In my English 101 class, we’ve been talking about NPR KUOW’s Bill Radke and The Stranger‘s Charles Mudede’s November 17th discussion about whether raising the French flag over the Space Needle was racist. http://kuow.org/post/beirut-paris-who-do-we-grieve-and-why
My study abroad experiences at Lewis and Clark College resulted in a lifetime souvenir, my husband, Francois. My students have felt for us after the Friday the 13th Paris attacks. They were a bit outraged by the association of the French flag over the Space Needle with racism.
I told them to apply the definition of racism used in academia, the definition we’ve been studying all quarter. In that definition, racism is any pattern (behavioral, systemic, etc.) that values or advantages White and devalues other races against White. (If this concept is new to you, CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 series on the doll experiement makes this really easy to see and understand. http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/05/13/doll.study/)
So of course, based on this definition, everyone in the class agrees that flying the French flag over the Space Needle is, indeed, racist.
And they look distressed.
“OK,” I say to my students, “It’s racist. So what should we do?”
“Take it down?” asks a student, clearly not wanting to take it down.
“Just because we can identify the racism at play doesn’t mean the act of raising the French flag is wrong. ”
I was deeply moved by the flag flying and the French blue, white and red lights illuminating the towering skyscrapers downtown. The thousands of Facebook profiles shinging through flags and Effiel Tower peace signs splash over us with a warm, gentle message of shared sorrow, of caring.
“Flying the French flag illustrates racism. Taking down the French flag may not be significantly anti-racist.”
“What changes in our racism if we take down the flag? Anything?”
That stuns them. They have to mull that over.
What they don’t feel on a visercal level yet is how racism can be identified in everything we do. It’s such a part of the patterns we’ve inherited and continue to build upon that it’s truly everywhere.
We can’t just “not do” or “not tolerate” racism. Trying to ‘not be racist’ by erasing everything racist you do or participate in is simply impossible.
And when White people start thinking about racism for the first time, really looking for it in daily life and seeing it, that’s often what we try to do. We try to be not racist. And because of this, we start to believe we can’t do anything about it. Or we believe that all we can do is support the victims. We get on our phones, recruit our friends and call together song circles and hand out candles.
And that’s important. When a wound is fresh and fear is present, we all need to show up and show we care. It’s really important.
But it’s not very anti-racist. It doesn’t work to change a pattern of racism that allowed the context for this situation.
We have this core belief that racism isn’t something WE produce, it is something “that is produced” and WE liberal (White) people in positions of power at our PNW colleges (Lewis and Clark College) and universities try so HARD to fight it. We form committees and task forces. We write zero-tolerance policies. We draw up value statements to put in every classroom and we gather the song circles and hand out candles.
And things don’t change. Next year there’s another racist episode. It’s bigger than us.
It’s an anomaly. It’s just what we have to live with when we accept students from around the world. A few racists might get in.
It’s not us. (We’re good people! Our students are good people!)
It’s debatable whether taking down the French flag from the Space Needle would change a systemic pattern of racism. I have a feeling it would be more like a flash in the pan, a bright flare that hurts feelings and polarizes people to positions they already held. The White liberal who pointed out the racism in the flag waving gets to perform his White “coolness” publically and then take a few bows. The local French are hurt. People who feel the race discussion “has gone too far” feel justified that this is another example. The local communities of color from countries who have not had their flags waved do not get a lot of direct benefit.
So I have my students talk about their own spaces of systemic power, in particular social media. We talk about naming and how people are named through images. We look at how naming happens in mainstream media and in social media. We look at their own power to name and to mindfully create patterns of naming. We use my Facebook friend and revered colleague Kim Pollock’s Facebook page as an example. We look at my 8th grade teacher Misa Joo’s page.
The students realize that even though we are all performing racially all the time — and being racist, we all also have access to systemic places of change. We can change our own behaviors. We can use systems we have access to to create change.
So at Lewis and Clark College, the question should be, what IS a systemic point we could use to make change?
If racism is about systems of power that privilege White people over People of Color, then you need to change the systems of power. Anti-racism is about systemic change.
To be anti-racist at a place like Lewis and Clark, you need to have skill in identifying your own patterns of racism and the racism inherent in your organization. You can’t create a anti-racist change in a system if you don’t understand how all systems are racist and then how SOME of them could be changed to be powerfully anti-racist. You can HIRE people who have these skills and these people can train you. You can’t grow this effectively in-house.
To be anti-racist at a place like Lewis and Clark, you need to delegate power to a leader who understands systemic racism and anti-racism and has a proven record of creating change. This person would have to assess systemic change and change systems at the college. For example,
- How’s diversity at Lewis and Clark? What’s the scorecard? How many faculty of color get hired and tenured and how long does it take them when you compare them to White colleagues? Do faculty, staff and students of color seek out Lewis and Clark for work or study because they feel acknowledged, respected and supported as People of Color? Or do they come to Lewis and Clark for other reasons and give up some of that comfort? How do you know? Does Lewis and Clark have a systemic assessment in place for finding out all of this?
- Do ALL hiring committees for Lewis and Clark positions require that EVERY member of the hiring committee be trained on how to identify and address bias in the hiring process? Have ALL hiring committee members been trained on how to use a standard grading rubric to assess the cultural competency of job candidates?
- Do ALL applicants for positions at Lewis and Clark need to write a diversity statement? Is this diversity statement the FIRST filter for the application? Is there a norming rubric in place that differentiates levels of cultural competency in a clear, evidence based manner? Committee members would need to be able to differentiate between someone listing their study abroad or multiple languages as proof of diversity and someone who has used his or her understanding of racialized power to create documentable positive change.
- Do ALL students have a diversity requirement to graduate? Does that diversity requirement have any teeth? Or can any international experience or language class “count”?
- Do all faculty have an understanding of how racism, especially microaggressions, play out in their own classroom and curriculum choices?
- Do all students get exposure to the current academic discusssions around power and equity in at LEAST 10% of their classes? Do all standardized curricula include diverse voices and perspectives and are all faculty using this standard curricula culturally competent enough to teach that curricula without hurting students? (Take a look at Dr. Tanya Velasquez’s work at UW Tacoma. She has a great model for asasessing instructor cultural competence and whether that competence is enough to handle the cultural competence required of the curriculum.)
The list can go on and on.
So how would changing all of this help a Black student beat up by three White students on campus? This student needs the marches and the candles. This student needs an army of White students walking around him. And Lewis and Clark is doing that.
But his younger brother needs a change that will stay longer than quarter. His younger brother needs a campus where he’s not the only person of color in a lot of the contexts he finds himself in. His younger brother needs to have faculty who know how to lead discussions on modern social theory without isolating him in the classroom or making him the spokeperson for his race. His younger brother needs faculty who look like him and who share his experience of the world, who can mentor him and understand that his pursuit of his Ph.D. will require some skills the White students probably won’t need. His younger brother needs a campus that talks about equity so much that racists become uncomfortable learning here.
And right now, the racists seem pretty comfortable at Lewis and Clark.