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On Student Affairs Educators and White Supremacy

This is for the White folx who are doing all sorts of "this is one incident" wish about #Charlotttesville and manifestations of white supremacy on college campuses across the U.S. This blog is an extended and annotated version of a thread of tweets I wrote last night before bed.


White supremacy on college campuses continues to be one of my foci for this PhD because of manifestations like what happened last night in #Charlottesville. Note I didn't say instance/example. This ish is interconnected & determines ways to make itself known out of self preservation of itself - look to incredible scholars like Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson who have continued to point out how white supremacy evolves in shape and form (ex. the prison industrial complex) in order to maintain itself.

To be clear, white supremacy hasn't gone anywhere. It did not die. It is alive, well, and pervasive. 

Many of us in student affairs/higher education, myself included, have continued to engage anti-racism/racial justice work on college campuses with "checklists" and "knapsacks" that focus on privilege but never on supremacy. Johnson (2005) discussed how privilege is two-fold: it is about unearned advantage and conferred dominance. Many of us focus on the former without ever touching on the latter. White supremacy gets to preserve itself through the niceness of higher education  rather than have its violent (il)logics addressed and dismantled in ways that actively confront it. And as Romeo Jackson has pointed out several times, “Student affairs professionals love reinforcing that whiteness (niceness) is the best way to do social justice and diversity work in higher education.”

People have and will continue to (rightfully, maybe even righteously) denounce what happened but yet will enact some (il)logics to dismiss White supremacy's pervasiveness in our country and on our campuses. 

Folks will say that this is an isolated incident in a single part of America that is in a more conservative state with yet a town that votes overwhelmingly blue in elections - so why be concerned with white supremacy?

Folks will call these people uneducated and say that they are backwards in their thinking, which makes them dismissible because this kind of "backwards thinking" is only in a few racist hold-outs, not a plurality or even majority of white people's thinking - so why be concerned about white supremacy?

All of that rhetoric abdicates and allows folks to dismiss many (hard truths for most White folks, easy truths for most everybody else) that there were/are students and communities in that crowd that are probably highly "educated" in the ways in which we measure formal education. And your ideas of what "educated" people think is actually part of the white supremacy project that sees civilized persons as having particular forms of thought to aspire to, to separate "us" versus "them" that contributes to a colonized way of understanding "the other" that you think you are "above." These types of thinking allows these crowds, these incidents to seem that this is the fringe (see Eve Ewing's good tweet labor about this) our society rather than people we interact with every other day.

Let's also be clear: just because something overt happened to make you see white supremacy is still alive and well in 2017 (reminding ourselves what is often considered overt manifestations of white supremacy is when a bunch of white people see, recognize, and name something overt), doesn't mean things we do not wish to see, recognize, and name (what we often call covert) doesn't continue to happen on our campuses each and every day through our actions, our logics, our theories, our classrooms, and our bodies. 

What's happening in Charlottesville is in part because of the niceness approach white folx have been employing to "do" something about racism/white supremacy that is wrapped up in our fragility (see DiAngelo, 2011 or Schulman, 2016) of engaging one another. If we do not better confront our friends, our families, our students - the ones we have been letting off because we don't wish to harm relationships with them or we think it is of "no use" - than this will continue to fester because we fail to treat the underlying conditions that allows this virus to spread when we only treat the symptoms and manifestations of this disease. 

Let me also be clear to address what another reaction from this manifestation will be. Folx will say that this escalation will be because of our current presidential administration and his rhetoric and that people have somehow been given "permission" now to do these things. I would have you first go back and look at all the things people did during the last presidential administration in which they did not need this so called "permission"  to enact these types of hate through verbal and physical action. I would also ask you to think about your logic in reverse: 45 tapped into this; this isn't something he created or facilitated. Again, because this has gotten to fester, because I've given out passes in the name of niceness, friends + family + students have all gone unchecked and that continues to be fucked up. Plus, putting the blame on 45 scapegoats our problems once again to - "well once he's out of office" this will all be fine. No. Full stop.  Yes, there has been a rise in violent hate incidents since the new presidential administration but the mere presence of violent hate incidents is still violent and abhorrent. There were violent, hateful incidents before this election and if those did not raise a problem for you because they were not numerous or elevated or visible enough for you, ask yourselves if what 45 really did this past election was make violence actually closer to you than it was before. And if your reaction to violence against people is based in your proximity to it rather than its presence, you may not actually care about justice.

To that end, here are some practices and reflections for folks to think about white supremacy in student affairs. This list is nowhere near exhaustive and a list isn't going to end white supremacy:

  • Spend capital (monetary, social) on supporting those on the ground in Charlottesville as this continues to unfold over the next few days, weeks, school years: if you cannot financially support, socially support by passing on the link.
  • If you are faculty in a preparation program or have the ability to anti-racism work on campus, how are you talking about both sides of privilege? How are you talking about conferred dominance with your students beyond the passive examples?
  • What are you reading? What are you having people read? Can staff professional development be focused on a book that addresses white supremacy or a collection of articles about the doing of social justice in student affairs and not just the (over)intellectualization of social justice in student affairs? Check out Nolan Cabrera's good work on this (examples here and here)
  • If you think someone is "beyond" engaging, interrogate why, and if you do not feel equipped to still engage that person, find someone else who will or find resources to add to your toolkit. Odds are that someone has dealt with the same exact situation as you and as given some thought to it and maybe written it down or shared it with someone.
  • Get your historical analysis together. I'm currently reading Carol Anderson's (2016) White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide which provides beautiful historical analysis to our country, what's happened in it, and how it informs what's happening today.
  • Talk to students and engage them about incidents like this and ask them what meaning they are (not) making of them.
  • Call out white supremacy, its (il)logics, and spend your privilege each and every day to help dismantle the white supremacy project.
  • If you have agenda power, put this as an agenda item to discuss ways with your staffs about how do we forward white supremacy (l)logics in our work, do not put that labor on your staff of color, come up with ways to stop those logics, and then ENACT THOSE PLANS.
  • If you have the power to convene people (almost all of us have the ability to reserve a room for an hour and build relationships), bring people together yourself to discuss this and how you can work across the university to make this happen.

Above all else, one of the prime excuses I continue to hear from folks is that it is hard being the only person to confront their families, particularly parents, guardians, and elders or difficult to confront colleagues and that they've given up because of that difficulty. To that I say, I get that, I truly do and my relationships and comfort with my family should not come at the cost of the terrorization and livelihoods of my kin of color. Plain and simple.

Alex Lange