white supremacists to target.

Many people call for an end to politics in the classroom, as this is seen as the source of the problem. Rather than address systemic and structural oppression and discrimination, faculty are being asked to take “neutral” stances and just teach our disciplines, leaving politics to social media and in-person conversation. Yet for many scholars, this is our work. Many of us are trained to see and then speak on institutional and structural systems of oppression. I have been trained specifically to see and call out institutional racism through an intersectional lens. If we are being told to just do our job, then we are. So the real question becomes, is society ready to accept the true point of an education, which is to develop a group of critically thinking, conscious citizens? Is higher education ready and capable of taking on this work?

That is the true point of education, what James Baldwin meant when he said in 1963, “The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” As educators, it is our job to teach students how to think critically so that they can engage with larger social issues. That is not confined to just the social sciences, but has an impact on all academic disciplines and departments. Yet as Baldwin also said, society is not always that anxious to have a mass of critically thinking and engaged people, because “what societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.” That is why education matters more so now than ever as a location that should be unapologetically committed to developing students to become true critically engaged thinkers who learn how to apply those knowledges, methodologies and skills to locations outside spaces like this.

It is on college and university campuses, and within our classrooms and through our programming, where resistance to this encroaching normalized white supremacist ideology must be challenged. Now is not the time to side with neutrality. In my office, we have taken up this challenge head-on through our programming and work with students. This academic year our #GetWoke series is focused on Organizing and Activism During 45. We created an open-source syllabus to accompany the panels we host around this theme, using both music and accessible reading pieces to guide and contextualize each of our panels.

Our goal is to have the campus and community understand what organizing and activism are, why individuals and groups participate in these practices, and what possibilities there are or can be when we engage in other ways of knowing and being. In doing so, we hope conversations and actions move away from partisanship and into understandings of what we want humanity to be. What humanity should be.

Scholars Of Color Should Create Supportive Communities To Thrive

Note: this was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Macy Wilson is a doctoral student of clinical psychology, currently completing her internship at a federal prison. She identifies as a biracial (African-American and Xicana), queer, cis woman. Macy’s research integrates issues of masculinity, womanist and feminist issues, and culturally competent proactive intervention.

Self-Care Through Intentional Community

Earlier this year, I gave a presentation on mental health, cultural competence and services for African-American/black folks at the Cultural Impact Conference. This particular conference was one in which multiple cultures were highlighted, and special attention was given to the ways that mental health impacts these groups. It was an inspiration to see so many people collectively dedicated to the advancement of mental health for marginalized communities.

Unfortunately, however, such crucial conversations are more of an exception than a rule, and they are recurrently missing from our personal experiences as scholars of color, particularly in navigating the academy. That missing link contributes to fostering a highly polarizing atmosphere for academics of color. It is important to recognize the value of community when navigating these experiences; the presence of community can often be a form of self-preservation, rejuvenation and comfort.

Lately, a lot of attention has been paid to self-care and the ways in which we practice it (or fail to). I firmly believe that, as a woman of color, having conversations about what it means to survive and thrive in predominantly white spaces is integral to my self-care and self-preservation. In order to embrace this aspect of self-care, though, I learned that I had to be intentional about the people with whom I spent my time, the mentors I sought out and the opportunities in which I partook outside school (read: the communities I formed or with which I engaged). It was sometimes a difficult balance to achieve as a graduate student, because time is a luxury.

Throughout all of my years of higher education, I have simultaneously worked while taking a full course load. This is a common experience for many college students, but the demands of graduate school add an extra layer of difficulty to the mix. Integrating the totality of one’s identity can also be a difficult task when many spaces are not fully welcoming of those identities — or even “conditionally accepting” at best. The importance of community during such times cannot be understated. Whether it’s having a fellow graduate student take detailed notes in your absence, someone lending a listening ear when you are feeling stressed or having someone with whom to celebrate the good times, I occasionally found myself relying on the help of others in spite of my “strong black woman” complex.

One thing I didn’t realize until the final years of my program was how crucial it was to communicate with, and seek advice from, mentors and scholars of color. Upon beginning my program, I quickly developed a feeling of resentment because it felt as though fellow students and many faculty members were not as invested in (read: vocal about) cultural competence and the myriad ways in which mental health must be tailored to suit the needs of complex individuals. All of this was compounded by the Eurocentricity of our readings. During those times, I felt as if parts of my identity were being dismissed, and I, subsequently, executed poor self-care strategies by isolating even further. I internalized the notion that I was a complex individual and that others would not understand, or care to hear about, my grievances.

In keeping quiet, however, I did myself a disservice because no one understands how to correct a problem that is never verbalized. Further, I prevented myself from making meaningful connections by not voicing my concerns to the scholars of color who had already paved the way and probably experienced similar feelings along their journeys. Had I done that from the beginning, I believe that my approach to self-care would have improved rapidly and that I could have made meaningful connections even sooner with scholars of color whom I greatly admired.

This is not to say that all scholars of color will automatically take us under their proverbial wings and happily share their own stories, but speaking with scholars of color at my institution and in the community (even if it wasn’t directly about how I was feeling) helped to create a safe space in the midst of an experience that sometimes felt unwelcoming or silencing. Hearing some of the frustrations from their time in graduate school was encouraging and liberating, because I realized that I wasn’t alone.

That understanding was especially helpful because it made me feel visible and heard. That visibility was (and continues to be) empowering and it has encouraged me to be more intentional about expanding my chosen community. One small thing I’ve prided myself on over the years is remembering and using people’s names. It goes a long way, probably because it recognizes one’s individuality among an abundance of generalities. Not only does it make the person with whom you are speaking feel good, but it increases the likelihood that they will remember you.

That will definitely come in handy when you need some help down the road. In hindsight, I’ve realized that many of the scholars of color to whom I reached out were beyond happy to share their experiences with me, and part of that enthusiasm may have been because they knew what it is like to be glossed over, ignored, rejected or just not taken as seriously in predominantly white academic spaces.

Standing out positively in academe is important but sometimes difficult, and it can be easy to slip into the comfort of anonymity by just doing your work and graduating, or quitting altogether. As an introvert, I loathed conversations about “networking” because I assumed that meant small talk, but I slowly learned that it doesn’t have to! One-on-one conversations with individuals can be as meaningful as you choose to make them, and a big part of that depends on how much you are willing to share of your authentic self. That is easier said than done, however, because it takes courage to make oneself vulnerable and willing to humbly learn from another.

Scholars of color know well that we must work at least twice as hard to be considered half as good as our white counterparts, and that this work is augmented by our other identities that may further marginalize us within predominantly white spaces and institutions. Attempting to compensate for the “black tax” and other penalties for being a minority can be exhausting. The work that we have chosen to do is important, and it is imperative that we take care of ourselves while staying the course; we owe it to ourselves.

Looking forward, other people will be able to stand on our shoulders as they journey to improve academe and the broader world in which we live, because we were proactive and not reactive. Additionally, we can be a lighthouse for those behind us because we stayed true to ourselves in the midst of the isolation and attempts to silence us — because we were committed to our own self-preservation. In the words of Audre Lorde, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Lorde, and many like her, reclaimed their time in efforts to practice effective self-care, and it will be a boon for us to integrate these same efforts in our personal and work lives.

The academy and future scholars need our voices now more than ever. Speaking out, writing and intentionally connecting with others will enable us to survive and thrive within these spaces, because this work cannot be done alone.

Power-Conscious Approaches To Campus Sexual Violence Prevention

Harris & Linder

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Chris Linder (@proflinder) is an associate professor of college student affairs administration at the University of Georgia. Dr. Jessica C. Harris (@DrJessicaHarris) is an assistant professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles. Be sure to see their first blog post on challenging taken-for-granted assumptions in research on sexual violence.

Feminists have long advocated that sexual violence is more about power than about sex, yet few people understand what this means. Further, when mainstream feminist movements (i.e., white, middle-class, educated, cisgender women) highlight that power is integral to understanding sexual violence, that usually (re)centers power connected with only sexist oppression. While misogyny, patriarchy and sexism contribute to sexual violence, we argue that the root of sexual violence is deeper than the sum of these sexist systems.

The root cause of sexual violence is oppression, in all of its manifestations, including racism, cissexism, heterosexism, ableism and sexism. Oppression results from people abusing power or lacking consciousness about how power influences their own and others’ experiences. For these reasons, we advocate a power-conscious approach to addressing sexual violence.

What does “power conscious” mean? Simply put, it means paying attention to power dynamics at work in individual, institutional and cultural systems of oppression. Developing power consciousness means that we ask:

  • Who is missing in this discussion? Who is centered? Why? (See our previous essay for a fuller discussion on this.)
  • Who has the power — both formal and informal — in this system?
  • How do social identities influence who is heard and who is ignored and silenced?
  • Who benefits from this system? Who does not?

For example, how do social identities influence people’s experiences in the criminal justice system? The cases of Cory Batey and Brock Turner illustrate how racism and classism show up in sentencing processes. Cory Batey was a black football player at Vanderbilt University; Brock Turner was a white swimmer at Stanford University. Both men were convicted of committing sexual violence. Batey was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and Turner was sentenced to six months in jail. Although state law and specific contexts make up for some of the discrepancy in sentencing, they cannot account for the drastic differences in the sentencing in these cases.

How does that relate to our campuses?

College campuses are mostly made up of the same people who make up our larger communities, so racism and classism are showing up in our campus accountability systems, as well. Campus police, campus judicial systems and even victim advocacy services are not immune from failing to consider the ways people from historically minoritized communities may not experience campus systems the same as students with mostly dominant identities.

So, what do we do? Below, we offer three specific recommendations for approaching sexual violence from a power-conscious perspective.

Learn the history of rape and racism. Ahistoricism, or failing to understand or account for the history and context of an issue or topic, leads to incomplete and ineffective strategies for dealing with sexual violence. For example, sexual violence law is fundamentally racialized.

Early sexual violence laws in America were rooted in property law. White men were the only people who could file charges of rape, as rape was considered a property crime — something that reduced the value of a man’s daughter, essentially his “property.” Additionally, in the time period after the Civil War, white men falsely accused black men as perpetrators of sexual violence directed toward white women to maintain white men’s power and dominance.

More recent sexual violence laws, specifically, the Violence Against Women Act, emerged during the “tough on crime” era of the 1980s and ’90s, which was also highly racialized. People in that era sought to address drug abuse, but drug laws and enforcement focused primarily on poor communities and communities of color, contributing to the continuation of portraying men of color as criminals.

Given the racialized history of sexual violence law and the current context of racism in legal and policy systems, administrators and educators on college campuses should consider community accountability processes as an option for addressing sexual violence. Community accountability, as described by the INCITE! women of color against violence collective, means that communities stop relying on systems that perpetuate violence toward them and start relying on each other to hold perpetrators of violence accountable and work to transform perpetrator behavior. Community accountability is not appropriate in all cases and must be carefully implemented under the leadership of people with a significant understanding of it (specifically, women of color, who created it).

Further, in cases where campus adjudication systems are used, people involved in those systems must be educated about the role of oppression in legal and policy response, as well as the history of the intersections of oppression and sexual violence. A deeper understanding of history may lead to more equitable outcomes in campus adjudication systems.

Employ an intersectional, identity-conscious perspective. Foundational intersectionality scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw provides a number of examples to illustrate centering women of color and poor women in interpersonal-violence work. Crenshaw helps us understand that, by centering the most marginalized people in efforts to address interpersonal violence, no one is left out. When white, cisgender, heterosexual women at elite institutions of higher education are centered in sexual violence work (as they are now), they are the only ones to benefit. However, when marginalized populations are at the center of antioppression work, strategies are more comprehensive, resulting in more effectively dealing with interpersonal violence.

That being said, incorporating intersectionality into student affairs practice does not mean that every program has to be for every student. There is no such thing as an “all-inclusive” program. In fact, this is dangerously close to the concept of “color blindness,” or the notion that one does not “see” color when discussing race. In addition to the ableist nature of the term “color blindness,” using an “identity-neutral” approach to any issue effectively (re)centers people with dominant identities, who are treated as the norm or default.

Related to campus sexual violence, seemingly identity-neutral approaches effectively make the experiences of any victim who is not a white, cisgender, heterosexual woman invisible. Designing programs that specifically center the experiences of men survivors, trans and queer survivors, survivors of color, and survivors with disabilities (re)centers their experiences in the conversation. Doing so will result in better-informed providers and more empowered survivors. This also frees up space to develop programs specifically for white, cis, hetero women, whose experiences are distinct in and of their own — just not the only experiences, as currently portrayed.

Focus on perpetrators. We are working on a research project examining the ways sexual violence is portrayed in campus newspapers. An initial review of the data reveals that perpetrators are invisible in most articles about sexual violence. Language used throughout newspaper articles often implies that sexual violence just “happens,” as though there is no actor or explanation for it.

By making perpetrators invisible, we ignore important power dynamics at play. Perpetrators — not alcohol, not being at the wrong place at the wrong time, not miscommunication — are solely responsible for sexual violence. Failing to acknowledge this ignores the power that perpetrators wield, placing responsibility for ending sexual violence on the wrong people: potential victims, bystanders and advocates.

Campus administrators and educators should work to ensure that perpetrators are made more visible in discussions of sexual violence prevention. For example, rather than only focusing on teaching potential victims how to avoid being assaulted, we should spend more resources teaching people not to rape. Focusing on perpetrators as the cause of sexual violence may contribute to increased community accountability for their actions. People will begin to see the perpetrator — not alcohol or miscommunication — as the key problem.

Surviving Institutional Racism In Academe

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). The author is a Black woman professor at a small liberal arts college. She was strongly encouraged by IHE to remain anonymous for fear that her colleagues or university would retaliate against her for calling out the racism that she has experienced at work.

Readers, I will be honest with you: when I accepted my first tenure-track position, I was excited to formally join the academy. I naïvely assumed the bubble of academe would insulate me from, well, everything. I raced toward my Ph.D. in search of social protection, professional stability and financial freedom. Instead, I found early-career emotional, physical and mental exhaustion.

Upon joining the professoriate, I thought I was joining a group of people committed to a similar end goal. I imagined college faculty members as collective change agents transforming the lives of future generations. I was wrong. Colleges as manufacturing plants for little liberal soldiers is a fairy tale created by political conservatives to reconstruct classism around education rather than political affiliation. I have found few liberal “havens” in academic spaces, and I am not sure that there is a happy ending here.

I am sure none of what follows is unique to my experiences as a black woman faculty member at a HWCU (or historically white college or university). The ordinary nature of racism in the academy encourages its growth where it seemed, to me, least likely. A small segment of faculty of color experience extreme harassment, receiving death threats and sometimes termination for their public discussions of white supremacy and privilege. Most of us, instead, experience professional death by a thousand cuts. We spend our days ducking microaggressions, hurdling stereotypes and navigating emotional distress. Most of us will be denied tenure, and many will be too exhausted to protest if we managed to land a tenure-track job at all.

When I went to work mobilizing support for change, I had no idea the toll institutional racism in this setting and academe more generally would take on my physical health, my spirit and my passion for educating. I led poorly attended workshops on “othering” in the classroom. I proposed noncomparative research on black student communities, but reviewers suggested white subjects were imperative to create valid data. I came to the academy to create platforms for change. Instead I found an institution where skepticism permeates discussions of inequality and willful ignorance of prejudicial rhetoric perpetuates discrimination.

Here are some lessons about surviving academe’s institutionalized racism that I have learned the hard way.

The job of a professor is physical work. In graduate school, I rarely heard discussions of the physicality of academe. I did not expect to feel the work so viscerally. The constant tension is a byproduct of the inherent conundrum of my role on the campus. I am expected to exert power where it is not assumed. Fellow faculty and administrators challenge my fit while also thrusting me into the limelight. Students test my steadfastness and institutional authority. My body language is constantly surveilled and therefore must be managed. “Stand taller, take up space, remember you belong here” is a mantra I repeat often to myself. Tenure won’t change this, and publications won’t, either. A short critical comment in faculty meeting requires brute force to momentarily pause my shaking hands as I stand to address fellow faculty. There is no alternative action in this example. To allow my hands to shake would undermine the little power I’ve amassed, but the physical exhaustion I feel afterward is palpable.

You cannot always be the counselor. The impact of white supremacy on campus is often silent in its devastation. Coupled with low levels of student trust in faculty and staff, marginalized students have few spaces where they can speak openly and without fear of recourse. So I opened my door. I let students unload their experiences on me, but it is difficult to maintain emotional distance when we are angry about the same things. What would you tell a black student who has to attend class with a peer who yelled racist epithets at them last weekend, or a survivor who has to eat in the same dining hall as their rapist? I listened to them, tried to console them, to temper the anxiety and frustration plaguing them. I met with anyone with institutional power to plead my case. I lost sleep, I cried. I want to give these students a voice but almost lost mine in the process.

People will try you. I joined the academy because I love to explore, teach and write. I expected to feel at home, but instead of like-minded peers I found antagonists. Instead of solidarity, I found cynicism. I endure affirmative action jokes from white colleagues and passive digs at my inability to “look like a professor.” Students of all races challenge my syllabus, threaten to go “over my head” to their white man professor of choice and reject social inequality discussions in the classroom.

Administrators are happy to use my efforts to promote institutional diversity initiatives but routinely ignore my recommendations for effective structural and cultural change. They ask: Why are you so sensitive? Perhaps it wasn’t their intention to offend you? Who else corroborates your story? What could you have done differently? Have you reviewed the institutional policy on this topic? Perhaps you should discuss with unreachable person X. Many students and staff members regard me as a member of the liberal elite pushing overwrought theories of social inequity on the next generation. I am an outsider. Therefore I can be openly challenged, admonished and ignored at the whim of those around me.

You are not alone. I dreamed of rallying a group of like-minded thinkers to the same table so that we could make a plan to save the world. But that never happened. At first, my colleagues were happy to help champion issues of marginalization on campus, especially when catchy buzzwords were involved. Increase diversity! Improve inclusivity! But the excitement faded quickly in the face of constant administrative resistance. I also found it difficult to use cultural support, once a dependable savior, as a scaffold. I thought myself a burden to those struggling through their own fatigue. I watched from the outside for too long, wondering if other marginalized faculty felt similarly alone and disappointed. I wish I had known sooner that they did.

You can decide your success. I would love to be awarded tenure when the time comes, and I would like to publish social justice research in peer-reviewed journals, but I realize now that may not be my path. The difficulty to produce in this environment, to maintain creativity amid the emotional, physical and psychological strain of this job, cannot be overstated. I have dedicated hundreds of hours to improving the academic experiences of the marginalized at my institution. It hasn’t made a difference, but I will not stop fighting.

Instead, I stopped using institutional change as a marker of success. I prioritize my stability, health and happiness. I don’t need to create a more liberal environment to experience success. Sometimes a day maintaining collegiality far above what I receive is success. Continuing to raise my voice is success. Providing support for those who need it, even when it is difficult to find myself, is success. And most days that’s enough, for now.

Breaking The Silence About Sexual Violence In Black Communities

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column at Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College and a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted and Vitae. Follow her on Twitter at @IvyLeagueLady.

Breaking The Culture of Silence

This essay contributes to a continuing series in Conditionally Accepted on sexual violence in higher education. Women of color — Black women in particular — are raised to keep quiet about such things. Much of the sexual violence that Black women experience is at the hands of family members, friends, neighbors and church and community leaders. And if anything is true in a Black household, it is that one should not make private business public. Don’t air dirty laundry.

Sometimes we women of color do not even know that we have been sexually violated. I cannot speak for other communities of color, but in the Black community, we do not talk about sexual violence. Sure, we have conversations with our kids about sex — safe sex practices and/or waiting until marriage — but anything beyond that is picked up on the school bus, at the basketball court, in the hair salon or when we are being seen and not heard at Sunday dinner. It is so ingrained in my cultural norms to be silent about our sexual experiences that the thought to contribute to this series never crossed my mind until I was asked about it in passing.

If no one ever teaches us how to talk about sexual violence, how will we ever cultivate our voices — whether as survivors, bystanders, friends or advocates?

That Day

I was sexually assaulted when I was 15, in the 11th grade. I did not realize it until more than 10 years and four degrees later (ironically, three of which happen to be in psychology). The realization was triggered by a Facebook message from someone to whom I had not spoken since high school. The same someone who saved me from being raped.

The second I saw my friend’s profile picture, it hit me: images of him rushing into the girls’ bathroom on H-hall, grabbing Brandon (a pseudonym) by the back of his shirt, throwing him against the wall and turning to me and saying, “Go to class, Minny.” His nickname for me was Skinny Minny. That part of the flashback made me smile.

When I got out of the bathroom, I ran to class, careful not to drop my books while pulling down my shirt and rehooking my bra.

I made it to class just as the bell rang.

Just Another Day?

The flood of memories rendered me completely immobile for a full five minutes. Two things became clear: I had been sexually assaulted, and I had never realized it until now, after 10 years’ delay.

Remembering this incident did not bring with it the trauma my psychologically trained mind thinks that it should have. I am more horrified that a 15-year-old girl with a 4.5 GPA did not recognize sexual assault when she experienced it, or even in the years that followed. I certainly knew what rape was and that Brandon had a reputation for sexually assaulting girls, and I was very much afraid of having to walk past him and his friends on my way to class. Clearly, I knew that this boy was a threat; I knew that what he was doing to me was wrong. Yet, when it was over, it was as if the school bell pushed that moment into last period and it was now time for fourth-period IB English. Like what I ate for lunch, being sexually assaulted was simply another event in a normal school day.

It should not have been. But for me and so many other women of color, sexual violence is par for the course in our day-to-day lives. Violence of all kinds becomes so normalized to us that we do not recognize it as the deviant, harmful and criminal behavior that it is. For those who do, speaking up is not as simple as telling your best friend (what if she says that I am overreacting and, instead, should be flattered because Brandon is super cute?) or your parent (“what did you do to make him think you’d like that?”).

A 15-year-old girl with her sights set on the Ivy League does not want to stir up trouble, particularly when her own behavioral record is far from spotless. Why bother parents who work long hours with a story about something that almost happened or really didn’t happen at all? Cultural norms sometimes demand silence, but even more concerning, self-preservation mandates that we just forget it. The brain and heart can only handle so much trauma, and for too many women, “almost” being raped just does not measure up.

Women of color have been demoralized, browbeaten and run over so much that we sometimes do not give ourselves the space that we need to fall apart. We are raised with messages of strength; we are the backbone of the family. When so many Black and brown men are unjustly behind bars, we have been left to bear the burdens of life alone. What we go through on a day-to-day basis is unconscionable to people who do not live at the intersection of gender, race, class and religion. But for us, it is just another day.

Tomorrow

I am currently co-editing an anthology of stories and other works by women academics of color about their bravery. My co-editor and I expected to receive tales of triumph in response to our call for abstracts: stories in which a woman exposes a misogynist, how-to manuals for starting mentoring programs, narratives of opening businesses in underresourced areas. And we got a few of those. But mostly, we read story after story of trauma.

Women, including women of color, are sexually assaulted every year, yet in the almost 350 submissions for our anthology about women of color, only three were about sexual violence. I cannot help but wonder how many of those authors have been shamed into silence or have long forgotten a bad experience because it has been buried by more recent trauma. How many women of color consciously chose not to share their stories out of shame or fear? How many did not share because they simply did not have the words to describe a pain they might not yet have processed?

Or maybe they did not share because these are not the stories we are used to telling. We have no problem talking about our teaching or our research. We are happy to describe our community service activities. We might even discuss with you our children and partners. But the pieces of us that shape who we have become are kept buried in a place to which some of us no longer have, or want, access.

Just as we are willing to create opportunities for students in our teaching and to forge new pathways in our research, we must be willing to journey into ourselves so that we can do more than survive; we have to thrive. We must find the words to identify and report sexual violence. We need to embrace the courage we exemplify in all other aspects of life to share our stories with one another. It is a necessity that we accept all of who we are if we are to bring our most authentically powerful selves to work every day in a space where, for many of our students of color, we are their only role model.

Had someone given me the words to articulate what happened to me, perhaps I would have. Had someone showed me how to speak my truth, I could have. We must be willing to speak even when it is easier to be quiet. We never know who is listening.

Bringing The Political Self Into The Classroom In The Era Of Trump

Note: this blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts in March and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed today. Dr. Katie L. Acosta (@KatieLAcosta) is an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, where she teaches courses on race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and family. She maintains her own blog at katielacosta.com.

Bringing In The Political Self

Shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I attended a meeting at my institution designed to explain the boundaries of academic freedom to faculty members. A second goal was to collectively brainstorm best practices for creating a civil classroom environment that presents students with a balanced picture of contemporary political happenings. The session covered a lot of ground, but the general gist of it was that we should try to appear as neutral as possible when discussing political candidates and issues.

This is where we are in higher education under a Trump administration. I am supposed to teach my students about their social world, about racism, gender, sexuality and the family — all while remaining neutral on the hostile and deeply offensive statements that our president made during his campaign and since he was elected. But herein lies the problem: my political ideologies are shaped by my sociological lens, and my sociological lens is shaped by my personal experience. These three things do not, nor have they ever, existed in separate spheres for me. Arguably, this is what makes me a good professor, or at least it is what fuels my passion for what I do.

Sitting in the aforementioned meeting, hearing the suggestions being made, brought me back to the morning after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. I was an assistant professor at Tulane University at the time, and that morning I was scheduled to be in my Introduction to Sociology undergraduate classroom teaching about racial bias. I remember my heart racing as I scoured social media, learning the details of this awful tragedy: the murder of an innocent teenager. I desperately wanted to cry, but instead I pulled myself together and walked downstairs to teach.

I made the tough decision to avoid the murder entirely. I was certainly not in any position to have a “balanced” conversation about it with my students. Avoiding the topic was the only way that I knew how to keep myself from feeling my pain. Inevitably, however, 10 minutes into the lecture, a student raised their hand and wanted to discuss the events. Most of the class still did not know who Trayvon Martin was. And as this student explained the events that transpired, I remember looking at their mostly blank, white faces, first with perplexity and then with anger.

I began to feel myself shaking behind the podium. How could so many students have such blank stares hearing about this innocent boy’s death? My rage regarding this incident is deeply personal. As a mother of a black teenage boy, I imagined my son walking at night with a bag of Skittles. But my rage was also fueled by my sociological understanding of this incident as part of a larger systemic problem in our society — of this country’s fear of black men and boys, and of this country’s failure, time and again, to give them the benefit of the doubt during such encounters.

Channeling my sociological lens and harnessing my personally driven passion helps me bring intellectual material to life for my students. It allows me to make their learning about more than just words on a page, key terms or lecture notes. It allows me to make their learning about something real, tangible and consequential.

How do we get our students to understand the consequences of political happenings without letting them see why we are invested in these issues? I would never want a student to feel alienated in my classroom, but I have no interest in perpetuating an idea of myself as a disembodied worker whose personal life and work life do not intersect.

Keeping our political selves out of the classroom also presumes that our bodies do not advertise this self. I am an Afro-Latina queer cisgender woman. Don’t these identities speak for me even if I do not? How many of my students believe they know my political leanings before I ever open my mouth? And if they make assumptions about my politics, then why not make my political ideologies clear in the interest of transparency?

I spent the first few weeks of last semester stumblingly awkwardly over how to teach my courses without being “too” political. But I do not believe it has done me or my students a bit of good. Instead, it has flattened my delivery and robbed me of the passion that used to come with every lecture I delivered. So now, this semester, I take a different approach. Our democratic system as it currently stands is the most illustrative example I could possibly come up with for the prevalence of racism in the United States.

Rather than ignoring political happenings, I can draw connections between sociological theories about racism and our contemporary reality. Now my students are unpacking the executive orders, cabinet picks and proposed legislation that the Trump administration has planned or implemented since the inauguration. For instance, I do not mince words in exposing the religious and racial intolerance of Trump’s travel ban. Only in a country that refuses to take an honest and direct look at the deep-seated racism that plagues it can we have fertile ground for lawyers, judges and politicians to defend a ban that bars entry to the United States for citizens from targeted Muslim-majority countries.

This past spring, I had my students read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter in opposition to Jeff Sessions’s nomination for a federal judgeship. It was important to me that my students read it, particularly after Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, was prevented from doing so on the Senate floor. I wanted them to understand Sessions’s role in disenfranchising black voters and, subsequently, Senate Republicans’ willingness to overlook those actions and confirm Sessions’s appointment as U.S. attorney general anyway. Such political happenings speak volumes about the crisis of race relations we are currently experiencing in the United States — where whites give themselves and others permission to overlook the racial disparities that they are complicit in creating in the interest of preserving their power.

Only in a democracy that is largely run by rich heterosexual white cisgender men who refuse to acknowledge their privilege do we see such willingness to overlook the racist, Islamophobic, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and classist actions and policies of Trump’s administration. I do not have control over that. But I do have the opportunity to ensure that the next generation does not so thoroughly miss the boat in understanding the covert and overt ways that racism exists and persists in our country. I will continue to encourage my students to engage in respectful dialogue with me and with one another on the many issues we currently face — not with a forced or feigned sense of neutrality but with the promise of respect and integrity and in the spirit of understanding. For creating this environment in my classroom, I apologize to no one.

An Intersectional Framework For Campus Sexual Violence Prevention

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Nadeeka Karunaratne serves as the student development coordinator in the Cross-Cultural Center at the University of California, Irvine, and previously worked as the violence prevention coordinator in the university’s Campus Assault Resources and Education Office. She is a trauma-informed yoga instructor and is fascinated about all things at the intersection of yoga and social justice.

I used to work as the sole violence-prevention educator at a large public research university. So I understand many of the demands placed on staff in campus prevention and advocacy offices. Those demands include fulfilling workshop requests, hosting training after training, creating engaging programming, and educating an entire campus community about sexual violence.

However, I also know that the ways in which we do all of that can be isolating, marginalizing and ineffective for many student communities.

As a woman of color, I have often been in white feminist anti-sexual-violence spaces where my identities and experiences are erased and further marginalized. My journey toward an intersectional framework of prevention — one that focuses on the most marginalized communities and discusses how multiple forms of oppression intersect with sexism — began with my own experiences as a prevention educator.

I began to place my own experiences within a larger context when I heard Jessica Harris speak at the 2016 annual conference of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. She connected critical race feminism to sexual violence and the experiences of women of color. CRF examines the intersections of race and gender in relationship to power and aims to deconstruct interlocking systems of domination — specifically, white supremacy and patriarchy. Harris shared her conceptual framework, explaining that women of color do not just face quantitatively more issues when they suffer from violence, but also that their experiences are qualitatively different from those of white women. Indeed, research shows that women of color undergo different rates of violence and have qualitatively different experiences of trauma.

I was able to further develop my intersectional prevention education philosophy through a conceptual framework at the 2016 conference of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. There, Farah Tanis of the Black Women’s Blueprint introduced her theoretical expansion of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social-Ecological Model. She included “structural” and “historical” levels in her framework and discussed the importance of considering history and systemic structures of oppression in prevention. Indeed, the history of sexual violence in the United States has foundations in racism and colonialism. Rape is a tool in white colonizers’ violent tactics to eradicate and oppress indigenous communities. White people’s use of rape as an oppressive tool continued during slavery, wherein white men raped black women without consequence.

Our country’s system of higher education also shares a history of colonization, as the first colleges were established within a colonial context. Today the media and the dominant narrative in this country can portray stereotypes about women of color that are harmful and serve to legitimize their sexual abuse. In addition, the dominant narrative depicts men of color as preying on innocent white women. This can be seen from the dominant portrayal of what survivors on college campuses look like. It can even be seen in the renowned documentary The Hunting Ground, where the only named perpetrator is a black man who raped a white woman. However, even with all of this historical context and present-day narratives, discussions of racism and other forms of systemic oppression are often absent in our prevention education.

In order to address multiple forms of oppression in our education, we must move beyond supposedly inclusive prevention education, where we use gender-neutral pronouns and images that represent visible diversity, to a framework of prevention that is intersectional at its very foundation.

Below are some of the ways I have begun to do so in my own work. These strategies have been effective in engaging students in complex conversations about issues of sexual violence.

  • I open my workshops by introducing the issues of sexual assault, stalking and relationship violence through the lens of power and control. I explain that a perpetrator uses these forms of violence to exert power and control over another person. I then discuss how those forms of violence are about power and control on both an individual and a systemic level. I have used this framing of the issues as an opportunity to educate students about the historical, racist and colonialist context of sexual violence.
  • One of the core tenets of critical race feminism is the importance of storytelling, specifically counterstorytelling. Counternarratives can serve a vital role for empowerment in our prevention education, particularly when mainstream white feminism excludes those narratives. We need to think of how the current national conversation centers on white, cisgender female bodies and then critically reflect on how our programming and prevention education does the same. We must then center the most marginalized in our society within our work. One example of a counternarrative I use is the pushback against the California legislation on mandatory minimum sentences in the aftermath of Brock Turner’s conviction. I explain that, while some advocacy organizations have lobbied for mandatory minimum laws, other organizations, particularly those led by women of color, emphasize the disproportionate impact of incarceration on communities of color. Additionally, I note that the notion of justice is complicated, since the definition of “justice” (i.e., incarceration of perpetrators) does not look the same for all survivors.
  • In many workshops, I discuss trauma-informed approaches for supporting survivors, as a form of tertiary prevention. I address some of the specific barriers to seeking support, leaving abusive relationships and reporting sexual assault (administratively and criminally) that exist in different communities. In addition to discussing barriers, I also talk about the community-specific ways of healing and coping that exist. This is important for moving away from a solely deficit-based way of thinking about marginalized communities. Introducing such nuanced ways of understanding support-seeking and healing will help people to assist any survivors who may disclose to them — and in ways that do not perpetuate further violence or marginalization.
  • When talking about rape culture, we must discuss how different people’s bodies may be represented in the media, rather than talking generally about the representation of women. That includes highlighting how the hypersexualization and exotification of women of color and their bodies, and the negative portrayal of people with disabilities, to name a few examples, contribute to rape culture and sexual violence.
  • One of the most utilized forms of prevention education within higher education is bystander intervention. However, traditional bystander intervention education does not account for the experiences of some of our students on many levels. Common lessons — such as calling 911 as a strategy, asking students to visualize perpetrators and ignoring the influence of identity in intervention — range from problematic to harmful. These lessons may make bystander intervention inaccessible for students from certain communities and further perpetuate stereotypes about men of color. We must complicate how we talk about bystander intervention — for example, by highlighting the salience of identity in intervention and acknowledging specific barriers — in order for it to be an effective tool.

These are just a few ideas and strategies to help us move beyond traditional methods of prevention education. We must invest in research and practices that explore new models, particularly in the context of higher education. Discussions of identity and intersectionality are vital to prevention education. Students are not interested in hearing presentations where their lived realities are not reflected. Students are not interested in engaging in education that fails to acknowledge the complexity of identity or that does not address the wholeness of what they experience.

I will end with a quote from the brilliant Audre Lorde that further illustrates the importance of an intersectional framework of prevention education: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”