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Polyculturalism in a Postelection Nation

A better understanding of both individual and systemic racism can help us meet the looming challenge of uniting/reuniting our campuses and nation through respectful dialogue across difference, writes Ajay Nair.

December 5, 2016
 
 
Students at Emory University

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.

Bio

Ajay Nair is senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory University.

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