FT: does student activism also create space for faculty/staff activism? where do we get to stand up for what WE believe? #sachat
“Well, who do you talk to?”
It was April, and our students had just returned from another campus-wide listening forum to gauge the temperature of race relations on campus. Since the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown the previous November, we had held several forums for students to discuss their feelings on these issues with the faculty, staff, and peers that ideally support them through the difficulty of this climate.
But after nearly six months of supporting students through difficult conversations, revelations that our campus so revered for community was in fact not welcoming for all, and occasional tearful confessions of worry for safety and well-being, it occurred that no one had asked me that before.
No one had asked if I, as a staff member of color, struggled with any of the same issues as our students voices. No one had asked if I had encountered microaggressions at the hands of colleagues that we had hoped would know better. No one had asked if they could support me through moments that irked me at best and challenged my ability to lift my head from my desk at worst. Our institution had created space for students to grieve, learn, and process, but had not created a much-needed analogous space for faculty and staff who may also be struggling personally.
It is a difficult line that we as administrators walk – on one hand, we are agents of our institution, hired to uphold the values and vision of the institution. But on the other, we are human beings, bound by that humanity to care for those around us when they are hurting or feel that an injustice has been committed. And it can be all the more difficult when the injustice in question hits us as individuals as well. The disregard that our Black students often felt in spaces under our care, I by definition am also subject to and have also felt. How do we navigate the space between the obligations we have to our students and the development of their voices and power, and the obligations we have to our institutions as ambassadors for their messages?
I must confess, I am yet to successfully reconcile the two sides of my being. But in being forced to confront the conflict that the events of the past year have caused, I had a revelation, elaborated on more fully in my blog post chastising Lorne Michaels for his views on hiring diverse talent:
Then came “I, Racist.” John Metta’s “sermon” about his stance on talking about race shook up many circles in which I travel. And while the resounding takeaway that I saw people repeat and ponder from the article referred to the chasm between those in the majority, who see themselves as singular, and those in the minority, who are treated as a monolith:
The result of this is an incessantly repeating argument where a Black person says “Racism still exists. It is real,” and a white person argues “You’re wrong, I’m not racist at all. I don’t even see any racism.” My aunt’s immediate response is not “that is wrong, we should do better.” No, her response is self-protection: “That’s not my fault, I didn’t do anything. You are wrong.”
But for me, the takeaway was different. Near the end of Metta’s piece, a single sentence hit me hard enough to shake the way I write, speak, and interact with the people around me.
Racism exists because I, as a Black person, don’t challenge you to look at it.
And there it is. All those times that I’ve been questioned, marveled at, praised for being exceptional when in fact I just work hard in a way that I’m not expected to… I let it happen. I didn’t push back. I didn’t speak up. I allowed it to appear as though it was somewhere between rare and magical.
But in my own gentle way, I’ve started pushing back where I didn’t before. I’ve spent time creating space for students who feel slighted by incidents on campus to speak about their worries. I’ve opened my door to let them speak to me about it in a way that I hadn’t previously done. And in space where I have control, like my social media feeds and in my writing, I’m changing the way I relate to elevate voices and minds of color.
The best way for me to be an activist while protecting my role as an administrator and role model is to elevate the voices of my disenfranchised students. When they voice a concern, and skeptical or skittish voices downplay it, I use my voice to say “They’re right.” I leverage my position to affirm their pain, and then push for any solutions I may be able to advocate for. Even as I operate with a heavy heart of my own, the solution I have found has been to lift myself up by lifting up others. It’s far from a perfect process, and we all still have a long way to go, but I plan to keep speaking up – for myself, for my students, and for the world we have a chance to change.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Maryann Krieglstein on Social Justice & White Privilege