How do we reach a critical mass for racial equity on campus?

How do we reach and organize the critical “critical mass” of fully invested students, faculty, and staff in the fight for racial equity on our campuses?

  1. Dismantle privilege.
  2. Continue to acquire knowledge.
  3. Embrace and encourage change.

This fight for racial equity—by which I mean the solidarity and struggle of an elite multi-generational and multicultural team of students and professionals in the pursuit of the full and equal access and participation of all races and communities of people in the fair and equitable attainment of higher educational outcomes—is not for everybody.

The fight for racial equity is not an equal opportunity endeavor. If it was, there wouldn’t be such a specific, dire, critical need for racial equity projects in American higher education in the first place.

Rather, what I am interested in is the movement’s critical mass: the minimum required amount of human capital to create a new system of radical racial equity on our university campus.

As I understand things, we have not reached a critical mass in the fight for racial equity yet for a few reasons:

  • Relative (though in no way universal) racial and socio-economic privilege and advantage among dominant, majority groups often prevents an understanding and valuing of the dire urgency for racial equity.
  • Honest lack of knowledge and skillsets in the practice of oppression theory, critical race theory, and liberation theology by administrators, faculty, and staff prohibits fully institutionally-organized racial equity efforts.
  • Real and understandable fear of the challenge of radical, institutional and campus change can undermine the pursuit of racial equity.

Privilege, lack of knowledge, and fear.

So what does it take to overcome these barriers and to identify and organize the critical mass of individuals for whom the fight for racial equity is necessary to bring about significant change and development to campus?

These are vague beginnings:

  • Dismantle privilege. We need desperately to increase the number of students, faculty, and staff who can articulate opposition to the racial privilege and caste systemthat has dominated the political and socio-economic foundation of higher education in our country for the past 400 years.
    • Formal and informal (but always purposeful) cross- and intra-group discussion.
    • Development of thoughtful new programs (in replace of the old) to dismantle the system of privilege on our campus. These programs will do as much to address the eradication of legacy admissions, traditional staff hiring practices, and faculty tenure processes as they will to undo policies related to leadership position appointments, mentoring and career services outcomes, and facilities and residence hall organization. The mission of these new programs should, in fact, be: “To fully dismantle the inequitable system of privilege across our entire campus.
  • Acquire knowledge. This does notrefer to cultural competency or passive mentoring about tolerance and difference. Rather, the knowledge necessary for the movement for racial equity is a deep, life-long, foundational learning process about systemic oppression, critical race, and liberation, as well as thoughtful racial identity development.
    • Increase dramatically the numbers of students, faculty, and staff who participate in these schools of thought through new hires, new tenures, and new admissions procedures.
    • Establish purposeful personal and professional development programs for the continued investment in the racial equity skills of our campus leaders.
    • Fully integrate and organize students and professionals equipped with this knowledge into fundamental positions throughout the structure of the university.
  • Embrace change. Do not fear change. We must fight for change. We need to recognize in the deepest of our hearts that the campus must change, and radically, in order to build the kind of college environment that true and just racial equity demands.

Tradition, by this recognition, is a significant barrier to racial equity by virtue of the obvious diametrically opposed realities of tradition and change.

  • New programs and services must significantly embody the transparent call for change and in very many, if not all, cases must competently and thoughtfully oppose campus traditions. This will mean the eradication of tradition-focused programs, as well as the thoughtful integration of new and more integrated educational programs for racial equity.

At an institutional level—and at a personal level—if we can start with these three broad approaches to campus racial equity, we might begin to assemble the necessary critical mass to create the kind of institutions we want to create.

Stand up. Stand up. Stand up!

Marvin Worthy’s charge to the new resident hall staffs on Wednesday afternoon was to stand up and to be a leader in the fight against oppression on campus this year.

That’s a fairly tall order and I’m not as good at inspirational speech as Mr. Worthy.

The truth is there’s a lot to unpack following an afternoon devoted to diversity and oppression, and Mr. Worthy’s charge to stand up—echoed by MSPS—isn’t an easy thing.

It isn’t an easy thing to do: to change a campus culture, to fight oppression on a campus steeped in many years of tradition.

Because tradition, by design, operates counter to change.

And to fight to change will occasionally or always mean defying and dismantling quite a bit of what’s considered tradition.

Are you prepared truly and wholly to do that?

–I have worked in Multicultural Student Programs and Services for five years and I’m still not 100% sure that I can do it 100% of the time.–

(And if you’d like to talk to me about that process, I am always willing.)

Mr. Worthy suggested yesterday that to fight oppression will be difficult, but that “we have to try.”

But I wonder if that’s totally true. We don’t have to try, do we?—not if we don’t want to.

Sure, we can and should respond to negative, discriminatory acts on our campus–acts which we recognize are not isolated incidents, but rather daily occurrences and which are inherent in our world and on our campus.

But that doesn’t mean we have to challenge ourselves to understand these acts on a deeper level. We don’t have to critique our traditions and to work together to fight the oppressive systems that allowed these acts to happen in the first place.

We don’t have to—not if we don’t want to.

It is insufficient to understand our leadership roles as those of doctors and nurses in a hospital treating all patients regardless of their afflictions and regardless of their racial, sexual, gender, class, or religious orientations and identities.

It is insufficient because to tolerate difference—as if difference is something undesirable that we must nevertheless deal with—is to deny the true identity of others on an equal and socially just plane.

Does this make sense?

From the activist Audre Lorde:

“Advocating the mere tolerance of difference… is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.”

(The larger original is worth reading several times, as well, if you’re interested.)

Lorde is advocating that merely tolerance and acceptance of difference is insufficient.

Rather than tolerance and acceptance of differences, we need to be motivated to acknowledge differences as wholly and intrinsically equal.

If we were motivated to view differences as wholly and intrinsically equal in value, then differences could not be demeaned as the butts of jokes or the objects of insensitive parties or the underlying motivations for hate mail, hate crimes, and hate speech on our campus and in our daily lives.

It is absolutely an issue of social justice to work fully toward achieving a level of understanding that acknowledges that differences should be appreciated as of intrinsically equal value, not merely traits that must be “tolerated,” “accepted,” or “dealt with” passively.

But again, this kind of deep, structural understanding and motivation to change is difficult.

Traditions and familiar ways of doing things might have to die absolutely will have to die for true change to happen.

We’ll probably have to put turf on the football field, too.

And that is because we understand today that there are better ways to do things than before. And that’s OK. And that’s necessary for the survival of our world.

Mr. Worthy rightly suggested that his presentation should not be the end, but the beginning of the conversation. There will be several opportunities to continue to engage with issues of race and identity and class this year through the offerings of MSPS and other sharp, like-minded, action-oriented departments and offices.

Be sure to check those out.

Of course, you don’t really have to—not if you don’t want to.

But like Mr. Worthy, MSPS is calling on you to stand up and do it because you want to and because it’s Right.