A Vision for Scholar-Activists of Color

By John Streamas


By any definition of “bullying,” many white administrators have bullied many faculty of color in recent years. This began with the “culture wars” of the 1980s and has escalated in the Age of Trump. Administrators argue that they are merely maintaining neutrality and fairness, or that they are defending the speech rights of campus fascists. But this makes sense only when they willfully ignore white privilege and preexisting power differentials. I relate one of my experiences of administrative bullying, analyze the cultural context in which campus bigots may freely bully people of color, and offer nine modest proposals for change. Without progress toward racial justice, faculty of color may understandably feel compelled to “bully back.”

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“White liberalism, the creator of institutional “diversity,” is no better than a smiley face masking a Klansman’s scowl, and if it continues to prevail in our workplaces, then quite possibly a new movement, not just radical but revolutionary, will express our rage in new demands for justice, demands that, if unmet, may result in violence and burning campuses. The time is now to bully back.”
Thus, concludes the Steamas’ diatribe entitled, “A vision for scholar-activists of color.” Streamas’ activism is obvious throughout his article, but one cannot help but inquire, “where’s the scholarship?” Might it be found in his calling those who disagree with him “bigots,” “racists,” or “fascists?” or perhaps in his sweeping generalizations about "bully-administrators" and their pursuit of noxious and unjust goals like neutrality, fairness, and freedom of speech? Packed with incendiary, but ill-defined, terms, the Streamas’ article creates more heat than light. Riddled throughout with what John Stuart Mill (1859/2002) referred to as the illusion of infallibility, it’s tough to find much in this article to recommend it. Certainly, the conclusion cited above is not a harbinger of serious scholarship.

However, his description of a particularly contentious episode with several academic administrators, contains ideas and issues worth considering. One of his syllabi contained this instruction: “Reflect your grasp of history and social relations by respecting shy and quiet classmates and deferring to the experiences of people of color.” Although administrators explained to him that the word “defer” was the problem, Streamas asserts that the real culprit was his inclusion of the phrase “people of color.” Reluctantly agreeing to make a change to his syllabus, but decidedly not the change his administrative inquisitors expected, Streamas’ instruction was modified to read simply, “…deferring to others’ experiences.” Apparently, no one ever checked on the acceptability of this to the administrators, but Streamas seemed to take pride in his own cleverness.

Streamas had argued, apparently ineffectively, that “defer” was a perfectly innocuous word and appropriate to any academic class. Certainly, the aspect of deference reflecting respect for the experiences and feelings of others would be useful for any seminar. However, there is also a connotation of deference which involves yielding to others the authority to decide or conclude. This is where there’s a problem – those in a discussion have a right to their own experiences, perspectives, and opinions; they do not have a right to their own facts or to reach communal conclusions without the consent of all those in the community. Streamas regularly assigns nefarious motivations to whites in general as well as academic administrators. Arrogantly claiming to know the true motivations of others is an impediment to learning and likely to terminate many potentially enlightening conversations.

One of the most insightful and accessible texts on this subject is Lukianoff & Haidt’s (2018) The Coddling of the American Mind; How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. In it, they introduce three very basic bad ideas: the untruth of fragility (What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker); the untruth of emotional reason (always trust your feelings); and the untruth of us versus them (life is a battle between good people and evil people). These three untruths parade so conspicuously through Streamas' arguments, it’s hard to imagine this is mere coincidence. Streamas’ article provides many examples of the challenges likely to be encountered by those of good will sincerely trying to enhance diversity and inclusion while maintaining traditional higher learning’s academic standards.

Professor Porter: If you bother to look at my citations you'll see Robin Kelley, Harney & Moten, and a collection of essays called Teaching With Tension, and almost all are written by scholars of color. Since you seem to respect only white scholars, my guess is that you would never read these scholars I cite because they aren't white. Your idea of "legitimate" scholarship suggests a universal standard, but a basic challenge of my field--and of people of color generally--is to subvert all assumptions of universalism. It is, after all, the standard of universalism that underwrites colonization and racism. As for the word "defer," I brought to my meeting with administrators a good dictionary and read from it. The dictionary supports my usage. These administrators, however, completely ignored the dictionary and embraced the definition given them by Fox News--which is very close to your sense of the word. I am an educator, and the administrators were propagandists for Fox. And Fox presumes to know what's best for us people of color, as do the administrators, as do you. We're sick of "great white daddies" telling us what we need. In fact, what we really need is for the "great white daddies" to stop blaming victims and start cleaning their own house.

Professor Streamas:

Martin Luther King dreamed of the day that our children might be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Might we agree that the accuracy of the evidence and quality of the argument would be a better basis for judging scholarship than the color of the author’s skin?

Your response exemplifies Lukianoff & Haidt’s (2018) third great untruth: Us vs. Them and asserts that the line of demarcation between good and evil is determined by race. Aleksandr Solzhenitzen’s observation that the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every person seems far more plausible and consistent with the available evidence. We are complicated beings and the psyche of any individual is likely to contain archetypes of both the oppressed and the oppressor. Race is an important part of identity, but it is only one of many aspects that contribute to the complexity within every person.

Your analysis of situations is similarly reductive – coercive power and oppression are not the only components in social systems. We live in a social sea characterized by a plethora of interacting relationships, influences, and accommodations. By and large, coercion, oppression, and bullying are not typical of the academic engagements I’ve witnessed over the last 50 years. By many measures, the liberalism you decry continues to improve the quality of education for everyone. Your frustration with we liberals’ insistence on due process and freedom of speech is understandable. However, as Madeleine Albright (2018) argues, when we abandon a commitment to freedom of speech and equal justice under the law, we descend into fascism.

Although you do not define universalism, your avowed mission is to “subvert all assumptions” of it. I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist for most of my life. The Oxford Dictionary defines Universalism as: “1.) the belief that all humankind will eventually be saved and 2.) loyalty to and concern for others without regard to national or other allegiances.” I’m unsure what assumptions underlying these beliefs you find to be so noxious. Many of those who ascribe to a universalist philosophies and world views (such as utilitarianism) are not absolutist; they tend to be flexible and inclusive. The human mind is what the human brain does, and the brains all humans have inherited are nearly identical across “racial” groups. Asserting that there is no commonality in perceptions, beliefs, and values across cultures and “races” is simply untenable.

This brings us to Fox News and your application of this epithet to any white folk who dare question you. For the record, I don’t watch Fox News; my impression is that it is an extension of the Republican Party; 90% of the time our television is on, it is tuned to PBS or MSNBC (which many would argue is an extension of the Democratic Party). Occasionally, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brezinski show clips from Fox News and acknowledge that even at Fox News some the commentators and reporters (such as Chris Wallace and Shep Smith), on occasion, act with integrity and insight. I think it is a mistake to assume that anyone who is white is a Fox News follower. Abrams (2016) research suggests that college faculties have drifted steadily to the left over the last few decades; barely 10% now identify as conservatives. Eliminating the few remaining conservatives in academia would reduce viewpoint diversity and likely diminish the quality of discourse and the liberal arts orientation of the education we provide.

Academia’s drift to the Left has not occurred throughout society. Your concern about the external threat posed by state and federal legislative and executive actions is one that I share. Those sincerely concerned about protecting the quality of higher education, academic freedom, and diversity from political intrusion must hang together lest they hang separately (as Benjamin Franklin quipped).

I look forward to reviewing the articles you’ve recommended. I admit that my pedagogy has been influenced by many old white guys. Two of the most important of these were Postman and Weingartner (1969) and their provocative text, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. However, my classroom teaching has also be influenced by others including Paulo Freire and bell hooks. As you know, Freire’s (1984) Pedagogy of the Oppressed focuses on distinctive patterns of thought of oppressors and the oppressed. He rails against the banking system of education through which students are indoctrinated to continue systems of oppression by those in positions of authority. However, he identifies the dangers of ‘activism” (action divorced from critical reflection) as well as maintaining the status quo. ‘Dialogue’ and ‘Praxis’ are the tools that facilitate liberating education in his view. Freire’s work is often cited as the introduction of critical theory to the classroom. Nonetheless, many of his ideas are well-aligned with classic progressive thoughts about education. Plutarch’s insistence that the mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled reflects Freire’s abhorrence of the “banking system” of education and emphasis on praxis. Similarly, John Dewey’s insists that teachers should not give students things to learn but things to do, and (if the doing requires thinking) the learning will follow. Albert Einstein’s 1931 address, On Education, is consistent with the engaging pedagogy Freire advocates and the blended role of student-teachers. The whole notion of metacognitive awareness of one’s own thinking involves critical reflection. Teaching a course in Cognitive Psychology for several decades provided me with the opportunity to demonstrate to students that their own conscious processing of information is only the tip of the cognitive iceberg. Both attention and memory are complex processes and subject to distortion and bias. They provide each of us with the capacity for profound self-delusion; critical reflection, when done well, can reveal such delusions.

I’ve also had the opportunity to engage in extended conversations about education and pedagogy with my neighbor and friend, bell hooks, author of Teaching to Transgress (1994). We agreed about far more than we disagreed. It is important for students to develop the courage, skills, and stamina necessary to engage effectively with members of other “tribes.” Differences can be resolved or contextualized by sincere dialogue. Conflict is a necessary and unavoidable part of education as well as life. Tension is a part of learning. Individuals in groups must get over their penchant for politeness and engage one another honestly about their differences in perception and belief. From bell’s perspective, conflict can create a space for insight, awareness, and growth rather than fear, anger, and violence.

Neither I, nor the white liberals for whom you express such disdain, are your enemies. Admittedly, we have our differences. Liberals believe that justice includes procedural and interactive as well as distributive considerations. Liberal do not share activists’ belief that free speech is a threat to society. We recognize that the systems we’ve created have failed to fulfill our promises of higher learning for all. We share a society filled with injustices and disparities. My dream is that through honest and sincere communication we can find the common ground needed to protect ourselves from external threats and move forward toward our shared goals of greater inclusion, engagement and achievement.

Professor Porter: I do appreciate your thoughtful response. And I also believe that our agreements outnumber our disagreements. But I also believe that you underestimate the serious depth of the racial divide.

This morning students in my ethnic studies class agreed with the James Baldwin essay we read, "The Price of the Ticket," in which Baldwin casually claims that all institutions in the US are inherently racist. They also agreed that higher education has largely failed to do more than provide information on racial history and a few texts by writers of color. These provisions, however, are insufficient. If, as I've read today may happen, the Supreme Court agrees with Trump on immigrants and DACA, many lives will be needlessly ruined. The scholars and activists of color I mentioned earlier say that universities are helpless to solve our problems, even that we faculty of color need to inhabit an "undercommons" where we may develop our own cultures away from whites and mainstream college culture. These are not arguments for a new segregation but for survival.

Baldwin doesn't say so directly, but he strongly implies that in North America a race war has been waged by whites since whites came here to massacre indigenous and enslave Africans. It's people in power who create (and profit from) the depth of these divisions, not people of color. We've been calling attention to the need to stress our differences, but only because those differences distinguish us from those who oppress. MLK did this too. Even you concede that he expressed only a "dream" that people would not be judged by color. In reality we are judged by color, and that isn't likely to end soon. When it does end, it can be only because the privileged decide to stop judging us. Actually I am much more hopeful and optimistic than my brightest students of color. They really don't think their lives will improve. They work for change, but don't think their efforts will succeed. They believe whites will always judge them to be inferior. They may share MLK's dream, but they don't believe it will ever be realized.

But I agree with Baldwin that a race war has been waged and continues to be waged. Whites have the wealth and the power, but soon they will lose their demographic advantage, and their fear of that loss seems to be at least partly responsible for the new viciousness in racism, for the rise of Trump and his cronies. (Pat Buchanan articulated that fear a few years ago, and sounded just like xenophobic bigots of a century ago.) My students of color have white friends but feel little confidence in the idea of "white allies." They have been burned too often by white "friends." I share with them my experiences with clueless white administrators, and they seem unsurprised. This morning our university's president issued a statement to the entire campus affirming his support for our numerous DACA students, and I applaud that. In fact I went carefully over his statement with students. But I cautioned them to note his claim that his support for DACA "transcends politics," which is of course impossible. Any position on DACA is entirely political, whether it's viciously xenophobic or humanitarian and inclusive.

White privilege is involved in assuming that any position can "transcend politics." When I attack universalizations, it's because the assumption of any universalization is a privilege of power. A few years ago two white students dropped a class in which we discussed eye contact--they couldn't believe that any insistence on eye contact, even if it originates exclusively in white culture, could possibly discriminate against anyone who grew up in a culture that teaches that eye contact is rude. (I am Japanese American, and my Japanese mother taught me never to make eye contact.) These guys actually believe that it's OK for a white manager to fire a person of color over eye contact. People in power, they insisted, have a right to insist on universal standards. When Whitey tells natives not to speak their own language, Whitey is saying that his language alone is valid and universal. Baldwin implies that whites would have killed us all if they didn't need our labor. I sense that his small ray of hope inhered in that fact--since they need our labor, and since therefore we live, we may hope to achieve autonomy someday.

Meaningful change--ie, social justice--won't come, can't come, without a radical overhaul of our institutions, including universities. I believe that in the long term such a revolution is inevitable. The system as it exists is unsustainable. White liberalism has waffled on racial justice for centuries, and we still have Donald Trump. To get true justice, we people of color will have to hope for support from knowledgeable whites but will not be able to assume such support. And it's quite possible that the needed change is so radical that we may have to act entirely on our own.

John Streamas

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