How to Start Anti-racism Work at a Colorblind Institution
As colleges celebrate the rise of diversity, equity, and inclusion awareness and programming across the California Community Colleges system, they must ask themselves why their diversity, equity, and inclusion work has done little to bridge the equity achievement gap. Diversity programming, which is largely the celebration and normalization of difference, does not address the root causes of the inequity embedded in the educational system (McNair, Bensimon, and Malcom-Piquex, 2020). If institutions are to commit authentically to serving the students they are leaving behind, they must be willing to look more deeply into themselves and their institutional structures and honestly address the documented fact that race is at the heart of this inequity. They must heed the words of Angela Davis: “It is not enough to be non-racist; we must be anti-racist.” Anti-racism work requires both personal and structural analysis and a commitment to accountability to people of color and to the transformation of imbedded oppression in educational systems supported by years of custom, legislation, and practice.
In order to take the deep look necessary to penetrate the heart of institutional racism, campuses must first begin with difficult conversations on race and racism. A key cause of tension around this conversation is a lack of shared vocabulary and common understanding regarding what is meant by race, racism, and institutional racism. Conversations regarding anti-racism work need to begin with a shared definition of the term “racism.” For the purposes of anti-racism work, racism is defined as “any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power” (Oluo, 2019). This complete definition is essential to productive conversations about race because without including power in the analysis, racism is reduced to individual acts of prejudice rather than an understanding that racist acts are part of larger system of oppression. This definition also explains why no such thing as reverse racism exists. People from the dominant race who benefit from the privilege of power cannot experience racism (Oluo, 2019).
One of the greatest obstacles to effective campus anti-racism work is ideas surrounding racism that are embedded in a good-bad binary where society is divided into the bad people who are racist and the good people who are colorblind and see all people as equal. An anti-racist analysis views racism as structural and embedded into all societal structures; therefore, all people are affected by racism and hold implicit bias that allows for the sustenance of racist structures. The good-bad binary prevents good-meaning people from confronting their own racism or taking action against racism because their beliefs that connect racism to their own immorality do not allow them to see or acknowledge the racism around them, nor their accountability and complacency. The moral investment in not being a racist makes people actively resistant to anti-racist change (D’Angelo, 2018). When anti-racists declare their institution is racist, those who do not have a common understanding see this statement as a deep moral affront and resist moving forward in conversation or action. An explanation of the anti-racist perspective with a structural perspective on racism allows for the elimination of the diversion of the good-bad binary and clears the way for the structural analysis necessary to set a foundation for effective and meaningful change.
Anti-racists also understand that belief in colorblindness and meritocracy, which are directly connected to the good-bad binary, also serve as an obstacle to productive anti-racism discussion. When people claim to see and treat all people equally, regardless of race, they disregard the negative impact racism has had on the lives of people of color and the privilege and opportunity that comes with being white. For this reason, institutions have moved beyond an inadequate focus on equality to a more informed aspiration of equity. Colleges must no longer direct their efforts to providing all students with the same resources but must instead provide students with what each one needs through an individualized assessment that takes into consideration the legacy of racism (Crenshaw, Harris, HoSang and Lipsitz, 2019).
Anti-racist analysis should not be limited to the experience of students. Colleges must also include a discussion of the traditional governance structures that have worked in community college institutions to oppress and marginalize faculty in addition to diverse student populations. Structural racism has been embedded in educational systems since their foundations. Colleges’ governance structures have adapted to support and sustain inequity, and those who work in the system have learned to adapt and in many cases even thrive. For this reason, Audre Lorde’s (1984) words “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” must be taken into consideration. A new form of campus organizing is needed to support anti-racism work. Traditional shared governance structures have supported racist structures and have historically silenced people of color and their allies as gadflies and troublemakers. In order to allow space for authentic anti-racism work, anti-racist activists must be supported to organize outside of the structures that have traditionally silenced and villainized them. Moreover, leaders must also be accountable to people of color provided with resources and empowered to enact change, even as the structures and the status-quo that has thrived for so long resists. This examination of governance and power structures of the institution, and fostering changes that support the voice and power of the disenfranchised, must be an integral part of community colleges.
While accountability to people of color is essential to anti-racism work, careful attention must also be paid to avoid over-taxing people of color with the burden of fixing racist structures. Harper (2013) defined onlyness “as the psycho-emotional burden of having to strategically navigate a racially politicized space occupied by few peers, role models and guardians from one’s same racial or ethnic group” (p. 189). Many times, faculty of color are a minority of one in their departments, and their voices are stifled in advocating for equity or diversity. Furthermore, faculty of color are often serving on various diversity initiatives or mentoring students of color in addition to completing their tenure and other campus obligations and contributions (Carter & O’Brien, 1993). These concerted efforts on their parts detract them from advancing into deanship or administrative positions, and they often experience burnout.
The need for white allies to support faculty of color is paramount to any systematic change occurring. These efforts may look different depending on how hostile each campus environment is and where each college is in its unique efforts of equitizing its institutions. People of color should not be burdened with resolving structural racism; such a demand is similar to telling a sick person to find the cure to his or her illness or a bullied victim to just “deal with it.” People of color should be consulted and be recommending polices, not necessarily authoring them. They should be crafting the vision but not necessarily have the responsibility of implementing it. Colleges must not burden colleagues of color with the labor of activism in protest of racist structures. White allies should carry the load in support of their students and colleagues of color, with complete accountability to people of color. Awareness must also be cultivated regarding the legacy of paternalism and imbalanced power dynamics between white activists and people of color in social justice work that has inhibited true anti-racist social transformation.
Strong anti-racist leadership is needed to dismantle systems and requires engaging in practices that are foundational to established structures. Effective examples of anti-racist practices include creating grassroots committees comprised of a variety of stakeholders from across campus who come together to make significant impacts on policy change and the restructuring of practices. If a campus is comfortable with the status quo or perhaps holding on to past practices, claiming that those practices have always worked, yet faculty of color express frustration and the campus lacks impactful diversity and inclusion practices that support data-driven changes to ameliorate equity gaps for students, campus leaders should examine those policies and practices. Anti-racism and equity training should transcend a surface celebration of diversity that does not get to the heart of structural racism and bias.
Some districts have invested in professional development programs that bring awareness and train staff and faculty regarding the many forms of systemic racism and oppression so that they can act as effective and well-informed advocates, allies, and partners to students and faculty of color. Effective anti-racism training creates a critical mass of colleagues who can lead a campus through an equity audit that identifies not only equity gaps but also structural barriers to equity and actions in order to dismantle them as well. Others have supported the creation of affinity groups—e.g., voluntary groups of people with the same interests and common goals. Common goals of affinity groups are to support faculty of color, anti-racism work, and equity-minded practices for student success, especially in support of historically underserved groups such as black, latinx, Native-American, and Asian-Pacific Islander populations.
No matter where a campus is on the continuum of awareness and understanding, faculty must be brave and begin these conversations in the spaces in which they have influence and power. Transformational change begins with identifying systems and practices of racism and oppression and actively working to break and change those systems.
Carter, D. J., & O’Brien, E. O. (1993). Employment and Hiring Patterns for Faculty of Color. American Council on Education Research Briefs, 4.6, pp. 2–16.
Crenshaw, K., Harris, L., HoSang, D., & Lipsitz, G. (2019). Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness Across the Disciplines. Berkeley, CA: U California P.
DiAngelo, R. (2018). White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Boston: Beacon Press.
Harper, S. R. (2013). Am I My Brother’s Teacher? Black Undergraduates, Racial Socialization, and Peer Pedagogies in Predominately White Post-Secondary Contexts. Review of Research in Education, 37(1), pp. 183–211. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3102/0091732X12471300.
Lorde, Audre. (1984). The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. pp. 110- 114.
McNair, T., Bensimon, E., & Malcolm-Piqeux, L. (2020). From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education. Hoboken: Jossey-Bass.
Oluo, I. (2019). So You Want to Talk About Race. New York: Hachette Book Group.
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