Several months later, I hesitate to offer yet another election postmortem for higher education. Like many of you readers, I have read countless such essays from within and beyond the academy. Some people have argued that the rise of white supremacists (they prefer to be called the “alt-right”) was only to be expected given the proliferation of identity politics in higher education. According those observers, by providing limited space and resources on campuses for the acknowledgment and celebration of various social identity groups that are underrepresented in colleges and universities, as well as marginalized across society, it was only a matter of time before white students would want to assert themselves as well.
The only trouble with that view, as was brilliantly enunciated by Cheryl Harris in 1993 in her discourse on whiteness as property, is that the very idea of whiteness and the racialization of white people over and against all others is the invention of propertied, Protestant Christian, Western European settlers in the Americas. Whiteness was the means of preserving their wealth and status within an ideologically theocratical capitalist system. This argument is disingenuous and ahistorical.
Other commentators, such as Mikki Kendall recently, have noted higher education’s failure to educate its students about race and racism. In that argument, white students are rightfully presented as being allowed to believe in their own merits while at the same time denying the meritorious potential of anyone unlike them -- particularly those who are members of racially minoritized groups. Despite first-year orientation diversity sessions and general-education requirements including a plethora of options to expose students to diverse perspectives (but few which present a challenge to normative worldviews), most students leave college with the same assumptions with which they entered: that the dominance and overrepresentation of certain people in college, in leadership and among the ranks of the wealthy and envied is natural and optimal. Most students -- not even just white students, necessarily -- believe that advancement and opportunity is exclusively a function of merit, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, as noted by legal and educational scholar Lani Guinier.
What I have not yet seen in these electoral postmortems seeking to diagnose how working-class white people in the United States seemingly voted against their own economic interests leading to the election of Donald J. Trump is: 1) an acknowledgment by higher education scholars that it was as much the vote of college-educated, middle-class white men and women that informed this presidential election’s outcomes (see here), and 2) that reality is a result of the decision of historically white colleges and universities to engage a politics of appeasement instead of a true liberal education.
Kendall’s prescient observations reflect the effects of this politics of appeasement, except those who are being appeased are not who some pundits, decrying the excessive political liberalism of the academy, have led us to believe. The greatest strength of an institution lies in its ability to persevere over time, with its most fundamental modus operandi challenged but unchanged. That has never been more true of the institution of American higher education as engendered and still practiced by historically white institutions (HWIs).
As I shared during a talk at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently, acknowledgment and celebration of diversity were not the primary goals of the student activists of the 1960s through the 1980s, who pushed for ethnic studies departments, student centers and increased recruitment and retention efforts focused on racially minoritized students, faculty members and staff members. No, it was through such avenues that those generations of activists hoped to inspire institutional transformation through the presence of a critical mass of people of color on campuses.
That is where the politics of appeasement comes into play. Underestimating institutional stability, HWI university leaders quieted complaints and concerns from opposing sides: on the one hand, students of color and their supporters, and on the other, trustees and nervous donors -- liberal and conservative -- who wanted their colleges and universities out of unflattering public spotlight. The same type of appeasement is happening in the current generation of student activism, whose demands sound hauntingly familiar:
Advance more racially minoritized faculty and staff through tenure and promotion and into senior-level roles.
Admit more racially minoritized students and offer more scholarships to help them afford to attend and achieve a degree.
Train faculty to effectively lead and deal with issues of equity in the classroom.
Reduce and respond to incidents of microaggressions on the campus.
Hire counseling center staff members who are competent to address the psychological stress of minoritized students.
Create safe spaces on campus where minoritized students of various identities can share, heal and organize.
Recognize the multiple identities of minoritized students and the intersecting oppressions they face on the campus.
In response, administrative leaders of HWIs are hiring chief diversity officers, establishing special endowments to support increased financial aid, launching cluster hires for faculty of color and investing in diversity programming, speakers and consultants. Those efforts seek to quiet the protesters, trustees and donors at the same time, all the while creating little systemic or transformative change on the campus.
Diversity and Inclusion vs. Equity and Social Justice
Such “Kool-Aid” approaches (again, check out my talk at UIUC) leave not only the institution fundamentally unchanged but also its students. Students with minoritized identities continue to face the same indignities and hostile campus climates, despite moderate increases in the compositional diversity of the campus. But until they are no longer students, they often fail to recognize that what they asked for was insufficient to change the campus culture and climate. Students for whom HWIs were designed to educate for societal leadership receive not only no challenges to their (perhaps unconscious) internalized sense of racial, ethnic, sexual, gender and social class dominance but also reinforcement of the notion that diversity and inclusion are achieved by having people with different backgrounds in the same spaces.
As I shared in my remarks at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, diversity and inclusion rhetoric asks fundamentally different questions and is concerned with fundamentally different issues than efforts seeking equity and justice.
Diversity asks, “Who’s in the room?” Equity responds: “Who is trying to get in the room but can’t? Whose presence in the room is under constant threat of erasure?”
Inclusion asks, “Has everyone’s ideas been heard?” Justice responds, “Whose ideas won’t be taken as seriously because they aren’t in the majority?”
Diversity asks, “How many more of [pick any minoritized identity] group do we have this year than last?” Equity responds, “What conditions have we created that maintain certain groups as the perpetual majority here?”
Inclusion asks, “Is this environment safe for everyone to feel like they belong?” Justice challenges, “Whose safety is being sacrificed and minimized to allow others to be comfortable maintaining dehumanizing views?”
Diversity asks, “Isn’t it separatist to provide funding for safe spaces and separate student centers?” Equity answers, “What are people experiencing on campus that they don’t feel safe when isolated and separated from others like themselves?”
Inclusion asks, “Wouldn’t it be a great program to have a panel debate Black Lives Matter? We had a Black Lives Matter activist here last semester, so this semester we should invite someone from the alt-right.” Justice answers, “Why would we allow the humanity and dignity of people or our students to be the subject of debate or the target of harassment and hate speech?”
Diversity celebrates increases in numbers that still reflect minoritized status on campus and incremental growth. Equity celebrates reductions in harm, revisions to abusive systems and increases in supports for people’s life chances as reported by those who have been targeted.
Inclusion celebrates awards for initiatives and credits itself for having a diverse candidate pool. Justice celebrates getting rid of practices and policies that were having disparate impacts on minoritized groups.
By substituting diversity and inclusion rhetoric for transformative efforts to promote equity and justice, HWIs have appeased their constituents and avoided recognizable institutional change. But it is time for historically white institutions in American higher education to pursue real change and abandon the politics of appeasement.
A truly democratic education must not be ideologically neutral; rather, it must ardently pursue the preparation of students for engaged citizenship in an ostensibly democratic society. Whether HWI leaders will gather the institutional will and the moral and ethical courage to provoke and institute real, substantive institutional transformation is unknown. The first step on that road, however, is to make equity and justice the yardstick by which leaders measure progress instead of merely diversity and inclusion.
Dafina-Lazarus Stewart uses the nonbinary gender pronouns ze, zim and zir and is a professor of higher education and student affairs at Bowling Green State University. Ze is on Twitter as @DrDLStewart.
I teach -- what is on paper, at least -- a mundane course required of all majors in my department. Few students are excited about being there. I acknowledge that in my opening comments each semester and make it my goal to surpass students’ expectations. My favorite evaluation comment, which I get in some form nearly every term: “I was expecting this class to suck, but it was actually interesting.”
One way that I try to make the class interesting -- or, at least, not suck -- is to allow students to select the topic and partners for their group project. That way, my thinking goes, they are more likely to be engaged with their topic and have a positive group experience.
Of course, the choose-your-own-partner philosophy has its downsides. Friends pick one another rather than going outside their comfort zones. There’s inevitably a please-don’t-let-me-be-the-last-pick-in-PE-class moment when the students who don’t know anyone else scramble to find partners. And once students have formed groups, the room can look like a middle-school dance: women on one side, men on the other. I encourage students to form mixed-gender groups and to select group partners based on shared interests rather than personal preferences, but the pull of familiarity is strong.
I’ve long considered the positive outcomes of open group selection to outweigh such drawbacks. But last semester, I reconsidered for a different reason: racial self-segregation.
On the day when students divided into work groups, I immediately noticed that with a few exceptions, white students were in groups with one another, and black students were in their own groups, as well. Groups formed so quickly that I couldn’t tell which students found each other first and which joined forces out of necessity, given the few remaining openings.
In past semesters these divisions haven’t been so glaring -- perhaps because it’s common for my classes to have so few black students that forming a group of three isn’t even possible. But there I was, on the second day of class, unexpectedly faced with a decision about whether to use this as a teachable moment or to let it pass without comment.
A few facts for context: I am a white man. My university is located in a region with considerable racial tension. Our campus, like many others, has been the site of student protests over lack of diversity and the administration’s handling of race relations. Addressing self-segregation in the classroom -- even in a class like mine that isn’t explicitly about race -- wouldn’t seem out of place at a time when such discussions are encouraged. Pausing to point out group dynamics would, to use a higher education cliché, contribute to a campuswide conversation about race.
On the other hand, drawing attention to group self-segregation could have detrimental effects. Who wants to start off the semester by noting students’ inherent biases? It’s hard to have this conversation without seemingly pointing a finger. Even if students became more aware of their decisions -- a positive outcome, to be sure -- what exactly did I want them to do about it? Re-sort into new, mixed-race groups? Acknowledge the problem and then carry on with their existing groups? After all, I’d just finished telling them to pick whomever they wanted as group partners. Perhaps students, as usual, just picked their friends, who happened to be of the same race (a problem in its own right).
Self-segregation in roommate selection and at cafeteria tables is unfortunately common, but I would never think to intervene in those cases. My decision about whether to do so in this instance came down to this question: Since this happened on my watch, in a classroom setting, did I have a moral obligation to say something?
In that moment, I didn’t have time to process all of these conflicting thoughts. It was noticeable to me and uncomfortable to witness, but did anyone else in that classroom feel the same way? It was hard to tell. I never asked anyone on that day -- or at any other time during the semester. No one brought it up in person, in email or in anonymous course evaluations.
Several months later, I still feel conflicted about what I should have done in that moment. Part of me wishes I had intervened, although I don’t beat myself up too much over my choice: it’s always easier to craft the perfect response in hindsight.
As I will soon prepare for another semester, I’m curious not only what my students thought but also what my colleagues think. How would you handle -- or have you handled -- this in your classroom? What would constitute an appropriate response?
I’d like to know, because I’m sure this won’t be the last time I face this situation. And next time, I want to have thought through my response.
The author is a tenure-track assistant professor at a four-year college.
The most recent Inside Higher Ed survey of college and university presidents illustrates a disconnect between what presidents believe is occurring at their institutions and what is actually happening just below the surface among our student populations. Despite presidents’ impressions of the day-to-day experiences, all is not rosy, and student affairs administrators can provide presidents with a reality check when it comes to the good and the not-so-good circumstances and events that are transpiring.
Some of the issues that concern presidents most -- and those that we who work in student affairs believe should, in fact, concern presidents the most -- are often related to student behaviors and experiences outside of the classroom. Those are the areas of knowledge and responsibility housed in student affairs offices, and we can assist with the topics most associated with our field -- including equity and diversity initiatives, promoting anti-bias on campus, student engagement, and issues tied to student success, recruitment and retention.
The key to mining our expertise, however, is to have a realistic understanding of our areas of responsibility, and a plan for best accessing our expertise and our close connections throughout the institution. This allows presidents to make the strongest and best-informed decisions possible for their campus communities.
For example, the Inside Higher Ed survey found that “the vast majority of presidents describe the state of race relations at their college as either excellent (20 percent) or good (63 percent). More than three-fifths of presidents describe race relations at American colleges in general as fair.”
I’ve used the analogous data points from last year’s presidential survey when speaking to members of NASPA, the leading association for student affairs professionals, over the past year -- data that, the survey notes, are relatively unchanged from last year to this year. Not surprisingly, I’ve received a mix of gasps and chuckles, with many student affairs professionals hoping their presidents can realistically assess the status of race relations on their own campuses. NASPA’s survey of senior student affairs officers has consistently shown that diversity and race relations are among the top issues and concerns. It would be fascinating to see how students -- especially students from diverse backgrounds -- would rate their institutions, but I can safely bet that the “vast majority” would not rate them as “excellent” or “good.”
It is important to note that a lack of protest on a campus does not mean students and other community members are satisfied about race relations there. We shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security that we are meeting students’ needs solely because we haven’t faced protests. The absence of activism may simply mean those students aren’t activated yet. Student affairs administrators can help their presidents proactively engage with all students so that they have an accurate picture of the true state of the student body and its general satisfaction with the current campus climate.
The ways in which student affairs professionals can contribute counsel to a president are not limited to race relations or underlying diversity unrest. The survey shows that presidents are also worried about attracting and retaining all students, including underrepresented ones, and making dollars from tuition and state appropriations stretch farther than ever before. With only 52 percent of presidents “confident about their institution’s financial health over the next 10 years,” higher education will likely face additional cuts in the future.
If presidents are considering reducing support for student affairs functions, they do so at the potential peril of their retention efforts and to the detriment of their student satisfaction and graduation rates. When cutting costs, presidents should prioritize efficiencies and preserve the core opportunities and experiences associated with a college degree. They should turn to data to determine which experiences are contributing to students’ success and refrain from wholesale elimination of the programs and services that keep students moving toward graduation. Presidents should make changes to increase impact and maintain personal contact and engagement, which are key parts of the institutional experience.
A Gallup survey found that students were 1.6 times more likely to strongly agree their education was worth the cost if they were “extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations,” 1.9 times more likely if they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their “goals and dreams” and 1.4 times more likely if they had a “leadership position in a club or organization such as student government, a fraternity or sorority, or an athletic team.” Student affairs professionals can make a difference in keeping our students on the path toward graduation and satisfied with their investment.
This weekend, the American Council on Education and NASPA kick off their respective annual meetings. With a preponderance of attendees of the ACE meeting holding the title of president or chancellor, I encourage them to think through how they can better tap the expertise housed in student affairs and make use of the experiences of their senior student affairs officer. The survey results from Inside Higher Ed aren’t surprising, but they tell me that student affairs officers need a seat at the table to provide perspective and advice as presidents tackle myriad difficult topics on behalf of today’s students.
Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.
Current events have highlighted systemic racism in America yet again, and social media feeds continue to be inundated with posts about racism and police brutality. Often, these online conversations enter the classroom, lecture hall or other communal spaces within the university. This can often leave administrators, faculty members and students to fend for themselves during conversations that are, by their very nature, heated and laden with emotional content.
To address this, many people have turned to the language of privilege to structure conversations and unpack racism for those who may be predisposed to deny its very existence. Regardless of how popular the term “privilege” has become, I have never found it particularly useful in discussions, because it is too generic and abstract.
In fact, I believe that “privilege” is a sterile word that does not grapple with the core of the problem. If you are white, you do not have “white” privilege. If you are male, you do not have “male” privilege. If you are straight, you do not have “straight” privilege. What you have is advantage. The language of advantage, I propose, is a much cleaner and more precise way to frame discussions about racism (or sexism, or most systems of oppression).
Any and all advantages one can have are based -- in part, or in whole -- on a system of oppression designed to elevate certain innocuous expressions of humanity over others (skin color, sexual preference and so on). Thus, the language of advantage begins by first enumerating one’s advantages and understanding their origins.
For example, I am advantaged as a male. That advantage affords me a higher salary on average when compared to women, regardless of talent, which in turn affords the further advantage of enabling me to build wealth. If I were white, my advantages would grow. In the academy, I am also, perplexingly, better equipped to take advantage of paternity leave. Being male also enables me to express my opinions as though they were fact -- my opinions in certain spaces are generally not questioned, or if they are, it is not assumed that I am wrong.
Those are simple examples, but they illustrate the point. Advantages can be summed up in a way that can generate a net advantage or disadvantage in certain spaces. This exercise is similar to a “privilege walk.” But it is different in that any advantages will not just net me a meaningless step forward in comparison to my peers. Thinking in this way forces me to understand what my advantages can, in fact, buy.
The distinction between “privilege” and “advantage” is important because “privilege” is not a particularly useful phrase to incite change in the minds or actions of others. No one wants to give up privileges. The entire idea of a privilege is based on possessing a special status that is somehow deserved. Privileges feel good.
Think about all of your privileges. Do you want to give them up? Does giving them up make you feel like you have somehow done someone a favor? (“Here you go … make sure you use this well.”) Or does giving up a “privilege” seem incoherent? It might, because generally privileges are given and taken by someone else. They are earned, and are seldom bad things to have.
Now try shifting your language to that of advantages. Ask yourself, “What advantages do I have over that person over there?” That question is much easier to answer and yields more nuanced responses. If I answer for myself, I can readily see that not all advantages are inherently problematic on their face. As a tall person I am advantaged in some spaces (e.g., reaching up to grab something from the high shelf in a supermarket), and disadvantaged in others (e.g., sitting in a cramped seat on an airplane). Yet if one looks under the surface, one can see that in both circumstances my (dis)advantage is predicated on design choices that are outside of my control. They are systemic. (It is also silly to say that I am tall privileged.)
What about a wealthy high school student who scored well on their SAT? They could unpack their success by understanding their advantage, for example: “Yes, my SAT scores are higher than someone else’s, but that may be because I have advantages in schooling that are predicated on the wealth of my community and/or parents. My schools are better, and I had access to tutoring. Moreover, some of that wealth is a result of oppressing people of color by historically denying them the ability to buy property in nicer areas, thus limiting their capacity to build and transmit wealth to their children. Those advantages are unearned, yet I still benefit from them. So, no, I won’t get bent out of shape if someone else with lower SAT scores is admitted into this fancy college and I’m not.”
The above example is more complex than my innocuous example about my height, but both have the same structure. They both require situating an advantage in a larger sociocultural context. While this is possible by using privilege, doing so can get clunky very quickly, and can shut down conversations before they become meaningful.
Unpacking systematically unfair systems through the language of advantage affords nuance. The poor white farmer lacks economic advantage but still possesses white advantage, and he can thus interact with law enforcement without fear. The wealthy black businessperson lacks racial advantage but can mitigate some of the negative effects of that through the strategic use of wealth. The difference? The white farmer will always be white. The black businessperson may not have always been wealthy, may lose his or her wealth, and his or her wealth can be ignored by a more powerful government.
The language of advantage also implies intersectionality, and this allows for a better understanding of one’s net advantage. For example, I am a Mexican-American man. I do not have “male privilege.” I am a man, and that affords certain unjust advantages when it comes to the salary I can earn and where I can work. However, for a person of color that salary may come with expectations for more service that, for all their merit, can be distracting and lead to less productivity.
All this leads to a certain uncomfortable truth: we are not -- and have never been -- equal when it comes to the advantages we possess. All lives do not matter equally in practice (although they should). It is time we adopt language around racism, sexism, etc., that helps move the conversation forward. Only then can we begin to measure and understand the mechanisms of inequality that lead to needless suffering.
When we shift the language to that of advantages and disadvantages, it foregrounds how unjust and arbitrary some of those advantages are -- while also allowing us to quantify relative (dis)advantage better. The language of privilege, on the other hand, obfuscates the systems of oppression it is meant to highlight. It is time we move on from using it.
Stephen J. Aguilar is a provost postdoctoral scholar for faculty diversity in informatics and digital knowledge at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. You can follow him on Twitter @stephenaguilar.
Like many people around the world, I remain stunned by Donald Trump’s election. I am not a political scientist and therefore cannot fully explain how this happened. Undeniably, sexism played a part in our failure to elect to the presidency an extraordinarily experienced woman with credentials as impressive as Hillary Clinton’s. During CNN’s televised election night coverage, commentator Van Jones argued that Trump’s election is a form of “whitelash” -- the response from frustrated white Americans to a two-term black president and our nation’s changing racial demographics. Both are among the wide array of plausible explanations.
I think another fundamental issue has been at play. Again, I am not a political science professor, but I am a scholar who listens to people whose voices are often ignored in higher education. And while few participants in my research probably voted for Trump, they share with his voters at least one common experience: being ignored.
In her CNN interview the morning after the election, Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said their victory was partly attributable to the failed attempt by Clinton campaign leaders to listen to a large segment of the American electorate. “They were trying to tell people, ‘This is what is important to you -- temperament or this comment that was made many years ago or that comment yesterday,’” Conway maintained. To my own surprise, I agree with her assessment.
I published a piece in The Washington Post last month in which I deemed Trump’s so-called locker room talk sexist and disgustingly unacceptable. I was definitely telling people they should care about sexism and sexual assault. Perhaps some Trump supporters were troubled by his statements on the Access Hollywood video but not enough to vote against him. They cared more about other things. Did Secretary Clinton and the rest of us listen closely enough to sufficiently understand the matters about which Trump supporters were most concerned?
President-elect Trump repeatedly bragged about the enormous size of crowds at his rallies. Too little effort was invested in understanding why so many people -- most of them white, working-class and lower-income Americans -- were so enthusiastic about his candidacy. Many people were there because they held sexist, racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic views that aligned with his. But others had needs and concerns to which Trump appeared to be listening. Many of us, in contrast, were focusing more on Trump’s controversial words than we were on the experiences and concerns of people who ultimately voted him president.
Bad things happen when people’s concerns are largely ignored and when listening occurs only in polarized, racially homogeneous spaces. That happened in our most recent presidential election. It also happens on college and university campuses.
Around this time last year, the University of Missouri System president and the chancellor of its flagship campus resigned because they did what students of color considered an inexcusably poor job of listening and responding to matters that most concerned them. I imagine those two executives were about as stunned by the outcome of their inaction as many of us were by Trump’s election. But because the president and chancellor weren’t listening, students of color lost faith in the ability of those leaders to effectively address their encounters with racism and marginalization. Similarly, victims of sexual assault keep telling us that people on their campuses are not listening.
In our campus climate studies, researchers at the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education listen to students, faculty members and staff members at predominantly white institutions across the country. While we always include white people in our climate research, most participants are people of color. As I note in “Paying to Ignore Racism,” people of color often tell us that leaders on their campuses ignore their voices and experiential realities. In most instances, it isn’t until some type of crisis erupts (for example, national news coverage of students protesting a racist incident that occurred on the campus) that the president and other administrators seemingly get serious about understanding marginalized people’s experiences.
While I would not categorically lump together Trump voters with people of color who are demanding racial justice and inclusion in higher education, both groups want to be heard and their realities to be understood. When they are not, bad things happen. Eventually, fed-up people shock those who fail to listen and fix, or at least demonstrably aim to improve, their situations.
Posters at political campaign rallies read, “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump.” His supporters were not silent. Thousands, perhaps millions of them showed up at his events. But the Clinton campaign did not pay close enough attention to what they were saying are the most important issues for them and their families. Confession: I engaged only two Trump supporters in conversations -- one of those instances was in a televised CNN interview, the other was on an airplane. I did not seek them out. Like me, I bet Secretary Clinton and her team wishes they had done more to find these fellow Americans, learn more about their lives and demonstrate serious care for their hardships. They were hiding in plain sight at his rallies; we could have found them. We should have listened.
It is not too late for us to listen to what women, people of color, immigrants, undocumented students, LGBT persons and people with disabilities tell us about their experiences, needs and concerns. It also is not too late for faculty members and administrators to create spaces for people from different racial groups and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as those with different political perspectives, to listen to and learn from each other. Inevitably, bad things will continue to happen at colleges and universities -- and subsequently in our larger society -- if we fail to listen and then act with higher degrees of intentionality.
One final quote about the Trump victory from Conway’s postelection CNN interview: “I think the big lesson of yesterday is stop listening so much to each other and start listening to the people.” That was her advice to the news media and politicians. When it comes to matters of equity, inclusion and safety on campuses, I think that is the big lesson for higher education leaders, as well.
Shaun R. Harper is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. He is author of the forthcoming book Race Matters in College (Johns Hopkins University Press) and president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.
As discussed in Harper’s forthcoming book, Race Matters in College, college and university faculty members are the byproducts of their own educational experiences. Whether in K-12 schools, college or graduate school, too few of us were given sufficient opportunity to learn about race and racism or meaningfully engage with others from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
As a result, too little attention has been paid to the problematic and stereotypical ways we have been socialized to think about people of color. Naturally, the failure to challenge such biases prior to entering the professoriate has allowed prejudicial racial attitudes of some colleagues, particularly white faculty who are the overwhelming majority of college and university professors, to inform racist pedagogical practices in their classrooms.
The recent case involving a first-generation Latina student, Tiffany Martínez, at Suffolk University, is but one example. An accomplished undergraduate, published journal author and McNair scholar, Martínez wrote a personal blog post titled “Academia, Love Me Back.” In her heartfelt plea, Martínez first recounts an experience she described as both disrespectful and invalidating and then explains that a sociology professor accused her of plagiarism, not privately, but in front of the entire class. The professor’s claim was further illustrated by emphatic written statements on her paper such as “this is not your word” and “please go back and indicate where you cut and paste.”
One such comment was written in the margin near the word “hence,” which the professor had circled, an important detail, given Martínez merely used it as an appropriate transition to connect two related sentences. Was it that surprising to Martínez’s professor that she knew how to appropriately use a transitional word?
Although some may dismiss this as a minor incident, Martínez reminds us of the internalized racism and self-doubt resulting from years of educational violence. Like the many students of color from whom we hear similar stories in our campus climate assessments, what transpired for Martínez was yet another debilitating and painful experience of marginalization.
In this case, Martínez’s professor was in disbelief that a Latina student was capable of using language consistent with what is regarded as strong, academic and scholarly writing. Such disbelief is likely to have been informed by common stereotypical portrayals of Latinas with which Martínez’s professor was most familiar, which are unlikely to have been reflective of the intellectually rich contributions of Hispanic, Latina and Chicana scholars like Laura Rendón, Gloria Anzaldúa and many others. Instead of acknowledging that Martínez is as capable as her white peers, the professor assumed intellectual incompetence and publicly reduced her demonstrated genius to an act of theft. Such assumptions and actions were not only pedagogically irresponsible, but demonstrably racist.
It is imperative that our colleagues stop being surprised when students of color are able to thoughtfully articulate themselves in their writing and in class discussions. Such low expectations of students of color who have, at minimum, earned admission to our institutions effectively erases their demonstrated capabilities and ongoing potential to meet subjective academic standards.
Furthermore, it is categorically unfair that students of color are routinely targeted and attacked with allegations of academic dishonesty due to the limits placed on their genius by the white imagination. Not only are white students not subjected to the same scrutiny and humiliation by their same-race professors, but they are also regularly excused and validated when proven to have committed the very offenses that the academy abhors.
Charles H. F. Davis III is on the faculty in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Davis also serves as director of higher education research and initiatives in the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.