I’m a mathematician. I’m teaching Calculus II and mathematical structures for computer science this term. I write blog posts on topics like the best way to determine whether two lines intersect in three-dimensional space. Yet at 3:30 p.m. on the day after Trump’s election I found myself on a hastily convened panel with five of my faculty colleagues, facing an emotionally charged crowd of about 400 students, faculty and staff.
Our mission -- it felt like we were a team in that moment -- was to help our campus make sense of the results of an election that many found shocking and even frightening. The rest of the panel consisted of professors of politics and government, religion, gender and queer studies, and African-American studies. Why was a mathematician on the panel? I was the person the university found to give the conservative perspective.
After explaining my function on the panel, I said the following:
"It’s kind of odd that I’m here to be the conservative on this panel; I’m not that conservative. I’m probably more of a right-leaning moderate. I also didn’t vote for Trump, as I have concerns about his judgment and temperament. Instead, I voted for Gary Johnson. But this is Puget Sound, and so here I am representing the conservative perspective.
"Right now I feel a lot of things. I feel fear and worry. As I said, I’m concerned about Trump’s judgment. I’m also concerned because of the anger and division that I see, as well as the bad behavior by some of Trump’s supporters.
"As I watched the election returns roll in last night, though, I was surprised to discover that I also felt kind of excited, maybe even elated. And so why is that?
"I grew up in a small town in north Louisiana in the 1980s: a world that is Southern, rural, conservative and Christian. I’m second-generation college: my grandparents worked at jobs like coal miner, gas station attendant, department-store clerk, farmer, beautician. For most of my adult life I’ve been an academic, though, and for the past 11 years, I’ve worked at a very progressive liberal arts college in one of the most progressive parts of the country. That has given me a sort of double vision or cultural whiplash at times.
"Hillary Clinton called my people 'deplorable.' She said we were 'irredeemable.' Our current president, who I think sees the world similarly, said that my people are bitter clingers who hold on to guns and religion because we don’t have anything else worthwhile in our lives. Why would I want to support someone like that? Someone who talks that way about my people is not going to do a good job representing me. I’m glad she lost. I’ve got some concerns about Trump, but I’m glad Hillary Clinton lost.
"To understand this election, you have to understand that to be white working class means that you have almost no power. Not economic. Not cultural. Neither do you have the power that comes from moral authority, unlike most other victimized groups.
"To a large degree, Trump represents the revolt of the white working class. The revolt is partly economic. The cultural aspect is that they’re tired of being, in their minds, looked down on and condescended to by the people who run the country.
"I’ll hypothesize that, in some respects, the more Trump is mocked for his hair, his language, his racism, his sexism, his bigotry, the more the white working class says, 'That’s how I’ve been treated, too. Trump is like me. Trump is one of us.'"
I wasn’t sure what to expect from my campus after saying this, in an emotionally charged room with hundreds of people. But it represented the culmination of something that had been building in me for years.
Shut Out of Group Norms
I became an academic because I wanted to teach, help my students work through the big questions of life and discuss those big questions inside a larger community. I wanted a career at a liberal arts college. On the political axis, I thought of myself as a moderate. I knew academe leaned to the left, but I had always thought of the left (and academics in particular) as being fairly open-minded.
Not too long after I took my first tenure-track position in the fall of 2004, I was invited to a party by one of my colleagues. I had assumed it was just a friendly get-together. Most of the evening, however, was spent bashing President Bush. The critiques were more visceral than intellectual, and I saw none of the nuance that I expected from academics. In hindsight, I realize that much of what the guests were doing was signaling to each other their membership in a community, as well as venting frustrations, and they had assumed the party was a space where they could do that.
For unrelated reasons, I took a position at my current university -- a very different institution, in a very different part of the country -- the following year. Here, I have repeatedly found myself in situations where someone makes assumptions about everyone in the room, assumptions that I don’t share. The culprit has always been my Southernness, or my small-town background, or my Christian faith, or my lack of progressivism.
I remember the awkward silence that briefly followed when one of my students asked me outside of class whether I am religious, and I told him I am a Christian. I remember the snide comment about Texas at a faculty workshop. I remember a colleague’s casual dismissal of Fox News and the people who watch it. My mother watches Fox News. She’s one of most giving and selfless people I know -- someone who dropped everything to do disaster relief work in south Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
I remember others’ stories, too. I remember the two conservative students who vented in my office for half an hour, thankful that somebody was willing to listen to them. I remember the conservative colleague who told me that he’s tired of being a target and so he just keeps his head down now. I remember the alumnus who told me that he would never have dared to be out as a Christian on our campus because then he wouldn’t have had any friends.
Every institution has a culture and a set of shared norms, and an academic institution is no different. Those sacred values don’t come from the institution’s mission statement but arise from the shared set of beliefs held by the people who are part of it. A newcomer to a college may not ever be able to articulate that college’s norms, but he internalizes them every time an idea is praised with no countervailing opinion expressed. She internalizes them every time a group is criticized, and no one comes to that group’s defense. Over time the in ideas and out groups become part of the assumptions that people make. You don’t even think about them anymore. They’re like the oxygen in the air.
Where does that place you when you don’t share many of those norms? Sometimes you find yourself bewildered. On the literal level, the discussion is about Donald Trump or Barack Obama or George W. Bush or racism or transgender rights or environmental policy. But really the conversation is often about sacred values. When you don’t share the group norms, you feel shut out of the conversation because its very framing assumes the group norms. People don’t listen to the stories you use to explain your views because your stories are tied up with your norms -- not theirs -- and they don’t have a good mental place to connect them to. As a result, your stories get explained away.
You can always try to go deeper, of course. However, trying to get the group to look hard at its assumptions and then trying to explain why you don’t share them is difficult and exhausting. And even when you do have the energy, it’s easy to transgress some norm that you didn’t see and then face an unexpected blast directed at you. That makes you want to engage even less.
Besides, there are much easier options. You can become cynical. You can become angry. You can start hating the group. You can nurture your pain and envision yourself as a beleaguered minority. You can start throwing rhetorical explosives, which sure feels good -- at first. You can find another group. I’ve been tempted by most of these possible actions and have committed several of them.
The story that I’m telling here is about me at a progressive liberal arts college and slowly identifying more over time as conservative. It could also be the story of the white working class at the national level. And that brings me back to Trump and the post election panel.
After I finished my remarks, I was worn out. I had just made myself far more emotionally vulnerable than I am used to, and I had done it in front of an angry and fearful crowd. I don’t remember much of the question-and-answer session, but I don’t think I had the wherewithal to attempt to answer anyone’s questions.
After it was over, one of my faculty colleagues made her way up to the table. “Thank you,” she said, “Your remarks made this all worthwhile.” The next person in line was a student. “My father is really conservative. I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, and I’m scared about Thanksgiving. Do you have any advice for me?” She started tearing up. I hope what I said was helpful. Another student: “I’m a moderate. Thank you for giving another perspective.” “Just … thank you,” from a student in one of my classes this term. Then more expressions of thanks from faculty colleagues: “We should talk more,” “That’s exactly what we needed” and even “Nice pedagogy.”
Then, that night, I started getting emails. They continued to trickle in over the next several days. They said things like “That gave me a sense of courage,” “I realized I haven’t been listening well or asking the right questions,” “While you and I don’t agree, it was important for me to hear that” and “Thank you for pointing out that we are not all evil.” All in all, somewhere around 25 or 30 people have made a point of expressing gratitude for my remarks. The feedback hasn’t been uniformly positive -- I’ve also received some pushback -- but even that has been collegial.
I’ve responded in multiple ways. Scenes from Jerry Maguire keep running through my head: the ones where Jerry criticizes his company, everyone applauds and then Jerry gets fired. At least I have tenure, while Jerry did not. Another is a feeling of regret -- regret that I’ve underestimated my own campus.
Mostly, though, I’m more hopeful now than I have been in quite some time about my university. I hope we can dial back the inflammatory rhetoric -- especially the “-ists” and the “phobics” that we slap as labels on people. I hope we can do a better job of listening to people who have different values -- especially to a large group of people in this country who are not well understood by academics but whose support just elected Donald Trump president.
To understand the disparate people in our country, however, we need a greater variety of perspectives than we have now on campuses. Our sacred values shouldn’t effectively exclude large swaths of the country. We shouldn’t have to tap a moderately conservative mathematician who didn’t vote for Trump to give the conservative view on Trump voters.
Academe shouldn’t even be an institution that needs hastily convened panels like the one I was on: we should know how large groups of people in this country think and feel. We should be teaching their experiences and listening to them. We should have more people with their belief systems on our campuses, teaching and learning, so we can learn from them.
And so I find myself, ironically, arguing in favor of one of academe’s most sacred values: diversity. I’m not arguing for diversity the way academe functionally defines it, though. Instead, I’m arguing for intellectual diversity. Trump’s election -- and academe’s response -- only confirm that, for an institution of higher learning, it's the most important kind of diversity to have.
Mike Spivey is professor of mathematics at the University of Puget Sound.
Submitted by Ajay Nair on December 5, 2016 - 3:00am
Some college students who are Donald Trump supporters have offered a disclaimer and defense: “I’m not a racist, but Trump tells it like it is” or “I agree with some of Trump’s ideologies but not all.”
It seems many college students who support the controversial president-elect reject racism at the individual level -- the explicit and recognizable form -- but may lack a deep understanding of the construction and formation of race in America. And this lack of understanding certainly is not confined only to Trump supporters.
For higher education, this flash point serves as an important reminder that we must further examine how race operates in America and reimagine our framework for education on race.
On Nov. 9, college campuses across the country grappled with the state of the American polity and the future of race relations in our country following the election of Donald Trump.
Trump’s campaign and election have signaled to many that racism and other “-isms” are part of the DNA of American society, demonstrated clearly, viciously and deplorably by the euphemistic “alt-right” movement that has entered the academy.
Individual and Systemic Racism
A better understanding of both individual racism and systemic racism may help us undertake the looming challenge of uniting/reuniting our campuses and our nation through open and respectful dialogue across difference. A framework for education on race must include a vocabulary that enables us to critically discuss what transpired regarding race in the 2016 election season nationwide and especially on our college campuses.
Individual-level racism includes interpersonal bigotry, racial slurs, hate crimes and violence. Systemic-level racism, in contrast, involves discriminatory policies and practices that afford privilege to white people and simultaneously disadvantage people of color. Systemic racism manifests in our society’s pervasive and well-documented inequities and injustices across health care, education, law enforcement, criminal justice, employment and so many other areas.
Most Americans, including many supporters of President-elect Trump and millions of others, are complicit in systemic-level racism, which is subtle and often far less obvious to those who do not personally experience it. In addition to Trump’s individual-level racist rhetoric, the policies and ideas he has espoused promote systemic racism, which insidiously and brutally impacts generation after generation of Americans in communities of color. This fact is clear to the overtly racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan or the “alt-right” movement that support Trump, whether or not he wants their support.
White Fragility, Cultural Humility and Polyculturalism
During the election, Trump cleverly played to “white fragility” -- a defensive response by white people to racial stress -- by striking fear that their power and privilege would be lost unless we committed to “make America great again.” White fragility is manifested, for example, when white Americans perceive instances of “reverse racism” directed at them. They often perceive these situations as discrimination because these are among the few occasions when whites experience the salience of their racial identity.
Ironically, the reaction of white Americans to such perceived racism is not unlike the anger that historically marginalized Americans feel when confronted throughout their lives with systemic as well as individual-level racism.
White communities and others ordained by them as "model minorities” too often fail to engage in soul-centric reflection and critique -- exercises in developing a sense of cultural humility on issues of race that can unearth their responsibilities related to racism.
One reason for this lack of understanding on our campuses is that many students have little or no exposure to the lived realities of marginalized communities. Even on the most diverse campuses, our students are not practicing community together because our institutions have not enacted the shared values that would elevate the general level of awareness and compassion required to ask crucial questions and drive the necessary conversations associated with them.
A paradigm shift is required for us to move forward from our current nationwide and campus divide. Our present multicultural model fails to draw attention to the systemic racism that permeates our community, and it ignores that we are all a composite of multiple identities based on gender, ethnicity, education, abilities and disabilities, socioeconomic background, religious faith or the absence of it, and so much more that makes us unique individuals.
In higher education, racial categories are emphasized through this multicultural paradigm. It is important to note that race is socially constructed, not biologically determined. Very little biological variation exists among different racial categories. Nonetheless, dominant racial groups reify these categories to maintain power and privilege, while marginalized racial groups do so in the attempt to withstand the wrath of racism. The “oppression Olympics” that follows pits people of color against each other, while whiteness remains at the top of the ladder that other groups must attempt to climb.
Shifting to a polycultural framework that recognizes each of us embodies an array of identities -- of which race is merely one -- can help prevent white fragility in discussions on race. Cultivating cultural humility will facilitate the process. If we can broaden our education about whiteness as a salient racial identity, white Americans will also have the opportunity to unpack the intersections, differences, hierarchies, privileges and responsibilities to help us work together to advance race relations in America. It will also eliminate the disproportionate burden that often falls to students of color to educate their white peers. As a compelled network of identities interacting and exchanging, each of us brings value to this polycultural world.
Nurturing Dialogue on Our Campuses
President Obama recently said, “I don’t believe in apocalyptic -- until the apocalypse comes.” As we prepare for potentially far-reaching changes in policy and law that the next administration seems committed to bring, it is vitally important for higher education to do what it is designed to do: discover new ways of knowing and understanding in an effort to seek positive transformation in our community and the world.
Our dialogue and action on our respective campuses and as a higher education collective will be critical as we examine challenges involving undocumented students’ futures, affirmative action, international student enrollment, hate speech and crimes, gun control, the Affordable Care Act, access to higher education, and many other issues that are in the balance following the election. Higher education institutions now have a distinct opportunity to facilitate dialogue and deliberation. Many students, faculty members and staff members -- who may have been previously disconnected from social movements like Black Lives Matter and Freedom University and who are now disaffected by the recent election -- are hungry for dialogue.
Emory University, where I work, encourages dialogue and open expression in many ways. Two of our recent approaches emerged from the 13 demands that the black students of Emory presented last fall to advance racial justice on our campus. We immediately engaged in dialogue with our students, which led to a partnership between the administration and the student body. The partnership produced the racial justice retreat, working groups, a dedicated website and eventually the Emory Commission on Racial and Social Justice.
The commission -- which includes a diverse group of students, faculty members and administrators -- has generated action plans and concrete outcomes to address the student demands. The process reflects Emory’s efforts to truly listen to students from a range of backgrounds, respect their lived experiences and move together from demands to dialogue to action.
Of course, institutions need not wait for student demands. We should engage with our students in dialogue in advance to explore questions of racial and social justice. We should also engage with them for the long term -- recognizing that issues of racial and social justice are historical, entrenched and pervasive -- and manage expectations accordingly. However, we must move both deliberately and expeditiously from demands to dialogue to action that furthers the journey from diversity to inclusion.
In today’s polarized political and social environment, institutions of higher education have an opportunity to affirm identity, build community and develop leadership skills -- fostering their capacity to facilitate dialogue across difference, call out individual and systemic racism, and build coalitions to dismantle historical injustices on our campuses and in the larger society.
It is time for higher education to lead on issues of race in America -- now more than ever before.
Ajay Nair is senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory University.
University of Wisconsin says fans’ offensive costumes depicting a lynched President Obama are protected by First Amendment. Black alumni say incident is the latest in “a long pattern of ineffective responses to a growing racially hostile environment.”