The words shared here reflect the thoughts, values, emotions, and opinions of me and only me.
A year ago, I began sifting through feedback on a class I was teaching called Stories of the Oppressed: Narratives of Marginalized Humans in Higher Education. I wanted to get real, honest, critical feedback so I could make it better for the fall semester. Teaching this class to 15 students every semester not only challenged me, it changed the way I approached education, and I was so excited to make the class better for the next group. As I solicited feedback, something one student wrote has stuck with me: “You do a great job of engaging us in this class, but what we need more of are strategies on how to have these conversations outside of this classroom with folks that we don’t agree with. We need to know about how to be both the mess and the broom that cleans the mess up”
The bottom fell out.
I changed the whole curriculum after that. Read article after article about how to empower, how to dissent, how to stand rooted in what you know to be true, how to listen, how to be wrong, how to change your mind, how to unlearn, and how to take steps.
What I’ve realized: we don’t like messes in higher education. We don’t like messes in our personal lives either. We create systems and processes to ensure that messes don’t thrive. We try to contain every moment of chaos and we paint a picture like everything is hunky-dory. We encourage folks to do their own research, but we wouldn’t dare take a stand on issues that would “rock the boat” or “ruffle the feathers” of others. Our disdain for messes runs so deep that we show up as moderately as we can. We don’t take sides. We don’t engage students in issues that matter. Radio silence when a Black person is killed by police. No statement. No action. No real conversations. Nothing.
We don’t like messes, but the reality is that doing work inside of social justice is messy. It’s messy because it involves change. It involves recognizing all the ways that our processes, procedures, and systems we created (yes, that process you’re thinking about right now was created by a human, not a robot or computer system. Think about that for a second.) to minimize the mess have exacerbated the problem. It involves headwork and heartwork. It involves recognizing all the times we should have spoken up but didn’t. All the times we should have said something but were too afraid to. All the times we could have done better but rested comfortably on our policies and processed. All the times we didn’t show up in the ways we should have because we would receive pushback or we would likely be silenced. It’s important to acknowledge that as a white person, you’ve benefitted from systems. Even more important to push back when folks want to maintain the status quo instead of changing to more equitable practices.
I’m not here to highlight all the ways we have been inadequate educators or people. I’m here to show you that although it’s messy, silence and conformity are not acceptable alternatives. You’re hurt? Tired? Upset? Outraged? Good. Now what? What are you going to do about it?
The least we can do:
- Donate. Here are some great places to start:
- Check in. If you have people in your lives that are impacted by things in the news, show up for them. Note that not everyone is going to be excited that you reached out and it’s not personal. Don’t ask folks how they’re feeling. Just let them know that you see them, you hear them, and you will fight for them.
- Talk to your supervisor or your supervisor’s supervisor about white supremacy in higher education. Talk to your friends and family about white privilege. How does it impact your daily work/life? How does it impact the approach you have to the work you’re doing? How has it shaped policies and procedures in place? For a second, just use your imagination to see what you come up with in terms of alternative policies and procedures.
- Commit to antiracist work. Saying that you’re “not racist” is not enough. Actively speak out against racism. Actively work against it. Actively show up in spaces and use all the tools you have to undo and prevent racism from thriving. Every space.
- Dissent. Disagree. Talk through it. When you feel like shutting down and walking away, take a deep breath and keep trying. Agreeing to disagree doesn’t serve anyone. Ask yourself what it’s going to take to call folks out that say racist things. Avoiding that conversation only hurts folks that have already been hurting for so long. Feelings aren’t facts, and they’re valid but sometimes, they’re not true. Feelings do, however, tell you something about yourself.
- When you feel hopeless, imagine how Black and Brown folks feel every single day defending their humanity. Keep going. Don’t wait for someone to educate you about their experiences in the world. Embrace that hopelessness and find small ways you can be better (see resources below)
- (Excuse my language but) Fucking read. It’s not glamorous or pretty. It’s messy and uncomfortable. I mean this in the most sincere and honest way: you do not get better at something by avoiding it. “I don’t like reading” is not an excuse to not educate yourself if you have the ability and the means to do so. (If you need help finding resources, let’s talk about it.) Listen to podcasts. Watch youtube videos. If you’re uncomfortable, ask yourself why that’s the case. Dig through it. Write about it. Explore it. Re-read if you have to.
- Things you could research: the origins of American policing; characteristics of white supremacy culture; white privilege and how it prevails in everyday life; the 1619 project through the NYT; history of racial oppression in America; these are but a few things. There is so much more.
Yes, we are in the middle of a pandemic and there’s so much out there to be concerned about. We are trying to get back to “normal”. But if your “normal” doesn’t include the messy work that social justice is about, take more steps. Push back. If you’re not going to do it, who will? Why are you in education at all if you’re not willing to do the work? We keep saying that we have to be better, but if your better is all about comfortably resisting or not taking a stand against those that want to maintain the status quo, are you expecting anything to change?
Posting about it is good. Silence is inaction. But do more than post about it. Do it when nobody is looking. Do it without wanting the credit for doing it. Do it without wanting a pat on the back and an applause. Do it knowing you’re going to mess up at points, and then keep going. Mess up and commit to not messing up in that way again.
Quite literally people’s lives depend on us unlearning white supremacist beliefs and habits. Don’t stay in your lane and wait for it to impact you directly before you start taking action. Don’t wait for a Black of Brown person to come along and tell you what to do. It’s not their job to educate us, white folks. We created this mess. It’s our job to work through it and make change.
A few resources to sift through to give you some ideas on how you can get started:
- Resource provided and inspired by Joey Oteng
- More from Joey Oteng
- Resource shared widely on social media
- More shared widely on social media
Lastly, if you agree or you don’t, I welcome feedback. I welcome all conversations about any of this or more. I welcome dissent. Tweet at me, message me, DM me, call me, FaceTime me, reach out to me. @rfwilliford on most platforms.
P.S. If you’re apathetic about most things, recognize what a privilege is must be to be able to say “eh, nah, I’m good” when it comes to speaking out against injustice. What a privilege it is to sit comfortably and decide that something doesn’t matter enough for you to say something about it. I can’t make you care more about others, but I certainly will challenge you in that belief. Reach out to me. I’m ready to talk about it.