Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) for the very first time. While there, I participated in a number of workshops and went to several keynotes focusing on racial justice and its intersections with other forms of social justice work. It was, to say the least, a very amazing and transformative experience.
The workshops I attended varied from “Core Principles of Intersectionality” to “The Colonial Legacy of American Immigration Policy” to “An Exploration of White Speak and Color Analysis.” Each of these sessions provided me a new lens through which to view the equity work I am currently doing in higher education. However, I want to remark on a few of the workshops and keynotes in which I took a number of things away:
– Melissa Harris-Perry, professor of political science at Tulane University and MSNBC host, spoke about the need for active pedagogy around teaching race. What struck me the most was her reframing of service learning, from a currently “missionary” model rooted in colonialism to one that seeks to inspire political activism from students. Professor Harris-Perry remarked that when she brought students to New Orleans to do post-Katrina service work, it was not the service itself that transformed the students (particularly the white students), but the lack of response from lawmakers when they wrote them to help with recovery efforts. Thus, this service learning did not just aim to provide volunteers to help with community rebuilding, but it also sought to reframe the recovery efforts through a political activism lens, and one that was clearly centered on the racial dynamics at play. I believe it is this shift from a “missionary” framework of service to one that is imbued with humility and grace that affords college and university campuses in the U.S. a much more authentic and effective social justice framework from which to operate. As we share in our trainings across the country, it is easy to say an institution is committed to social justice and equity on campus, but it is another to actually act like a social justice institution and Professor Harris-Perry’s keynote elaborated deeply on exactly that point.
– Paul Kivel and Amer Ahmed led a two-part workshop on challenging Christian hegemony, and its connection with other forms of oppression. Previous to NCORE, I had not had particularly focused conversations on the ways Christian hegemony permeates every aspect of U.S. society, and so this workshop was incredibly insightful in understanding the ways it operates in everyday life. From the days we privilege people to take off for holidays (e.g., Sundays, Christmas, Easter) and not, to our society’s attitudes about purity and charity and how they manifest themselves in public policy (e.g., abstinence-only sexual education, anti-LGBT laws, resistance and/or the dismantling of social safety net programs, the funding of faith-based programs, etc.), Christian hegemony runs deep in every aspect of U.S. life. And as someone who was raised Roman Catholic, though I no longer identify with Christianity, this workshop opened my eyes to the force this religious hegemony plays in this society.
– Dr. Joy DeGruy talked about her research around post-traumatic slave syndrome, which focused on the ways the numerous trauma of slavery has been passed down generation to generation in African-American communities, and the impact that this trauma has on African-Americans every day, from adverse health effects to the ways entire communities are socialized to internalize racist attitudes. For me, this workshop connected the head with the heart, and it made real the ways racism has adversely affected the mental and physical well-being of millions of African-Americans in this country. Moreover. Dr. DeGruy demonstrated how every single institution within this country “from medicine to law and education to religion” has perpetuated this multigenerational trauma. The profound impacts of racism (and whiteness) across generations cannot be overstated and one of the dimensions we add to trainings is that element of the body. Specifically, Susan and Heather do work with white people regarding the long-term impacts of whiteness and its deep impacts on whites’ inability to be strong allies, and it is this work that all racial identity groups need to add to our repertoire when challenging racial oppression / working toward racial liberation. If you have never had the opportunity to hear Dr. DeGruy speak, I strongly encourage you to do so as she is dynamic and the content is incredibly compelling. You can also get her book Post-traumatic slave syndrome from her website.
– Finally, Robert Jensen from the University of Texas at Austin gave the closing keynote, entitled “The Craziest Person in the Room: How Can a Mediocre White Guy Be Useful?” Dr. Jensen spoke at length about the climate crisis, honestly and directly talking about the ways in which humans are passing the point of no return with respect to how we are treating the environment. I appreciated his frankness about the ways capitalism has directly created this crisis, from the stresses we have created to the earth and the atmosphere for our demand for consumption and technology, to the exploitation of millions of underprivileged individuals across the globe, most of whom will be directly and firstly impacted by the effects of climate change. However, I found two areas of his keynote to be slightly lacking. First, while he gave a very typical analysis of the current climate situation, he did not actually offer a solid analysis of where to go. I find this common among white, male academics – they are often quite good at critique and identifying the “problems in the system”, but they rarely have a substantially “out-of-the-box” framework for how to shift to the next level of addressing the situation. Certainly, as Heather has identified in earlier blog posts, merely changing out light bulbs is insufficient in terms of response to this large, global crisis. And yet, merely offering a critique with no new thinking as to where we can go to next was problematic for me and simply fed that audience’s paralysis.
Second, his response to interrupting systems of oppression was framed around being “the craziest person in the room”, an incredibly ableist framework that only serves to marginalize people with disabilities and reify structures of power based on dominant group access. I know that in my experience, I have inadvertently used language that has proved marginalizing towards individuals, including communities with disabilities, in order to prove a point or advance the cause for a certain issue or a particular group of people; consequentially, over the years I have done equity work, I have aimed to use frameworks and language that are inclusive, while simultaneously trying to hold myself and others around me accountable for perpetuating systems of oppression in this work. As a result, strongly encourage all of us with dominant identities, including Dr. Jensen, to take a closer look at our privilege such that we can incorporate a more comprehensive social justice analysis and not further marginalize anyone along the way.
All in all, NCORE was a fantastic conference, and I look forward to attending next year!