There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as “racially charged” even in those cases when it would be more honest to say “racist”; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic. One cumulative effect of this policed language is that when someone dares to point out something as obvious as white privilege, it is seen as unduly provocative.
by Teju Cole in “The White Savior Industrial Complex”
It was not that long ago, I remember sitting in our President’s office and giving him a Postcolonial 101 tutorial. I knew he would listen. We always didn’t agree, but we listened to what the other had to say. On a yellow lined writing pad I drew a small circle and named it “the center,” followed by a larger circle on the outside and marked it as “the margins.” I remember telling our tall, white, male President (who is soon to retire) who both created and chaired our diversity committee this:
“The center cannot be threatened. It is a dangerous move. If the center disintegrates the margins with all its sharp and hard edges may cave in. Or worse. The margin may become the center.”
That day, he looked at me partly amused, partly curious, partly serious, mostly puzzled. Puzzled because neither he (as an administrator) nor I (as a scholar) could’ve predict if this diversity initiative that he had initiated –– would float or sink. At the very least, we wanted it to float until it reaches a safe shore.
This narrative is not about my President. It is about those that never supported my President. It is about those that did not support your President either.
The Main Act:
The truth is that our straight white male colleagues do not like diversity committees. They are threatened by its very existence. They do not feel included.
Not included in the center. Not included in the margin. Not included anywhere.
Not being included is a threat. A viable threat.
The truth also is that most white colleagues (including many of our white feminist women in positions of power) feel deeply anxious and even conflicted about equity in educational spaces. They are not ready to give up their white privilege to level off the playing field. There is still a great deal of divide between our white Lean In Feminists and our transnational feminists/feminism.
The truth is that many of our our white colleagues believe in hard work and meritocracy. They believe in equal opportunities. And like their guru Nicholas Kristof, they believe in “turning oppression into opportunities.”
They are dreamers, because their dreams may and do come true. They believe in the American dream. They believe that all of us have access to our dreams.
The truth is that they are afraid of disruption that equity requires. They are afraid of disruptions that equity brings. They do not want to be disrupted.
They fear the disrupters.
Disrupters are a sight of abject.
The truth is that most of our white colleagues are uncomfortable being examined, being scrutinized, being questioned, being challenged about their ways of their knowing by us. They call it their “episteme” or their “epistemology.”
Somehow, the laws of equal opportunities that demand accountability are not applicable to our white colleagues. Somehow those that are on the margins still do not have the permission to interrogate the center. Or worse, as James Baldwin had once said, “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.”
We/You/Our/POC/WOC/Marginal/Transgender/Queer/Disabled/ = A Threat
Any real diversity worker who begins to articulate the situation and the conditions of institutional racism and oppression becomes a real threat to our institutions.
So let’s keep this project of diversity safe. Or, as Sara Ahmed in her book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life reminds us that “diversity [is] or as a form of public relations. . . a means by which organizations establish and maintain good will.”
Smiling faces of our POC students and faculty on various brochures are signs of happiness. These are indeed the symbols of good will.
These glossy symbols of happiness matters. It matters to our trustees. It matters to our donors. And mostly, it matters to our white faculty members who want to believe that their POC and all other marginal citizens are happy. Happy to be here.
The white savior’s work is complete.