We’re still on hiatus from the blog (pandemic life!) but we wrote an op-ed for Carleton College’s student newspaper about responding as a community to hateful speech from a transformative justice perspective. Let us know your answers to the questions we pose at the end! (Also, check our tweet about the op-ed where we include some links that we refer to.)
Category: institutional politics
Faculty organizing efforts: Reimagining our collective role
Image source. Please note that the photo is from a satirical site…though it’s not that far off from some safety “solutions” we’ve seen! Image description: lecture hall with a teacher up front and students sitting in individual plastic bubbles.
As we approach the end of summer, we wanted to gather a few stories and links that speak to the importance of faculty organizing amongst themselves and with other workers at their institutions to do the important work of re-imagining these spaces. Institutional shortcomings in many areas, including the limits of faculty and staff involvement in decision-making structures and the limits to institutions’ ability to listen to students and alumni calls for racial justice, have been highlighted starkly both by the challenges due to COVID-19 and by the responses to the ongoing uprisings in response to racist police brutality and violence. Of the many conversations faculty at Carleton have been having in small groups, in ad-hoc faculty meetings, and in various online venues, one has been the potential for having better ways to organize a more united front when it comes to financial and other important decisions at the college. We (Adriana and Anita) have been inspired by our colleagues at other colleges and universities who have organized themselves this summer to push back against their institutions’ financial and pedagogical decisions. We highlight here a few of their efforts.
This story in Jacobin Magazine, written by Marquette University professors describing a protest by workers and students on the university’s decision to hold face-to-face classes, ends with this stark claim: “And without a faculty union, administrators and trustees are accountable to no one for the damage they’re doing.”
This article by the co-chairs of the Middlebury College chapter of the American Association of University Professors argues that “once-in-a-lifetime crisis requires that we break from the old orthodoxy of austerity and reimagine a university that works for the common good.” The authors delineate three lessons we can learn from the current moment by using “the critical thinking skills and values we champion” by shifting our practices and policies towards building more just institutions. We also want to highlight the helpful document prepared by Middlebury’s AAUP that was endorsed by a majority of their faculty: VALUES & BUDGETARY PRINCIPLES FOR “A FINANCIAL FUTURE FOR ALL OF US.”
Vanderbilt AAUP writes: “By pitting educational mission, public health and faculty governance against one another, the administration jeopardizes the safety of our community. This approach compromises the ability of faculty, students and staff to teach, learn and work effectively.”
Please share with us stories you’ve read about faculty / university workers as a whole organizing in order to make claims on their institutions and build better futures. We’re ready to be further inspired!
“Privileging the urgency over the process”: How (not) to respond to demands for institutional change
Image description: Screenshot of a Zoom call with Adriana, Ainsley, Anita, & Halah
In response to the racially disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the racial uprisings in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police officers, Black students and organizations at Carleton College issued a call for action to the college to implement anti-racist programs, organizations, and spaces for Black students, faculty, and staff.
Over 2000 college alumni signed an open letter to the college both in support of the student demands and with their own demand for the college to develop a 10-year plan for racial equity and equality. This letter was officially made public through a Twitter campaign on Monday, August 10, 2020.
Within a few hours, Carleton College sent out a response to this open letter. Many of the alumni who signed the letter, especially the nine organizers, were disappointed by the response.
We wanted to provide a space for some of those alumni to talk through why this response was so disappointing and we wanted to do it as a conversation. And that is how we arrived at our first ever video-podcast-blog post, featuring Ainsley LeSure (Class of 2005) and Halah Mohammed (Class of 2014) who took the time to chat with us and provide their wisdom and insights. You can check out the conversation here.
We want to say a huge thank you to Ainsley and Halah for joining us. We had a lot of fun and learned a lot as we close-read the response and worked through how it missed the mark and what could have been done differently.
We hope you take the time to listen to the conversation, especially if you thought the Carleton response was fine. You’ll get insight into how our readings of institutional messaging can be shaped by past relationships, current conditions of trust, and, of course, deep, sustained attention to language.
Diversity Rhetoric Obscures Structural Inequities
Image source. Students at UC Davis being pepper-sprayed at a 2011 campus protest.
After we published our post last week, an article by Cathryn Bailey came across our laptops that echoed some of our arguments about how the work that faculty do and the positions we hold at colleges tends to make us less able and willing to see ourselves as workers. Bailey takes this structural critique and argues that “It has perhaps never before been more obvious that the fissures that underlie the academic labor crisis are connected to broader concerns about diversity, inclusion, and social justice.”
Bailey makes a strong case for why the academic labor crisis and universities’ inability to make progress on social justice stem from the same structures that focus on individual efforts and rewards rather than on institutional change.
We highlight here some of the passages we found particularly insightful.
“It is perhaps when the class politics underlying academic employment are most naked that institutional propaganda about individual behavior, often couched in terms of civility, is most prevalent. Employment pressure, for example, makes faculty members ever more reluctant to speak openly about supposedly controversial matters or issues that test the bounds of ‘civility.’”
“Rhetoric swings predictably between the ‘we’ and the singular ‘you,’ which helps disguise the systemic nature of the problems. ‘Our’ campus community is set forth as a beacon of tolerance and multiculturalism. A communal ‘we’ takes credit for the mythic image of the university viewbook as an inviting Benetton ad. Yet when faculty members or students raise complaints—even those that point to long-standing patterns of discrimination or abuse—they are likely to be framed and handled merely in the very particular terms of individual rights and victimization.”
“At other times, administrators who sing the praises of diversity goals, initiatives, and strategic objectives frame structural inequities as being only about particular individuals. A quite specific complaint by a faculty member of color—for example, that his diversity-focused sabbatical proposal has been unfairly dismissed—may be met with feel-good assurances from a dean or vice provost echoing the institutional diversity statement. Such polite responses effectively close down discussion. What response is available when the dean warmly replies that ‘the University of X values everyone’? Institutional accountability becomes clouded over in a puff of rhetorical rainbow smoke that disguises the constraints faced by actual individuals, especially those from marginalized groups, who are struggling to thrive. In its attempt to sidestep blame, avoid controversy, and appease aggrieved constituents, the administration’s ‘civil’ and ‘reasonable’ conduct upholds the status quo’s inequities.”
Labor, not love or loyalty: Our relationship to our employer
“If ever there were a time to remember that professors are workers and that universities are workplaces, that time would be now. Administrators believe your job is worth dying for as they cynically use the bodies of employees to pad their bottom line.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Last fall, as part of her sabbatical, Anita had the chance to enroll in a course called “Working Class History” through the New Brookwood Labor College. The New Brookwood Labor College “strives to address racial, economic, and social imbalances of power by educating workers into their class.” During the first class, Anita and her classmates, most of whom were union members or union organizers, discussed what “working class” meant. They talked about how class definitions were not about how much income you earn, but about how you earn your income. It’s about workers who work for someone else. It’s about you creating profits for others. It’s about the exploitation of your labor, in the Marxist sense, and not just about how you are treated by your boss. A nice boss is still a boss.
Anita thought about this first class discussion this summer as we entered a phase of the fall planning at Carleton where there seemed to be a lot of decisions being made that had implications for faculty and staff health and safety without the full participation of faculty and staff. While we are concerned about the staff at Carleton and their ability to prioritize their health and safety and still keep their jobs, we will focus in this post on faculty because we feel like we can speak from/to that position since we occupy it.
Recent conversations among the faculty about the fall planning process have included more direct discussions about faculty positionality as workers. While these discussions come out of particular frustrations about the process of decision-making this spring and summer about fall term planning, we were struck by how it was the first time the two of us have been part of discussions at the college where faculty members are identifying themselves explicitly as “workers” and administrators as “bosses.”
There’s definitely something about working at a private SLAC that insulates faculty from thinking of ourselves as workers. This post reflects our attempt to work through what these factors are. But first, as we thought about all the reasons for why faculty generally do not foreground their positionality as workers, we thought it might be useful to reflect briefly on what has influenced the two of us to see ourselves that way.
For Anita, a huge influence on her thinking about labor and economic justice was the fact that both of her parents were part of unions during their time living in New York City; her dad is still a member of the TWU Local 100, New York City’s public transit union and her mom was a member of District Council 37, New York City’s biggest public employee union. She remembers going to union rallies with her parents. While as a teenager she could not have articulated well why she thought collective organizing and bargaining was beneficial, she vaguely understood that, for example, she and her brother had access to a fuller range of healthcare benefits, including access to braces and glasses, because of her parents’ unions.
Adriana thinks she was probably influenced by her parents’ labor precarity in her 20s (both lost their jobs during the economic downturn in the early 1990s) and by her general attention to the structures of academia in the last ten years. In working through the way race matters in academia, she has read broadly in Critical University Studies, an area of inquiry that, in analyzing and critiquing the neoliberal turn of universities, stresses the importance of thinking about the condition of adjuncts and what that says about universities.
Our top six list of why faculty at a SLAC don’t easily think of themselves as workers
Universities have large populations of adjuncts and grad students who face precarious work conditions in academia, and both groups have been doing incredible labor organizing in the past few years (see, for example, the COLA campaign at the UC schools). The situation is different at Carleton: as an undergraduate-only college, we have no grad students and we tend to have far fewer adjuncts than large research universities do. From her time on the committee that is concerned with faculty equity issues, Anita recalls a conversation with non-tenure track faculty with long-term contracts talking about how they were mostly satisfied with their labor conditions. In addition, as a private school, our salaries are not publicly available which makes it difficult to know about disparities in pay and benefits across ranks of faculty, let alone the differences between staff, faculty, and administrators. Comparisons with visibly unequal institutions that are more clearly exploiting their grad students and adjunct faculty helps to produce a sense that we work at a relatively equitable institution where we don’t need to advocate for ourselves.
Small colleges in small communities tend to promote the idea that our participation in the
lie life of the college makes us a family member rather than a worker.* There’s a certain level of “sociality” expected from faculty that often includes evening and weekend social events. We have had many discussions about the social demands of our jobs as professors, which includes both the relationship-building work that we see both as necessary in certain contexts and as unnecessary remnants of a bygone era where all the professors were married men who lived within walking distance of the college with wives did not work outside the home who welcomed students in their homes with elaborate home-cooked meals [or at least that’s what Anita was once told by an older alumnae in response to the fact that she did not live in Northfield].
The actual degree of sociality required to create learning environments that are humane and safe enough for students to take risks is debatable. But we see many colleagues (and ourselves, well, at least Adriana!) baking brownies to bring into classes, holding office hours in the evenings or weekends, hosting department events at our homes, inviting students over for dinner… And students are told and sold on the promise that being a student at an elite, small, liberal arts college means they get these kinds of relationships–family-like–with us. Faculty are not just purveyors of content expertise, but facilitators of individual growth and communal care and consideration.
Of course, this is all still labor. Just because this work is affective and relational does not make it leisure, or our “own.” But because it is affective work, both the institution and its workers can forget to “count it.” Care work is historically undervalued and unpaid in a capitalist society, and in our case, this kind of work can be viewed as personal and individual, rather than being a part of the structural conditions under which we labor.
*lie was a typo… or maybe a Freudian slip. We’ve corrected it but left the original so that both lie and life can live on here.
Because we are a small workplace, there is a kind of personalization where we fail to see structures because we are thinking about the particular individuals who occupy the positions of hierarchy. The fact that we get to address the Dean of the College or the President by their first name hints at a particular kind of intimacy (going back to that “family” rhetoric) that often obscures the hierarchical structure of decision-making.
The personalization of the structure also means that we can mistake the moments where we are seen and helped as individuals as indications that labor conditions are good. What we mean is that personal relationships and their relative health can make us overlook structural problems, perhaps because we don’t experience a problem or because we trust that the particular individuals in positions of power are doing their best.
Carleton has norms of departmental and faculty autonomy for curricular issues. What this means is that, even though there are pressures for pre-tenure faculty to conform to certain departmental and college norms, we do not generally have to get approval for our syllabi and pedagogical styles. Most recently, as the college delayed informing faculty about what our fall term would look like, faculty felt strongly that they should have autonomy to choose their mode of teaching (e.g online, in-person, hybrid). The administration has allowed faculty this autonomy.
This arena of autonomy can obscure or overshadow the moments when we have less input into decisions. We’ve both been in conversations where concerns about decision-making structures and processes get short circuited by the line “but at least we got to choose our teaching mode.” In other words, this particular area of autonomy and control can make us feel like we employ ourselves and we have choices and autonomy about our laboring conditions, even though there are many other decisions being made–not by faculty– that will impact our teaching contexts.
Related to the promotion of our small, elite SLAC as a family, there is an incredible amount of messaging at Carleton about how “special” the college is. While we tend to think of this kind of marketing as being aimed at students, it is, of course, being consumed by faculty as well. And we get our own booster speeches at the top of every faculty meeting. We are told how especially dedicated and wonderful we are, how we are one of the “top” undergraduate teaching institutions, and how our work and dedication to our students and the college is much appreciated. Having colleagues in all kinds of institutions, including ones that have far fewer resources such as community colleges and tribal colleges, the two of us don’t really believe the hype. Are Carleton faculty dedicated? Yes, and so are all of our friends and colleagues who are teachers. But at Carleton, we also have access to an incredible level of human and materials resources.
This pervasive discourse of how “special” Carleton elevates our labor to something remarkable and essential, which serves to slow or stall critiques of working conditions because “critique” is made to look interruptive, rude, or antagonistic. Within this framework, recognizing our labor and collective organizing to better our working conditions is an affront to the institution who values us and our specialness. Institutions demand loyalty and pretend to give “love and appreciation” as a way to obscure the fact that we are laborers, laboring for an institution with entrenched hierarchies of who holds decision-making power, especially over financial matters.
Lastly, our own sense of our identities as being highly educated and credentialed can get in the way of seeing ourselves as workers. PhDs can feel like credentials that set us apart from other workers. For faculty who come from working class or lower middle class backgrounds, becoming a professor offered social mobility and stability. At a college like this, the PhD serves to make us “special workers” deserving of special benefits.
An example. Both of us remember how ten or so years ago the faculty had discussions about whether the “tuition benefit” (basically, certain college employees can get financial support from the college to pay for their children’s college tuition) should be expanded to all staff, including hourly paid staff. While many faculty spoke in support of the proposition, we can remember some faculty members talking about how their PhDs made them “nationally competitive” and therefore the tuition benefit would attract the “best faculty”–as opposed to thinking of the tuition benefit as a benefit that should be available to all children, regardless of how and how much their parents happened to get paid by the college. In the end, tuition benefits are still only accessible to faculty and certain groups of staff.
These differences in salary, benefits, and status, along with a governance structure that tends to silo faculty and staff interests and concerns (for example, while faculty have faculty meetings and a “Faculty Affairs Committee,” staff have their own informational structure) means that there are few spaces where we can focus on issues that we all might have in common as employees of the college. We both had conversations with our staff colleagues about how frustrating the fall planning process was because of the separate meetings for staff and faculty, as if we didn’t have common concerns about our health and safety and about the viability of the plan to bring back 85% of our students.
While the immediate concerns about the lack of faculty power in shaping the college’s fall plan has brought to the forefront our position as employees, like all other employees at Carleton and beyond, we hope that these concerns shift more fundamentally our sense of ourselves and our willingness to organize collectively as laborers, drawing inspiration from workers’ rights campaigns within and outside of academia.
Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective.
“Did we connect curriculum to this moment? Or did we continue to show that the curriculum is totally irrelevant to our lives? Did we acknowledge trauma in this moment? The curriculum must be connected to the moment, must be relevant, must be impactful.”
Kevin Kumashiro posed these questions in his brilliant recent seminar on how higher education must step up in a moment of crisis if colleges and universities are interested at all in being institutions that are about social justice. He started the webinar by saying, “What we do in the midst of a crisis should actually take us closer to the vision we have for higher education, not farther.”
While we started this series of posts inspired by the words of Black organizers, activists, and intellectuals calling for all of us to imagine a different future and society in the face of the racial justice uprisings, the COVID-19 pandemic had already set into motion discussions about how to re-imagine education in a moment of crisis.
While neither of us had the experience of teaching online this year because of leaves, we did hear from many of our friends and colleagues about their experiences, and we engaged (sporadically) with conversations at Carleton this spring about what should happen next fall: Should students return to campus? Should faculty continue to offer online courses? What shifts needed to happen to our curriculum and pedagogy because of the pandemic?
In line with Kevin’s questions about connecting curriculum to the moment, Anita had posted the following comment in May on a Carleton online forum about teaching in the fall in response to a comment about the potential for team-teaching: “This is perhaps a much more ‘out there’ suggestion but (sort of) building on this notion of team teaching, I’ve been thinking about how amazing it would be if Carleton used this next year to be completely bold and innovative. Rather than having traditional courses, what if we used a liberal arts interdisciplinary lens to create teams of faculty who could collaborate to create learning experiences for students around the theme of PANDEMICS! Maybe we would do shorter terms to give us a time to plan, or maybe we’d stick to the same groups the entire year and do it all online. I can’t think of a single discipline that doesn’t have some bearing on the topic in some way. What better way to show that the liberal arts approach matters, that subject matter expertise matters, than by actually tak[ing] on a topic that matters to/in the world in a more immediate, substantial way and by responding to the world as it is?”
Before Anita posted this comment, the two of us had exchanged a series of text messages where we had fleshed out some of the possibilities. We first started by expressing some of our frustrations about the framing of these conversations that faculty were being asked to engage in as well as the neglect of expertise about infectious disease (the college has since brought in an epidemiologist to campus). We provide here an edited transcript with some notes added in italics as we’ve learned more about the effects of the pandemic and people’s response to it (edited mostly for clarity…and um, colorful language!)
Adriana: The framing is just all wrong…it’s imagining that somehow things are “normal” in 6-8 months… or that there’s ANY WAY to bring students back to be in a college community that is SAFE. Nightmare scenarios don’t make for good learning. [A recent nationwide survey found that 18-25 year olds have been the least likely to follow pandemic hygiene.]
Anita: Also, why are any of us weighing in on this to begin with? Asking me for my view on how to do social distancing or whether it’ll be safe is like asking my students to “weigh in” on whether race is biologically real. I don’t have that discussion with them. I have them read social science research about the impacts of people having that false belief.
Anita: That’s what I wanted to write…this discussion is basically undermining any defense of why places like Carleton or universities in general are necessary. If we can all be “experts” because we’ve read a few things, then why should families pay us $70,000 for our subject matter and pedagogical expertise? We just need YouTube and TED Talks.
Adriana: The one thing I found interesting is some folks talking about team teaching online — I love that idea.
Anita: Yeah, I’d love to do a version of the structured gap year but a cool, liberal arts interdisciplinary one where a team of faculty collaborate to create learning experiences around the theme of pandemics. And we would do shorter terms, to give us a month to plan and then two months to work with students.
Adriana: OMG – an AMST sequence on pandemics would be amazing.
Anita: What better way to show that we matter, that liberal arts matters, than by actually mattering to the world and responding to the world AS IT IS?
A couple of days after this discussion, Anita posted her comment to Moodle…mostly to silence (cheers to a staff member who emailed their support!). When Anita mentioned this idea to a friend who teaches at a large state university, they asked what such a scenario might look like in more practical terms.
Friend: Can you sketch out a more detailed plan? How do you see interdisciplinary work working?
Anita: The whole point is that we would need to do it together!
Friend: Sometimes you need to sketch out the idea so people can conceptualize it
Anita: Fine. It’s not that difficult to imagine scenarios. Let’s think about how the pandemic has made worse inequities through the disciplines of education, sociology, biology…Let’s think about the metaphor of pandemics in literature: English, Spanish, Latin, all the languages.
Friend: I make those kinds of suggestions in my program a lot. If I taught in a liberal arts school, I’d say let’s do it!
Anita: Exactly! We’re supposedly all about doing this kind of innovative teaching but we mostly do it on the edges, in small ways.
Friend: Yes. This would reconfigure how you approach a problem. I like the interdisciplinary approach because how else can you approach big problems? You could create interdisciplinary learning groups with students and profs. What’s the number of students versus professors?
Anita: 2000 students, maybe 200 faculty. And if we include staff (librarians, tech folks), maybe another 50 instructors
Friend: What?! That would only be like 10 students per instructor. If you grouped 3-4 instructors, you are still talking about a small student/teacher ratio. You could create an overarching framework to consider what should be accomplished but then each group could design their own learning plan and outcomes. That’s so totally doable! You could have a research fair at the end to highlight outcomes.
Totally doable, but only if we have the will to imagine it.
For example, rather than each university bringing back their students back to campus, what if universities coordinated regionally to use dorms and dining services to serve people in the more immediate communities who need housing and food? One reason that Carleton cited for their recent decision to bring back 85% of students to campus in the fall were inequities in students’ ability to access online learning. Of course, this inequity is a much larger and systemic one. What if campuses opened up their spaces for students in immediate communities, including K-12 students, to access better Wi-Fi services? And if this kind of access was coordinated regionally and nationally, our students might have access to housing, internet, and other necessary services, along with the thousands of others in their communities with the same needs. Perhaps there are lessons we can learn from businesses that have pivoted to serve community needs, such as this Black-owned distillery in Minneapolis.
We’re not arguing here that these ideas are THE ideas. As Anita noted to her friend, the point is to work on such ideas together as a community. Kevin notes in his webinar that the point is not to agree or disagree with the specific ideas that he proposes, but rather to ask different questions about what this moment allows us to do, compels us to do. Rather than asking how we can tinker with our curriculum and pedagogy to get us as close to “normal” as possible, what if we asked instead, as Kevin does, “How should universities better serve community capacity building, democracy building, and movement building?” How might we answer that question in this moment of the pandemic and racial justice uprisings? How might those answers then shift fundamentally our visions of who our institutions should serve and to what purposes?
Kevin calls out faculty, and we would say perhaps his challenge is especially relevant for those of us with the security of tenure, for NOT protesting more robustly against our institutions for failing to live up to social justice standards, especially in this moment of the pandemic and the racial justice uprisings. He urges us to organize and collectivize. There are small liberal arts colleges that have started to move in this direction.
We’ll admit that the two of us are at a loss about how to do so at Carleton. Given our own histories of feeling stymied in our efforts to influence systemic institutional change, we have focused instead on what we can do in our classes, with our research, and in our communities outside of Carleton. So we don’t have a neat, inspiring ending for you about what we have done or what you should do.
We would, though, love for all of you to share with us your ideas or ideas that you’ve encountered from others that you find particularly intriguing, ideas that move us closer to dismantling educational systems that reinforce and reproduce White Supremacy and economic inequities.
More than a Reading List: Challenging Anti-Black Racism in the Field of South Asian Religions
Note: This guest post by the Auntylectuals asks scholars in their field–South Asian religions–to reimagine what it means to be an anti-racist scholar. While their call is to a specific academic community, we think that there is much to be learned from their post as all of us reimagine our teaching and research to become more anti-racist. You can contact the group at email@example.com and find them on Twitter @auntylectuals. Take it away, Auntylectuals!
In response to recent horrific acts of murder and police brutality against Black people, we have seen a new interest in racism arise in the field of South Asian religions. On listservs, pedagogy forums, and elsewhere, colleagues have made some excellent suggestions of reading lists, films, and resources on racism. But this relatively new attention to race among scholars of South Asian religions also arouses some concern and frustration. There is something important missing from the well-intentioned conversations about racism and anti-Blackness that now pervade a small corner of our field. What is absent is deep self-reflection on the ways that white supremacy and anti-Blackness have determined who participates in our discipline and our institutions, and how racism factors into the ongoing power-dynamics and orientation of our work. The elephant in the room, virtual or otherwise, is that a large portion of our field is still made up of white scholars of Christian background, as well as South Asians who can leverage the privileges of caste, gender, and race. Our field is embedded in complex histories that cannot be disentangled from racist endeavors and agendas.
In their recent “Down With Brown” post, Anita and Adriana have suggested that confronting our complicity and the ways racism permeates our work requires “changing our imaginations.” This includes revisioning how we position our scholarship. Rather than researching and writing in silos, what this moment and what being anti-racist require of us is reimagining the boundaries of our disciplines, seeing the intersections between various fields and their relationship to forms of power. As we reimagine, we hope to unearth and undermine racism, ultimately rebuilding our discipline.
As feminist critical race scholars of religion who are also racialized academics, we are reflecting on our relationship to the study of South Asian religions. We have been informed by and continue to learn from the work of Black feminist scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Roxanne Gay, and Brittney Cooper, who have been engaging with and thinking through questions of race for decades. In 2018, after more than a year of exploratory discussions, we founded the seminar in Intersectional Hindu Studies within the American Academy of Religion, which is a collaborative five-year seminar with eleven other racialized scholars of Hindu studies. We see our work as being in conversation with similar interventions in Religious Studies and other fields that are challenging white supremacy in academia and beyond. Working from a feminist framework of collective labor and collaboration, we have carved out spaces for us to study and support each other. We have worked to create places for researchers of color in our field to talk about their experiences of marginalization and privilege, and to identify ways in which we have been complicit in the racist structures of academia.
We agree wholeheartedly that we should integrate gender and race into our classes and research, but a reading list is not enough. Developing bibliographies is not new to academia; it is the bread and butter of our fields. But reading some new books cannot be confused with making personal or structural changes. In order to avoid the additive model, where we just augment our study of religion with readings on race, we must reflect back on how our discipline emerged as part of the colonial project that gave rise to categories of religion and race simultaneously. The formation of our discipline is predicated on white supremacy, brahminical supremacy, and hetero-patriarchy. Thus, racism, anti-Blackness, sexism, casteism, Islamophobia, and orientalism inherently inform the scholarship on and pedagogy of South Asian religions.
As South Asian savarna (with caste) women, this reflection requires us to examine our own positionalities. We are aware that being perceived as “model minorities” shields us from the brutal violence that is so painfully common for Black people, granting us conditional privilege in the hallowed halls of academia. We also recognize that this model minority status is rooted in anti-Black racism. We need to look no further than United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923) to see how South Asians have leveraged race and caste in paving the road to conditional acceptance and citizenship in the US. Thind’s lawyers argued that “the High-class Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint” explaining further that “[it] would be just as disgraceful for a high-class Hindu to marry a member of one of the lower caste as it would be for an American gentlemen to marry a member of the negro race.” Claiming that he was a member of the Aryan race, Thind invoked racial and religious purity narratives that undergird white (and brahmanical) supremacy by invoking white and upper-caste anxiety around miscegenation. Savarna South Asians in North America continue to participate in racist and casteist systems required to maintain our precarious privilege.
As scholars of South Asian religions, we know that a tremendous amount of training is required to translate a Sanskrit or Tamil text, interpret a ritual practice, or conduct ethnographic research in India or Trinidad. That same kind of specialization is required to bring critical race theory, gender, and sexuality studies into our classrooms and our research. It is not uncommon for people to presume that simply because they are personally and politically committed to addressing issues of racial injustice, or other forms of marginalization, that they are prepared enough to raise these issues in classrooms.
In no way do we wish to discourage people from working on these issues, but we ask that our colleagues proceed with care and caution. Critical Race Feminist Theory asks that we don’t just announce our positionality and situate ourselves with respect to our work and teaching; it demands that we engage in acts of critical self-reflection and scrutiny. It necessitates that we continually interrogate our positionality with respect to race, religion, caste, class, gender and sexuality as we take action. We are all complicit in forms of white supremacy, and recognizing that is difficult and uncomfortable.
Ibram X. Kendi invites us to think about antiracism as an active, intentional and ongoing action: “The heartbeat of racism is denial, is consistently saying, ‘I am not racist,’ while the heartbeat of antiracism is confession, self-reflection, and seeking to grow change.”
The road to becoming anti-racist scholars requires an examination of whiteness and white supremacy in a transnational frame. Simply adding comparisons between caste in India and anti-blackness in the US may create the semblance of awareness, yet it does not do the work of anti-racism. It is imperative to do the labour of reflecting on how access to privilege has served, even unintentionally, to capitalize on and reinforce anti-Black racism in our classrooms, research, and institutions. One of the many ways that anti-Black racism is apparent is the near absence of Black scholars and students in our field, which is otherwise dominated by white and savarna South Asian scholars.
The anti-racist work we are asking you to do may begin with a reading list or bibliography, but it may not be the one that was generated by people who are already in power. How can a discipline that still follows colonial parameters of knowledge production suddenly become aware enough to reorient the field and become anti-racist? In the oft quoted words of Audre Lorde, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
We ask our colleagues who are committed to challenging racism to resist simply adding race to a section of your course or designing a course on race and caste in South Asian religions, but to begin with serious study and self-reflection about the content of our courses, the nature of our research, and the state of our discipline and institutions. These first steps are critical since they reveal how white supremacy and anti-Black racism operate in every component of our society. It is a collective responsibility to do this labor and to unlearn the violence of white supremacy. We ask you to join us in this work.
Intersectional Feminist Hindu Studies Collective aka “The Auntylectuals”
Shreena Gandhi, Sailaja Krishnamurti, Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, Tanisha Ramachandran, and Shana Sippy
Musings on socially just decisions
As many of you who read our blog probably know, Carleton College decided this past January to NOT close during the polar vortex. There were impassioned debates about the decision on Facebook, in editorials in The Carletonian, and at formal and informal faculty gatherings. We’ve already discussed on this blog what our stance is about weather-related closings, so in this post, we wanted to expand on our ideas about how differences in experiences and power might be taken into account as institutions try to make decisions.
When we got the email from the administration about the decision not to close the college, it was mentioned that the administration had heard from many members of the community. It was not clear to us from the email how many community members had expressed their views and, among those who had, how many had been in favor of remaining open and how many had been in favor of closing. The first suggestion we’d have to make decision-making processes more just is to make them more transparent.
Getting information about a simple breakdown of how many were in favor of one option over the other is a start towards having more just and transparent processes. For example, considering only faculty perspectives for now, say 100 faculty wrote to the president to express their views on the issue. Let’s imagine that 50 faculty wrote in favor of remaining open, and 50 voted for closing. The first question we would ask is be how representative were those 100 faculty of the faculty in terms of rank (e.g. tenured, untenured, tenure-track, visiting). Was there a preponderance of tenured faculty expressing their views, for example? If fewer untenured or visiting faculty expressed their views, we would think about how we can ensure that all faculty felt comfortable enough writing to express their views. As tenured faculty, the two of us do not worry much about writing an email to the Dean or the President to make clear our positions on any issue at the college, but we’re not sure that all faculty feel this way. Having channels for honest feedback from those who are vulnerable in terms of job security is an important issue in any hierarchical institution.
Next, if there is relative representation of all ranks of faculty among the 100 faculty who expressed their views, we would consider if there are patterns among those who argued in favor of one option over the other. For example, did more faculty who live close to campus favor staying open over those who would have had to travel longer distances? How about faculty with young children? Since the decision to remain open or close likely had differential impact on faculty depending on their life circumstances, it seems important to consider such impacts.
Third, paying attention to and acknowledging differential impact of such decisions is important if we are to make decisions that do not assume that the status quo is a just one. Martha Minow, a legal scholar, notes that we often encounter “the dilemma of difference” when trying to make decisions based on differences in status, category, or identity because both ignoring differences or taking into account differences can (re)create the stigma of difference. She notes that this dilemma partly is created because of how we think of differences. As she describes it:
We can treat differences as the private, internal problem of each different person, a treatment that obviously depends on communal agreements and public enforcement. We can treat differences as a function of relationships and compare the distributions made by different people to the costs and burdens of difference. Or we can treat differences as a pervasive feature of communal life and consider ways to structure social institutions to distribute the burdens attached to difference.
Taking that last approach can help us move towards a more equitable institution and one important aspect of that approach, Minow argues, is that we need to tilt the balance towards previously marginalized voices and perspectives and towards those people who are negatively impacted disproportionately by the status quo. Minow’s exhortation mirrors what we can learn from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s work in Silencing the Past: “the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production,” or, as Adriana paraphrases for her students, we need to think about which voices and perspectives have no chance to be heard. Have we set the table (our decision-making process) in ways that everyone who is impacted by the decision is invited and able to attend? And of course, there’s still the question to ask about who gets to set the table in the first place and “invite” others. While ensuring that diverse, marginalized, and minoritized voices are represented at the table is important, there is still power in being the ones to invite those voices.
Bringing it back then to the example of how to make a decision about whether to close the college during inclement weather, we’d argue that paying attention to ensuring that faculty, staff, and students who would be negatively impacted by the decision to stay open or to close should be given extra consideration. We might want to consider (dis)ability, access to proper wear/gear, family and child care responsibilities, travel distances…and, of course, which members of the college community even have the chance to express themselves. We would want to make sure that our assumptions about people’s statuses and abilities don’t get in the way of listening to their professed needs. We’re thinking, for example, of possible assumptions that all 18-22 year olds are non-disabled and can, say, walk really fast to avoid frostbite.
Hopefully, our previous paragraphs make clear the complexity of decision-making processes at a college and the effort it takes to do it well, i.e. making sure that diverse, marginalized, minoritized voices are able to participate. We’ve focused on the role of faculty, because ours, like many institutions, maintains the desire to drive decision-making through shared governance, where faculty expect and are expected to have a say in important institutional decisions. While we support a strong faculty voice and a robust shared governance model (something we’ll write more about in a future post), we also want to point out that as faculty, even with our different ranks, our voices and perspectives are generally given more weight and consideration than staff members. This privileging of faculty voices, no matter the history or rationale for them, means that when faced with a decision such as what to do when a polar vortex comes to town, insidious inequities (of voice, of autonomy) between staff, faculty, and students can get masked.
In other words, when the institution opts to stay open, but invites individuals to make the “best choices” for their individual safety, the impact falls differently. Faculty are empowered to cancel classes if they want (or not); students’ freedom to make a choice probably depends on class attendance policies; and finally, staff members may not always feel like they can make decisions that might go against supervisors’ explicit or implicit expectations about whether they should come in to work on a -40 degree day. These variations in how “empowered” we may feel to make our own best choices need to be accounted for in how institutions make such decisions.
Speaking up against the Border Patrol
Image source: Sandy Soto, colleague at University of Arizona
We’re back! And we wanted to kick off our series of posts for the spring term by signal boosting the story of University of Arizona students who are facing criminal charges for boldly and bravely challenging the presence of two armed Border Patrol agents on campus to give a presentation to a student club. As seen in videos linked in this Washington Post article about what happened, the student is heard repeatedly calling the agents the “Murder Patrol” and “KKK.” As the student notes, Border Patrol agents have been condemned by humanitarian aid groups for routinely destroying water left for migrants in the desert.
For a longer story of the racist origins of the Border Patrol, check out this interview with Greg Grandin, author of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. Grandin, for example, notes, “The Border Patrol, as a federal agency, was exempt from any kind of that oversight that either the FBI or the CIA was submitted to in the 1970s. There was no equivalent of the Church Committee. It really has been, in some ways, a rogue agency, both because of its nature, working in this kind of liminal area between the foreign and the domestic, and, you know, on these borderlands, with very little oversight. And it was founded in 1924. And it was founded the same year that the U.S. passed its nativist immigration law, which basically reduced immigration from Asia to zero, emphasized and privileged immigration from Protestant Northern Europe.”
It is impossible to separate out the criticism of the Border Patrol and the issue of free speech as they collide in this incident. In the same breath that the UA president proclaims his defense of free speech, he argues that the #Arizona3 were disrupting education. But what do we mean when we say that someone or something disrupts education? What measures are we using, what definitions are we employing, when we (or the UA administration) point to the students as disruption, but don’t acknowledge that the presence of the Border Patrol is also disruptive? It becomes important to ask: disruptive to whose education? on whose terms? When we consider what speech should be defended as free speech (the Border Patrol’s presence or the #Arizona3’s), shouldn’t we also recognize the conditions of power and the institutional power that hyperdetermine what speech we’re likelier to see as more worthy? And then shouldn’t we, if we truly believe in the value of free speech, make sure that minoritized, marginalized voices get heard?
The issue at UA is exacerbated, in our eyes, by the fact that it only recently earned the designation of Hispanic-Serving Institution*, positioning it to be able to apply for more federal awards and aid intended to foster and support the education of Latinx students.
At this point, you are hopefully wondering what is being done. And what you can do. Students there are protesting. Students, faculty, and staff are hand-delivering letters to President Robbins. Faculty in the Department of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona issued a statement earlier this week in support of the protesting students and against the charges they are facing.
You can send letters to President Robbins here. You can also start conversations in your departments and with your coalitions to develop a solidarity statement like that put forth by the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, University of Minnesota. Finally, we should all be asking hard questions about what it really means to provide an inclusive education–which isn’t just about admitting students to our hallowed halls, but must also be about recognizing (and then interrupting) the ways in which State policing mechanisms can intrude and disrupt these spaces and these students’ lives.
*Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) designates accredited institutions with 25% or more full-time enrolled Latinx students.
When words matter
Last week, The New York Times reported that the Department of Health and Human Services is leading an effort to have government agencies “adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.’”
While these efforts have not yet yielded any attempts at legislation or new policies, some colleges and universities have already issued statements emphasizing their support for their transgender students, faculty, and staff. We wanted to collect here some of these statements–and we’d love for you all to post statements from your institutions if any. While it’s important that colleges and universities take concrete steps to make their spaces truly inclusive for people of all genders, words can and do matter in such moments. In making these statements, we think that these institutions are recognizing the particular vulnerability of these communities under the current government, even before this move. Indeed, in making these statements, educational institutions are aligning themselves with trans, intersex, and gender-expansive individuals, communities, and organizations who have been responding to this latest assault not just with fear and concern but also with defiance and resistance. For example, trans activists organized a “visibility event” this past week in the Twin Cities where they asked allies to literally stand with them as they/we lined up for 40 blocks along a central street in the cities. We hope that these statements serve as an inspiration and model to other colleges and universities that have yet to reaffirm their support for truly gender inclusive campuses, and remember–please post other statements you know of in the comments!
Statement by faculty at University of Massachusetts Amherst College of Education
Statement by President of Reed College, Hugh Porter
Statement by President of Amherst College, Dr. Biddy Martin
Response by administrators at Stanford University (yay, Adriana’s alma mater!)
Statement by President and top-level administrators at Brandeis University
Statement by Dean of Penn State College of the Liberal Arts, Susan Welch
Statement by Interim Chancellor of UMass Boston, Katherine Newman
Statement by gender, women, and sexuality studies department at University of Minnesota