The Responsibility of Higher Education to Eradicate White Supremacy

Higher education in the United States has a white supremacy problem from root to stem. As with every long-standing system in this country, white supremacy is just baked into our curriculum, processes, and policies. Our inequitable outcomes are perfectly predicatable. The system is working as it was designed. So, in 2020, at this inflection point of a racial uprising and during pandemic, those of us who work within higher education have a tremendous opportunity to begin the massive overhaul that is long overdue.

ALL areas within higher ed and across institutional type need dismantling in order to build a more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable system. For the purposes of my thinking, I’m specifically talking about Historically White Institutions (HWIs) and Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). Those of us employed within higher education, from the classified and exempt staff to faculty and top administrators, we all have responsibility here to our students, to our communities, and to the nation. And historically, we have done a pretty poor job of addressing white supremacy and have allowed racist thinking and beliefs to exist and proliferate unchallenged which has led many to believe these ideas are just another side as if they are intellectually defensible and deserve to be taken as seriously as any other well research-based scholarly idea. If, as higher education employees and professionals, we have not failed our students, communities, and nation in matters surrounding white supremacy, consider that so many of our top leaders in this nation are actual white supremacist Nazis and were educated in some of the best schools, K-20, this nation and the world have to offer.

So then, what can we change and how do we change these things?

Curriculum

One of the first things that needs to change across disciplines, fields, and programs is our curriculum. Curriculum across programs is woefully lacking in matters of race and opening students’ eyes to the racism in the discipline. Because the curriculum is devoid of the real ways in which racism works within the discipline, field, or program, white people cannot see racism or the disproportionate ways in which Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) are systemically kept out of, treated within, or impacted by the programs within the school and the industries where graduates will work. By not addressing these things within our curriculum, we are not preparing students to participate in a more just and pluralistic world. By not addressing these things within our curriculum we are handicapping our student’s abilities to identify, discuss, and interrupt white supremacy in their lives and future professions. And that has real consequences, as I hope we all see now more clearly, for the health of our nation.

So, in practice, what does this look like? Well, some things to consider for curriculum are:

  • Have you included readings or text books written by BIPOC?
    • Most text books are written by white people which gives the illusion that BIPOC don’t do this work, aren’t engaged in the heady scholarship in the field, and elevates this one way of understanding as the only way or the most accurate way of viewing the curriculum.
    • Textbooks often flatten and deculturalize curriculum within disciplines. We need to expand the curriculum to include the contributions of BIPOC.
    • Further, curriculum is very Westernized, ignoring the contributions in the discipline, field, or program from people around the world.
  • Do you introduce students to the contributions of BIPOC to the discipline, field, and program?
    • Not introducing students to the wide breadth of contributions by BIPOC, allows the illusion of white supremacy to exist unchallenged, allows students to continue to believe that white people have created and built everything when the direct opposite is true.
    • It allows a normalizing of whiteness to go unchallenged
  • How are BIPOC represented within curricular materials?
    • First of all, are BIPOC represented and how are they represented within the curriculum?
    • Are BIPOC presented in the full totality of our humanity or are we portrayed as victim, criminal, customer or as contributor, knowledge creator, and leaders in the discipline, field, or program?
  • Who were the curricular materials created by? Who were they created for? Who is served?
    • The truth is that white people often create for other white people which leaves little imagination for how whatever the subject matter is impacts BIPOC and their communities.
    • When BIPOC are left out of the knowledge construction in disciplines, fields, and programs, stereotypes and myths are allowed to flourish unchallenged. Here, I’m thinking of the myth that Black people can’t feel pain that proliferates in the medical professions and the harm in how that myth plays out across industries from medicine to policing. There are other such harmful myths that need dismantling.
  • What images are on the walls of the classroom and in the program halls?
    • Do the people of color posters only come out during months or holidays celebrating BIPOC?
    • BIPOC have always been here, creating, and contributing. To relegate our accomplishments to a day or a month does little to fully engage our work throughout the curriculum.
  • What are the assignments?
    • Are students responding to deculturalized assignments loosed from their reality and history and the matters that concern their communities?
    • Are students given agency about how to respond to assignments in ways that are meaningful to them?
    • Are the assignments providing opportunity for students to apply what they are learning in the classroom to their own lives, circumstances, and communities?
    • If education is to be liberatory, we have to be showing students how to apply the tools they are learning to solve problems within the world and within their own communities. This is how we build a stronger more sustainable nation.
  • What is the history of the discipline, field, program?
    • How has the discipline, field, and program reinforced and resisted white supremacy?
    • What are the racial myths and stereotypes that have been promulgated by the discipline, field, program and how do these still come into play now?
    • Where does inequality exist within the discipline, field, and program? It’s there, ignoring it does no one any good. Ignoring it does not move the discipline, field, or program forward. In fact, not identifying where inequality lives allows the discipline, field, or program to grow stale.

Too often curriculum is a bludgeoning tool of assimilation. And assimilation is the myth that we are all moving and wanting to move toward some new homogeneity of whiteness. Never mind that many of us hold on to elements of our cultures within these Divided States of America and always have. From Italians to the Irish and Germans, white immigrants have long held onto their cultural traditions. The only groups chastised for holding on to their cultural traditions are BIPOC. Curriculum is the driving force behind much of the cultural violence of this stripping of tradition and heritage.

In the Classroom and On Campus

In addition to curriculum reform, we need to address the microaggressions and macroaggressions students experience in our classrooms and on our campuses. As educators or those employed on college campuses, we must get better at identifying these things for what they are and addressing them when they happen. It is not enough to acknowledge, convene committees, generate another report, and in effect do little to change the material circumstances surrounding the racism. And the administrative responses always ring as hollow as the “thoughts and prayers” after another predictable and preventable mass shooting. Not only are we obligated to deal with the racial violence that happens on campus, not addressing it is educational malpractice and the students harmed are BIPOC in favor of protecting the comfort of white students. Ignoring these moments is another racist aggression.

Further, Black and brown students too often have their own linguistic patterns bludgeoned out of them over matters related to Standard American English (SAE), erasing their voice and their rhetorical agency. There is much that has been written around this – the legitimacy of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a real linguistic language with rules and structure, yet is maligned for sounding uneducated and inarticulate. What these things fail to recognize is that this language rose out of a necessity to communicate and as resistance to the myth of assimilation. Further, contrastive rhetoric is well studied as well. Too many faculty force form over message, want students to iron out their voice to make it sound more European American. Too many faculty fail students because of strict adherence to SAE. This is a what I would consider a macroaggression.

What are some ways we can address these moments effectively and proactively?

  • First, if we witness a racist microaggression, we need to address it in the moment.
    • If it happens in class discussion, we need to address it immediately. I know that everyone has varying levels of comfort and skill to do this in the moment. We must learn and do better. Further, it is fine to shut it down in the moment and return to it the next class period after consulting with a colleague who does this work, the dean of students office, or the equity office.
    • Not addressing it allows the abuse to continue and communicates to the BISOC that they do not belong, are not as welcome, and will not be protected on the campus.
    • Not addressing it allows white and white adjacent students to continue to believe that racism is an intellectually defensible opinion and possibly worthy of serious academic engagement on par with any other scholarly idea.
  • Drs. Frank Harris III and Luke Woods have developed their R.A.V.E.N. process of interrupting these moments that is a very helpful approach.
  • If having student workshop their written work with each other , make sure some checks and balances are in place so that microaggressions in student assignments can be addressed before sharing with a wider audience.
    • There are two ways I’ve thought of to deal with that. First, is to tell the student they must support their argument with scholarly evidence.
    • A second way to address this might be to stop having students engage with scholarships in ways at force them to choose a side.
      • This is a false equivalency. In structuring our written assignments in this way, we allow students to believe that a few days or weeks of research is equivalent to the many years of preparation and scholarship in which people have been immersed. This furthers the anti-intellectualism infecting every layer of society as if all opinions are weighted equally, they are not.
  • Do not leave BISOC to educate white people about race and racism. That is intellectual laziness on our part to leave these students to educate the campus community. And little changes in the dialogue because they are rehashing the same arguments over and over, with a rotating cast of students.
  • When racist incidents explode on campus, administration must investigate and deal with the issue through sanctions (see below for student conduct recommendations), education, and community restoration.
  • As educators in institutions of knowledge creation and dissemination, we have to stop pretending that racism is a position worthy of engagement.
    • Every discipline has eroded what were once thought hallmarks of race – from anthropology and sociology to biology and education, we now understand that racial inequities lie in systems and power rather than some racial defect.
    • This includes figuring out ways to limit or stop groups like the “alt-right” (a clever naming convention to disguise Naziism) from coming to campuses. We would never allow ISIS sympathizers or recruits to speak on our campuses or Nazi leaders the space, this is no different.
      • I’m not certain but I’d think there is a way in how policies are written that restrict speakers or events in favor of those that stimulate and elevate academic learning. The arguments should be intellectually defensible and be able to be located within scholarship.
      • Anything that strips any people of their humanity, should be vetted by institutional leadership for appropriateness to the campus community.
      • Allowing these discussions to occur on campuses as presenting “an unpopular idea” or “the other side”, gives students and lay people the mistaken perceptions that all opinions and ideas are equal and worth discussing. Matters surrounding dehumanizing others should never be legitimated as part of that discussion

Student Conduct

Third, we need to think through how the student conduct system works and functions. I think those of us who work in higher education know that Black and Indigenous Students of Color are over represented in the student conduct system. Similar to the criminal injustice system, we are perpetuating academic judicial violence upon Black and Brown students. In academic dishonesty and plagiarism cases, linguistic minorities are disproportionately disciplined. We must be asking questions of our conduct system and the ways in which conduct cases are referred.

One example that sticks in my memory from my time serving on conduct boards was one case I was assigned as one member of the board. A Samoan student athlete had been arrested after an altercation at an eatery on campus in the wee hours of a weekend night. The little restaurant was packed with drunk youthful students, all hungry after leaving the bar. He had ordered and had been waiting for his food. As he inquired about his order, things got heated. He was the only person of color in that space at that time. None of his teammates were with him. He grew irritated, as any of us would. His irritation was read as anger and the white students started yelling at him to leave and putting hands on him to shove him out of the establishment. As he was pushed, backward toward the door, a white male student stood holding the door open and was saying something to the student athlete. The student athlete face palmed his head backward and left. Immediately after that, six or seven white guys tore out of the establishment after him. He ran for a minute, then turned and squared up bracing for a fight. He got some good licks in by the time the cops arrived. In that altercation, he was the only student arrested in that melee and sent to student conduct.

We were obligated to hear the case, peruse the evidence, and hear from witnesses. It was clear to me that more than one injustice had occurred before the case ever got to us. The police did not arrest everyone, did not cite anyone except for the student of color who was jumped by a hostile white mob of angry drunk men. That was the first injustice as these other students were also not brought to the conduct board. Policing bias infected the student conduct system from the start. The second injustice was in the hearts and minds of the conduct panel. One conduct board member said something about violence never being the answer. Which, on its face, is true. However, as a person born and raised in violence, I understand the nuances of violence as being a viable tool in certain situations. This was one of those moments. When a white mob is chasing a BIPOC, we are faced with two choices: run until we’re out of breath and if they catch up, we’ll most definitely be harmed far worse because we will not have the breath or energy to defend ourselves or stand and fight like hell in the hopes that this will end the violence or that we will survive the attack. People without this understanding can easily ignore the real and ever present danger of racialized violence by blaming the victim rather than addressing the source. This is seen in all the “no tolerance” policies K-12 schools have adopted which makes defending oneself against policy. We’re just supposed to accept being victimized politely.

Some possible ways to reform student conduct:

  • Review the source of the referral for bias.
    • None of us are bias free. That isn’t a thing.
    • Is the bias racial profiling?
    • Were all implicated parties reported or just the student of color?
  • For matters related to academic integrity, we have many questions to ask ourselves:
    • Is SAE supremacy necessary to the discipline, field, or program?
    • Where, within the curriculum, from first-year writing courses to disciplinary specific forms of writing, do students learn how to properly attribute source text?
    • If plagiarism, was it an oversight, a simple mistake because the student didn’t know, or was it an egregious violation?
    • We have to be looking at plagiarism differently in higher ed. Students are students. They are not seeking fame or wealth when they plagiarize. They may be tending to many competing interests, particularly if they’re linguistic minorities – trying to navigate and translate everything they read and engage with into their own language and back into English. They are doing twice the cognitive work of native English speakers.
    • Secondly, the methods of teaching academic writing vary from culture to culture. And this is complicated by the westernization of higher ed. Simply, some cultures have students copying great thinkers to learn their rhetorical structures while other cultures, such as the western culture in the U.S., have students struggle with rhetoric and genre in their own constructivist way. Neither method of teaching writing is wrong, they are just different entry points to teach students how to develop academic writing skills.
    • Citation is western. Colonization determined what knowledge was, who got to create knowledge, who got to disseminate knowledge, and the modes of knowledge dissemination. Western cultures relied on the written word, where other cultures relied on oral tradition. Because of this, Europeans were able to build knowledge about BIPOC the world over and publish this work to share beyond the few. This constructed many of our misunderstandings about people and the world that we are still grappling with today.
    • This westernization also claimed ownership over knowledge which is very much a cultural thing. In some cultures knowledge is communal, therefore citation or attribution is less important within some cultures. This also speaks to the long history of knowledge construction of which BIPOC were kept out. We were not able to construct knowledge of ourselves for ourselves and others. The knowledges about BIPOC were too long read through the white gaze, reflected back to us.
  • We also really have to consider how sending a BISOC to student conduct serves as an academic lynching.
    • I have many friends leading conduct offices across the nation who take their roles of education seriously. None of them want to be punitive.
    • We have sought to codify all sort of student conduct and that may, too often, lead to disparate referrals.
      • We can look to K-12 for how discipline is visited upon Black and brown children disproportionately, pushing Black and brown children out of education before they have a chance to come to higher ed. Higher ed at HWIs and PWIs have similar attrition problems with our BIPOC populations. Student conduct works in similar ways to the K-12 discipline system.
    • What if we implemented a restorative justice process instead?
      • In most cases, students would be held accountable to the people they harmed.
      • In cases of cheating, the offending student would address that within the classroom, being accountable to their class colleagues.
      • If students participate in microaggressing against BIPOC, let’s think of some ways they can be responsible to the BIPOC community in the classroom or on campus. Perhaps attending events, participating in activities, doing some research around harm and microaggressions.
      • This builds community and responsibility to that community.
    • What if all faculty were required to attend trainings to educate them about Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in the Discipline, how to proactively deal with and prevent plagiarism in their writing assignments, and restorative justice?
    • And let’s be honest, faculty across the range of disciplines, fields, and programs need training in education and pedagogy. This training should be requisite to the job.
    • In professional development on college campuses nationwide, the faculty who are eager to learn are the ones at the table. And these are usually the faculty that attend most of these trainings. It’s always the usual suspects. The faculty who do the most harm to students are rarely in the room. Faculty need to be required, as a term of employment, to continue their learning around how to effectively teach.

Representation

A fourth area needing immediate attention as higher education nationwide is getting ready for another round of deep budget cuts, is representation. BIPOC people need to be more than an afterthought in hiring and retention at institutions nationally. Representation goes well beyond numbers. Prior to Brown v. Board before integration, Black children were educated by Black teachers, with Black leadership, in Black communities. The communities were invested in the education of their children. So much so that the Black community lived under double taxation for a long time. Their taxes were taken to pay for the white education system, of which the Black schools received little funding. And the community rallied to build schools, buy supplies, and pay teachers. Black students thrived because they were loved, treated as children, and educated free of racism. While integration was necessary for equality and BIPOC access to better quality educational resources, the vast majority of Black teachers and administrators were fired and Black students had to integrate hostile white spaces. Which is where we find ourselves still, held in stasis, in inequality. Historically Black Colleges and Universities know this well and they do a remarkable job educating Black leaders in every area. Historically White Institutions (HWIs) and Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) could stand to learn a lot from our HBCU peers.

Black women are the most educated group in this country and yet leadership and tenure track positions are still largely white. White supremacy is baked into every hiring and promotion process. Too often, the narrative about why we don’t have more BIPOC in higher ed, specifically in HWIs/PWIs is the same recycled language used to keep women out of the workforce and BIPOC out of the professions. There are many qualified BIPOC to fill these jobs and we know too well how hiring practices are mired in white supremacy. We have to be hiring BIPOC into all positions within every institution, into permanent budget line positions with opportunity for promotion. Too often, the positions that BIPOC are hired into are temporary, grant funded, clinical or adjunct positions. BIPOC do much of the work of nurturing, mentoring, and helping BISOC navigate institutions. They are the lifelines our BISOC need to survive the white supremacist educational system. When tough budget times come, these are often the first positions cut.

Legislative and Leadership Accountability

Which brings me to my final point. All of us in higher education need to be putting the pressure on our state and national legislatures who have been systemically shifting the burden of cost from state and national budgets to the individual. BIPOC are already coming from behind – many attended inferior schools, are underprepared for college-level work in various subject areas, come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and have to take significant loans to complete a bachelors degree. For those who persist to graduation, they are saddled with student loan debt for much of their adult lives. For those who were pushed out, their debt comes due sooner and they do not have a degree to leverage for higher paid and more stable work with benefits. Meanwhile, our state and national governments have tons of money for the military and policing, leaving few options for those working to climb their ways into a new more sustainable life – join the military or fall prey to the police who are protecting whiteness and property while lynching Black and brown bodies.

I suspect the defunding of education began in earnest after Brown as schools across the nation integrated, by force in many areas. Then polite white supremacists set to work to construct barriers to education in myriad ways. For higher education, that came by increasing the personal financial responsibility. In that, higher education became viewed as an individual good rather than a societal good. And I believe we are seeing the consequences of this by a bloated top administration at some institutions that serve as sentinels to white supremacy in many regards, a highly indebted population of young adults, and still, the budgets are shrinking at breakneck pace. We need to be holding our legislators accountable to adequately fund higher education – fund students and programs that serve student success rather than new shiny buildings and top administration. The bloat at the top must be reigned in, it is detrimental to the educational mission of higher education in many regards.

What it might look like to hold legislators and institutional leadership accountable:

  • Institutions could create opportunities for staff and faculty to participate in higher education lobby days.
    • This might happen through intensive education around how to lobby and organize for restorative funding
  • Institutions could create a lobbying day and allow staff and faculty to visit the state houses to present, lobby, organize, and protest for equitable budgets.
  • Panels of staff, faculty, and students should be convened to review the performance of institutional leadership, offer recommendations on institutional matters, approve the creation of new upper administrative positions, and provide input into the initiatives the institution invests time and resources into.

Conclusion

These are certainly not the only things than need a full overhaul in higher education. Everything from admissions to the business policies and procedures and legislation governing higher education must be dismantled and reconstructed or reformed. Higher education is too important to a healthy, sustainable, just, and inclusive pluralistic society and we have a responsibility to our students, our employees, the myriad communities we serve, and the nation to dismantle and address white supremacy in every aspect of our work.

At this moment as we stare at the chasm of yet one more season of deep and devastating budget cuts and social upheaval, we can choose to face these things head on or continue marching to the neoliberal drum. Or we can choose to rise to the moment and tackle the systemic racism that lives among us. The students most impacted by pandemic and racism are the Black and Indigenous Students of Color and we owe them access to opportunity and an antiracist campus environment.

It is 2020. There is a mountain of scholarship around these ideas across the disciplines. For institutions of knowledge construction, we sure do a crappy job of following our own scholarship. BIPOC people have been researching, writing, and creating trying to imagine a new world for decades, more than a century really. Ignoring the scholarship and the voices of the BIPOC on our campus is an active choice. Continuing to ignore them at this moment in history is educational malpractice for all of our students.

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