There’s a racial cultural war going on in higher education.
Irrespective of the commonplace claims that colleges and universities are liberal and progressive havens, they are actually a staging ground for protecting the racist status quo. More than 40 years after students from San Francisco State to Columbia University protested the lack of diversity in curriculum and faculty, universities still remain bastions of whiteness. Instead of serving as a model for justice and equity, as spaces that value diversity beyond a marketing ploy, recent campus incidents reported in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education tell the real story, one erased from the glossy recruiting brochures that project a post-racial university life.
At Emporia State University in Kansas, a Black professor and his wife working at the university spoke out against their work environment. After they complained about a racial slur hurled at them in a campus office, things got even worse and more hostile. “Recognize that you’re in Kansas now,” the professor was told.
A faculty member at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, found a racist message written on the door. At Georgia Tech in Atlanta, a Black woman student says that three fraternity men hurled racial slurs at her from a window of their house.
At Washington State University, Black students protested after a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity confronted a Black woman attending a party, “get the fuck out you n***** b****.”
According to Christina Sessoms, the all-too-familiar incident unleashed hate against the students demanding a college environment free from racial violence. “All of us have to now watch our back in fear of backlash and potential harm because we are the ones who are addressing a serious problem that is embedded in WSU culture,” she said. “How is that fair?”
Last week, just 90 miles north of WSU, five members of the women’s soccer team at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, were suspended after photographs of them in blackface and costumes as the Jackson 5 appeared on social media. (As Halloween approaches, I bet we’re going to see more racially themed parties.)
And of course, there was the March 2015 controversy that resulted when a video surfaced showing members of a White fraternity at the predominantly White (PWI) University of Oklahoma singing about lynching Black people. After the story went viral, half-assed apologies were issued, but we knew they weren’t sincere. One can only guess that some still sing the song but with a no-phone policy firmly enforced. At the start of this semester, a Native American student was kicked out of her White professor’s United States History class at Cal State Sacramento University after she disagreed with his statement that he didn’t like the term “genocide” related to Native Americans in history. The fact that this student merely questioned his telling of history was interpreted by the professor of being accused of racism.
How many other slurs? How many nooses from doorways? How many other racist comments from professors and students? How many other microaggressions go unnoticed and receive no headlines? Racism is embedded in the culture of universities, which not only undermines the purported desire for diversity but the value of the college experience for students of color.
Institutions appear more interested in cosmetic diversity, counting the numbers of bodies of color to show incremental progress, rather than genuinely creating a culture of inclusivity and equity. While many colleges produce marketing materials that look like old-school Benetton ads, and talk a good game like Starbucks [giggles], their campuses are increasingly hostile to students and faculty of color.
“Colleges are charged with providing an education in an environment in which everyone feels welcome. However, for historical reasons, people of color, LGBT people, and others who do not conform to the dominant demographics prevalent at most institutions of higher education in this country already don’t always feel included or welcome,” writes Simba Runyowa in The Atlantic. “As campaigns like ‘I Too Am Harvard’ or the satirical film Dear White People have attempted to illustrate, microaggressions targeted at minorities only serve to amplify those feelings of alienation.”
Because of the utter failure to address the culture climate, colleges and universities are failing at providing a welcoming and empowering environment. Holding their brochures in hand, they scoff at any criticism and turn their attention back to more important matters at hand: fund-raising; selling decreasing numbers of White students an experience—since that degree ain’t worth what it use to be—which surely includes parties, football games; and racism and sexism on fleek.
“The Times Higher Education article, “Black Scholars Still Experience Racism on Campus,” reports that Black academics say they’re seen as ‘outsiders’ and held back from advancing in their careers. That’s no surprise when you look at the growing gap between students and faculty. The National Center for Education Statistics paints a clear picture of full-time faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions: 79 percent White, 6 percent Black, 5 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and less than 1 percent each American Indian/Alaska Native and Mixed-race.
Meanwhile, the student body is darkening. Between 1976 and 2012, Latina/o students grew from 4 to 15 percent; Asian/Pacific Islanders from 2 to 6 percent; Black students from 10 to 15 percent; and American Indian/Alaska Native students from 0.7 to 0.9 percent. And the percentage of White students fell from 84 to 60 percent.
More color equals more hostility. White students are working overtime to thwart this demographic shift. Campus administrators are working hard to make the experience worth the expensive costs. Given trends, it is not hard to imagine a university that offers weekly kegs and the necessary elements needed to put on a race-theme party. If increasingly students are “Paying for the Party,” it is no surprise that administrators are doing little to undermine the racist “fun” that is as commonplace as Adderall use for today’s students.
The latest available data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that in 2012 there were 791 reported hate crimes on college and university campuses in the United States—45 percent of them motivated by race. This was up slightly from 2011 but down from the 928 reported hate crimes on campus in 2010.
That racial hostility takes many forms, some more obvious than others. Black professors are being silenced and their job security threatened, for calling out racism. When a White student complained that Boston University professor Saida Grundy’s tweets about racism were false and insulting to White people, Grundy was attacked first by the right wing and then by mainstream media.
Grundy is not alone. Right-wing trolls and media friends have targeted other Black women professors. They peruse our Twitter and Facebook accounts and then write pieces smearing us. I was even targeted by some of these outlets for things I’ve written about race. Many Black women professors have told me that they’ve received threats like “We’re watching you.” The trolls call the universities and try to pressure them into firing us. Reflecting the neoliberal mind-set of today’s universities, the White customer is always right; and the wealthy White donor is right yesterday, today, and tomorrow. All at the expense of those who defy that racial status quo; who demand accountability, who speak truth to power.
Never mind the embrace of rhetoric about “free speech” and universities as places of open conversation, these academic terrorists work to silence all too many faculty of color, who risk jobs, tenure, their mental health and future with each tweet, article, and lecture that challenges White supremacy. Over and over again, the issue of free speech and the principles of democracy are used as cover to allow anything they want to say.
Racial slurs in class equals free speech. Noose on a door equals free speech. Calling someone a “tranny” equals free speech. Hanging a Confederate flag equals free speech. A song about lynching equals free speech. A sexist comment in faculty meeting equals free speech.
As with Charlie Hebdo, the message is clear: protecting the freedom to demonize and dehumanize, to silence, and to practice hateful speech creates a hostile learning and work environment. Ironically, it is these trolls and their friends, who are aided and abetted by campus administrators and the donor class who contain conversations. They contribute to diversity-free environment; they push students and faculty of color off-campus, out of the public square. They terrorize to silence our voices, using the cover of “free speech” when it is clear they are only targeting certain professors and certain departments.
And yet, there is a certain irony that White males will invoke victimhood in colleges and universities today, demanding protection from conversations about White privilege and rape culture. Their helicopter parents at Fox are ready and waiting, making sure that Johnny and Becky don’t have their feelings hurt by the truth. Of course, the reality is that there are students and scholars of color and their allies who are TRULY being victimized, and no one is putting up trigger alerts or offering protections from racist comments in class, misogynistic evaluations, homophobic jokes polluting dining halls, Eurocentric curriculum, and the violent and threatening backlash directed at those who protest this status quo.
About two weeks ago, Washington State University (WSU) announced that instructors could not make “blanket bans” on certain words or phrases in class, even if they offended people, and that students could not be punished for using those words or phrases. Surely they weren’t demanding that anatomy professors restrict students from using colloquialism when describing parts of the body; and of course, they weren’t reprimanding English or Communications professors that forbid profanity or text language from their classrooms. LMAO.
No, this came as the right was outraged at the prospect that faculty and graduate students were trying to maintain a civil, inclusive atmosphere in their classrooms and not let the teaching-learning process be sidetracked by some students using hostile languages in class or classwork.
A rule banning offensive and hostile speech only makes sense. Yet, for those on the right working to protect the racial and gendered status quo, inclusivity and equity are their enemies. It is no wonder that members of the entire department got endless threats and vile emails, which the university basically sanctioned by not standing in solidarity with the faculty or condemning their attackers. Yet again the rubric of free speech becomes a means to silence people engaging in work on race, that know the issues, that are challenging a university culture that so often silences students of color. Donors and legislators take precedent over the work conditions for faculty and learning environment for students, especially those of color.
This cosmetic diversity is dangerous because it leads to silence when students and faculty of color are attacked. Institutions are more accountable to big-money donors and the Faux News crowd than to students and faculty, more interested in the bottom line than developing true academic and intellectual rigor.
Right-wing propaganda is taking the place of critical and analytical thought processes, and one-sided reactionary rulings are desperate attempts to maintain a status quo of White supremacy in the one American institution that Black and other students of color are raised to believe is the holy vaccine for insuring their chances of professional success and protection from a racist world. “Get that education, baby. It’s the one thing that nobody can ever take away.”
If the administration only speaks to those it deems its peers—donors, legislatures, and the fear-mongering right-wing—there isn’t much hope for diversity, justice, or intellectual rigor. If universities take the word of Campus Reform, Daily Caller, YoungCons, The College Fix, Fox News, and the GOP, rather than faculty and students of color, diversity ain’t worth much more than that glossy brochure. As campus administrators treat conservative bloggers who profit from creating spectacles as objective truth-tellers, seemingly ignoring actual research on the racial hostility all too commonplace, the consequences of the racial culture war on college campuses are significant. These racist right-wing rags troll faculty of color, write a story that gets picked up by Fox and Friends, the mail increases, the university throws the faculty under the bus, hate grows, and the rest of the faculty remain silent.
And part of the reason why the faculty at WSU got no support from the administration and other academics was because there was very little media coverage outside of the right-wing lie chamber. Those who did read about what happened, who already hate these scholars for who they are and what they teach, got lies and more goddamn lies. And then they did what trolls do best: They descended upon the faculty, demanding they be fired. As a result, the administration received very little counter pressure and assumed that the whole damn world was outraged rather than understanding that the right is full of a pathological bigots.
What happened at WSU, and elsewhere, shows how bigotry is empowered inside and outside of the academy. And their partners are the right-wing media, which seems to be impacting attitudes and some policy at the administrative levels of higher education.
So when the goal that we’ve been bred to reach by any means necessary turns out to be another hostile territory where we aren’t welcome, our truths are deemed problematic, our voices are silenced and our progress is stymied, we have to ask ourselves: is higher education the solution we’ve believed it can be for students and faculty of color? We are left to ask: Whose free speech matters? Whose comfort matters?
The resistance we’re seeing to bodies and voices that challenge White dominance, upsets the status quo and peel back the layers of hypocrisy to reveal that ugly truths, is part of the increasingly racist climate in the ivory tower. What binds this all together is that university advocates for diversity seem unwilling to deal with the facts of today’s campus dynamics. They want to create the illusion of diversity, and profit from that illusion, but they aren’t showing any interest in making campus classrooms and curriculums more inclusive, more welcoming, more honest and intellectually rigorous. Once faculty of color are inside the building, once students of color pay their tuition and have their picture taken for the university website, all bets are off. The message we received is clear: We got you for what we need, now sit down, shut up, and be counted for our diversity report while we pat ourselves on the back and call it progress.
Administrations and trustees see the browning of the student body and reap the benefits of cosmetic diversity, and yet the faculty and students’ real presence is seen as problematic. And when the institutions we might have expected to be more progressive in recognizing, calling out and at least debating the realities of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., are perpetuating the inequities to protect the privilege of the status quo, we have to reconsider our presence, our roles, our safety, and our value to those who make it clear that we’re viewed as problematic, and vulnerable to attacks on our presence, our perspectives and our rights to speak and teach freely.
Higher education is a microcosm of our society—and as our illusions are stripped away by these ugly truths, we see the painful, problematic reality that is staring us in our faces: Increasingly, we are no longer welcome in the one place we believed we could turn to for a shot at real progress, justice, and addressing society’s inequities in a way that could make a difference. The bastion of potential is now a battleground, and as with everywhere in America, we are under attack. No matter how high our GPAs and SATs, no matter how many degrees we obtain, our presence in the academy comes at a price even higher than astronomical student debt. On these battlegrounds, we’re expected to pay with our safety, our sanity and our souls.