“The institutionalization of Black Studies, Feminist Studies, all of these things, led to a sense that the struggle was over for a lot of people and that one did not have to continue the personal consciousness-raising and changing of one’s viewpoint.”
Every faculty of color in this country is under assault. Every faculty of color in this country is exhausted and overworked. Every faculty of color in this country is undermined, glossed over, and tossed aside. Every faculty of color in this country is depressed. Every faculty of color in this county is outraged. Every faculty of color in this country is silenced.
This is a national story. This is a national epidemic. This is violence on and to our bodies, on our minds, and in our internal lives. This is our #MeToo moment.
I have been listening and listening for a while. There are too many stories to tell. One of these could be yours. And this is not the beginning. Our predecessors have endured even worst circumstances. Some of them survived. Many didn’t.
These are just a few of our stories. You know these people and so do I. They are everywhere.
Violence # 1
Joni applied for tenure and was denied.
Joni is a sociologist by training and teaches about structural racism and race relations in the United States. She has published extensively, speaks her mind (when necessary) and is considered a good citizen of her university. Some of her colleagues do not like the “auto”-ethnography aspect of her research. Every year a few white students have complained how Jodi’s teaching have made them uncomfortable. She spends two weeks in her “Race Relations” course teaching about the origins of white supremacy grounded in history/herstory.
There is also plenty of evidence in her teaching evaluations that suggests that she is an effective faculty, including students saying that she changed their lives. Her department chair and her colleagues, however, are not convinced. They focus instead on the “discomforts” felt by her white student in the last 6 years. They said that such discomfort has created a clear pattern, a pattern that her department chair said, “cannot be ignored.” A couple white students called her a racist. One even called her “a bitch.” These are documented in her evaluations. Her colleagues (all white) stated that Joni is driving some potential sociology majors away from the department.
Joni appealed her denial of tenure on grounds of discrimination and violation of academic freedom. Her appeal is denied.
Mark has been working on his book for the past 4 years. His work is interdisciplinary and intersectional drawing from graffiti, music and its relationship to political philosophy in Cuba. He is overjoyed that he was just offered a contract from a state university press. When he declares this news to his white colleague (who has received tenure two years ago by publishing only a few articles but goes to happy hour with his students every Friday) he say, “Mark, that’s great. Did you not manage to get a bite from the more respectable presses?”
In less than two years this “happy hour” colleague with “only a few articles” will be writing for Mark’s tenure review. Mark starts having panic attacks. For the first time he decides to take anxiety medications.
Violence # 3
Padma is a visiting professor and is in the job market to secure a tenure track job in Renaissance Literature. In one of her campus visits she is told by a senior colleague that his department is obligated to hire a faculty of color. “It’s this diversity thing you know!” During dinner another faculty, a middle aged Americanist leans and whispers to her that she loves her culture and the Bollywood dances. “But I don’t know if I have the guts to ever visit your country,” she adds. Padma is speechless. She wonders if she forgot to mention to the committee that her first book received a major award. For the rest of her visit she is reminded numerous times that her ethnicity is an asset.
“Go back to your country!” Right after the election of Trump Sheila came back to work and found this large note on her door. It was written with red ink. Sheila is born here. Her parents are from Kenya. She immediately brings this to the attention of her department chair. She never hears back.
““You are still here?” Sheila receives another note a week later. This time she is afraid for her safety. She complains to the Dean. The Dean asks her to inform the chair. She again tells the chair and a few of her colleagues. One of her colleagues say, “that’s not nice.” Another one asks, “Do you know who it could be?”
She finally tells this to a few of her trusted students. The students rally for her.
Sheila is called by the Dean and is told that she is being disruptive. She is being unprofessional. She must apologize to her chair. Her department chair stops talking to her. Her chair is a black woman.
Violence # 5
Fatema is one of the three faculty of color on her campus. Fatema’s area of scholarly expertise is in International Relations with a particular focus on banking in the Middle East. She is not an angry woman of color. There are a few other underrepresented faculties on her campus too. In total they are seven, or maybe eight (if you count the faculty who claims she is really “kinda brown.”) Fatema is also tenured. She cannot say “no” to many of the service requests. Recently, her college has made a “serious” commitment to equity. Faculty voted to have diversity represented on every committee. She has served on the diversity committee, curriculum committee, several ad hoc committees (including one for parking) and was the only faculty of color on the college’s strategic planning committee. It was her idea that the college does a climate study of underrepresented faculty and students. Her idea did not make it into the strategic plan. Later a white male colleague suggested the same. He was asked to chair the committee for the climate study.
Fatema is planning on going up for full. There are only four other women on her campus that have been promoted to full in the last 20 years. She is not worried about her publications. She has a national and international reputation, but she is required to chair a major committee or a department. This year there is an opportunity for her to chair her department (and she feels quite ready for the undertaking). Yet, very recently she has been politely told that “Jerry” her male colleague is better suited for this position given that he will need to work with admissions to recruit students. Enrollments are an issue. And of course only Jerry has some special magic or formula that Fatema apparently does not. She does not even have an accent.
She recently found out (through another colleague who was consulted) that there was a new interdisciplinary major being proposed in Middle Eastern Studies. Most of the faculty proposing this major are white and there is one East Asian faculty (who does not work on anything to do with the Middle East). She is baffled that she is never consulted. Seriously baffled.
This is not fiction.
This is your life.
This is our life.
This life is not invisible.
This knowledge is being used, reused, misused.
The Bridge Called Our Back is broken
The Bridge Called Our Back is made to collapse
The Bridge Called Our Back is in need of serious repair
Racial capitalism in the academy is a serious crime
A crime for which no one is indicted
A crime that is just glossed over
as “unsubstantiated claims.”
There are their words, not ours.
When Inside Higher Ed’s “Conditionally Accepted” column published my op-ed “A Checklist to Determine if You Are Supporting White Supremacy,” I was warned of potential backlash. Then it went viral.
While my piece was shared by hundreds of colleagues around the country, especially faculty of color, marginalized faculty and those who are committed to various equity, diversity and antiracist initiatives and interventions, it was simultaneously shared on right-wing media platforms that actively support structural, institutional and cultural racism and discrimination.
By Jan. 13, 2018, the next day, Campus Reform had picked up the piece and retitled it as “Prof Creates Checklist for Detecting White Supremacy.” This retitled piece had already been shared 1,500 times on various right-wing social media outlets.
The College Fix, The Washington Times, Barbwire, Reddit, The Blaze, The Gateway Pundit, Liberty Unyielding, Legal Insurrections and The Rightly Report republished the article on their sites under different titles. The National Sentinel titled its piece “Campus COMMIE: Lib Professor Claims Meritocracy is WHITE Supremacy.” The various headlines in these right-wing and alt-right publications quite correctly defined me as a “liberal” or “left-wing professor,” while others like The National Sentinel mistakenly marked me as an academic pushing “Communist” ideas in the classroom. Some right-wing critiques suggested that op-eds like mine are a clear indication that “Serious study is being replaced with social justice activism.” The College Fix made a point to emphasize that “Gender studies coordinator offers ‘checklist’ to determine if you support white supremacy.”
The above headlines proved my central thesis on white supremacy and two other significant points:
These backlashes against social justice scholarship and activism are a reminder of the pervasive nature of everyday white supremacy in our culture.
Social justice activism is not divorced from “serious study” — it is “serious study.”
There were also confessions from self-proclaimed white supremacists. In Renegade Tribune, “WhiteWolf” commented, “I’m White so of course I support White supremacy. If Whites aren’t supreme then that means that other races are supreme over us. Why would I want that?” Joining WhiteWolf, thousands of self-proclaimed white supremacists doubled down on their racism, but also confirmed some features of white supremacy as noted in my “checklist.”
By Jan. 16, 2018 (just four days after the publication of the op-ed in Inside Higher Ed) conservative millennial Allie Beth Stuckey debated former Missouri Democratic state representative Don Calloway on Fox News, using my op-ed as a premise for discussing white supremacy, white racism and liberal bias on various college and university campuses. In their conversation Stuckey commented on how liberal professors are using “bias to drive their curriculum rather than honest dialogue” and concluded that “liberal colleges teach white shaming.”
While those who teach about racism and conduct antiracist work grounded in sociological and historical findings are repeatedly charged with “white shaming,” what is also ironic is that such work (both academic and activist) is often marked as promoting “reverse racism.” Sara Ahmed in her book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life makes a poignant remark on “how the creation of diversity as a political solution can participate in making those who speak about racism the cause of the problem.”
These outbursts and outrages against liberal professors who have written or spoken about white supremacy in America have become routine. Scholars like Steven Salaita, Saida Grundy, Johnny Eric Williams, George Ciccariello-Maher, Amanda Gailey, Dorothy Kim and, most recently, David Palumbo-Liu have all been subjected to severe right-wing media scrutiny for their stances against white supremacy, white privilege, settler colonialism and fascism.
Furthermore, many scholars, and particularly those who are faculty of color or marginalized, have received little to no support within their own institutions that proclaim to protect the academic freedom of their faculty members. Their experiences mirror what Arianne Shahvisi has called “epistemic injustice” within the academy.
It should be noted that it is not just these attacks, but the chilling effect it produces on academic freedom that is detrimental to all faculty. While some institutions have taken strong positions to protect the academic freedom of their faculty members, there are other institutions whose reactions have been lukewarm. On her blog, Tressie McMillan Cottom points out quite succinctly “how woefully underprepared universities are to deal with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals, or public engagement.” Joan W. Scott (in an interview given to Bill Moyers) concluded that the treatment scholars is receiving today are worse than during the McCarthy era. “The internet has made possible a frightening practice of threats and intimidation — threats of unspeakable violence and death … McCarthy’s were violent threats at a more abstract level. These are specific threats.”
So rather than depending on institutions to respond, I want to suggest a few safeguards if you want to enter the public discourse of critiquing white supremacy. These safeguards will certainly not eliminate any attacks or threats but can certainly minimize it.
Be sure to remove from your institutional page your email address, telephone number, office address, office hours and any personal information that can easily be assessed by internet trolls.
Make your Twitter account private and set your Facebook setting to “friends only” before the publication of your piece.
Forward your piece to your president, dean or provost, head of the campus security, and media relations office as soon as it is published. This allows them to prepare a strategy to protect you and the institution before they start receiving thousands of phone calls and requests to fire you.
As you start receiving the first wave of backlash, remind your administrators of the institution’s policy on academic freedom and request that they keep you informed about any outside interventions or threats made against you.
Forward your administration AAUP’s recent publications on targeted online harassment and “What You Can Do About Targeted Online Harassment.”
Avoid hyperlinks to any alt-right and right-wing media outlets. By linking to them, you not only invite the digital mob to make you a target for their attacks, but also promote their revenue stream.
Just alerting the administration will not be enough. You will have to safeguard yourself from the emotional stresses as a result of the various threats and comments made on social media about you.
Do not take each comment made by the trolls seriously, but do report the serious threats to your administration.
Expect some of your own liberal (white) colleagues to be a bit nervous around you. Many of them will not want to discuss your article, although they may have read it. Give them time to process what you have written. Most of your colleagues are well meaning but simply are not trained to discuss race or white supremacy.
Do not take it personally if people you thought were your allies are hesitant to share your piece on their social media spaces. Some of them have conservative friends and family members, and sharing your piece (which your allies actually endorse) may also invite some ugly conversations on their own social media space.
Welcome the new group of allies who will thank you for your thoughts and share with you some of their own experiences.
Last but not least, stick to your conviction about what you have written and said and remind yourself what Angela Davis once declared: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things that I cannot accept.”
You can also read the piece, “On Striking a Nerve here in Inside Higher Ed’s “Conditionally Accepted” column.
Here is my most recent op-ed piece published in “Inside Higher Ed.”
A Checklist to Determine if you are supporting white supremacy
For faculty of color, women and particularly those scholars who are outspoken about dismantling the master narratives of white supremacy within our colleges and universities, playing by the rules is neither an option, nor an obligation. It is, in fact, a terrible burden. A burden to allow an oppressive system breathing down our necks, while we continue to work within institutions that treat us as mere bodies representing “diversity” or what Patti Duncan has called “Hot Commodities, Cheap Labor: Women of Color in the Academy.”
My own cathartic moment arrived when I was able to write about my experience and those of other postcolonial scholars in my book, The Postcolonial Citizen: The Intellectual Migrant in a chapter titled as “Threatening Bodies, Dangerous Knowledge, Legal Interventions.” It was 2001. The problem of exclusions and a lack of “due process” experienced by various postcolonial scholars were widespread.
After many years and many battles, and after much thought, I have created a list of qualities and attributes of those that overtly or covertly support or contribute to a culture of mundane and everyday white supremacy within our institutions. Such mundane acts manifest themselves in who is hired, who is tenured and promoted, whose scholarship is de(valued), who receives the campus awards for teaching and service, whose voice is heard, whose ideas are policed, who is tone-policed, and who is called out as not being “civil”– a coded word for speaking against the status quo of white privilege.
Participating in acts that enable white supremacist structures to exist obstructs the social justice and anti-racist work that many of us are trained to do within the academy. We are marked as “trouble makers” when in truth we are “trouble identifiers.”
Here is then a list of 15 “troubles” that I have identified to help others in academe recognize your un(conscious) contributions to white supremacy:
1. You work in a position of power in a predominantly white institution, and while you claim to be working for social justice, you do nothing to change the white supremacist power structures within your departments, committees and institutional decision-making process.
2. When your colleagues who are marginalized complain to you about their “oppressive” work conditions, you think that they are difficult.
3. When your colleagues and students claim that they experienced micro-aggressions, your response is “I am so sorry. This is unbelievable!”
4. When you are asked to nominate your students and faculty colleagues for awards or leadership positions, your first instinct is to nominate those that are “stellar” (mostly men) and obviously “white.” It doesn’t occur to you that you are implicitly supporting a logic of meritocracy that is built on this racist assumption that everyone has had the same access and opportunities.
5. When it comes to understanding your own white privilege, you get very angry if a faculty member of color points out to you where and how your privilege is operating. You deem such critiques as “uncivil” and as not supporting a collegial environment.
6. You are aware of the many wrongs that you see your institution is doing to your marginal faculty and students, and while you sympathize with people of color and marginal students and faculty members behind your closed door, you never openly confront your institution.
7. When a professor of color stands up in your faculty meetings and expresses their frustrations about inequity, you go to your trusted colleagues (the next day) and ask, “Why is s/he or them always so angry?”
8. When you are on a hiring committee, you think that the writing samples by your white candidates of choice are stellar, while what is “stellar” about the candidates of color is, of course, their ethnicity.
9. You never fail to articulate publicly your commitment for increasing diversity within your institution, but when on a hiring committee you express your strong hesitance to let go of your stellar candidate in exchange for a candidate who you perceive as only adding to your institution’s diversity mission.
10. When people of color (faculty members and students) complain to you about discrimination and racism, you actively discourage them to report their cases, and often try to convince them that “it must be a misunderstanding.”
11. You think of yourself as an ally to your faculty of color colleagues, but cannot understand why your white students are so upset when professors of color teach and critique sites of white privilege.
12. In your institutional reviews for tenure and promotion cases, you advise and critique your faculty of color colleagues to be more sensitive and mindful in respecting the viewpoint of our students. By “our” you really mean “our white students.”
13. You benefit so much from the system that you have decided to stay out of all of this “identity politics.”
14. You have never thought of yourself as an ally to any of the causes of faculty of color and you never have any time to go to any events that they and other marginal folks have organized (where they express their everyday struggles). But you will happily go to an event if Ta-Nehisi Coates is speaking in town.
15. Claudia Rankine, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire and Teju Cole’s “The White Savior Industrial Complex” — all rubs you the wrong way.
If you have made it to this point, you are probably feeling quite hypervisible, or fragile and have decided to have some hot chamomile tea from a cup that reads, “White Tears” or “Black Lives Matter.”
Dear Tone Policing Colleagues
Tone policing is a tactic
Tone policing is a tool
Tone policing is a symptom
Tone policing is a diagnosis
Tone policing is a digression
Tone policing is a fear
Tone policing is harassment
Tone policing is a privilege
Tone policing is a policy
Tone policing is a threat
Tone policing is a result
Tone policing is gaslighting
Tone policing is a tactic for silencing us
Tone policing is a tool to keep us in place
Tone policing is a symptom of your anxiety, white crumbling fragility
Tone policing is a diagnosis of your alienation
Tone policing is a digression from real conversations
Tone policing is a fear of our voice, our ideas, your change
Tone policing is fear of your fear
Tone policing is a harassment of our thoughts
Tone policing is a slowly slipping privilege you are holding on to
Tone policing is a policy on your terms, not ours
Tone policing is a threat to your status quo
Tone policing is a result of your power no longer here
Tone policing is gaslighting
Tone policing is anti debates Tone policing is anti-intellectual
Tone policing is anti-reason Tone policing is harassment
Tone policing is racist Tone policing is sexist
Tone policing is anti-feminist Tone policing is homophobic and queerphobic
Tone policing is uncivil Tone policing should be banned
Tone policing is gaslighting
I was fired from my first tenure track job. That was 2002. February.
A month after the Twin Towers crumbled, my first tenure track job, a job that I had only been in for about 2 months also began to crumble. I had received a hate letter in my university mailbox, written on a departmental letterhead, sealed in an envelope asking me to leave.
So I shared the letter with my department chair (who was also a faculty of color). Upon seeing my letter she shared with me that she had been receiving cut outs of job postings from The Chronicle of Higher Education in her mailbox ever since she had joined the department. “Women and minorities encouraged to apply” was often highlighted.
So I took my hate letter and shared it with the Dean of Liberal Arts and requested that an investigation be conducted. Given that there were threats in the letter, I also requested that the locks in my office be changed.
Needless to say, nothing happened. It was already December.
So I asked the Dean if I should contact the FBI and have them investigate the matter. After all, receiving hate mails on stamped departmental letterheads is a federal crime.
Upon hearing this, within two weeks, the department put an ad-hoc committee together and did not renew my contract for the following year. My department chair was not on board. Later, the Dean removed my department chair from her “chair” position without following any due process.
I came back to a safe space.
I moved on.
I learned what happens when you complain.
I learned what happens when you are untenured and complain.
I learned what happens when you are a woman of color and complain.
I learned that universities are not always obligated to follow “due process.”
I learned that they are powerful enough to get away.
I learned that I had the potential to be a damn good lawyer.
But I just did not leave. I filed a grievance against the department.
I learned a lot about my constitutional protections, EEOC procedures, AAUP guidelines and academic freedom and “due process” as spelled out in faculty handbooks.
In my grievance hearing a colleague that had left a couple years ago testified. In his testimony he named the colleagues from within the department that could have written my “hate letter.”
I learned that this was the regular practice of the old guards to threaten faculty who they deemed progressive.
I learned that some of them were active supporters of the KKK.
And then this colleague that testified said something quite remarkable to me:
“Being fired is probably the best thing that could have happened to you. You get to leave. Only the healthy ones gets to leave this place. The rest stay and become a part of the cancer.”
Years later, I ran into an old colleague (who had also left by then). She told me that six more junior faculty left. ALL of the faculty of color left. She told me that as a result of my grievance the university investigated the department and named it as one of the most dysfunctional departments on campus.
The department, however, did not think that they had any problems.
Five years passed by. By then I had landed another tenure track job in another institution. I was happy. My new colleagues were nothing like my old colleagues. They knew my past. They knew my story. They thought I was brave.
I received tenure in 2007. I was finally ready to throw away my entire file that contained all that grievance materials. It was like an encyclopedia. It was toxic. I wanted to burn it.
So before I threw it away, I took one last look at these pages that contained my past, my scars, their audacity, their power, their capacity for abuse. My eyes finally rested on a page that contained a brief email from the Dean. In that email he had written to me that he did not find that there was reasonable cause to prompt an investigation about the hate letter I had received.
I wanted to know if this Dean was still the Dean. So I googled him.
What I found was an obituary. I learned that the Dean and his wife were taking a vacation in the Bahamas and he had drowned.
After all those years I was finally able to throw away my grievance file. I was saved.