“Diversity” is Another Name for Free PoC Labor

In the United States, the majority of Black folks have experienced discrimination because of their race. Moreover, Black Americans who have had some college experience are even more likely to report having experienced discrimination (81% compared to 59% among those who have never attended college). While some research proposes that college students have more awareness of racial discrimination due to educational exposure, other studies suggest that isolation and race-related stress accounts for higher reporting.

The medical community is increasingly acknowledging that prolonged experiences with racism can produce extreme psychological distress. Social science research is revealing that not only do many of those experiences happen in college, but college education itself might be associated with experiences of racism. White college students do not have this burden. This means that Black students must overcome a major learning obstacle that does not affect their white peers, yet are expected to thrive equally in an environment that was created to serve the learning needs of those same White students. This amounts to unacknowledged labor that deprives only certain students of the time and energy to perform academically.

Elite universities often respond to this concern by emphasizing “diversity and inclusion” programming. This ideal is often marketed with White students and their gaze as the target. Moreover, such programming is quite often yet another form of labor for minority students who become tasked with educating their disinterested peers about their experiences with marginalization, and whose presence and participation is used to reinforce institutions’ images as progressive and inclusive (See Osei-Kofi, Torres, and Lui 2013). Almost inevitably, university events meant to address racial discrimination take the form of panels of students, faculty, and administrators of color talking about their experiences to a largely non-White audience. For the majority of White students, their educational experience is never interrupted by a need to do the labor of interrogating their positionality.

Many students, myself included, participate in such panels for two reasons: 1) We hope that we will reach a handful of people at a time and 2) We are acutely aware that our appeals for university resources largely depend on our willingness to participate in such events. In other words, it is labor we do on behalf of the university with the hope that our community will eventually benefit or not lose benefits.

But it is labor nonetheless, and with a very dubious pay schedule. For PoC faculty and administrators, this type of community work is vaguely regarded under professional responsibilities. But their White colleagues are not pressured to undertake such work, or penalized during promotion consideration for their perceived failure to contribute to their community. This is apart from the even more invisible labor provided by faculty who mentor students of color and ensure that they finish college despite the constant micro-aggressions of their teachers and peers.

How do these different forms of labor undertaken by Black students and faculty constitute the university providing an equitable learning environment for students of color? At some earlier time, this type of work might have constituted awareness-building. But now that awareness has surely been achieved, how do the unending debates about freedom of expression, diversity of ideas, and learning from our peers address the reality that Black students cannot start their schoolwork for the day until they finish putting the shattered pieces of themselves back together into a student?

It is not “equal” that a student who is getting death threats for kneeling for the national anthem is expected to be “resilient,” but a student who asserts in class that Black people who protest the flag should leave the country must be slowly and gently disabused of their “opinion” through the collective efforts of their Black teachers and peers. It is not “equal” that the tenure of faculty of color depends on their ability to appease students who don’t believe they are intellectually deserving of their title, but baldly racist professors are awarded for their teaching despite the experiences of the students of color they have hurt. And it is certainly not equal to outsource problem-solving for these inequalities to the students they disservice, while using that labor to bolster an image of progressivity and worldliness.

Racial trauma is a mental health issue exacerbated by institutionalized colorblindness. Universities that do not address how their own policies or lack thereof differentially impact the diverse groups they purport to serve, cannot ethically claim to value diversity.

Further Reading

Osei-Kofi, N., Torres, L. E., & Lui, J. (2013). Practices of whiteness: Racialization in college admissions viewbooks. Race Ethnicity and Education,16(3), 386-405.


Activism is not Armor



We are human.

I truly appreciate the kind words that I have received for the work that I do in the Penn community, and the thoughts that I share on Facebook and Twitter about that work.

But sometimes, I think that people forget that I am Black. I have heard people refer to my politics as “leftist,” as “liberal,” as “activist.” But really, my politics are identity politics. They are a politics of self, that grow from my desire to survive, to see my family survive, both current and future. And I’m including all Black people in this, even the ones who don’t want to be included.

When I say survive, I don’t just mean surviving physically, although that is part of it. Because yes, my heart stops when I make eye contact with a police officer away from the center of campus. I also mean emotionally and mentally. I have no doubt that the anxiety I live with is caused first and foremost by my deep awareness of my race and gendered position in the American hierarchy. I fight, through words and through community building, to keep the fire inside of me stoked, so that anxiety and the depression that accompanies it don’t consume me.

I can honestly say that I am happy. But that was not always the case. My love of Blackness did not always provide an adequate buffer against the raw reality that my Blackness is hated.

So I almost didn’t click this link, to read about the sad death of MarShawn McCarrel. Not because I didn’t care, but because it hits too close to home. We are humans. Activists are human beings that live in the world they are fighting to better. They are soldiers on a front line. And some of them…many of them may succumb. No one should be surprised that the same people fighting the war are the first to die at its hands.

So, I think that next time you or I feel the compulsion to thank people like MarShawn for their service, I hope we remember to thank them for their humanity. And ask them how they’re doing. How they’re coping.

Rest in Truth, MarShawn.

My First Time at The Rodeo: The Problem of Intellectual Theft Against Black Women

Every academic has to experience this rite of passage. A peer or a journalist approaches you, seemingly for a mutually enriching exchange of your ideas. They express curiosity at your work and probe you for insights. They may even ask you for a formal interview, promising to share the final product as well as credit for contribution.

The next time you see those ideas, they are published and your name is nowhere to be seen. And you feel violated.

That’s the feeling that I am experiencing after granting my very first interview to Alexis Sobel Fitts, a freelance journalist who sold my ideas to the Huffington Post without so much as alluding to my existence.

Ms. Fitts found my name through the University is Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication, which houses a new program called the Media Action Research Collective. Her biography states that she is from Philadelphia, so perhaps she thought the university was easy pickings for naive young graduate students who would happily allow her to profit and advance her own career on the backs of their uncredited research.

But it turns out that what Ms. Fitts didn’t know, because she is not emotionally or genuinely intellectually invested in the knowledge production and transformative power of a Black public sphere, is that a major part of my work is exploring the practice of stealing Black women’s intellectual labor for self-advancement and White voyeurism.

While Ms. Fitts was more than happy to reproduce some of my ideas out of context, which are reproduced below, her simplistic analysis of #takeitdown steals some of the building blocks of my analysis while simultaneously misrepresenting their conclusions.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 1.28.34 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 1.28.48 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 1.28.59 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 1.29.09 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 1.40.16 PM

Some readers may think that this doesn’t look like a ton. But the fact is that my hour long interview provided the background information and context that this journalist needed to even understand what she was writing about. Some snippets are easy to identify as wholesale paraphrasing of my thoughts during our interview, while others exist in the way that the writer was able to connect ideas about a movement she admittedly understands only partially. In other cases, she quotes a White male scientist who made some of the same claims that I did. How did she make the choice of who to include?

My own analysis contradicts the more marketable representation of #takeitdown as a simple, successful and discrete social movement. My analysis also recognizes #takeitdown as the result of collective, strategic action facilitated by thoughtful activists, rather than a spontaneous emotional upwelling that belies the intentionality of Black social justice movements.

My thoughts about the #takeitdown hashtag are based on a year of literature review in multiple fields, as well as my own daily immersion in conversations about Black life on Twitter. While I am not a prolific Tweeter myself, I directly credit much my intellectual development to the theoretical work of Black women in the Twittersphere, which I read as both a Black woman as a social scientist interested in increasing the efficacy of Black liberatory collective action.

#TakeItDown was an organizational mechanism for a larger movement, a movement of radical Black love shorthanded as Black Lives Matter. It was started by three queer Black women, whose continued influence is completely absent from Fitts’s article. In fact, intersectionality is on the whole missing from Fitts’s article even though it is decidedly NOT missing from the actual Black Lives Matter movement, including the #takeitdown hashtag conversation. Where, for example, is a single reference to Bree Newsome? Where are any references to the nuanced debates about how the symbolism of the Confederate flag compares to that of the American flag in a global context?

When intellectual theft happens, it’s rarely possible to ascertain malice aforethought on the part of the thief. It’s even harder to suss out whether there was a conscious evaluation of the original thinker’s vulnerability due to intersecting identities such as Black womanhood (although she did find space to quote a White male scientist whose ideas mirrored my own). But what such theft does incontrovertibly show is a deep power imbalance. People don’t engage in intellectual theft when they fear the consequences. Either Ms. Fitts wasn’t afraid of the repercussions of stealing Black woman’s work because of the relative social powerlessness of Black women, or she dismissed that work’s value, even while using it as the backbone of an entire article. Regardless, the only people who seem to lose sleep when a Black woman’s ideas are stolen are other Black women, which suggests the exploitation of privilege (a type of power).

I wish this essay were just about the specific journalist who did me wrong in a specific circumstance, and not about a long-occurring, notable trend in how academics and journalists engage with Black women as knowledge producers. But this is just one example of how White privilege (including White female privilege) renders Black women invisible as producers, while capitalizing on what they produce and laying claim to it under the general umbrella of “culture” or “American culture.”

In Yearning, bell hooks reflects on “how often contemporary white scholars writing about black people assume positions of familiarity, as though their work were not coming into being a cultural context of white supremacy, as though it were in no way shaped and informed by that context” (124). I must wonder how much of that familiarity emerges from Black women doing unattributed intellectual work behind the scenes. Fortunately, thanks to those same women, there is a space on the web in which I can lay claim to those ideas as mine and theirs.

The Fire This Time

People are rioting. They are rioting and protesting. I keep on reading language that promote a false dichotomy between protest and violence, as is the only way that one can protest is nonviolently.

One CAN protest nonviolently. But the delegitimization of citizen violence as a rational act of resistance to state violence is a political project designed to protect state power.

There is no rational reason why we should wait patiently for a civil solution to state violence carried out daily against Black and Brown bodies, when the state has flagrantly ignored our cries for decades. I would argue, that it is in fact irrational to expect the state to change or for white supremacy to stop taking lives under any circumstances than the threat of violence.

That some of us don’t is the result of socialization, not rationality.

The decision of some protesters to stand against armed, armored, and organized state actors with only sticks, stones, and their own bones is a rational political strategy in the context of the perpetual physical and psychological vulnerability that characterizes Black life in Baltimore and nationwide. Only in the face of ongoing police and other state sanctioned brutality would such blatant mismatch of power appear preferable than silent complicity.

It Doesn’t Matter that You Don’t Think You’re Racist

This is a public service announcement. It does not matter that you think you are not racist. In fact, racism has several contested meanings, but none of them, as far as I am aware, include one’s own self-identification as “racist” as part of the criteria for engaging in racist behaviors or having racist ideas.

Many people believe that they are things that they are not, or that they are not things that they are. For example, people may describe themselves as “middle class,” as do most Americans, when their actual income falls below or on the poverty line. Likewise, the trend du jour seems to espouse beliefs about the cultural inferiority of Black people while somehow maintaining the cognitive delusion that one is not, in fact, a racist.

Many bloggers and scholars have attempted to write a comprehensive definition of racism for the purpose of convincing racists-in-denial that they are in fact racist. I’m not going to do that. See the previous sentence for why. You see, no matter how many books, articles, speeches, and documentaries are published explaining the racialized structure of American society and its structural and individual consequences, the onus always seems to be upon the marginalized to constantly prove that they are, in fact, marginalized.

Instead, I offer you a STARTER list of books that explain racism pretty damn well, from various approaches. It is by no means comprehensive, but reading even a single one of these books before trying to deny the lived-in experiences of Black people is the least that we can ask. If you are a reader that often encounters racists-in-denial, I encourage you to point them to these texts, and refuse to engage in the emotional, intellectual, and often physical labor of trying to penetrate the most deeply held delusion in American society. If you are yourself a racist-in-denial, I encourage you to read these books and educate yourself about a field that has been theorized and empirically examined across nearly two centuries of literature, rather than expecting people of color to concisely and eloquently explain to you how your behaviors perpetuate structural racism. For free.

Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2006). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Collins, P. H. (2002). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.

Omi, M., & Winant, H. (2014). Racial formation in the United States. Routledge.

Roberts, D. (2011). Fatal invention: How science, politics, and big business re-create race in the twenty-first century. The New Press.

Sears, D. O., Sidanius, J., & Bobo, L. (Eds.). (2000). Racialized politics: The debate about racism in America. University of Chicago Press.

Skloot, R., & Turpin, B. (2010). The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks (p. 369). New York: Crown Publishers.

Wise, T. J. (2008). White like me: Reflections on race from a privileged son. Counterpoint Press.

Zuberi, T. (2001). Thicker than blood: How racial statistics lie. U of Minnesota Press.

Rekia Boyd Deserves Better. We All Do.

Today I’m not sad. I’m pissed. 

I’m not here for your “reasoned debate” concerning the lack of justice for Black murder victims. I’m not going to pretend that I buy it when you tell me the prosecutor didn’t make a good enough case or the evidence was insufficient. 

This nation, this culture, would not tolerate a system that routinely, indifferently, and brazenly failed to acknowledge the basic right to life of White bodies. There would be accountability or there would be upheaval. 

I write, not because I think my words alone will change a mind. I write to add my voice to the chorus, so that the ears of everyone complicit in and indifferent to Black suffering will ring.

I don’t want sympathy. I want passion. I want the fire that lit the way for the Three Strikes Law to pass in the wake of the murder of Polly Klaas. I want the indignation that produced Megan’s Law one month after the murder of Megan Kanka. 

I want justice, and I want it now. Don’t tell me how sad or “crazy” it is that Rekia Boyd’s killer won’t ever see the inside of a prison. 

Tell them: https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/write-or-call

And them: http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm

And them: http://www.house.gov/representatives/

And them: http://www.supremecourt.gov/contact/contactus.aspx

Because I’m out of conversation right now.

On Marilyn Zuniga and the Miseducation of Children of Color

I was ten years old when I first learned that Black children don’t have the same “freedom of speech” that all American citizens are supposed to have. I had been having a bad day. In my breakout science class, someone was making noise. The teacher had her back turned, but she identified me as the noisemaker, although I was sitting silently (albeit disinterestedly) at my desk, watching my desk-mate pick his nose.

Even at the time, I recognized that she seemed to treat the Black children in the class differently. I think this was especially significant for me, since I managed to enter high school still firmly believing in colorblindness and the reign of racial equality in society generally. But in this class, Black kids always seemed to be getting in trouble.

So when Ms. A declared that I was the noisemaker and moved me to the back of the classroom, I was both indignant and hurt. Since I was no longer allowed to participate in the assignment, despite being able to hear the lesson, I busied myself writing “Ms. A. Sucks.” I wrote it all over the worksheet that I was no longer allowed to complete.

In true ten-year-old fashion, I left the class and moved on with my life, leaving my worksheet behind. Halfway through my art class, Ms. A barged through the door that connected the two classrooms. Roughly grabbing my arm, her face beet red and burning, she screamed into my face, “Did you write this?!” Standing on my tiptoes because of her grip on my arm, terrified and filled with shame, I burst into tears. I admitted that I had written the offending words. She dragged me by my arm all the way to the principal’s office.

The story ends hopefully with my parents defending my honor and rebuking the teacher in the principal’s office. Unlike many parents of marginalized students, they believed they had the right to challenge the disciplinary decisions of school staff and hold its administration responsible for behavior unbecoming a teacher. But the damage was done. I had learned to keep my ideas to myself, even when I recognized that an institution that was supposed to keep me safe was treating me unfairly. Over the years, this lesson was continually reinforced. It wasn’t until high school that I became sure, due to a preponderance of evidence, that my White peers were being taught a decidedly opposite lesson.

It is through this lens that I cannot help but understand what has happened to Marilyn Zuniga. Marilyn Zuniga, a teacher in New Jersey, has been put on paid leave and faces termination for allowing her third grade students to write “Get Well” cards to political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, and having those letters delivered to the prison.

Several social commentators and activists have taken up the task of bringing attention to why Ms. Zuniga should not lose her job. Ms. Zuniga has been identified by her principal and departmental head as being an outstanding teacher. She graduated with a master’s degree from Columbia University. She maintains close relationships with parents of the students in her class and the community in which they live. The lesson was conceived with compassion for her students and their lived-in reality as poor Black and Brown children, several of which have incarcerated parents or family members.

Instead, I want to use this space to think about the ways in which Zuniga’s sanction serves as a life lesson for children of color about who can speak and who can be spoken for.

Educational institutions are not politically neutral spaces, although they are often pictured that way in the public imagination. Yet politics inform every dimension of the educational enterprise, from the way that schoolhouses are financed, to the content of textbooks, to the way educational institutions are or aren’t held accountable for outcomes.

When people think about political influence on education, they tend to think of curricular flash points like creationism versus evolution, or sex education versus abstinence-only. But while it is true that public battles over stated ideologies have huge impacts on American classrooms, this is not the full story. The real story starts with the very design of American school systems and curricular content as a racial project.

In determining K-12 educational standards, states (who largely retain autonomy in governing US education) must make choices about what to omit, what to include, and what to emphasize as most important. History offers the most straightforward example, because anyone can see that the field is too expansive to be encapsulated in a library’s worth of work, let alone a single textbook. Thus, even the selection of which events to cover in a textbook or class necessarily reflects widely held beliefs about which events should have meaning to an American student and which should not. It also reflects American cultural ideals.

Thus, events like the Trail of Tears or the Tulsa Race Riots are frequently omitted from textbooks and state standards, while The Boston Massacre retains a canonical position in the American Revolution narrative. American Presidents are largely represented as heroic visionaries; at no point during my K-12 education did I learn about the virulent racism of Woodrow Wilson, or the fondness of Lyndon Johnson for using the word “nigger.” Yet, by the eighth grade, my classmates and I knew that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had had an affair. Incidentally, we didn’t learn at all about his radical condemnation of white supremacy or his attempts to build an interracial coalition of the working poor.

The thread that connects these inclusions and omissions is structural white American hegemony. It is nigh on impossible to graduate from the American school system without understanding American history as a series of mostly positive contributions by White men with occasional minor roles for exceptional people of color.

It is in this context that we should ask why a lesson about Mumia Abu-Jamal is so offensive, but continuing to teach American students a hyper-sanitized version of Columbus’s American “discovery” is not. More to the point, we must ask how it is obvious that an activity relating to a man whose identity is in fact contested is off limits, given the many morally reprehensible figures that are American educational staples.

I contend that Abu-Jamal’s radical anti-racist politics and intellectual work, more so than his crime, are the major cause of the perceived offensiveness of this lesson. Allowing students to empathize with him as a human being and an activist undermines the lessons that Black and Brown students are supposed to be learning: 1) that to be imprisoned is incontrovertible proof of one’s guilt because the US criminal justice system is infallible; 2) that to be imprisoned is to have one’s humanity forever revoked and to render meaningless any future contributions to society; and 3) that people of color have no say in determining which version of history out of many they consume and propagate.

By suspending Marilyn Zuniga, the Orange Public School district has loudly and clearly sent the message that it is better to reproduce dominant historical and ideological narratives than to risk the real social and economic consequences of offering alternatives. Given the obstacles that racially marginalized people face in the struggle for accurate and nuanced representation, this is a damaging truth to internalize. Personally, it has taken me years to rediscover my voice after learning that the contributions of Black people, and Black women especially, hold less value than those of White men. I can only hope that the lesson of compassion that Ms. Zuniga attempted to impart is strong enough to compete against these others as her students navigate the next nine years of American primary and secondary education.