“Doing Diversity” in Higher Education: Practical Challenges

Recent student demonstrations protesting lingering and persistent racism on college campuses have called attention to the fact that diversity progress in higher education remains at incipient stages. Student voices have called for structural changes such as the hiring of more diverse faculty, inclusive leadership, the creation of chief diversity officer positions and greater diversity in the student body, as well as a more welcoming climate for minoritized students. In essence, the call for change requires systemic attention and integration of all the components of a campus ecosystem rather than through short-term, cosmetic adjustments to individual departments, courses, or programs.

Surprisingly in a review of diversity strategic action plans conducted for Are the Walls Really Down? (2007), the chief diversity officers that my co-author, Alvin Evans and I, contacted told us that the plans developed at their campuses and that were showcased prominently on their campuses websites had not really been actualized. Similarly, in interviews for Diverse Administrators in Peril (2012), chief diversity officers and affirmative action officers expressed frustration regarding their roles and real uncertainty about the degree to which their work was supported by their institutions.

Recent college graduates we interviewed for a forthcoming study, Rethinking Cultural Competence in Higher Education, reported the same gap between the institution’s stated diversity mission and the curricular and co-curricular experiences they had on campus. Most of their experiences related to diversity learning outcomes were accidental and the students had to seek such experiences out themselves. And adding to this composite picture of disconnection between espoused institutional goals and day-to-day realities, interviews with department chairs for The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (2015) reveal the fractionalization around diversity issues in the academic department, the isolation of the one or two faculty members who are perceived to be the perennial diversity advocates, and the difficulty faced by chairs in moving beyond the emphasis on disciplinary specialization to “border-crossing” dialogue or cross-cultural discussions. As a Black chair of Hispanic background in an elite predominantly white university reported,

Most White colleagues assume ‘diversity’ is for people of color and do not do much in recruitment (p. 79).

Bringing together the strands of research across these different domains of the university or college environment, certain common themes emerge that can yield practical steps on the pathway to successful diversity transformation. A precursor of such transformation is the willingness and desire to move forward collectively and collaboratively on the pathway to more inclusive institutions. This willingness cannot be taken for granted as diversity remains a contested topic on many college campuses and even discussion of “anti-racist” training programs can be considered controversial. Developing a common understanding of what diversity means to an academic institution and why it is important (i.e. the “business case” for diversity) is critical.

Our investigation of the integration of diversity and human resource programs across the private and public sectors and in higher education in the New Talent Acquisition Frontier (2014) reveals 10 prominent themes that characterize successful diversity transformation across all sectors.Among these themes are

1) an actionable leadership commitment to diversity;
2) a power structure that supports the attainment of strategic diversity objectives;
3) creation of a systematic, phase-based approach;
4) cultural change that builds trust-based relationships and eliminates fear-based working and learning environments.

Using the metaphor introduced by Ralph Kilmann to describe organizational change, diversity is not a quick fix. Instead, it will require long-term, sustained, and systemic attention to infrastructure, culture, systems, and processes across the multiple, intersecting domains of a campus environment.

Like the widening ripples that result when a stone is thrown into water, diversity transformation can remain elusive and disappear from intentional consideration or it can take hold through the progressive and practical action of institutional leadership, faculty, staff, administrators, and students.

Dr. Edna Chun serves as Chief Learning Officer for HigherEd Talent, a national diversity and HR consulting firm, and has over two decades of strategic diversity and HR experience as Chief Human Resources Officers in public higher education. Two of her co-authored books have garnered the prestigious Kathryn G. Hansen Publication award from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) and she is the recipient of a silver medal in the Axiom Best Business Books Award (2014) for another publication.

St. Patrick’s Day, Irish Americans and the Shifting Boundaries of Whiteness

Tomorrow in New York City, in Boston and throughout the U.S., Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage.  What few will acknowledge in this day of celebration is the way in which the Irish in American deployed whiteness in order to deflect the racism they encountered in the U.S.

Kerry Band from the Bronx

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: ktylerconk)

Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century. The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.

Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish. However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically. The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs. Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.

Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon). For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

Racial Pride is Can Help Protect Young People from Racism

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A new study conducted by Ming-Te Wang and James P. Huguley of the University of Pittsburg and Harvard University respectively, found that “racial socialization”— teaching and involving kids in activities that promote racial pride —helps to offset the discrimination and racial prejudices children face by the outside world.


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And, it’s not just relevant for young children in school. Teens and adolescents, including those who’ve been caught up in the criminal justice system, can also benefit from such an approach.

This new research by Wang and Huguley confirms research that I’ve conducted at Rikers Island over the last 15 years. I found that a focus on “racial pride” – teaching about historical antecedents to contemporary movements like #Black Lives Matter – offers a powerful shield against the discriminatory policies that result in the mass incarceration of black and brown bodies.

One of the key ways to help Black and Latino young men thrive is through racial pride. Focusing on racial pride may sound counterintuitive in a world in which a majority of young people in a recent poll said they thought their generation was “post-racial.” But my research with young men leaving jail and returning home suggests just the opposite. Embracing racial and ethnic pride can help these protect themselves in ways that really matter.

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What I, and a team of colleagues, offered through our study was a 30-hour educational program that served as a bridge between the young men’s time in jail and their return home. The eight sessions in the program focused on a range of topics, including the political economy of the drug war, gender and sexual relationships, and a session on racial and ethnic pride called, “My people, my pride/ Mi gente, mi orgulla.” Half of the 552 people in the 5-year study participated in the educational program, and the other half got the usual discharge plan from jail. The focus on these young men, in particular, was driven by the complex intersections of masculinity, race, criminal justice status, and health.

The idea for an intersectional approach to this work came from previous research with young African American women. Researchers Gina Wingood and Ralph DiClemente (Emory University) began doing similar work with young African American girls. In workshops designed to reduce their risk of HIV/STDs, instead of focusing exclusively on the biology of disease transmission, they included material on black feminist heroines, like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells. Their results were promising. They found a significant drop in risk for young girls who participated in the workshops versus those who did not. And, they made a compelling case for interventions that explicitly took gender and power into account. We wanted to replicate their work with young men who had been unlucky enough to land in jail at Rikers Island.
Our results were similar. When we followed up with the young men in our study a year later, we found that those who had participated in the educational program spent fewer days in jail compared with those who didn’t. We also found that they had fewer problems with drug dependence. When the young men had higher levels of racial pride at the time of their incarceration, they were significantly less likely to be reincarcerated or be engaged in illegal activities even up to one year after release from jail compared to men with lower levels of racial pride. The same young men were less likely to endorse violence to resolve conflict.

Other research with young people who haven’t been caught up in the legal system confirms the importance of racial pride as a protective factor against discrimination. Survey research of 630 mixed-gender adolescents from middle class backgrounds in 2013 by Ming-Te Wang (University of Pittsburgh) and James P. Huguley (Harvard University) found racial pride to be the single most important factor in guarding against racial discrimination, and discovered it had a direct impact on the students’ grades, future goals, and cognitive engagement.

While we know that racial pride can be transformative, we also recognize its limitations. Racial pride is still no guarantee against death at the hands of the state or others, and the young men we worked with know this. When we piloted the workshop on ethnic pride, we showed the men photographs of civil rights leaders – Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King – and asked the young men what they thought when they saw these images. One telling response to the images: “These guys are cool, but they’re all dead.” This observation aside, most of the young men we encountered in jail had heard little in their traditional educational programs about what might make them proud of being African American or Latino, outside of limited “Black History Month” or “Hispanic Heritage” events. The young people we’ve met in jail are eager to learn about their history and taking pride in it made a difference for their lives.

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It has been heartening, against a backdrop of police-perpetrated racialized violence in the U.S. and the current election cycle, to watch young people take to the streets and convention floors to demand change. We know that racial pride can be a source of strength and resilience, and it’s certainly part of what is driving current social movements. The true test will be whether US society can tolerate such resilience.


~ Megha Ramaswamy is Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at University of Kansas School of Medicine. Dr. Ramaswamy’s current work addresses the social context of sexual health risk among incarcerated women and is funded by the National Institutes of Health (National Cancer Institute) and American Cancer Society. The work described in this post was also funded by the National Institutes of Health (National Institute on Drug Abuse).

Protestors Force Cancelation of Trump Rally in Chicago

The activists at University of Illinois-Chicago, where Trump had scheduled a rally, effectively shut it down yesterday. When the rally was abruptly canceled at the last minute, Trump supporters and protestors clashed. Several people were injured.

This brief video puts the events of last night into some context of Trump’s escalating remarks at recent rallies (12:50 with a :30 advertisement at the beginning):

As this timeline created by Maddow’s production team illustrates, the rhetoric of Donald Trump is escalating and is now, pretty plainly, inciting violence among his supporters. Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric reaches beyond his rallies. Just two weeks ago, white high school students attending their school’s basketball game chanted “Trump, Trump, Trump” as way to intimidate their mostly Latino opponents on the other team.

What the clip by Maddow doesn’t mention is the way that mainstream news outlets, including MSNBC which airs her show, are complicit in this. The television news outlets give Trump free air time because it is good for their ratings. And, of course, it benefits Trump’s campaign. According to one estimate from January this year, Fox News alone has given Trump the equivalent of more than $30 million in free air time.

Because these events happened in Chicago at an event related to a presidential campaign, many people in the US were reminded of the violence against protestors at the 1968 Democratic Chicago convention. While this became a turning point in American politics, I don’t think this is the most apt comparison.

I think that Trump’s candidacy, and the appeal to his supporters, speaks to a much more sinister comparison. As Brent Staples, writing at the New York Times, recently pointed out, Trump’s rhetoric harkens back to reconstruction era politics. Here is Staples, and it’s worth quoting him at length:

Antigovernment and militia groups have grown rapidly since 2008. Shortly after Mr. Obama’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist groups, reported that the antigovernment militia movement had undergone a resurgence, fueled partly “by fears of a black man in the White House.” And for proof of violence like that of the Reconstruction era, look no further than the young white supremacist who is charged with murdering nine African-Americans at a church in Charleston, S.C., last summer.

This is the backdrop against which Donald Trump blew a kiss to the white supremacist movement during a television interview by refusing to disavow the support of the white nationalist and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Republican Party leaders in Congress wagged their fingers and delivered pro forma denunciations. What they need to understand is this: Racial hatred is a threat to the country and their party’s leading candidate is doing everything he can to profit from it.

That’s what Donald Trump is doing with this increasingly violent and hate-filled rhetoric, he’s “blowing a kiss to the white supremacist movement.” This is the GOP frontrunner and presumptive nominee for president of the US. These are dire times.

What the protests at the rally last night in Chicago showed is that it is possible for people to stand up against the bigotry and hatred of Trump and his supporters. It’s not just possible, it’s necessary.

The Trouble with Cisgender White Feminists

With her out-sized trans* visibility, retrograde politics, and gender performance, it is difficult for many cisgender white feminists to make sense of Caitlyn Jenner.

Caitlyn Cover

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(Aside: This is probably where I should disclose that I am white, sometimes identify as a feminist, and am cisgender. I also identify as lesbian, queer and femme and have a long-term partner who is GNC. I come at this critique and all my work through a lens that places critical race theory at the beginning of the analysis. This post follows on a recent one about Caitlyn Jenner, which is part of If on-going series I write called The Trouble with White Feminism, you might want to check it out.) 

In June, 2015 journalist and film producer, Elinor Burkett publishedher response to Jenner’s announcement of her gender transition, “What Makes a Woman?” in the New York Times. The piece caused an uproar. In it, Burkett confided that she, and “many women I know,” “speak privately about how insulting we find the language trans activists use to explain themselves.” In Burkett’s view, the rhetoric of transitioning from one gender to another does not give enough heed to the social construction of gender, but relies on a kind of biological determinism. To make this argument, she relied on an analogy with race:

The “I was born in the wrong body” rhetoric favored by other trans people doesn’t work any better and is just as offensive, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas. Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community.

Burkett’s objection seems to be that even though gender is not reducible to mere biology (breasts and vaginas), it is also not so easily changed. It is curious that she reaches to an analogy with race here. Curious because race is mentioned nowhere else in her piece, and race doesn’t seem to be a pressing concern for Burkett except as it is useful to make the real point she wants to drive home here, which is about gender. What Burkett’s analogy between gender and race reveals is Burkett’s lack of understanding of how race affects her, and how it is interwoven with gender. Burkett is a cisgender woman, not only a woman, she is also white. Her whiteness influences her perspective as much as her gender and her feminism, but it is little examined here. Her faulty reasoning-by-analogy is especially ironic in hindsight, as it was a short week later that Rachel Dolezal emerged as someone who had done just what Burkett set out as preposterous.

Burkett mis-genders Jenner throughout the piece (calling her “him” “Mr.” and “Bruce” throughout) – a practice trans* activists have dubbed deadnaming.  In Burkett’s view, the primary offense of Caitlyn Jenner was an insufficiently feminist approach to the performance of gender, she ends the piece upbraiding Jenner for a fond reference to nail polish, saying “Nail polish does not a woman make.”

Burkett’s is a nasty response, but not an unfamiliar one. For US-based, second wave, cisgender, straight white feminists, like Burkett or like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, femininity was key part of what they were struggling against. For cisgender, straight, white women who came of age at the height of Playboy culture, rejecting the trappings of (heterosexual) femininity was a crucial form of resistance.

Gloria Steinem bunny

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A Bunny’s Tale,  Gloria Steinem’s indictment from within a bunny suit of the Playboy culture and that particular form of femininity, was a touchstone for many feminists of that generation. What the cisgender white feminists tend to miss is that this form of femininity was not available to all women. This is not to diminish how oppressive some women find make-up and high heels, but this is not a universal experience. Julia Serrano, who identifies as trans*, argues that femininity has been scapegoated and should be reclaimed and celebrated. But hers is an unusual voice among white feminists. Many more agree with Burkett.

Even acclaimed scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling found herself agreeing with Burkett’s critique of femininity:

“I do not identify with the culturally feminine. I don’t wear make-up or high heels or dresses. I have always viewed the dominant presentation of the feminine woman–as someone physically weak, dependent and physically impeded by tight clothing and high heels–as disempowering…”

Fausto-Sterling then posted a series of disastrous Tweets, and sought to correct them through a longer blog post. In that post, Fausto-Sterling says:

The visual pin-up-girl presentation of the ultra-feminine Caitlyn Jenner in the pages of Vanity Fair did not fill my heart with joy. After my fateful tweets some of my correspondents directed me to Julia Serrano’s defense of femininity and I am struggling both to understand her position and to decide whether I agree with it or whether it is possible to embrace parts of it.

This is a common mistake of a white feminism. It wants to herald “all women” as sharing some universal experiences that should unify us all. It’s what was behind that hashtag, #YesAllWomen.

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This is the kind of faulty logic that is behind Madeleine Albright’s quip, “There is a special place reserved in hell for women that do not help other women.” While she was recently made to apologize for the remark when she said it at a rally for Hillary Clinton, in years past it was a favorite line of hers and even printed on Starbucks coffee cups. But, what does the category ‘woman’ mean when cisgender, straight, white feminists use it?

As the posts and graphics in support of International Women’s Day floated through my social media timelines earlier this week, I wondered who they meant. Certainly not me. As someone who identifies as queer and lesbian, the category ‘woman’ as most people use the term, barely adheres to me. French feminist theorist Monique Wittig wrote:

“for ‘woman’ has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems. Lesbians are not women.”

Wittig was writing at the peak of radical lesbian feminism and her words may seem shocking today, but they still resonate for me. The category woman as many cisgender feminists mean it, is not one that resonates for me. I am far removed – by my own design – from the dangers inherent in heterosexual systems (e.g., violence against women, unintended pregnancy, the need for abortion). I certainly stand in solidarity with those who live within that system, but it’s not my life. I am not a ‘woman’ in that way.

I also identify as a queer femme, so the kinds of insults hurled at Caitlyn Jenner for her performance of femininity could have just as easily been thrown at me. And yet, I am a cis white woman, which carries all kinds of privilege with it. This, too, troubles the simplistic category of ‘woman’ used by cisgender white feminists like Burkett.

Lesli-Ann Lewis, writing at Ebony, explains this disconnect she experiences reading Burkett:

Burkett’s White cis middle class womanhood looks nothing like my Black poor cis womanhood, and that her issues are not my issues. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a meeting and have my breasts discussed because I’m not invited to those meetings. With natural hair and a state college education, I’m not let in to make those $0.75 to a man’s dollar. Most Black women do not. She discusses periods and birth control as defining difficulties of womanhood, but the women I know have found their womanhood rooted in deeper, more communal issues. Becoming a Black woman in America means worrying for yourself and your loved ones when they go out, for fear of police.

Understanding police violence as every bit as foundational to womanhood is beyond the scope of conventional formulations of cisgender white feminism. Instead, cisgender white feminists insist on critiquing trans* women for their expression of femininity.

When Allure magazine ran a stunning, mostly nude photo of Laverne Cox, cis white feminist Megan Murphy lost it.

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Murphy called Cox’s photo a “cartoonish version” of what a woman looks like, “like any other objectified female body, sculpted by surgery and enhanced by Photoshop.” Murphy, like Burkett, critiques a trans* woman’s expression of femininity as part of that oppressive system of representation that (some) feminists want to break free from. But such a critique misses more than it offers. Here is Lesli-Ann Lewis again:

Critiquing marginalized women for embracing femininity is tone deaf as it ignores our history of being denied femininity.

Lewis is on point here. The critique of femininity by cis white feminists assumes that everyone – all women – have had femininity thrust upon them, that it has oppressed universally. But some of us have been denied femininity, or had it twisted and turned against us.

Cis white feminists critiquing the femininity of trans* women of color such as Laverne Cox are displaying a kind of ignorance that is fostered by whiteness. Accustomed to taking their experience as women, without regard to race (or class), and then universalizing that to all women, they call for a feminism that shores up whiteness. It’s a feminism I want no part of. I’ll be standing with the trans* queer and gender-non-conforming folks of all races who want to get free. Some of us will be wearing nail polish.

The Trouble with White Women: Caitlyn Jenner Edition

Caitlyn Jenner is doing quite well for herself.  Her visibility, and the responses to it, raises some troubling issues about white women and white feminism.

Caitlyn Jenner for HM Sports(Caitlyn Jenner for HM Sports, image source)

At a time in LGBTQ politics when Janet Mock, Laverne Cox (both African American) and Caitlyn Jenner (white) are making transgender women more visible, it is Caitlyn Jenner who secured the cover of Vanity Fair (photographed by Annie Leibowitz) for the announcement of her gender transition. Jenner also has her own reality-based tv show, “I Am Cait”, and is racking up major endorsement contracts, most recently with MAC cosmetics and HM Sports. While Jenner’s already-existing celebrity status – as a former Olympic athlete and an adjunct member of the Kardashians – has helped to launch her new career, it is her whiteness that has helped her monetize her gender transition.

Caitlyn Jenner and Donald Trump

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Since being catapulted into the media-designated spokesperson for trans* people, Caitlyn Jenner has voiced her ardently conservative views and declared her support for Republican party presidential candidates, recently offering to be Ted Cruz’s “trans ambassador.”

On a recent episode of her show, Jenner said Trump would be “would be very good for women’s issues” (although she doesn’t like his ‘macho attitude’). A group of mostly white ‘gal pals’ of transgender women try to coax her out of her support for Republicans and her misguided belief that they don’t have anything against transgender people. It’s this construction of Caitlyn Jenner in the role of “student,” or “anti-hero” in the narrative of the show that Zack Ford calls “brilliant” :

There’s something brilliant about the fact that this is a show with a cast made up entirely of transgender women who are speaking openly about their experiences and calling out problematic anti-trans rhetoric without it feeling like an after-school special. Even if Jenner plays the foil for these discussions, she’s also still the reason that they’re taking place and that hundreds of thousands of people are watching them.

Perhaps so. I agree that it’s a good thing that Caitlyn and her antagonists can discuss the dire implications of Republican policies for transgender and gender non-conforming (GNC) people, such as the wretched bathroom policy in Houston, for a wide audience.

Caitlyn and pals

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Part of the trouble with  “I Am Cait”, is to join trans* identity with whiteness, wealth and a particular kind of gender identity. In her show, the trouble with white women expands the franchise to include trans* women.

As generative as the conversations on her show about trans* issues may be, they do little to address the systemic racism which leads to the disproportionate murders of trans* women of color. Statistics on this are hard to come by because most federal surveys designed to estimate populations simply don’t account for trans* people, according to the Williams Institute. According to one estimate, 22 trans* women of color were murdered in 2015. The actual number is likely far higher.

Although Caitlyn says she favors the Republicans for their economic agenda, she and her pals are not talking about how this agenda affects the economic precarity of trans* people.The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 26% of trans people lost a job due to bias, 50% were harassed while at work, and 78% of trans* students were harassed or assaulted. Joblessness among transgender people is around 14%, double the national average (for 2011). Black trans* people had double that rate, 28% unemployment, according to an NGLTF survey.

Preston Mitchum notes many of these same critiques of Jenner but argues that we, as cisgender LGB people, are too hard on her. He writes:

What’s frightening is that when we reach our social justice journeys, we often expect others to immediately be on the ride, despite the fact that it takes most of us a lifetime to get where we are.

To be sure, Jenner is ‘not a perfect advocate’ for LGBTQ rights and I agree with Mitchum here. We are all on a journey, and Jenner seems to be new to thinking about social justice issues. There’s a way in which Jenner gets held to a different standard because she is in the spotlight.

My critique is less about her as an individual and what her ascendance means for the culture. What’s happening with the rise of Caitlyn Jenner as media-designated spokesperson on all things LGBTQ furthers an equation of ‘whiteness’ and ‘queerness.’

Caitlyn Jenner is now part of a larger cultural apparatus that produces whiteness. Which bodies do we mean when we say trans*,  LGBT, or queer? Often, they are white. And this affects how we view the world. As Hiram Perez writes:

“Queer theorizing, as it has been institutionalized, is proper to—and property to—white bodies.” 

Caitlyn Jenner as hypervisible trans* woman and corporate pitch-person reinforces this circuit of queerness, whiteness and property.

Scholar and activist Cathy Cohen describes the time we are living in as one of “multicultural neoliberalism,” characterized by:

a sustained attack on the basic humanity of poor black people that provides the context in which we should understand the killing of young black people, in particular young black men, and the less visible assaults on black women and the murder of black trans people.

As a response, Cohen calls for transformational politics and substantive solidarity, and urges an embrace of deviance. Juxtaposed to Cohen’s lucid naming of the moment, it’s here that we see the real contrast to Caitlyn Jenner’s politics. Based on her public persona, Jenner is not interested in a socially transformative politics nor is she interested in a substantive solidarity with black or brown or poor trans* people, nor does she seem to be interested in an embrace of deviance.

My point is not that Jenner is a less-than-perfect advocate for LGBTQ rights, but a subtler one. Part of Caitlyn Jenner’s success is her ability to fit rather seamlessly into the cultural apparatus of whiteness. It is whiteness that has also enabled Jenner to monetize her gender transition via large endorsement contracts. And, given her embrace not a rather conventional performance of femininity, she has reaped certain cultural and monetary rewards (e.g., Vanity Fair cover). 

And this is where Caitlyn Jenner poses a dilemma for cisgender, mostly straight, white feminists. Next in this series, I write about the trouble that cisgender white feminists have with Caitlyn Jenner.

Trump and White Nativism

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Thanks to the candidacy of Donald J. Trump, the 2016 presidential election has become a national referendum on racism. When Americans elected Barack Obama in 2008 many hoped that it signaled the long-promised denouement of white supremacy. But for many others, Obama’s presidency represented their worst nightmares realized. Now, as Mychal Denzel Smith observed recently about Trump: “He is the backlash.” Or, as comedian Larry Wilmore frames it, the Unblackening of the White House has begun.

But Trump’s appeal is not really new. In fact, it’s as old as the United States.

Beginning in 1790, the US made white skin a prerequisite for citizenship. This hateful pigment bias established white skin as the norm for US citizens. By making whiteness the norm, the founders categorized non-white skin as a type of deviance. This is not just history. In 2015, a federal judge reaffirmed as recently as 2015.

This means that, for people of color, even the simple act of appearing in public constitutes a form of anti-normative criminality. The fact that people of color are vastly overrepresented in US prisons in large part because they are more likely to be perceived by law enforcement as “incorrigible recidivists.”

How could a nation that touts itself as “the world’s greatest democracy” equate non-white skin with criminal deviance?

Emile Durkheim, a founder of sociology, argued that every society constructs its own definitions of deviance. Deviance functions as a type of social glue. It works by lionizing those who comply with social norms and stigmatizing those who don’t. The US’s European settler-colonialists incorporated an ethnocentric preference for white skin into the political substrate of American democracy and designated everyone else ‘deviant.’

These European settler-colonialists wanted to claim ownership of an entire continent that was already occupied. If Europeans were going to make a home for themselves in North America, they would either have to share the continent with its original inhabitants, or they would have to murder millions of indigenous people and steal their land.

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Although Native Americans may have been willing to co-exist, Europeans weren’t keen on the idea of sharing. They were keen on the idea of plunder. So, Europeans invented the ludicrous fiction of white nativism. White nativism is the notion that light-skinned Europeans are North America’s true natives. As the true natives, whites are deserving of all that plunder. Or, so the fiction goes.

White nativists have constructed a range of prejudices for different groups of people in the US. White nativists enacted genocide against Native Americans, instituted slavery, established Jim Crow, and devised mass incarceration for African Americans. White Nativists have also excluded Chinese immigrants from the US, interned Japanese Americans and have treated Latinos as if they were all illegal immigrants. More recently, white nativists have openly contemplated a national ban on Muslims. Through these mechanism the US has celebrated whiteness and denigrated those with relatively more skin pigment.

Donald Trump takes pleasure in fomenting racism for his own political gain. Given Trump’s nauseating popularity as a 2016 presidential candidate, it is also obvious that many Americans share Trump’s white nativist tendencies. Since entering the 2016 presidential race, each time Trump has uttered a despicably racist comment his popularity with the American public has increased.

Donald Trump wants to take America back to the days when privileged white racists got their jollies by terrorizing people of color. Sadly, a passionate cadre of fellow racists want to help Donald Trump set civil rights back a century. It doesn’t have to be like this.

If Americans really love democracy, then they — and by that I mean we — can and must dismantle white supremacist racism. And we need to start dismantling racism today.

In our book, A Formula for Eradicating Racism, Earl Smith and I argue that Americans can terminate the climate of sadism that inspires white supremacist racism by erasing the Three-Fifths Compromise from the US Constitution and replacing it with a universal declaration of human equality.

We could, as a nation, choose to do this. Other countries, including South Africa, have embraced human rights as part of their foundational tenets.

Or, we could elect Donald Trump. If America elects Trump, a candidate now endorsed by the likes of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

Register. Vote. And tell your non-Trump-voting friends and family to do likewise.

~ Professor Tim McGettigan teaches sociology at Colorado State University-Pueblo and he writes books about social change. Most recently, he is the co-author, with Earl Smith, of A Formula for Eradicating Racism: Debunking White Supremacy. 

Race in the Academy: Three Lessons from UBC

“You must refrain from thinking controversial thoughts out loud…” the Chair of Board of Governors told University of British Columbia (UBC) President, Dr. Arvind Gupta in May, 2015. Shortly afterward, UBC announced that Dr. Gupta, UBC’s first non-white President, had stepped down after serving only thirteen months of a five-year term. The year 2015 also marked the 100-year anniversary of UBC and Centennial celebrations, along with Dr. Gupta’s sudden departure, prompted my reflections here.

(Dr. Arvind Gupta, Former President of University of British Columbia,
image source)

The circumstances leading to Dr. Gupta’s mystifying and unprecedented exit from the UBC Presidency were not immediately disclosed and the university became embroiled in a public relations fiasco fueled by speculation. One UBC professor of Mathematics, Dr. Nassif Ghossoub, called for the resignation of the Chair of the Board of Governors over the “botched” announcement of the resignation.  At the Sauder School of Business, Dr. Jennifer Berdahl, an expert in gender and diversity, wrote on her blog that the ex-President lost “the masculinity contest among leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men” only to be chided by the Chair of the Board of Governors for this observation. Dr. Berdahl then publicly exposed what she experienced to be an attempt by the Chair to silence her and thus undermine her academic freedom.

Unlike 1915 when the university was founded, the dynamics of leadership were different as UBC entered its 100th year under a woman President, Dr. Piper. She had served in this position before (1997-2006) and was hastily reappointed for one year upon the untimely departure of Gupta. In a statement welcoming students, staff, instructors and faculty into the centennial year of the University of British Columbia, Piper said:

“We are as committed to our core mission of learning and research as were our founders in 1915, and this centennial year will give us the opportunity to show that the spirit of intellectual inquiry is alive and well at UBC as we reach new heights in innovation and discovery.”

(Dr. Martha Piper, Interim President, University of British Columbia,
image source


Of course, what is left unsaid in Dr. Piper’s remarks is that the university’s 1915 ‘core mission’ as conceived by its founders relied upon the dispossession of the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam and Coast Salish peoples. This ‘core mission’ placed the university at the centre of Eurocentric knowledge production and of fostering the emergent Canadian elite in the province, and indeed, the country. As such, the institution reflected, and was reflective of, the racial and imperial policies of a colonial-settler state and society. Moreover, the migration and settlement policies of the period sought to increase the presence and power of ‘preferred’ European ‘races’ while containing the permanent settlement of the ‘non-preferred’ races of Asia and Africa. In other words, UBC’s ‘core mission’ was of a piece with the practices that were to produce Canada as a ‘white man’s country.’

“It looks like a whitewash” was a comment I heard with regard to Dr. Gupta again and again in the community, as well as from a number of colleagues not particularly attuned to the politics of race or diversity. The high-handed replacement of UBC’s first President of colour with a white, albeit highly qualified and reputed, woman under secretive conditions raised many questions, not the least about the vexed politics of race, diversity, gender and equity at the university. These politics, of course, reach well beyond the level of optics in shaping intellectual and institutional life. The case of Dr. Gupta reveals that if the gender politics at UBC have shifted during its history, these now serve its racialized power structure. Indeed, UBC is becoming whiter at its Centennial even as this whiteness is contested in the world in which the university functions. Unfortunately, like 1915, white hegemony remains pretty resilient at UBC.

‘Race Culture’ Structures Life in the Canadian Academy

University campuses across North America have been in a state of heightened turmoil in the last decade. Debates and struggles sparked by the racial, gender, sexual and colonial/imperial politics that shape the academy are no less explosive now than they were at the height of the protest movements of the 1960s. Public attention in Canada has focused mainly on protests against anti-Black racism in the US, from Yale to Mizzou, but much less reported is the fact that protests against anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and other forms of racism are also being organized at Canadian universities. While protests against austerity measures and the ‘rape culture’ on campuses receives national (if intermittent) public attention – as with the rape chants and sexual assaults at UBC and the online posting of misogynist comments by a group of dentistry students at Dalhousie University  – the ‘race culture’ that structures life in the Canadian academy receives far less public or scholarly attention.

(Canadian students protest, image source)

The glaring absence of Indigenous scholars and scholars of colour in leadership at UBC has been documented by the administration itself, as has been its culture of institutional whiteness. A 2013 report, Inclusion: A Consultation on Organizational Change to Support UBC’s Commitment to Equity and Diversity, commissioned by then President Toope found a “lack of representation of racialized groups in senior positions and on committees, a lack of safe spaces for racialized groups, as well as the persistence of Eurocentric norms in the evaluation of scholarship and work performance.”  The report concluded bluntly, “UBC’s leadership and therefore its key decision-makers are white.”

UBC’s response to this report – which tied equity to diversity and linked both to race – was to ignore its findings on race, delink diversity from equity and link a generic approach to equity with ‘inclusion’.  In this, UBC provided a textbook example of what has been theorized in the scholarly literature as the ‘non-performativity’ of diversity and anti-racism policies. 

Sara Ahmed, in her empirical study of diversity work in universities, found that the writing of diversity statements, policies and reports is taken by administrations to be the ‘doing’ of the work of redressing inequalities of race. These policies and statements thus do not actually accomplish what they claim. They are ‘non-performative’ in that they do not translate into the action required to bring about the necessary change to make the institution diverse and anti-racist.

At UBC, the actionable information presented by the report was likewise not taken up to redress the lack of diversity and racial inequality in its leadership. Instead, this knowledge became calibrated to a race-blind approach that allowed for the enhancement of gender inclusion but deepened the racial inequality in the university’s institutional mechanisms.  Put differently, the institution acted on the report to make itself whiter.

(image source)

Such institutional investments in whiteness shape the context in which the Gupta affair has played out. The crisis ignited by his unseemly departure – GuptaGate, as it is  dubbed by some – deepened during the fall 2015 term with the administration’s (mis)handling of other cases related to gender, sex and race, some of which came to public attention. These included an investigation into the infringement of Dr. Jennifer Berdahl’s academic freedom, which led to the resignation of the Chair of the Board of Governors, but no apology from the university; and the institution’s (non)response to sexual assault cases on campus reported by women students, featured in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary.

The University Forced to Release Documents on ‘GuptaGate’

UBC finally broke its silence about the Gupta debacle with the release of the documents in late January (2016) in response to several Freedom of Information requests. The documents were highly redacted, but upon their release, online activists downloaded a treasure trove of uncensored attachments that were apparently released in error.  These attachments made for intriguing reading for they revealed just how fractious the relationship between Dr. Gupta and some members of the Board of Governors (the majority of whom are political appointees) had become. They also pointed to serious violations of  transparency, accountability and fair treatment at this publicly funded institution. Leaked statements from powerful members of the Board of Governors charged Dr. Gupta with exceeding his authority, acting in a manner unbefitting a university President, and generally being inept, divisive, confrontational and ineffectual.   

The quote with which I began (“… you must refrain from thinking controversial thoughts aloud….”) provides a sense of the tone adopted by the Chair of the Board in his communication with the President. In contrast, Dr. Gupta’s response revealed a collegial and measured response to the very many criticisms leveled at him both personally and professionally.  His emphasis was on the professional nature of their working relationships and on what he still clearly took to be their shared objectives.

Upon UBC’s release of these documents, Dr. Gupta spoke publicly about how his vision for transforming UBC into a 21st Century institution generated resistance from some sectors within the institution.  Without specifying the exact scope and nature of the change he envisioned, or the particulars of the conflicts with the Board of Governors, he described how he found out about secret meetings held by an ad hoc committee of the Board. In Dr. Gupta’s estimation, “This group had only one intention… They decided they didn’t want me.”   Eventually Dr. Gupta felt there remained no alternative but for him to resign if UBC was to be protected from further internal strife.

There have been suggestions that the conflicts between some members of the Board of Governors and Dr. Gupta may have included the former President’s attempt to restructure the top level of the administration with an emphasis on fiscal responsibility, accountability and transparency, and a shift of resources to faculty and students to support teaching, research and experiential learning.  There is also speculation that Dr. Gupta’s ambitious attempts to resolve older “thorny and unfinished issues” – which included “a mishandled Athletics file, a controversial ‘Vantage College’, disagreements over copyrights, a faulty housing plan that never got off the ground, as well as various pre-approved big ticket capital expenditures” – were not well-received.  The ex-President’s experience has been described as a “nightmare”, it raised concerns about “bullying and harassment” for at least one of his close colleagues. Moreover, the role of political appointees in running the university has sparked further public debate about the involvement of the provincial government in UBC’s internal workings. The refusal of the UBC administration to respond to these substantive issues has kept the speculation and rumors alive and growing.

(image source)

Three Lessons about Race and Gender from the Crisis at UBC

What, then, are the lessons of this ‘teachable’ moment that is the crisis of legitimacy at UBC?  As a member of the UBC faculty who has worked for over a decade and a half to promote critical race feminist and anti-colonial studies and advocate for the leadership of faculty, sessionals and students of colour and of indigenous ancestry, I find this current imbroglio reveals a number of important insights into how the politics of race, gender and coloniality are currently being reconstituted at one of Canada’s leading academic institutions.

  • White Hegemony Takes Work. The crisis at CBC demonstrates just how much work it takes to assert white hegemony within the university. Instead of a remnant of a regrettable past that has been transcended, the production and maintenance of this hegemony requires active, dynamic and ongoing efforts at the highest administrative levels. The present crisis demonstrates how those in positions of leadership work to contain the direction of change in order to enhance their own status and access to power. Most significant from my perspective, the departure of the first President of colour, his replacement by a white President, the announcement and press statements by UBC, and the release of documents, all took place without the word ‘race’ entering the public debates and discussions in any meaningful manner.  If ‘race’ has been made invisible in this matter, so too has the ‘whiteness’ that is treated as the normative state of the institution.
  • Disenfranchisement and Appropriation are Crucial Strategies. Producing this institutional whiteness requires the ongoing, active and collective disenfranchisement of underrepresented racialized groups and the appropriation of their creativity, labour and expertise. The UBC example shows how, despite the accomplishments of Dr. Gupta, even in the very neo-liberal terms set by the university, he was denied procedural fairness and due process as stipulated in his contract. And, despite the supposed urgency for his departure, the UBC leadership continued to state their commitment to move ahead with the strategic plan that he had envisioned, presumably with the resources he helped bring to UBC. This suggests there was no significant flaw in his strategic vision or abilities, only with the man himself. The university’s policies, procedures, statements and reports that hold the promise of fair and equitable treatment are thus shown to be set aside on the basis of nothing more than the preferences, choices and interests of the (white) leadership. The Gupta debacle demonstrates how little the principles of fair and equal treatment, transparency and accountability actually impact on the making of such decisions.
  • White Women are the Main Beneficiaries of Equity Measures. The UBC crisis demonstrates how gender is put to work to advance institutional whiteness when the latter is destabilized. Of the four equity seeking constituencies, the greatest advances within the academy have been made in the area of gender equity, as Malinda Smith has found in her research. Significant, however, is that gender is read as white in the Canadian context, so that it is white women who have been the main beneficiaries of equity measures. Likewise at UBC, the treatment of gender continues to privilege white women, enabling them to corner the equity market by actively marginalizing women of colour faculty Situated at the forefront of ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion’ initiatives, gender (shorn of its intersections with other social relations, particularly race) now functions as a gatekeeper for the other equity seeking groups, Smith argues. Gender is thus a key site for the reconsolidation of a white hegemony that is deeply contested otherwise. In the present climate of local and global challenges to racial/imperial discourses of western superiority, promoting race-blind approaches to gender helps restabilize whiteness by containing and impeding the transformative potential of anti-colonial and anti-racist gender politics.

The UBC crisis is far from resolved.  Even as the Board of Governors rushes ahead to consolidate what many define publicly as a coup against Dr. Gupta with its search for a replacement President, the Faculty Association and the AMS Student Society have called for an external investigation into the Board’s governance practices. They have also demanded the suspension of the search for a new President until such an investigation is complete. These developments have been followed by the release of a public statement from the Deans throwing their support behind the Board of Governors and the Presidential search committee.  How and when the present standoff between the university’s leadership and its faculty and students will end remains to be seen.

The mess upending UBC’s centennial celebrations can be anticipated to keep feeding the tensions and upheavals in campus life, and the need for the administration to respond to the substantive matters raised by faculty, students and the general public becomes more pressing by the day. Even the most cursory of observations reveals that UBC’s leadership and its structures of authority reflect neither the demographic make-up nor the social and cultural environment in which the university operates, that it is not representative of the communities it claims to serve.

The making of UBC into a whiter institution will have major and far-reaching repercussions; this larger crisis affects not only the university’s governance, it sets back the cause of racial justice to which many of us are committed. That we have to speak out against the further entrenchment of white hegemony a century after UBC’s founding is a scandal.

~ Sunera Thobani is Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia. She is a co-founder of the cross-Canada network, Researchers and Academics of Colour for Equity (RACE), the former Director of the Centre for Race, Autobiography, Gender and Aging (RAGA) at UBC, and a former President of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. Dr. Thobani is the author of Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2007), and coeditor of Asian Women: Interconnections (Canadian Scholars Press, 2005) and States of Race: A Critical Race Feminism for the 21st Century (Between the Lines, 2010). She is currently working on a book on Race and Coloniality in the Academy.