Antiracist Practices in Academia: Why the Urgency?
Suchismita Dutta, Georgia Institute of Technology
Contested Times for Critical Antiracist Pedagogy
Beyond the challenges of balancing research and teaching as an international graduate student in the United States, I have been most affected by the fact that I was working towards establishing myself as a Critical Antiracist Pedagogy scholar during a time when CRT (Critical Race Theory) has been publicly debated and even banned in some places in the American education system. I have been working on developing modes of antiracist teaching and learning at a controversial time when the fault lines in American academia distinguish two sets of communities with conflicting ideas. On one hand, critics of the American education system are skeptical of academia’s generous use of words like “diversity,” “equity,” and “multiculturalism” as marketing tools (Ahmed 2012; Walcott 2016), on the other hand, U.S. educational institutions claim that they are on a mission to open their doors to students from disadvantaged communities across the globe. While most school websites and “Deans’ Diversity Statements” emphasize the fluidity and openness of the classroom, which apparently is a free space for having the difficult conversations, we are also witnessing a critical moment in America’s sociopolitical present where several state legislatures are debating bills seeking to ban the use of CRT or any kind of reading, writing, or teaching about America’s racist history in the classroom.
Critical Race Theory (popularly known as CRT) has come to be viewed as the dangerous rhetoric that outrightly admonishes all white people for being oppressors and classifies all black folks as the hopelessly victimized minority (Ray and Gibbons 2021). Therefore, in the wake of creating free spaces that encourage conversations about challenging issues affecting the multicultural student community at large, many American school spaces have abruptly shut their doors to the possibility of discussing any anti-imperialist, antiracist, and anti-white supremacist idea.
Resisting CRT also means resisting other intellectual currents informed by CRT such as the work of sociologists, literary theorists, and media studies scholars who study links between racial and ethnic biases, political power, social organization, and language. These are essential ideas that strengthen the foundation of fields like the humanities, the social sciences, and teacher education. During these sensitive times, critical antiracist pedagogy opens avenues for “de-essentializing, de-simplifying, de-silencing, and decolonizing antiracism,” and also calls for considering intersectionality, different forms of racism and the need to recognize “the privilege that settlers of color possess in settler colonialism” (Kubota 85). In this essay, I extend the conversation about forging solidarity among racialized communities to the argument that successfully curating and teaching an antiracist curriculum cannot be done without properly understanding the value of CRT in teacher education while rethinking the institutionalization of diversity, inclusion, and equity policies.
A Network of Keywords: Antiracism, Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity
My intention here is not to equate antiracism with “inclusion,” “diversity,” and “equity” or treat these keywords as each other’s synonyms. My goal is to consider critically the often-underexplored resistances created by the institutionalization of diversity within spaces of lower and higher education that make it difficult for instructors to teach an antiracist curriculum. Recent research on antiracist teaching and learning point towards the issue that because racism itself is institutional, structural, and systemic, teaching an antiracist curriculum involves the process of recognizing and challenging the policies and beliefs that perpetuate racist ideas and behavior (Kendi 18). The idea of being an antiracist educator and practitioner differs from person to person based on every individual’s awareness of their power and privilege, which means the experience of antiracist white instructors will be different from those of instructors of color (Singh 33). Similarly, to become an antiracist, one must have an antiracist agenda that, as Condon and Young suggests, “offers an understanding or explanation of race, racism, and the particular racial formations that develop in and around the classroom or program in question” (xvii). Condon and Young’s study also indicates that, even within an antiracist curriculum, racism may permeate into grading mechanisms in writing classrooms, in teacher feedback, and “in the ways that the school admits and places students into classes, in how and what it values in writing and how those values are related to larger dominant discourses. It explains the particular brands of whiteness and whiteliness that occur in the classroom and in assessments” (viii).
An antiracist curriculum might also make many feel uncomfortable, but this discomfort is necessary for bringing about change in the pedagogy process. Therefore, based on my research and experience, even before curating an antiracist curriculum, educators should actively dismantle the presumed idea (also, strongly criticized by Sara Ahmed) that, “you already embody diversity by providing an institution of whiteness with color” (Ahmed 4). Critic and CRT scholar Sara Ahmed reflects on her past experiences as a diversity practitioner, and recollects how the discussions that she was a part of at her university were based on how to get “ ‘equality’ and ‘diversity’ into the university’s mission statement and other policy statements that were supposed to derive from it” (6). Ahmed’s skepticism arises from the fact that an institution’s desire to institutionalize diversity does not necessarily mean that the institution is open to the idea of inclusion and promoting antiracism. The general disdain of critical antiracist pedagogy lies with the notion that race is socially constructed. In fact, even current scholarship emphasizes that an antiracist curriculum should aim at implementing change at a university, community, and disciplinary level. As Kyoko Kishimoto writes:
Anti-racist pedagogy is not about simply incorporating racial content into courses, curriculum, and discipline. It is also about how one teaches, even in courses where race is not the subject matter. It begins with the faculty’s awareness and self-reflection of their social position and leads to the application of this analysis not just in their teaching, but also in their discipline, research, and departmental, university, and community work. In other words, anti-racist pedagogy is an organizing effort for institutional and social change that is much broader than teaching in the classroom. (540)
Bearing this notion in mind, my pedagogy integrates diversity to search for connections- among texts, among disciplines, and among people. I push my students to constantly ask meaningful questions, engage with the campus community and the world at large, and interrogate structures of power using interdisciplinary methods. Alongside traditional academic writing, my students work with multiple sources, engage in inquiry-based projects, and present their findings in non-written formats (e.g., oral, visual, multimodal). Outlined below are two examples; the first one is of an antiracist assignment and the second one is an antiracist service initiative that incorporate elements from on-campus resources and our current sociopolitical climate.
Sample Assignment for An Antiracist Composition and Rhetoric Curriculum:
For this assignment as a part of an undergraduate composition and rhetoric course titled, “Writing Race Memory and Trauma,” the students are asked to conduct a comparative analysis between Garnette Cadogan’s “Walking While Black” and Dr. Billie Grace Lynn’s larger-than-life-sized installation, “The Hoodie” (see figure 1). Cadogan, now a successful visiting faculty at some of the leading universities in the US, documents a narrative that reflects his harrowing experience of being a non-American black international student in the USA. He closely studies his own racial visibility, his sartorial choices, his pace of walking in the streets of New Orleans and New York and how all these quotidian factors inform the racist stereotypes in America.
This cross-disciplinary assignment allowed students to understand the theme of racism, surveillance, and hyper visibility both through the process of reading Cadogan’s narrative and by conducting a visual analysis of Lynn’s artwork. I came across “The Hoodie” sculpture during a chat with Lynn, an Associate Professor of Sculpture at my university where I was a graduate student. Among the many things she discussed about her work, she admitted that her motif behind creating a giant hooded sweatshirt figure was to make her audience uncomfortable about their own awareness that the hoodie has come to become a symbol of racist stereotype about people of color and now it is worn by those who wish to challenge these racist ideas. In Lynn’s words:
Creating a huge hoodie is not only a metaphor for the size of the problem, but also for the difficulty of being able to empathize with people of different backgrounds. This sculptural hoodie will offer an opportunity to inhabit the space of the body that is absent, indicated only by the space the garment delineates. Often what is missing can become highly present if there is space and silence to contemplate. (“Sculpture in Conversation)
This installation was also exhibited at the university campus museum and that made me realize using an artifact from the campus community itself, which is accessible and, more importantly, visible to all students, was an excellent resource for an antiracist assignment.
Garnette Cadogan writes in “Walking While Black,”
I returned to the old rules I’d set for myself in New Orleans, with elaboration. No running, especially at night; no sudden movements; no hoodies; no objects—especially shiny ones—in hand; no waiting for friends on street corners, lest I be mistaken for a drug dealer; no standing near a corner on the cell phone (same reason). As comfort set in, inevitably I began to break some of those rules, until a night encounter sent me zealously back to them, having learned that anything less than vigilance was carelessness (italics mine). (Cadogan 43)
Even in Cadogan’s experience, the hooded sweatshirt clothing a black body in public is a figure that raises suspicion and racist stereotypes.
Hence the assignment prompt asks:
Cadogan’s experience of walking, absorbing the sights, smells, and taste of his surroundings as a black, international student in New Orleans is far from the romantic ideal of sauntering along unknown streets like a tourist. He is constantly observed, judged, and put under surveillance for the way he looks. What is your response to this argument? How does Lynn’s “Hoodie Project” and the ongoing violence on black bodies speak to this argument? Conduct a comparative study and write a response paper of no more than 1500 words.
One of the first observations I made while teaching this course at a private, wealthy, PWI (Predominately White Institution) during a rather contested sociopolitical moment in the US was that openly discussing issues related to racial and ethnic discrimination causes extreme discomfort to a point where class discussions are often strewn with awkward silences from students. I observed that one pressing reason for this is the fact that there are stark socioeconomic discrepancies among the student body. Therefore, some of the student responses I received while addressing these silences echoed the sentiment that certain students (because of their upbringing and privileges) were not aware of the urgency of considering racism as a serious ailment plaguing our current sociopolitical climate.
Students belonging to upper class and influential families were brought up in an environment that shielded them from the reality of racial, ethnic, and economic disparities. At the same time, I had students in my class who were entirely dependent on merit-based scholarships, scholarships from the department of minority affairs, and the Federal Pell Grants among others. One of the most immediate steps I have taken to curb these silences is to acknowledge these differences, while encouraging every individual in the class to understand adequately the issues of antiracism, social justice, and systemic racial segregation. Furthermore, I repeatedly emphasized that the classroom is a space for generating difficult conversations. In retrospect, I was acutely aware that making these conversations accessible to all students is an incredibly difficult and time-consuming endeavor. Despite these difficulties, at the end of this assignment, my students produced essays that explore the eerie connection between Lynn’s “The Hoodie,” Cadogan’s experience of walking in the US as a Black man and the murders of Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and Stephon Clark. For example, one student wrote in their essay,
I have learnt that something as simple as the act walking or wearing a hooded sweatshirt can be challenging based on the color of one’s skin. As I walk to school, as a white individual I am not worried if my clothes or my pace will cause suspicion or if the streets I walk are asking for danger or if I look like a public threat. I strut to school without any trouble, and I am very grateful for it. Unfortunately, for people of color like Cadogan, this isn’t the case.
Adopting both multimodal and cross-disciplinary approaches (in the case of this assignment, the primary sources were a cross between literature and art, specifically sculpture) allows students to think beyond the context of rhetorical accuracy and encourages the practice of close reading the narrative as well as the sculpture.
Antiracism in Academic Service
As a measure to foster inclusion on campus, my university founded an antiracist reading group using Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. Oluo’s book was used as a guiding model for initiating and continuing meaningful conversations about racial justice. So You Want to Talk About Race guides readers belonging to diverse racial and ethnic groups through subjects ranging from police brutality, racial and ethnic biases, cultural appropriation to the model-minority myth with the vision of making conversations about race and racism honest, accessible, and a normalized part of American life. It also highlights the worldwide protests against racial injustice that have stimulated millions of people around the world to come out and voice their concerns. However, Oluo also emphasizes that we have a lot of work left since having these conversations with a friend, a boss, an aunt, or a sister-in-law is daunting and brings up the issue of white privilege, which is often a sensitive topic of discussion.
The antiracist reading group program was open to all faculty members and administrative staff at the university and was completely voluntary. The most unique characteristic of the program was that, although there was a set group of facilitators for each close reading and discussion session, participants from various disciplines were encouraged to lead many of these sessions. For example, participants would often pick specific book chapters and center their discussion around the title questions like, Chapter 12, “What are microaggressions?,” Chapter 9, “Why can’t I say the “N” word?,” Chapter 14, “What is the model minority myth?” among others. The discussions created an open space for clarifying doubts as well. For instance, many participants expressed specific interest in discussing the title question of Chapter 3, “What if I talk about race wrong?” keeping the recent CRT controversies in mind. Instead of looking for definitive answers, participants and facilitators followed Oluo’s central agenda in the book, which states that as uncomfortable as this conversation was, it needed to happen.
As a participant and co-facilitator, I observed that the ultimate success of the group emanated from the fact that it was accessible to members of all disciplines at the university. Faculty, students and staff attended these sessions from diverse disciplines ranging from STEM, humanities, law, and medicine among others. So even though some of the reading sessions caused discomfort through the difficult conversations, normalizing the notion that such conversations are required to promote an environment of equity and diversity made each meeting very effective. Each participant brought their own perspective and concerns regarding the ongoing violence on Black, brown, and indigenous bodies, and the general concept of social injustice in the US today. Some even admitted to not paying much attention to these continuing racial-justice protests because they felt the system cannot be mended fully. Such participants brought in a skepticism that motivated other speakers to contribute to the problem-solving or solution-making aspect of this initiative.
One of the bigger outcomes of the antiracist reading group was that it advocated for more high-impact initiatives that would help the university community better understand CRT, racial equity, and diversity at an institutional level. Ideas like creating a racial-justice task force on campus and adding a racial-justice archive in the library were not only discussed but also implemented shortly after. One university news article states that during this time of intense attention to social justice, the university library is working to educate the community in the fight for racial justice. As protests continued across the United States in response to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a team of university librarians curated a resource guide to help the campus community get the right resources to inform themselves about the impact of these ongoing racial biases. These resources include books, e-books, films, as well as publicly available resources, such as websites, archives, curricula, reading lists, and more. One of the main contributors and the director of the Learning Commons and Africana Studies librarian, Roxane Pickens said, “It’s designed to assist our community in educating themselves in figuring out ways to advocate for improved conditions, especially along the lines of race and ethnicity” (UM news, 2020).
We are living in a unique moment that requires American academia to move beyond wordy statements of diversity and inclusion and offer action-driven solutions that can help ameliorate this climate of extreme racial inequality. Establishing and normalizing antiracist curriculums, antiracist pedagogical practices similar to the ones noted here, and promoting antiracism through service and reading groups that support faculty and research are only the first steps in this process. However, these first steps are crucial for addressing systemic inequalities that impede intellectual growth in American academic spaces. As my examples indicate, these initial steps forge pathways for more long-term and impactful antiracist initiatives.
Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke Univ. Press, 2012.
Cadogan, Garnette. “WALKING WHILE BLACK.” In These Times 09, 2016: 44,44,43,4. ProQuest. Web. 2 Jan. 2022.
“Sculpture in Conversation- Monuments and Racism in America.” Cane Talks. YouTube, 9 Sept. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTjcLm2m5no&ab_channel=UniversityofMiami.
Walcott, Rinaldo. Queer Returns: Essays on Multiculturalism, Diaspora, and Black Studies. Insomniac Press, 2016.
Ray, Rashawn, and Alexandra Gibbons. “Why Are States Banning Critical Race Theory?” Brookings, 13 Aug. 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2021/07/02/why-are-states-banning-critical-race-theory/.
Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. One World, 2019.
Kishimoto, Kyoko. “Anti-racist Pedagogy: From Faculty’s Self-reflection to Organizing within and Beyond the Classroom.” Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 21, no.4, 2018, pp. 540-554.
Kubota, Ryuko. “The Author Responds: (Un) Raveling Racism in a Nice Field Like TESOL.” TESOL Quarterly, vol. 36, no.1, 2002, pp. 84-92.
“Library Combats Racial Injustice through Education.” University of Miami News and Events, https://news.miami.edu/stories/2020/07/library-combats-racial-injustice-through-education.html
Lynn, Billy. “Hoodie Project and Hoodie Stories.” 12’ W x 9’D x 26’ H Mesh fabric, aluminum tubing, video, www.billegracelynn.com, 2019.
Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk About Race. Seal Press, 2018.
Singh, Anneliese A. The Racial Healing Handbook: Practical Activities to Help You Challenge Privilege, Confront Systemic Racism, and Engage in Collective Healing. New Harbinger Publications, 2019.