I am racist. I learned to be racist and anti-Black from my family. I have spent most of my life learning how to be anti-racist.
I know this because I am white. My immigrant grandparents spent much of their lives in southeast Texas, where Black people lived in broken-down shacks on the same land with white people who owned the land and lived in the “big house.” I come from people who lived in that house. My grandfather came to visit my family once in south central Texas with a wad of bills in his pocket to pay the Black people who worked tirelessly for him picking cotton. When I was a kid, most years my mother would take my brothers and me to watch grandpa’s first bale of cotton come out of the gin near his farm. When we made this trip, we drove by those shacks where Black people sat fanning themselves on the front porch trying to stay cool. I remember thinking, “I wonder why grandpa does not pay them more, so they did not have to live in such horrible conditions?” My mother adored her father so I knew that comment would not be perceived well in the family. I was 10. I was silent. Before my mom died, we had many conversations about race, although I am not sure she ever knew anyone well enough who was not white and did not work for her.
After having worked in higher education and student affairs since 1977, I have more stories than I can tell here about anti-Blackness. In 2000, we created a higher education and student affairs master’s and doctoral program with a focus on social justice. As we hired Black and Brown faculty, they found a revolving door to other universities that supported their success. All of them were the best at what they did and if the institution had not been white supremist and heterosexual, I believe they would have stayed. Each time senior leadership were approached about a Black or Brown faculty member leaving, we were told they were never going to stay anyway (so basically it did not matter how they were treated). These gifted scholars were never given resources to support their retention (e.g., money for research and travel), address historical marginalization, foster an inclusive work environment, and create equitable opportunities. In a system of white supremacy, the university would rather have talented racially minoritized faculty leave, so it could replace them with new assistant professors and save money without having to change the root of the problem. Each time one racialized minority faculty member left, it destroyed the morale of the program, particularly at the doctoral level. These several Black and Brown faculty are but the tip of the iceberg for the universally disgusting “equal” way they are treated, and not the equitable way they desire and deserve.
The last class I taught before I retired in summer 2018 was a two-week class on white privilege. We met every day from 9 am-4 pm for two weeks. There were 13 higher education and student affairs graduate students in the class. Half the class were racialized minoritized students and the other half were white students. We spent the first three days getting to know each other and telling stories about how race influenced our lives. In the beginning, one white male, whose mother is British and father is American, said that race never came up. He had a difficult time seeing his own racist behavior, but the other white students were happy to tell him how he could look differently at the world, particularly his interactions with racially minoritized students. One day I came to class a few minutes late, and a Black student in the class passed me in the lobby of the residence hall where we met. She told me she was not going to class and was visibly upset. When I got into the room, the students told me she had been denied access to the building by the hall director who was going to call security because she tried to enter the building. When I asked the students in the class what they wanted to do, they all agreed to get out of the building and find an alternate space.
Helms’ Model of White Identity (1993) in Black and White Racial Identity Development: Theory, Research and Practice offers a way white people can develop their racial identity through contact with Black people. In Phase 1, white people must first abandon racism which means questioning the definition of whiteness and justification for the varied forms of white supremacy and privilege. Contact with Black people causes a shift to occur (or not). In Phase 2, white people actively question the assumption that Blacks are inherently inferior. In the beginning of this phase, whites expect Blacks to clarify and pursue solutions to racism. As they develop, whites engage with other whites about their racial identity and confront different forms of oppression. (As a first step, you may want to read Lois Stalvey’s, The Education of a WASP, published in 1970, and just as relevant today as during the Civil Rights Movement.) Finally, white people internalize and act upon their recently acquired new white identity. At this time, they begin to understand how other forms of oppression are related to racism and work to remove other “isms” as well. In this model, white people become open to new ways of thinking about race as we realize it is a constant learning process and commitment to anti-racist work. If you are white, perhaps you see yourself somewhere in this model and identify it in your own life. As white student affairs professionals, we must consciously move through the model to help white students (and each other) along their own racial identity path in order to enact change that is not just dependent on input from racially minoritized populations, especially Black people who oftentimes are expected to teach everyone about systemic racism.
I have made many mistakes in my life and my work and tried to learn from them. I was taught anti-Black racism and spent a lifetime unlearning it. As a white person with a student development background, I believe we are all capable of change. Most development does not occur rapidly and certainly not without pain. As white people who want to understand who we are racially, we must first abandon racism. For many of us, it will not be easy and will take time to achieve. As student affairs professionals, we owe it to ourselves and our Black, Brown and white students and colleagues, at least, to try. Being silent and complicit in white supremacy is no longer acceptable. We must unlearn our racist behavior and work to eliminate its systematic existence in student affairs and higher education. The time for action is now. Thus, I challenge you to find solutions which require action to disrupt white supremacy and dismantle the part of your environment in your sphere of influence. Do one of the following, or one of your choosing, in the next few days:
- Examine the policies and practices in your student affairs area (e.g., the Student or Faculty Handbook; unwritten office rules) through the critical lens of racial justice and decolonization, and ask if these “reflections of institutional values” were designed for the good of ALL students, faculty and staff or “majority” students, faculty and staff. If Black students, faculty or staff are hurt by, or at a disadvantage in any way, then re-write the policy or expose the “unwritten rule” today, so that each racially minoritized group is equitably treated. Additionally, speak up about policies and practices which favor white students when Black and other racially minoritized students, staff and faculty are disproportionally effected negatively. Of course, this means more voices, time and thought must go into the process.
- Host a book club. Name its specific purpose (e.g., whiteness, anti-Blackness and so on). Through the readings, dismantle white supremacy as you examine your current practices and analyze how they are exclusionary. Read and learn across the institution so students, faculty, and staff across the university are learning and growing together. Design with inclusivity as a touchpoint, so people (i.e., white people) can consider many perspectives and work to change their attitudes and behaviors. This could be a space where you widen your circle of friends who do not look like you.
- Advocate in your community for Black students, faculty and staff. These individuals are hyper-vigilant and bombarded by what hurtful, hateful comment or gesture will be made towards them and their family each day. The white majority on predominately white campuses will never know what it’s like to have white faculty and staff treat them poorly, and when they leave campus have a mall cop following them into every shop. Simultaneously, their young children are asking questions such as: Why are police killing people who look like me? Be an ally and an advocate. As an example, go out of your way to stop offensive racist jokes and confront those who continue to tell them. Or better yet, contact your Black colleagues (i.e., staff and faculty) and students, and ask them how they are. Do not ask them to do your work for you. Do not ask them to teach you what action needs to happen next to combat racism. Ask them how they are dealing with the stress of the current racial pandemic and how you can help ease their burden.
For more information, check out these resources:
I will not be silent and ignore the atrocities committed by white supremists who are complicit by holding on to systemic racism in the academy. I hope you won’t either. We can do better and we will.
Florence M. Guido, Ph.D.
ACPA Senior Scholar
Co-Author, A Bold Vision Forward: The Framework for the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization
Professor Emerita and Distinguished Scholar, University of Northern Colorado