A Better Way To End Sexual Violence On College Campuses

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Irene Shankar is an associate professor of sociology at the Mount Royal University. Her main areas of interest are the sociology of gender, intersectional feminist theories, critical race theory and the sociology of health and illness. Her current research projects concern individualized and gendered constructions of risk and responsibility during the H1N1 Pandemic in Alberta in 2009 and within sexual assault policies and programs on campuses.

#MoreThanHashtags

Over the years, I have found myself referring students to services and polices for sexual violence that, in the end, are insufficient. Countless news stories echo the difficulty students have had gaining access to adequate services and policies. And perhaps in response to such public attention, public campaigns against campus sexual violence, including the “I believe you” campaign and bystander invention pledges have increased.

But these anti-sexual violence campaigns tend to remain on a rhetorical level. That is, they do not require any systematic action from the university itself as an institution; rather, they too often download the responsibility of addressing sexual violence onto other students. While such campaigns do help to facilitate much needed conversations on sexual violence, what is also needed is the development of critical, responsive and evidence-based sexual assault policies and protocols.

Currently, many universities do the bare minimum in this regard. In many cases, their sexual assault policies are largely constructed in response to state mandates such as Title IX in the United States and the Sexual Violence and Harassment Plan Act in the province of Ontario, Canada. These policies and protocols tend to be created in the interests of the institutions rather than those of the students, faculty members and/or staff.

Moreover, the job of creating policies and protocols tends to be given to administrators hired by the institution to protect its interests, such as the university’s legal team or the human resources department. In other words, those assigned with the job of creating policies on sexual violence are also frequently responsible for protecting the university’s reputation and standing, creating an obvious and disturbing conflict of interest.

As such, it is hardly surprising that the policies and protocols created tend to protect the universities and do little (or may even be actively harmful) for those subjected to sexual violence. For example, according to CBC News, a student at the University of Brandon in Canada, who was recently attempting to access services for sexual violence, was pressured to sign a non-disclosure agreement that prohibited her from talking to anyone outside of the university other than a counselor about her sexual assault.

In light of these dynamics, what can universities do going forward?

First, we must recognize that universities’ interest and students’ interest are not mutually exclusive. We need a fundamental shift in our approach to sexual violence policies and protocols. Essentially, we need to accept that what is best for students is also best for the university. For instance, administrative transparency about incidence statistics, open discussion about the weakness of the policies, and critical analysis of the services that universities currently provide — or lack — can start to identify the ways in which many institutions of higher learning are complicit in sexual violence. These kinds of practices can also start to dismantle the structural barriers that, at times, prevent victims from reporting and getting assistance they need. Without an acknowledgement and a review of the ways in which many of our institutions enable sexual violence, policies and protocols will continue to fail those directly affected by it.

Second, universities need to use the latest academic research about sexual violence. It is particularly disconcerting how many colleges and universities are developing policies and protocols on sexual violence without considering the latest research on the subject. In drafting sexual assault policies, universities tend to refer to (or even blatantly copy) other institutions’ policies. Yet on most campuses, libraries provide access to comprehensive research on sexual violence and faculty members may have research expertise in sexual violence or related areas. And even if faculty members do not have substantive research expertise, academics are experts in identifying and reviewing relevant research. Despite this access to knowledge, however, institutional policies and practices continue to be developed without meaningful attention to and incorporation of the body of research on sexual violence prevention and best practices.

This is particularly salient when it comes to policies and services aimed at the intersections of race, sexual orientation, and gender. For instance, while not always, university policies and services on sexual violence in North America tend to be more responsive to educated middle-class woman who have the social and cultural capital required to navigate the bureaucracy of sexual violence reporting protocols and services. Thus, people without these forms of cultural capital are left vulnerable when failed by the university policies that are inadequate in addressing diverse student bodies. Research shows that racialized, low-income and transgender students are more likely to be subjected to violence. When those who create sexual assault policies remain ignorant of the research that readily exists on intersectionality, it can only be viewed as willful ignorance.

Third, include qualified faculty members, students, administrators and community members to construct, evaluate and revise sexual assault policies and protocols. Universities tend to have faculty members who study sexual violence, and/or the intersections among race, sexual orientation and gender. Yet they often exclude those scholars from policy development, so the consultations tend to be superficial acts designed to add legitimacy after the policies and protocols have been drafted, rather than a process of inviting input and generating critical discussion at the ground level. It is troubling that many universities readily invoke the work of their researchers, teachers, students and staff members to promote themselves while completely discounting that same expertise when it comes to the creation of sexual assault policies and protocols. To this end, I recommend meaningful inclusion and adherence to the advice and suggestions provided by these parties.

Finally, complete annual evaluations of policies and services and publicly disseminate the findings. Policy evaluation and revision need to be done annually, and the results of such annual re-evaluations should be made available to the university and the wider community as a whole. That will allow both people on the campus as well as the public to gauge the effectiveness of the institution’s efforts to address sexual violence. Currently, universities keep much of that information private or invoke a form of plausible deniability by not collecting adequate data because they are worried that public disclosure of sexual violence statistics will sully their reputation and dissuade potential students. But if universities are serious about addressing the silence and stigma around sexual violence, they need to start by being transparent.

Moreover, as institutions committed to producing public knowledge, universities have an obligation to lead the inevitably difficult discussions about sexual violence. Through thoughtful engagements with the issue and clear explanations and analyses of sexual violence on campuses (for example, comparison of on-campus sexual violence rates to general rates or which actions are included or excluded from their statistics), universities can facilitate a cultural shift away from the prevailing silence surrounding sexual violence.

In conclusion, universities need to step up, be proactive, and start taking actions that are positive and meaningful instead of drawing on the protectionist logic and disingenuous rhetoric that currently fuels their sexual assault policies and protocols.

Being White Does Not Make You An Expert On Race And Racism

Image source: Alex Garland

Image source: Alex Garland

I use and consume water every day, multiple times each day.  But, I would never call myself a water scientist.  (My ignorance shows in even having to look up the term, the profession of researchers who study water.)

I watch television daily, and frequently watch movies either at home or, less often, at the movie theatre.  My strong opinions and preferences aside, I would never call myself a TV or film critic.

I drive almost daily, and have been driving regularly for 17 years now. But, I don’t know the first thing about cars, and certainly wouldn’t call myself a mechanic.

I was assigned a racial identity at birth — two actually, Black and white — and have lived as a raced person in a racist society for 32 years.  I tentatively call myself an expert on race and racism because I study and teach about them, though they are not my primary area of research or teaching.  But, if these topics never appeared in my work as a scholar, I wouldn’t call myself an expert.

“Opinions Are Like Assholes…”

I am certain that most academics and laypeople share my hesitancy to claim expertise on water, the arts, and automobiles if they lack formal training or long-term experience (research, teaching, or performance) in these areas.  Though we may self-diagnose illness and injuries with WebMD, we still end up in a doctor’s office for a “real” diagnosis and treatment. How did we ever survive before there was quick and easy access to internet search engines?  Google is a verb, and Let Me Google That For You exists as a snarky response to idiotic questions that can be answered with a quick Google search.

But, race and racism seem to be the exception.  Everyone, regardless of education level, seems to be an expert on race.  Collectively, white Americans presumed to understand racism well enough to conclude that it no longer existed upon the election of a half-white, half-Black person to US President who likely only had a shot at the office because he was raised by his white mother.  I know from my slowly evolving awareness of the ways in which white privilege — specifically, the white privilege passed on to me by my white heterosexual middle-class cis man currently without disabilities father — that has benefited my own life that Obama’s upbringing is not typical for Black Americans today.  But, that nuance never appeared in mainstream discourse about the election of “the first Black president.”  And, I ask of those quick to declare we live in a post-racial (or even post-racist) society — yes, even some academics… who study race (please, excuse my shade…) — how the hell did we end up here with a known racist as Obama’s successor?

I certainly understand why race and racism are hard to understand for those who do not empirically analyze them for a living.  There is a nifty analogy for gender, that it is like the water that surrounds us as fish.  We take it for granted; it is there from birth — assigned to us, thrust upon us, taught to us, and then policed when we deviate — and thus we come to think of it as natural.  In other words, it is incredibly difficult to step outside of gender to understand it, especially gender as a social structure — a system that organizes the social world from gendered identities and expressions to sexist laws and policies.  Gender seems so everyday, so familiar, and so mundane that it is easy to only see it as something individuals have, thereby missing it as a system of oppression that shapes and constrains our lives and livelihood, interests, interactions with others, and even our organizations and institutions.  Gender is complex and ever-changing; we need women’s and gender studies programs to even begin to grapple with this complicated social system.

Race and racism share the mundaneness that we sense of gender.  We take for granted that race exists, naively assuming that it has always existed, and, by extension, is a universal and essential artifact.  Though the social construction of race has caught on as a more adequate way of conceptualizing of race, there are still spoken and unspoken glimmers of the assumption that race is biological.  There is also the stubborn mentality that racism is solely the explicit expression of prejudice toward others of a different race, which leaves anti-racist activists and scholars stuck with the perpetual burden of having to prove that racism manifests structurally and unconsciously, as well.  That’s why whites’ resentment about “PC culture” — modern social etiquette that demands you simply not say something deemed racist — is misplaced; yes, please stop referring to Black people as monkeys, but, you should also stop killing us, denying us jobs and promotions, withholding affordable loans and excluding us from predominantly white neighborhoods, expelling us from school or even sending us to prison over minor disciplinary problems, and so forth.

Race and racism are complex systems.  That is why there are scholars who devote their careers to their study.  That is why there are academic programs in racial and ethnic studies, Black studies, Africana and African American studies, Latina/o/x studies, Indigenous studies, American Indian and Native American studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Black women’s studies, Muslim and Islamic studies, Judaic studies, cultural studies, American studies, etc. The study of race, racism, and racialized communities also appears in more traditional academic programs like sociology, psychology, English, social psychology, music, theatre, art, and political science.

Race and racism warrant academic inquiry because they are important, but also because they are incredibly complicated and ever-changing.  I’m afraid your uncle Joe’s assessment of who is ISIS and who isn’t fails to constitute expertise.  I’m disinclined to consider your mom as a race scholar just because she (thinks she) has one American Indian friend.  I’d be wary of your boss’s conclusion that “Hispanics will take over America” because he gets nervous around the office’s janitorial staff when they “refuse” to speak in English in his presence.  And, I’m rolling my eyes at your friend’s story that she experienced “reverse racism” because the Black Starbucks barista was “mean” to her (read: didn’t roll out the red carpet to celebrate her existence because she’s white).  Yes, I am intentionally drawing upon examples of racial prejudice here because many everyday whites draw upon their bias and stereotypes as expertise on race and racism.

I Blame Academia (Or, What’s New?)

More frustrating is that whites’ arrogance about their expertise on race and racism exist alongside their dismissal of academic study of these topics.  And even more frustrating is that I have witnessed this not among laypeople — those whom we might dismiss as ignorant or uneducated if we are disinclined to be sympathetic, or inclined to be elitist — but from fellow academics.  Many white PhD educated people, whom I would assume to have an appreciation of other disciplines and be self-reflective about the limits of their own expertise, are quick to devalue research and teaching on race and racism.  Even in my own discipline (sociology), race and ethnicity scholars — specifically those who are scholars of color — are faced with accusations of conducting “me-search“; by virtue of their inability to be “objective” (a privilege reserved for whites, no matter their research area), their work is dismissed.  More generally, the study of communities of color is dismissed (yes, even in sociology).

I suppose we cannot be too hard on uncle Joe, your mom, your boss, and your friend for believing they are experts on race and ethnicity.  The academy itself is complicit in devaluing formal academic study of race and racism.  Though racial and ethnic studies and similar programs exist, they are woefully underfunded, underresourced, understaffed, and are increasingly under threat.  These topics have never been seriously championed in academia, and support for these programs may even be waning (at least in some places).  You can get a PhD in Black studies, but I’m not so sure you can expect to get a tenure-track faculty position (if that is your goal).  You can specialize in race and ethnicity as a sociologist, but publishing in top mainstream sociology journals will be a challenge, as will securing grant funding.  Oh, and get ready to be challenged by your students who think they know as much about race as you do (if not more if you are an instructor of color).  Why should we expect everyday white folks to take seriously “the leading expert on racism” when such scholars are not celebrated and respected as would be “the leading heart surgeon” or, hell, even the worst physician alive who, nonetheless, has the respect afforded to doctors?

The academy’s devaluation of academic study of race and racism makes it complicit in the rampant ignorance about race and ethnicity in the US.  It is partially responsible for the inevitable rise of Trump and fellow white supremacists.  It is responsible for the success of the narrative of angry poor whites who put Trump in office, despite empirical evidence that it was racism and sexism that gave him the election.  It is responsible for the dumb notion that whites can be victims of racism or the more perverse “reverse racism”, that calling attention to racism is “playing the race card” or wallowing in victimhood.  Academia is responsible for the disgusting reality that Black women scholars’ teaching and public writing about racism can successfully be demeaned as racism — this is reflected best by the fact that these scholars actually get in trouble for doing the work they were trained and hired to do!

Concluding Thoughts

The supposed post-racist era is dead, which actually serves as more proof that it never existed to begin with.  We cannot even optimistically say we’ve entered a new era of racism because many of the features of old-school racism have reemerged (including Nazism and a bit of anti-Semitism).

But, racism today is undeniably more complex than ever before.  As such, this moment is a crucial one to turn to experts on race and racism to understand how we got here and how to move closer to the death of racism.  And, by experts, I mean people who have extensive academic training and who study race and ethnicity for a living.  Now is the time to seriously support academic programs devoted to the study of race and racism.  It is the time to hire race and ethnicity scholars to aid in developing new laws, policies, and programs.  It is the time to listen to the experts of race and racism like we would to those who study climate change, or medicine, or biology, or space.  Maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess right now if we had already been seriously listening to the experts.