sshepard/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Over the past decade and a half, students and activists have called upon U.S. universities to reckon with their role in slavery and colonization. In response, some institutions have issued apologies and committed to redress. However, critics say that these efforts will remain limited if they are not accompanied by deeper commitments to material restitution and relational repair.
Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, U.S. universities (and their presidents, faculty and students) enslaved Black people, forced those people to build campuses on stolen Indigenous lands, received further grants of Indigenous lands to fund their endowments and accepted donations from slave traders and plantation owners to fund their operations. Universities were also powerful sources of racist ideologies that supported white supremacy and justified the replacement of Indigenous societies. These are the political, economic and epistemic foundations upon which the contemporary U.S. higher education system was built. Similar patterns can be seen at universities in other Anglo-settler societies.
These histories of violence have attracted a recent surge of interest, shining a spotlight on how universities respond. Based on my research about the complexities, challenges and possibilities of efforts to confront U.S. higher education’s complicity in racial and colonial injustice, I offer five basic premises that universities and those of us who work and study within them would need to accept if these efforts are to move beyond apologies. It is common, especially for white people like myself, to resist one or all of these premises and their implications. However, if we fail to accept these premises, we will be increasingly likely to receive critiques that we are reproducing colonial “business as usual.”
1. Universities’ everyday operations continue to be shaped by racial and colonial injustice.
One way that universities often seek to make amends for their participation in slavery and colonization is by pledging to examine their own histories of complicity, for instance by appointing presidential task forces or even establishing entire research centers dedicated to these issues. There are now nearly 100 institutional members of the Universities Studying Slavery consortium.
While such research is crucial for surfacing historical harm, the resulting reports and recommendations tend to frame racial and colonial injustice as past events or, at most, as “lingering effects” of the past. This invisibilizes the fact that these injustices are also ongoing structures that continue to organize everyday institutional life in the present—and into the future if they are not interrupted.
To this day, the wealth that was initially accumulated through slavery and colonization circulates within and generates interest for many institutions. Anti-Blackness, Indigenous erasure and whiteness continue to orient university policies, pedagogies and interpersonal relations. U.S. universities continue to occupy the lands of sovereign Indigenous nations, and universities in big cities often exacerbate gentrification. Many universities still hold the sacred materials and remains of Indigenous peoples, despite the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act over 30 years ago. Just last November, Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology admitted that it holds hair samples taken from hundreds of Native American children who were enrolled in boarding schools in the 1930s. These are just a few of many examples of how U.S. universities continue to reproduce their racial and colonial foundations, challenging common assumptions about linear progress and indicating that much work still remains to be done to right institutional wrongs.
2. Universities were founded at the expense (rather than only the exclusion) of Black and Indigenous communities, which means they have a debt that cannot be redressed through inclusion alone.
Following their apologies, many universities have made commitments to increase representation of marginalized peoples on campus by recruiting more Black and Indigenous faculty, staff and students. This is sometimes but not always accompanied by material redistribution, through creating new faculty tenure lines or cluster hires, establishing student scholarships, or even offering free tuition.
These commitments are all extremely important, but on their own they are insufficient forms of redress, given that universities have not only historically excluded Black and Indigenous communities but were also founded and have functioned and been funded at these communities’ expense, through processes of dispossession, genocide and cognitive imperialism.
Representation and redistribution often operate in universities as conditional forms of inclusion. As Sara Ahmed documents, the promise to include more people from historically marginalized communities in the university comes with hidden costs. Those who are included are perceived to owe a debt and are expected to show their gratitude by aligning with existing norms and values and affirming the benevolence of the institution. Often, they are also expected to shoulder the practical, emotional and pedagogical labor of institutional change—and to do so in a way that does not activate the fragilities or defenses of their white colleagues. Those who challenge these conditions are subject to retaliation, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
These conditions also suggest that inclusion is frequently understood as a form of benevolent charity and concession by the institution to those who are being included, rather than as a necessary but inadequate form of redress. Accepting that universities were founded at the expense of Black and Indigenous communities reframes the dominant narrative about debt, as it is in fact universities who have a debt to those communities, not the other way around.
3. Universities have a responsibility to commit to material restitution.
In light of the first two starting points, some have critiqued the limits of university apologies and many subsequent commitments (e.g., inclusion, institutional self-study, land acknowledgments, memorials, changes to building names) as forms of “spectacle” and “window dressing.”
Despite their potential benefits, these commitments are often practiced in ways that prioritize restoring an institution’s public image, rather than enacting substantive restitution to the affected communities.
As Robert Lee recently observed about universities’ responses to his widely read piece with Tristan Ahtone about the colonial land grabs at the roots of land-grant universities, “the reactions so far … have been intellectual; they haven’t been material.” While a few institutions have granted local Indigenous nations limited access to university-held lands for educational, ceremonial and community uses, thus far, no universities have taken up proposals for the rematriation of campus lands, or for sharing governance and stewardship of their campuses with local nations. Meanwhile, only a handful of institutions have pledged economic reparations for their participation in slavery.
However, more people are calling for universities to move beyond symbolic apologies and limited forms of representation, redistribution and acknowledgment and toward the restitution of stolen land, labor and resources, as well as the repair of extractive relationships.
4. Universities have a responsibility to commit to relational repair.
Multiple possibilities and pathways exist for moving in the direction of restitution. However, there is no universal formula or checklist for doing this work, because it must be grounded in specific contexts and developed in collaboration with those most affected—including local Indigenous nations, the descendants of enslaved peoples and other communities, both locally and abroad, that have been negatively impacted by the institution throughout its history. This in turn, will require universities to commit to deep forms of relational repair so that these collaborations can be genuine and generative.
Given fraught histories, it is understandable that communities may be wary of invitations to engage in relationship-building with universities, and some may even refuse those invitations, especially if they are perceived to be transactional or tokenistic. Universities and their representatives must therefore prioritize the development of relationships grounded in principles of respect, reciprocity, accountability and consent, while also understanding that these terms mean different things to different communities.
This kind of reparative, relational work cannot be rushed, but rather can only move at the speed of trust, which in turn requires unsettling the usual colonial patterns of engagement whereby universities impose their own timelines, priorities and desired outcomes on communities.
5. Universities will need to develop stamina for the long haul of social and institutional change.
Universities today are expected to prepare young people to address society’s most entrenched problems. Yet universities will continue to do so in ways that produce colonial futures if they do not reckon honestly with their colonial past and confront their colonial present.
While the recent wave of institutional apologies has catalyzed important conversations within and beyond higher education about the need to interrupt and redress harm, we have only just scratched the surface. Those of us who work and study within these institutions will need to develop the stamina to sustain these efforts over the long haul.
Much of this work is likely to be challenging, complex and uncomfortable. This is especially true for white people, who have derived significant advantages from the intergenerational impacts of racial and colonial injustice and who have the most to lose from efforts to challenge and dismantle those advantages. The resulting discomfort among white people can lead to resistance and backlash, which is often targeted most harshly toward already marginalized communities. Even those who are initially committed to individual and institutional change often fall into the potholes of seeking simple, feel-good solutions, or pre-emptively assuming the work is done in ways that foreclose the possibility of deeper forms of relational repair.
Given these and many other challenges, those of us engaging in these efforts will inevitably make many mistakes. Thus, we will also need to develop the humility and hyper-self-reflexivity to recognize when we have done so, do our best to make amends and learn from those mistakes so as not to repeat them.
There is much work still to be done for universities to confront their colonial legacies. And while some will continue to turn away from this work, growing calls for accountability suggest the time for deflection and denial is up. As Megan Red Shirt-Shaw wrote, “Your rent is due, higher education.”