JULY 6, 2021
The following essays are part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series, “Antiracism in the Contemporary University,” edited by Tita Chico. Click here for Tita Chico’s introduction.
- GerShun Avilez, Weapons and Shields
- David Sterling Brown, “Don’t Hurt Yourself”: (Anti)Racism and White Self-Harm
- Kristina Huang, Beyond White Fragility
- Brittany S. Hull, “I needed them”: A Reflection on “African American Language, Black Women, & the Teaching of Writing”
- Kian Kelley-Chung, The War on Racism Is a War Within US
- Dr. Temptaous Mckoy, Before You Check Your Antiracist Practices, Check Your Circle For Black Women
- Megan Peiser, An Indigenous Future Is for Everyone
- Emily Yoon Perez, Little Intimacies and Antiracism: Theory vs. Practice
- Robbie Richardson, Some Observations on “Decolonizing” the University
- Cecilia D. Shelton, A Meditation on Black Women’s Group Texts
- Keely Toledo, Who Should Decolonize? A Native Student’s Perspective in a Settler Institution
- Xine Yao, The Flexible Capital of the Figure of the Asian International Student: A Wedge For or Against Antiracism?
May 25 marked one year since the murder of George Floyd and a reignition of activism around the country against anti-Black racism and systemic violence. Floyd’s death alongside those of Breonna Taylor (2020), Sandra Bland (2015), Tamir Rice (2014), and Trayvon Martin (2012) — among many others — have become highly charged national symbols of brutality as well as reminders of the vulnerability of Black lives. Such showings of force illustrate that anti-Blackness is a weapon that has been used for many purposes (e.g., economic control, social power, and even physical gratification). It is a weapon that can be used by anyone anywhere — in the street but also in a classroom or a bedroom. It is increasingly important to understand and acknowledge the different forms of vulnerability that Black populations face. However, how do we acknowledge this vulnerability without allowing it to be the whole story of Black life? How do we hold the state and private individuals accountable for Black death without tethering expressions of Blackness solely to loss, absence, and pain? The realm of cultural production offers answers to these questions. Artists such as Saeed Jones demonstrate how to make clear the complexity of anti-Blackness while also refusing to let violence and death define Black experience completely. In addition, Jones’s work shows how the university is sometimes ill-equipped to recognize and address such social dilemmas.
Saeed Jones’s 2019 memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, is an important work of African American and queer writing. He is best known as a poet; his chapbook When the Only Light is Fire appeared in 2011, and Prelude to Bruise appeared in 2014. How We Fight for Our Lives concentrates on Jones’s young adulthood, highlighting his relationship with his mother, his educational pursuits, his sexual life, and the messy interaction of all of these facets of his life. The autobiographical volume presents an extended reflection on Black gay life, showcasing how racialized histories enshroud queer intimacy and how sexual desire underpins some racial violence.
One of the most significant events recounted in the memoir is the description of a writing assignment that Jones completes while getting his MFA. He is asked to write a “nonfiction” short story. He bases his story on an emotionally turbulent sexual encounter that he had had with a White man. In the story he writes, the men wrestle until Jones is murdered by having his head bashed in. The story causes confusion in the writing workshop because it is supposed to be nonfiction, but the central figure, the writer, dies. No one understands how the writer can offer an autobiographical treatment in which he does not survive. He explains that during the actual sexual encounter, violence and racialized cruelty quickly emerged: the White sexual partner, Daniel, “went from sucking me to punching me so quickly I could still feel my erection pressed against his stomach.” As he beats Jones, Daniel repeats over and over again, “you’re already dead.” Daniel’s sexual fantasy is one of violence. Daniel, who identified as straight when the two met earlier that night, fantasizes about killing a Black man as he is having sex with one. The dizzying scene features an act of intimacy spliced in with gay bashing and anti-Black violence. Daniel’s contention that Jones is already dead as he punches him reveals the link made between the Black body and death in the US cultural imagination. Daniel’s words and punches are directed toward Jones but also toward a historical idea of Black maleness that he embodies, which that titillates and angers Daniel. Whether or not Jones actually dies, the threat of death emerges for Black bodies even in intimate spaces, and this reality is what the other members of the MFA workshop fail to comprehend.
At stake in Jones’s recounting is a central question: how does one write Black gay life now? In Jones’s estimation, part of the challenge of such writing has to do with the generational loss of so many artistic forebears: “It’s just too easy for a gay black man to drown amid the names of dead black gay men.” It is to death or its looming presence that the writer turns as he reconstructs his life. The point that Jones makes through these comments is best summed up in his assertion: “Boys like us never really got away, it seemed. We just bought ourselves time. A few more gasps of air, a few more poems, a few more years. History hurt more than any weapon inflicted on us. It hit back harder than any weapon we could wield.” Jones’s “few more gasps of air” resonates with George Floyd’s dying words (“I can’t breathe”), spoken while being suffocated. The encircling threat of death because of anti-Blackness and homophobia explains why Jones feels as if Black gay men are on borrowed time. Physical threats are real, as Daniel’s punches illustrate. That being said there are other kinds of injury such as humiliation, microaggressions, and sexual stereotyping that also cause injury and undercut one’s life, and these actions recur in the memoir. How We Fight for Our Lives can be read as creative extension of Black Lives Matter activism that emphasizes sexual identity as it exposes an anti-Black racism that threatens to smother us all.
Telling the story of some parts of his life, creating narratives, becomes the way for Jones the writer to acknowledge how acts of injury have shaped him, while also giving these emotionally overwhelming moments boundaries. His classmates and teacher misunderstand his approach and miss the point of how he handles anti-Black racism in his writing. Such racism is a felt reality that educational spaces sometimes fail to comprehend. Through the memoir form, Jones confronts and delimits his past on the page. In reflecting back on the encounter with Daniel, he explains, “I had walked out of that room and written about it. I wrote about him, then past him — one poem, one story, one essay at a time. Pen as weapon, page as shield.” Art can serve as a weapon against the weapon of anti-Blackness as well as a symbolic shield. In the face of state inaction, interpersonal violence, and even disappointing educational experiences, art becomes a space of safety and reflection as well as a way to imagine other possibilities. Jones reminds us that as we continue to develop strategies for dealing with the ever-present realities of anti-Blackness, we must not forget about the role that art has played in self-preservation and community building. It shows us another way we may fight for our lives.
Disclaimer: This essay mentions forms of extreme racialized violence and contains imagery that some people may find upsetting or even triggering as it pertains to their individual mental health.
When police shoot and shed Black blood, I stop. I stop to shed Black tears because the bullets always ricochet, always cause collateral damage, don’t they? How could they not, especially when anti-Black racism pulls the trigger, when anti-Black racism releases the firing pin to become the intense unstoppable energy that sets the bullet in motion to pierce Black skin? This question, and others, entered my mind after I learned about the April 11, 2021, murder of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, young Black father, whose skin, like mine, was presumably too wrong for anything about him to be right in the eyes of white supremacy. Sadly, the investment in “white as right” has for centuries conditioned people to accept and desire the personal, systemic, and institutional benefits that result from sustaining anti-Black racism, particularly through violence, through what UCLA Shakespeare scholar Arthur L. Little Jr. and I have talked about as Black people’s “(in)visible bondage.”
In fact, the benefits, the rewards, of championing anti-Black racist practices outweigh the risks, eclipsing any consequence. At least, that is what I think is true, for I cannot fathom any other reason, beyond the unyielding instigation of Black suffering and pain, why someone like white former Minnesota police officer Kim Potter would kill a Black man like Daunte Wright, only to resign from her job nearly 48 hours later. I imagine something significant, something so worthwhile in the short- and long-term, must be gained from such anti-Black assaults despite the fact that the bullets — maintaining their velocity, figuratively speaking — cause injury that extends beyond the Black target, for there are Black children, mothers, fathers, cousins, friends, and entire communities tied to these state-sanctioned murders. Yet harmed, too, in the process of executing anti-Black racism is the white self, which leads me to wonder: Do white people understand how their irrational fear of and disdain for Black people actually manifests as a form of self-hate and, perhaps more damagingly, self-harm? Do you understand?
And is it clear to white people that the white supremacist investment in the socio-political and cultural meanings and mechanisms of whiteness — the often-invisible apparatuses that thrive on the negative cultural capital of black tropes and metaphors — has significant costs? And if it is clear, then why don’t white people’s antiracist efforts outpace their racist actions? While anti-Blackness and white supremacy certainly generate socio-political benefits for white people, benefits often rebranded as “white privilege,” the investment in white supremacy also costs white people financially, psychologically, economically, intellectually, emotionally, in too many ways to name. Alluding to the chorus from a song off Beyoncé’s acclaimed, Black-centric album Lemonade, I must warn:
“When you hurt me, you hurt yourself. Don’t hurt yourself.”
Although some people wear privilege as a fashionable badge, often hyping the use of “white privilege for good,” I wonder if white privilege, which author and poet Claudia Rankine has noted might be better referred to as “white dominance,” should be a source of pride at all? I wonder if deep interrogation of white privilege ever leaves people feeling conflicted, not only because it is a universal, undeserved welfare check (and there’s a long history of white people stigmatizing welfare in the United States), but also, and more importantly, because it is a facilitator and extension of anti-Black racism, a fact that inherently makes white dominance damaging for all. The costs are high. I wonder if, deep down, it truly feels that good to be a beneficiary of white supremacy and the arbitrary privileging of whiteness. I wonder, too, if anti-Blackness is a reaction to a self-created, racially-oriented imposter syndrome that prompts white people to overcompensate, sometimes through racist violence, for perceived or felt inadequacy.
Don’t hurt yourself.
As a Black literary scholar and Shakespearean, I occasionally express my thoughts by alluding to literature. Here, I think of Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus Andronicus (circa 1590), and a pivotal scene in Act 4 where a white Nurse character instigates her own demise when she hurls racist insults at the newborn Black son of Aaron, the play’s lone adult Black Moor whom Shakespeare sets up as a villain, but certainly not the play’s only one. The Nurse’s anti-Black racism provides an unsettling early modern example of white women’s complicity in upholding white supremacy and white patriarchal power. Sent to Aaron on behalf of his illicit white lover, the Roman Empress Tamora, with an order for him to murder their dark-skinned biracial newborn, the Nurse operates in the worst way as an agent of white solidarity.
Don’t hurt yourself.
To protect his Black child, Aaron kills the Nurse, who dies not at the hands of a stereotypical angry Black man but at the hands of a Black man angered by the systemic racism that repeatedly says Black lives do not matter. And so, the Nurse engages in self-harm; her racist words, metaphorical bullets, ricochet. Over the years, much about Titus has been rejected by some scholars, including its authorial authenticity (i.e., it’s co-authored, maybe not Shakespeare at all) and overall literary quality (i.e., “no intrinsic value,” “bad”), which raises the question: Why has Titus Andronicus — a play that challenges long-standing anti-Black racism in ways the more popular Othello fails to do — been considered unworthy of Shakespeare’s so-called “genius”? Upon impact, words ricochet, too.
Don’t hurt yourself.
Containing a significant number of deaths — a bloodbath, indeed — Titus is a Shakespearean drama in which white people rape, mutilate, psychologically abuse, eat (yes, cannibalism!), and murder each other, including political assassination and filicide (intraracial violence also understood as white-on-white crime). The play stages and sanctions white self-harm, establishing the destruction of white lives as a characteristic part of the privilege of racialized whiteness. It reveals that when one owns and exercises one’s such privilege, an exertion of white dominance, there is always a cost. This is true even today: for instance, that cost could manifest as unconscious guilt or anxiety for the non-Black “ally” who is opportunistic rather than altruistic — the type who eventually reveals themself as dangerously disingenuous by doing things that underscore the conditional, unstable, parodic nature of their antiracism and perceived alliance with Black people.
Don’t hurt yourself.
To be clear, being a committed antiracist is non-stop hard work that can require real blood, sweat, and tears. It is not conditional labor. There is no clocking out once clocked in. Clock that? The activism lies in daily, consistent actions that undermine white supremacy and relentlessly counter anti-Black racism. And this leads to my ultimate point: until antiracism outpaces racism systemically, until white people, and all people who have internalized white supremacy and anti-Blackness, relinquish their commitment to self-harm, self-hatred, and self-centering, we will not see the end of (anti-Black) racism, for we live in a world where it seems far easier, far less threatening for those who value individualism, to let the real — and metaphorical — bullets ricochet.
Don’t hurt yourself.
… if anything, remember this: kill me, and you kill yourself; the homicide will be double — at least. To pull the trigger is to choose harm. This is your final warning (don’t hurt yourself).
The language of “fragility” belies how whiteness has endured as a structure of domination and how it has obscured its own class-based conflicts; these conflicts might find expression in feelings of fragility and reactionary rage. How can we talk about white supremacy in the US beyond the realm of managing interpersonal relationships, beyond the fantasy that improved, individual behavior is a form of justice for irreparable crimes against humanity? How might we interrogate whiteness as an extension and replication of global systems of domination — colonialism, slavery, and capitalism — that are reproduced in the structures we inhabit, physically and virtually? One possible route is to consider the enduring attachments to productivity and liberal progress in the US — what W. E. B. Du Bois has identified as the “American Assumption” that “wealth is mainly the result of its owner’s effort and that any average worker can by thrift become a capitalist.” The American Assumption is part of the frontier, an idea of “free” or “new” territory primed for the self-making, enterprising individual. The frontier has long been evoked to resolve the contradictions between competing laborers. With the disappearance of “free” land, as Christine Goding-Doty reminds us, the idea of the frontier is replicated in other spaces, including virtual ones.
Consider Arthur Jones’s indie documentary Feels Good Man, which premiered a couple of months before many people were left, quite literally, to their own devices. Feels Good Man tracks the evolution of the internet meme Pepe the Frog, illustrating how a cartoon frog was transformed through social media into a virtual community’s expression of support for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The film follows artist Matt Furie’s quest to wrest his comic book character from its associations with the US alt-right and the people Hillary Clinton had described as a “basket of deplorables.” While tracing the visual recreations and appropriations of Furie’s cartoon frog, the documentary’s narrative is structured around reclaiming Pepe as a symbol of democracy and peace rather than one of white reactionary rage. Feels Good Man depicts the “crisis” of democracy as a matter of cultural sensitivity and decorum in the US (think of the “this is not us” refrain) rather than the internal class conflicts within, as Gerald Horne puts it, “the racial identity politics” of the US, “effectively the first apartheid state.”
Pepe became an ironic register through which predominantly, but not exclusively, young Euro-American men on the internet expressed sadness, loneliness, rage, and irreverence. One of the documentary’s interviewees is a 4chan user who introduces himself as someone living a “neet” lifestyle — “neet” standing for “Not in Education, Employment, or Training.” The documentary conveys that this a lifestyle that summons the image of an under- or unemployed young man who lives in the basement of his parents’ home. The interviewee describes the neet community as a virtual collective of people who embrace and guard their sense of being rejected by society’s “normies” (individuals who benefit from and adjust to codes of bourgeois propriety). Misogyny figures heavily in their sense of social rejection: unlike the young women and female celebrities who once used Pepe in their ludic internet content, the 4chan community reappropriated the meme with intensifying references to violence, physical harm, and genocide.
One of Pepe’s catchphrases — the documentary’s titular “feels good man” — has undergone a similar process of viral uptake and appropriation. The phrase originated from a frame in Furie’s Boy’s Club, a comics series featuring the frog among his three friends in an insouciant post-college setting. In the frame, Pepe says “feels good man” to his friend who sees him urinating into a toilet. Furie informs the director that the phrase simply captured the intense, immediate bodily sensation and satisfaction of release. For 4chan users, “feels good man” underscored its users’ delight in (negatively) affecting others, while claiming not to feel anything — but “good” — in the process. Goding-Doty argues that whiteness operates “in its ability to affect and (claim to) not be affected, […] [and] it continues to depend on a habituated impression of unaffectability.” Her definition accords with the ironic uses of Pepe: on the one hand, the cartoon frog is just a nihilistic joke from the internet but, on the other, it is an expression of the capacity to dominate and harm. The relation to an aspirational violence is what undergirds white supremacy, which Dylan Rodriguez defines as “a logic of social organization that invents, reproduces, revises, and transforms changing modalities of social domination and systemic, targeted physiological and ecological violence.”
As Gerald Horne and Theodore Allen have demonstrated in their respective historical studies of 17th-century North America, it is increasingly important to analyze white supremacy’s roots in terms of cross-class collaboration — that is, the socio-political alliance between the capitalist elite and disaffected classes in the US. Through legal measures around presumed birthrights, migration, forms of punishment, and voting based on property, pan-European solidarity was forged among 17th-century English settlers and “whiteness” became the pretext for the continued theft of Indigenous land and increased reliance on enslaved African labor. With violence and theft as the building blocks of US “civilization,” whiteness emerged and remains as a centuries-old structure of social organization and set of discourses.
During the global pandemic, the virtualization of life and work recalibrated how we felt in our bodies and mind; we interfaced with more internet media and audiovisual images which, in turn, shifted our relationships to individual and collective notions of ourselves. Feels Good Man offers a case study of a virtual community’s use of Pepe and its transformation into a symbol of aspirational violence aligning with the political institutions of 2016. But the overarching narrative of the documentary also reveals some of the challenges for how we might think about the racial-colonial logics that circulate and structure our use of the internet: shifting away from the language of “civility,” how does the surplus of expressed feelings (e.g., fragility, rage, irony) reveal the internal class conflicts within the racial identity politics of whiteness and white supremacy in the US?
A constant within Black culture is the vetting process. If one asks for a referral from a member of one’s community, it will be followed by a series of questions like: How much they charge? Is it clean in there? Do it be crowded? However, when the community member is trusted, there is little to no questions. This is what happened when I was asked by my colleague and friend, Dr. Cecilia Shelton, if I was interested in discussing my research in a recorded series on Antiracism at University of Maryland. Despite bein fresh out of graduate school (I literally defended my dissertation and sent it to the graduate school nine days before the formal invitation), I texted “Yeah, I’m down” to the group-chat I share with Shelton and Dr. Temptaous Mckoy of Bowie State. I trusted Cecilia’s brilliance and loved that I would be discussing my work wit my sista-scholars and those watching in detail. I research African American Language (AAL)-speaking Black Women English Teacher-Scholars (BWETS hereafter) and they scholarly identity as they enter and navigate the field of rhetoric and composition. After all, I couldn’t think of a better way to combat fresh research anxiety and grad school post-traumatic stress than conversating in community wit my sista-scholars who I trust.
To kickstart our convo, Mckoy asked me to describe how I came to consider Black women’s language an area of critical investigation. This question made me a bit vulnerable as its roots cause me to revisit past trauma from my first teaching position. I’m reminded of the moment when I was critiqued by a white senior-level colleague and administrator who presented herself as annoyed at my use of AAL as an English composition instructor. This experience was the catalyst for me to question how AAL use is still perceived as inferior despite the plethora of research which proves its validity. As difficult as it is constantly reiterating this experience, it led me to pursue a doctoral degree so I could research a topic that was a point of my pain, where feelings of inadequacy and deficit was apparent.
I explained to Dr. Mckoy that my research showed me that some AAL-speaking BWETS encounter a variety of microaggressions from white colleagues for not only how some talk, but for they physical appearance as well. As an AAL-speaking and writing BWETS, I make the conscious decision to show up as my authentic self in every space, and with this question, in this moment, I was able to go through these emotions and revisit these experiences in conversation, in a safe space (I forgot over 100 people was watching), wit my sista-scholars.
When Dr. Mckoy asked me to elaborate on the various Black women language and literacy scholars I cited in my dissertation, I was overcome with feelings of gratitude. “I needed them,” I told her. The work of those who came before me was (and still is) critical to my understanding of AAL, literacy education of Black students, and BWETS teacher identity. Black women’s contributions to education — specifically the fields of composition, literacy studies, and communications — spans centuries, with the research of scholars and activists like Anna Julia Cooper, Marsha Houston (Stanback), Geneva Smitherman, Elaine Richardson, Sonja Lanehart, Carmen Kynard, Denise Troutman, April Baker-Bell, and more. Too often, Black women see their scholarship go unnoticed because academia traditionally privileges whiteness. I’m making the conscious decision to expose a new generation of scholars to their research. In addition to citing them in my research, I have plans to incorporate their research into the course syllabus for future courses.
My favorite part of the conversation wit Dr. Shelton and Dr. Mckoy was when we discussed my experiences as an AAL-speaking BWETS and Antiracist pedagogy. This is where viewers got a live glimpse of our group-chat. When Dr. Mckoy asked me to describe students and colleagues when they encounter me being me and using AAL, I was glad to share because despite all of the research on AAL as a rule-governed language, people still turn they nose up in disgust at it. I believe it’s vital for educators to show up as themselves instead of tryna be who they presume students and colleagues want them to be. In my experience, my AAL use has received mixed reactions. For example, I’ve received student evaluations with comments that I should use standard English and then course observations from colleagues that described my approach to teaching as inspiring to students. The difference in the comments simply proves there is still a lot of work that must be done in composition and literacy studies regarding the use of AAL and other language varieties in the writing classroom.
These descriptions invited various audience questions; however, a question seeking advice about situating whiteness in the discussion of AAL since its often appropriated like so much of Black culture threw us for a loop … because we ain’t white. The “how-to as a white person teaching white students’” question is difficult for Black women scholars to answer because we operate from a position of marginality. I believe discussing AAL and the common misconceptions associated with it should be addressed to white students by more white scholars. Doing antiracist work means deliberately decentering whiteness. Additionally, it is long overdue for white faculty who consider themselves committed to antiracist pedagogy to use they research skills to revisit the decades’ worth of scholarship of Black language and literacy scholars and incorporate it into they teaching of predominantly white students. Antiracist pedagogy ain’t no walk on the beach. I echo the sentiments of Dr. Mckoy who kept it real when she said, “Do the work and be ok with bein uncomfortable not knowin.’” Combatting white supremacy via the American education system ain’t for the faint of heart; academia need all hands-on deck. 
Most of the six months I spent documenting the revolution for Black liberation was directly across from the White House, on a two-block strip down 16th Street NW, renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza by Mayor Muriel Bowser in June 2020. I can count on two fingers the good memories I have from the plaza, but I would need your hands and toes combined with my own to recount the trauma I endured there. This is what it means to be Black in America. In a space supposedly dedicated to protecting our people, we are shot, brutalized, maced, and arrested. Many DC folk renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza the “Yellow Brick Road,” symbolizing its false promise. That our lives mattering is a fairy tale. That on the same road where “BLACK LIVES MATTER” is painted in big yellow letters, cops believe beating the blood out of a Black man for protecting the space from a white supremacist in blackface is more justified than removing the white supremacist from the area.
The documentary that emerged from these historical moments, Free the People, is a raw and radical display of passionate activism, as well as an autopsy of the lethal divides of our society. Much of what we document might be considered controversial, and many opinions in it are not reflective of my own or my co-director’s. Some people will be uncomfortable by a lot of what they see, but to quote one of the activists in the movement, “Ain’t shit pretty about a motherfucking protest.”
I didn’t know the Assata Mantra before the marches, but I still felt it was my duty to fight for our freedom. Recognizing the significance of the history we were living in and how much it affected Black people, I wanted to ensure that we had a voice in how this time will be remembered. On June 6, 2020, armed with my camera, I followed a march out of H Street led by a Palestinian man. I asked him how he began organizing protests, and he told me he was chilling at Earl’s First Amendment Grill, where he and some homies decided they wanted to activate people and march for justice. His story fascinated me. What was it about this place that inspired a non-Black man to fight for Black lives? I came to find that Earl’s wasn’t a place, but a movement — a movement that used food as a vessel to express the necessity for social change. Their mission was simple: free food for freedom fighters.
Free the People first follows the Earl’s: a group of young, Black DC residents giving out free food on the steps of St. John’s Episcopal Church (the same church Trump gased protestors to hold his Bible-toting photo op) and defending their community from abusive police. Through the Earl’s, we witness the birth of a movement and for those unfamiliar, an authentic Black experience. Ironically, however, many DC Black Lives Matter supporters found the Earl’s were “too Black.” A lot of them were rich, college-educated, White people from affluent, suburban communities outside the District. Most Earl’s on the other hand, are from rough neighborhoods, in Southeast, or Columbia Heights, where they’re either battling gentrification or surviving a food desert, in overpopulated and overpoliced schools. A few Earl’s, I later discovered, grew up as homeless orphans; some of them were still homeless while giving out free food and tents to other homeless people. This method of mutual aid laid down the blueprint for the DC BLM movement moving forward. Yet, they were ostracized by the rest of the movement for being “too problematic.”
To be honest, yes, some members of Earl’s hold problematic philosophies. Homophobia and misogynoir plague some of their minds. With so much of the rest of the movement centering Black women and LGBT inclusion, it is understandable that others challenged their views. Justice is to hold everyone accountable, even our peers, but ostracizing one of the original Black groups on Black Lives Matter Plaza fundamentally fails to recognize the systematic oppression suffocating the Earl’s and directly enables anti-Black racism. It neglects to realize that the harmful ideologies ingrained in them are a response to generations of trauma stemming from slavery and colonization, leading now into mass incarceration. It promotes a flawed “talented-tenth” logic that disrespects the intelligence of the people who have been systematically victimized — those the movement claims it wants to help. This isn’t to excuse the Earl’s behavior or to distract from the beauty that other activists brought to their communities; it is to push all of these progressives to be more progressive.
Social and mental emancipation is a constant battle within us all. Filming this documentary forced me to exit my comfort zone and granted me an opportunity to challenge my own preconceived biases. I come from a middle-class family, born and raised in Columbia, Maryland, with a bachelor’s degree. I am similar to the people who I criticize for criticizing the Earl’s. Being welcomed into the Earl’s family allowed me to begin to recognize my own prejudices and see beyond their veils. The founder of Earl’s, Reggie Earl Guy, is a lot like me. We are the same age, both make music, both love exposing the complexities of the English language, share a mutual disdain for police brutality as young Black men, and both battled an education system that tried to ruin our futures. He was pushed into special ed in the second grade. My Kindergarten teachers tried to funnel me into special education as well (for “behavioral reasons”), yet in the first grade, I was in all advanced classes, went on to graduate high school in the top eight percent and have an honors degree in my collegiate major. He grew up in Southeast. I grew up in Columbia. He grew up to hate school, and I grew up to love it. In his own words, “Special Ed is to dull bright lights.” We are not that different; the opportunities afforded to us were.
Ultimately, I believe that antiracism isn’t enough. We need total liberation. That is why activists like Malcolm X and Fred Hampton — those who truly understood intersectionality — were considered the most dangerous. Class, gender, sexuality, religion, able-bodiedness, and education are woven together. However, all forms of oppression must be conquered by people who can both identify their existence, and not judge those who cannot. I believe that we need to practice education through compassion, rather than ostracization through elitism. Banish the belief of the talented-tenth and embrace a liberation for all. Experience the world and the cultures that exist beyond your narrow field of view. Your eyes see in a wide angle for a reason, so why crop your mind?
Calling for antiracist practices means checking your circle for Black women. That’s that article, tweet, Facebook post, all dat. If you gone make claim that you are planning to do antiracist work, you need to be sure that you have Black women in your circle. If you do a circle assessment, and you notice none of these individuals are Black women, then simply put — you cannot complete antiracist work. Now to be clear, I ain’t saying all Black women are antiracist (this is something to further unpack), but Black women do and should be seen at the forefront of antiracist action and change. Black women’s intersectional identity offers the lens to truly see and implement antiracist practices in the humanities and other fields alike.
Some call it a sixth sense or their gut feeling, but I simply call it discernment — well technically, I grew up with my mom calling it “The Spirit of Discernment.” Either way, this ability to utilize life experiences, both negative and positive, alongside formal, or informal acquired knowledge, affords Black women a particular discernment. Black women have always had put up with the policing of their messages, body language, and emotions to ensure others are comfortable. This need to be adaptive alters the way in which Black women approach antiracist work. Why? Because part of a Black woman’s existence is to consistently combat and overcome a world that is oftentimes racist.
In a keynote on this subject at the University of Louisville’s Watson Conference, I posed a set of questions to audience members, asking them to consider where the Black women exist in their professional circles:
I. How many Black women are in your department? How many Black women are in your department that are not teaching curriculum that is based around their Black identity?
II. How many of the Black women in your department serve across committees?
III. How many times have you heard the ideas and concerns of a Black woman be dismissed at a faculty meeting, only for you to backchannel and tell them you support them?
Many participants mentioned that these were not questions they considered and/or did not feel too good about their answers. Real talk: Folks gotta be uncomfortable in order to move forward for change, especially if we talking antiracist action and change. However, this set of questions and calls for change does bring me to a critical point; just because a woman is Black, does not mean she is committed to antiracist work nor does it make her an expert on antiracism. That’s a thick claim, but hear me out. While the movements and actions of Black women are influenced by their intersectional identity, the influence will not always lean on the side of antiracist action.
What do I mean? Real quick, maybe a scholar seeks to uphold white standards of professionalism and linguistic practices as a response to systems of oppression. While Black women do have a choice to uphold anti-Black standards, these choices are influenced by their lived experience. Some of these lived experiences may include the need to assimilate for professional gain and/or due to community upbringing. So, as I suggest it is important to check one’s circle for Black women, it is important for you to have still done the work to identify just what are antiracist practices as it is not the sole duty of Black women to implement these practices.
In all, implementing antiracist practices, at its core, means considering how one’s actions can benefit others. As a Black woman, I try my best to be careful when speaking to the many ways Black women are shown as resilient and as the backbones of several communities. Not because these statements are not true, but because this logic can also provide space for people to not treat Black women with the same care and respect as others. When it is assumed that their resilience and strength will always see them through the struggle, Black women face additional stress. Yet, in this specific instance, I want to speak to the community-driven nature of Black women’s work: women who have sought to enact action and change that supports communities that are not simply their own. When Black women charged for better maternal health care, all women were afforded these same benefits. Black women were also the first to produce the original antiracist reading list. Black women — including myself, Drs. Cecilia Shelton and Brittany Hull — have continued to advocate for the redefining of professionalism for all communities. Black women consistently have shown us the many ways to give space while forging connections at the same time. In creating these connections, they curate communities with which to support not just one another, but members of other historically marginalized groups.
Iight look, so I got a question I wish to offer as I close. If, upon completing an assessment of your individual circle (social and professional), you see there are no Black women present in said circle, then ask yaself: why aren’t you present in the circle of Black women? Completing antiracist work requires the presence and expertise of Black women and if you are unable to see the Black women in your circle, nor be seen as a part of a circle of Black women, then maybe it is time to reconsider how you define antiracist work and your motivation for being a part of it.
Sv hochifo yvt Megan; Chahta ohyo sia. My name is Megan; I am a Choctaw woman. I am the daughter of Barry Peiser, granddaughter of Beverley Payne. I am an enrolled citizen of Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and I write these words sitting now in the stolen homelands of the Anishinaabe people, in Waawiantinanong, currently called Detroit, Michigan.
The Chahta recently marked the anniversary of our Long Walk, the Trail of Tears — the forced removal of our people from our sacred lands in what is now Mississippi to reservations in the Oklahoma Territory — Indian Country. Our ancestors carried traditions with them in their minds, in their mouths, in the seeds sewn into their pockets and skirt hems. This year my grandmother received traditional seeds from our tribe — corn, squash, tobacco. You cannot buy these seeds. These varieties were all but destroyed by corporate agriculture and genetically modified vegetables. They were scorched by raiding groups of settlers burning crops and homes of vulnerable relocated Native peoples — mostly women and children — in greed for evermore land. These seeds dwindled when government-provided foodstuffs to movement-restricted tribal peoples were mere boxes of bleached flour. Now my parents text me pictures of these sacred plants growing in pots outside my grandparents’ home in a compound of senior living houses in San Angelo, Texas. I hope to grow them next year, too. In some ways, I already live in an Indigenous future.
I have been fortunate in the teachers, mentors, and elders who have taught me about our customs and my responsibilities as a Native woman. More often than not, my teachers are Native women my own age, or the land and plants I apprentice myself to. While my own family members are largely examples of “successful” assimilation — removed from our traditions by enough generations that it is easier to practice settler customs than to work at cultivating our own — I see the seeds of our Native traditions in my childhood memories. Those memories are re-cast the more that I learn about myself as a Chahta ohyo. I also see in those memories the deep bruises from the abuse of our people stretching back to European arrival. They touch me even today; my learning privileges me to name them for what they are, and I hope the healing work I do now will reach back and heal my ancestors, too.
Here is what I have learned from my teachers, from plant relatives, from ceremony, from conversations with my students: an Indigenous future is for everyone.
What might an Indigenous future be? Rowen White (Mohawk) recently posted on Instagram about the importance of letting go of efficiency. As humans, we must give of ourselves to ritual, to the work of reciprocity, lest we get caught by capitalism, greed — a monster many Native cultures have a story or tradition to warn against. In an Indigenous future, we do not labor in desperation to survive; we contribute our gifts. The world moves more slowly. We do not march forward forward forward, desperate for some unreachable goal in the name of “progress”; we relax into the round cycles of growth, harvest, and fallowness. I often tell students, literature majors especially, that they are essential to a different future. It is hard to imagine an antiracist, anticapitalist, anticolonial future: this is a world that we, the living, have never seen before. But for the experts in imagination — these students of art, of dance, of literature, of music and theater and all kinds of storytelling — imagining new worlds is their gift. Their new worlds will always sound impossible to those people working and living in systems rooted in capitalism, in scarcity, in racism, in fear. We’ll give those no more space here. This is a space for Indigenous futures.
I cannot speak for all Native people; I speak from my own learning, still in motion, and my unlearning of settler-colonialist ways. #LandBack is a part of an Indigenous future, and a movement of reparations. Land back is not a metaphor. Native people need actual land with which to communicate, love, and to practice our heritage and customs — all of which are tied to our position as relatives to Earth’s plants and animals. Land stewarded by Native peoples holds most of the Earth’s biodiversity. Our people practice a life of respect and reciprocity — nobody has the right to hoard resources — and Native communities who practice these tenets are thriving today. That is the Indigenous future I want for us all.
Land Back for Native peoples, Land Back for our Afro-Indigenous kin, Land Back for Black people — but a connection to the Land for everyone else, too. The generational trauma of Native and Indigenous Peoples is still with us. It still shapes our lives, our communities. We are working to reawaken our ways, call up our ancestors for guidance, take up space, dance, pray once more. We lend ourselves to the land — apprentice ourselves to the seasons, to our plant relatives, to the soil, the water and the sun. And suddenly we are less lonely. We receive the constant promise of love — our Mother Earth’s love, of nourishment, of purpose. These heal us. I believe they can heal everyone.
My friend Shiloh (Ojibwe/Odawa) says, “Everyone is Native to somewhere; everyone is a person of the land.” My German and English ancestors were also stripped of their relationship to the land, some even their language, on arrival in this hostile country. Children were hushed not to utter a Deutsch syllable after World War II. I am angry and frustrated at what has been stolen from us. Often anger and determination are a fuel for my fight. But hope reminds me what I’m fighting for. Planting the Cherokee White Eagle corn, gifted down through many seed-keepers, from the hands of my friend Kirsten (Tlingit), and welcoming corn sister’s tall stalks into the garden — that is what stirs me. Corn sister helps me to decolonize myself, re-indigenize myself.
Embracing a world of abundance over scarcity, a slower world of more time — for joy, for rest, for grief, for food, for community — that is an Indigenous future. An Indigenous future is for everyone.
You can support Native land and food sovereignty movements through the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance.
Within the academy, antiracism as theory seems ubiquitous. Antiracism in practice, however, may be another story. For me, that other story might be better described as a series of experiences, manifestations of certain realities that mark the academy, a general climate that one must learn to weather, particularly as a racialized junior scholar.
I entered my first semester in my PhD program as the only nonwhite person in a cohort of 12. Weeks into one of my courses, the professor revealed that I had done my undergraduate work at a prestigious private institution. Coincidentally, three decades earlier, my newly immigrated grandfather worked his first job at this same institution as a janitor, a fact that reliably gets wide-eyed exclamations from white self-proclaimed progressives in their eagerness to tokenize. It was only after that class meeting that a number of my classmates finally interacted with me beyond an awkward and brief hello in the hallway. Prior to that day, they had only known I had received my MA from a public state school whose literature program was unranked; every time I had met someone new, they would ask “where I was coming from” to ask where my most recent institutional home had been. I remember finding this primary concern with institutional origin strange, an echo of the all-too-familiar “where are you from?” prompted by my racialized appearance. This was my first time experiencing this particular brand of classism, what would later manifest as badge-reading at conferences.
When my undergraduate institution was revealed, I felt both vindicated and exposed, both pleasure in the surprise based in the miscalculation of my peers but also a feeling of being outed, made susceptible once again to categorization based on imposed assumptions that I had carefully dodged by consciously not revealing specific details about myself. One of the reasons I had not shared much of my personal and academic backgrounds was to evade those assumptions, to try to obfuscate who I was and who others thought I was. During my MA, one of my classmates had offhandedly called me a Korean American princess, assuming that because of my undergraduate institution, I must be of a certain socioeconomic background. I remember first the surprise, then the anger that came in the aftermath of that comment, the erasure of a whole personal and family history that had gotten me to the same place that my white cisgender male peer could only imagine I was able to share due to some unspoken amount of assumed financial privilege. At the same time, I was unwilling to provide a counternarrative, to perform my identity and my trauma in order to prove I belonged, only to have my white peers think they could understand the deeply complex and personal history that led me to the academy.
The disjuncture between antiracism in theory and antiracism in practice might be described as a problem of scale and of relation. Theory is expansive. It is grounded in reading and thinking. It can be insular. It may not require interacting with racialized people. One can be an expert at theorizing antiracism, at promoting antiracist methods and modes of study, while being squarely not antiracist. What does it mean when an academic, especially a white academic, advances their career using only theories of antiracism? It means that the white supremacist colonial institution is allowed to thrive under the guise of a progressive politics. It means that you can say the right things without having to do the right things. It means whiteness continues to benefit from the resources and social capital of the university made possible through minoritized people, profiting off of progressive politics as a prop and propellant, rather than an ethics of engaging with others.
Racial capitalism teaches us that within the white supremacist colonial state, minoritized people are there to advance the economic interests of white people, and to remain at the outskirts, not occupying the same spaces. In a similar vein, the study of race and racialized people too often serves to advance the careers of white scholars and the profile of departments and universities without the necessary support for the very people upon whom that advancement relies. The recent proliferation of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts and committees shows that there are those in the academy who know how to talk about race, but do not necessarily know how or are unwilling to implement strategies to make the university truly diverse, equitable, or inclusive. Those who tout themselves as progressive, or even radical, as invested in efforts to create such a university, can, at times, be the very people who cause the most harm in upholding systems of the university that disproportionately harm minority students, staff, and faculty.
My current book project, Little Intimacies: Race and Oceanic Migration in Minority US Fiction, thinks about the small in scale as an ethics of engagement, as a way of asking what happens when expansive systems of capital, racialization, labor, and empire not only reach outward across the globe, but also seep into the personal, the everyday, the intimate. What might literary texts teach us about knowledge production within capitalistic structures of valuation that are designed to exclude and erase us? How might we build our intellectual homes in the academy, a place that so often replicates the colony and the plantation, in a way that is ethical and constructive?
One possibility, which I find myself subscribing to, is through the “little intimacies” that arise out of and are made possible by the profession, a particular attention to the small and the individual, which so often gets lost in discussions of racial inequity and climate change, along with other large-scale calls for social justice. My limited institutional power means that I have more opportunity to practice antiracism at the level of the small. In the face of the harm described above, I have simultaneously found community, advocates, and friends without whom this profession would be impossible and unlivable. I have turned to my students to engage with both theories and practices of antiracism and social justice. I have learned that building community begins with individual people, not institutions. These relations show me that radical camaraderie can be nurtured even within the white supremacist colonial institution.
Imagine what the academy might look like in practicing, not just theorizing, antiracism; what possibilities might abound if we prioritized an ethical engagement with each other at the level of the individual. By cultivating solidarity, investing in community-building, and practicing antiracism in the day-to-day, we might start to slowly undermine the structural realities that uphold inequity and injustice through a radical politics of the small. Then, just maybe, the institution could follow suit.
I am a member of Pabineau Mi’kmaq First Nation in New Brunswick, Canada, and an assistant professor of English at Princeton University. I have been writing about the representation and cultures of North American Indigenous people in the 18th century for the last 15 years. I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a Prairie city with the highest per capita population of Indigenous people in Canada and also a well-documented problem of pervasive racism toward that population. While I primarily study 18th-century interactions between Indigenous and European cultures, I am also keenly aware of the enduring legacy of colonialism and its very real material effects. In Winnipeg and across North America, Native people experience some of the highest levels of poverty, incarceration, police violence, domestic abuse, and other violent crime.
The last few years have witnessed a rise in interest toward Indigenous peoples in North American academia and beyond. Much of this has been fueled by the attempt to “decolonize” curriculums and institutions. The last year in particular, following international protests over the murder of George Floyd and the systemic racism experienced by Black people worldwide, has seen a seemingly endless stream of Zoom workshops on decolonizing classrooms, museums, theaters, universities, and so forth. The urgent reckoning of Black Lives Matter has helped amplify the struggles of other oppressed groups, and universities and individual departments have publicly announced their commitments to antiracist teaching. Yet it has also led to a liberal appropriation of such struggles — which does not benefit the people to whom decolonization is ostensibly addressed — and, at times, a shallow focus on positionality rather than material conditions. Life for Native people under settler colonialism continues to be one of “structured dispossession.” I would like to offer some observations and a critique of some of these efforts at decolonization, and try to think of ways forward.
In Canada, much of the movement toward “decolonizing” and “indigenizing” universities was spurred on by the 2015 release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). The commission, which focused on the establishment and legacy of Canada’s Indian residential schools, concluded they were nothing less than an act of “cultural genocide.” The recent discovery of an unmarked graveyard of 215 children at a British Columbia residential school that closed in 1969 is a reminder that reconciliation cannot occur until we continue to understand the scope of the truth. The TRC provided 94 calls to action to help guide a future toward reconciliation. But in a paper released in December 2020, the Yellowhead Institute determined that after five years, only eight of the 94 calls have been addressed. The report notes that one of the primary reasons for the failure of the TRC’s Calls to Action is that predatory non-Indigenous organizations and individuals exploit reconciliation, siphoning money and energy away from Indigenous communities. I suspect we can include in this some universities and academics suddenly pursuing Indigenous-focused research grants. Our land, our suffering, and even our identities have been appropriated. Institutional decolonization — whatever that means — must be in the service of actual decolonization.
Most institutions now offer land acknowledgments. This is a practice that has existed in some form among Indigenous nations for a long time, but which has spread rapidly in the non-Indigenous world. At an online conference I recently attended, the majority of speakers offered their own land acknowledgments attempting to address historical asymmetries and dispossession, even speakers from outside North America. In Canada, where this practice has existed for longer and has become thoroughly entrenched, many Native people have come to see such gestures as self-congratulatory and empty. Personally, I have very mixed feelings. But my misgivings largely stem from the absence of Indigenous people in their crafting or delivery: who is this acknowledgment for? Who will hear it? And what gives the speaker the right to evoke a relationship with people about whom they know very little in the present tense? Further, to what extent do these acknowledgments perform the very act they are intending to interrupt: the relegation of both colonialism and Indigenous sovereignty to the past, and the assumption that healing can begin based on a supposedly new relationship without any real implications for the speaker?
Part of the solution to this issue in the academy is simple: there needs to be more Native students and faculty. But this simple solution is, after all, quite complicated. Across the world, but particularly in North America and the United Kingdom, the humanities are in collapse. The job market is historically grim, and it’s hard to imagine building something new and radically inclusive when so much labor is performed by precarious faculty. Recently, in a bleak development, the University of Leicester proposed job cuts to their English department, targeting medieval and early modern literature, in the name of developing a “decolonized” curriculum. Whenever possible, faculty need to address the stated will of universities to decolonize and push for permanent Native faculty. Decolonization must not mean austerity or a turn away from the past.
How do we build broader movements where we find comfort in collective, transformative struggle and tangible action, and not just individualized grievance or feel-good gestures? In the 1890s, a Canadian commissioner of Indian Affairs wrote, “The work of sub-dividing reserves has begun in earnest. The policy of destroying the tribal or communist system is assailed in every possible way and every effort [has been] made to implant a spirit of individual responsibility instead.” If colonization functioned to atomize and individualize Indigenous people, then decolonization and antiracist teaching in the humanities must be about lifting up our living relations as a collective whole, insisting on our enduring presence and our connection to living communities, and rejecting our depiction as the tragic subjects of history.
I’m going to use the space of this essay to meditate on the intellectual, emotional, pedagogical, technical, and professional value of my group chats with other Black women. When folks say the group chat is where it all goes down, it might feel at first like a playful metaphor for the way that Black women have always so expertly brought together theory and lived experience by making links to popular culture and using accessible terms; but the group chat is actually quite a real and substantive point of entry to contemplate the nuance and complexity of the labor that Black women regularly perform through their domestic, professional, civic, and community obligations. Although Black women have long been viewed and treated as public property, we are rarely free to show up fully in public space. The group chat exists in the tension between the sacred interiority of Black women in community and the rhetorical and actual violence that we experience living as a Black woman in public.
This meditation is less for onlookers, many of whom impose limits on the free and full expression of Blackness in public space, and more to affirm ways that Black women use community to make meaning between and across our varied experiences. Yes, I know that some onlookers will still peek over our shoulders to get a closer look trying to get a glimpse at the inner lives of Black women through whatever means we choose to externalize our thoughts. Still, I want to hold this space to publicly reflect on the group text as more than a social space for Black women. The group texts that I maintain with other Black women are spaces that transgress boundaries that never held us with compassion — public versus private, professional versus personal, technical versus emotional. Bodies and minds that are transgressive require space.
So much of being a Black woman in any professional or public setting is about the constriction of space — intellectual space, emotional space, physical space, experimental space — these are all luxuries to me. White supremacy tells lies about space and boundaries, and Black women (and other folks who are multiply marginalized) are among its target audiences for these lies. It tells you that there is not enough space; that the space belongs to someone else; that you ruined the space when you walked in; or, that you aren’t sufficiently grateful for the space. The group text offers Black women a third space from which to theorize and practice, where we can cultivate the dexterity that is required to show up fully in our lives.
At the launch of her book Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance, Dr. Moya Bailey described the group text as one of the few remaining collective, semi-private spaces to do this kind Black feminist work. Where else can Black women go to dream safely in the current social, political, and technocultural landscape? My group texts are full of antiracist world making. We share sentences from manuscript drafts back-to-back with videos from a poll dancing class. We push each others’ politics and debate the right way to make banana pudding. What better argument against racist assumptions in the humanities and specifically in writing studies, than to challenge the assumed whiteness at the center of how most folks imagine the interior life of the “writing professor”?
Everything around me would have me believe that there is no space for Blackness and its language in academic or professional writing because of imagined boundaries of grammar and style. But I know the opposite to be true because I share a number of group texts with Black women, some of whom are also academics but many of whom who are not. We all theorize, teach, and practice to grapple with the ideas and politics that make our lives work. We use all the tools and resources available to us — from academic training, to lived experience, from experts to aunties. We use the language of the academy and our mother tongues. We draw together the sophisticated and the ratchet. Black people can, should, and do write using our vernaculars, and the group chat is the most prolific site of this intellectual and emotional labor for Black women.
I hope this rumination prompts us to stop overlooking antiracist thinking that happens in the space of the mundane and vernacular. The group chat is both text and context for my antiracist scholarship, teaching, and politics. I can guarantee you that there is a group text with other Black women cheering, crying, queering, hypothesizing, analyzing, critiquing, and sourcing behind every Black woman taking the risk to show up in the ring and fight for herself or something that she believes in.
Perhaps it is in light of the Black Lives Matter movement that universities are suddenly keen to understand antiracism and their own relations and structures that inherently involve race, identity, and, for us, citizenship. Yet the hardest part about antiracism in the humanities, in both theory and practice, is that acts of decolonization are contextual: What exactly is decolonization? What does it look and feel like, and to whom? And who should lead decolonization efforts? What role is expected of Native students within their university? Are Natives the only ones who can lead decolonization efforts? Is it even possible to decolonize universities, and are we looking to decolonize the institution or individuals?
As a Native woman, I exist in a world dictated by time and governed by legacy. As an undergraduate student and student leader, I think about time a lot. I live in a constant state of urgency, dedicated to academic performance, deliverables, and accumulated knowledge. Aside from the demands of a college education, I also think of the Native students on campus and their well-being. I am a rising senior at Princeton University, a member of the Navajo Nation and co-president of Natives at Princeton (NAP), and a member of the Princeton Indigenous Advocacy Coalition (PIAC), both student organizations dedicated to recognizing, supporting, and celebrating Native and Indigenous students at Princeton. Both NAP and PIAC were created to address a lack of institutional support for Native and Indigenous students. Throughout the last year, we have met with students, faculty, and administrators. We have reached out to staff at our diversity centers, libraries, and museum to have a conversation about the needs we have as Native students, with four areas of recommendations and goals:
1) Student Support and Resources: We want to acquire a dedicated affinity space on campus for Native students and facilitate the hiring of a staff member specifically to support and advocate for Native students.
2) Undergraduate Admissions: Recruitment and Retention works closely with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to improve recruitment and yield of Native students and augment the number of Natives applying to, being admitted to, and choosing to attend Princeton.
3) Academics, Coursework, and Faculty Relations: We are pushing for a certificate program, and advocating for the hiring of more Native professors.
4) Administration, Communication, and Strategic Planning: We work with Princeton’s administration to communicate our goals and projects to the broader campus, make our efforts visible, and determine approaches to solving our problems.
What I find most interesting is the support we’ve received, and the smiles and comments praising our work and proactiveness. But we started to see that we were the ones who were pushing for change, and if we didn’t say or do anything, then nothing would happen. How do we communicate and culturally translate to these individuals in power the urgency for a program and the interpersonal support we need to not only exist, but thrive at their settler institution? Native and Indigenous students are not merely leaving their families to come to pursue an education; we are leaving our own homelands for the homelands of another.
We began slowly, by publishing our statements of solidarity, promising and dedicating ourselves to always articulating our wants and needs as clearly as possible. Oftentimes, administrative and institutional change is slow, and time is stretched to fit the desires of the institution. Decisions are made by gathering information, exploring every nuance, mapping every strategy, and choosing which is best to pursue. I have learned that the institutional timeline will always extend past the urgent undergraduate student timeline, but we keep speaking up.
Decolonization is about power and a transfer of power. Although we haven’t been able to see a return of the land, the first step we can do is listen to Native students and hear their burdens and perspectives, even at the expense of feeling uncomfortable. However, it also means that institutions are not entitled for a response nor a plan of action and there is no magical formula that can be a one-time event or program. It means hiring Native professionals in Education, Advocacy and Teaching to share the heavy load of changing settler institutions, and do the job students are often given to handle; we are students after all, doing our best to graduate.
Decolonization is a commitment to a way of life and continual observance of values and interpersonal relationships. It is also important to remember that words must be cemented with continual annual funding if long-term change is to persist and take root. Either way, the path to decolonization can be as short or as long as an institution would like it to be. Put your money where your mouth is, or more appropriately, put your money where your land acknowledgments are. If Native and Indigenous people are embodiments of place and homelands, give us the means to thrive within your own frameworks, and never forget, we will always be here.
Institutions strive for world-class status by drawing students from around the world. To put it bluntly, the university sector in the West is fueled by the global flows of capital embodied in the figure of the Asian international student. A liberal view might consider these dynamics the achievement of education as an emancipatory project, exchanging financial capital for knowledge capital. Another take might consider these arrangements the continuation of colonial inequalities — extracting resources and laundering domestic inequalities at both ends of the exchange into the prestige of the imperial metropole, reaffirmed and rebranded as postcolonial global leader.
Our knowledge production in the humanities, particularly antiracist critique, must contend with these material conditions and the challenge of disciplinary divides when the Asian international student, structurally and statistically far more likely to be studying STEM, becomes a complicit pawn in the institution’s disavowal of anti-Blackness and various manifestations of colonialism. Rather than addressing and redressing anti-Black and other racisms embedded in local (settler) colonial histories, it is easier to bolster demographic numbers with non-Black students of color who can pay high international tuition fees and will not know how they fit into their new community’s biopolitical hierarchies.
The stereotypical face of the Asian international student literally mirrors my own. All of the institutions I have been affiliated with are reliant upon Chinese international students, in particular, to fuel the economic engines of their educational and academic missions. Once, I tried to distance myself: as a Chinese diasporic subject with a Canadian passport, when studying on the lands now called Canada, I would fiercely claim I was “from here”; or, on the territory now called the United States, I would refer to myself as “the wrong kind of Chinese international student.” And now I am faculty at an English institution where my presence helps to underscore the progressive promise and neo-colonial boast of our slogan “London’s Global University.”
I try to understand my own shifting, contingently privileged positionality by adapting and hybridizing work that theorizes the comparative racialization of middle-class Chinese diasporic subjects in the West such as myself. I turn, for example, to Claire Jean Kim’s work on the triangulation of (East) Asians between white and Black subjects, Iyko Day’s triadic settler-alien-native framework structure, and Aihwa Ong’s concept of the flexible citizenship of Chinese migrants. What does it mean for me, as someone with a Chinese face and a Chinese name, to be “here”? Insofar as I am positioned as a meritocratic wedge against local and overseas anti-Blackness and other minoritized peoples subjugated under settler colonial or postcolonial regimes, how might I act as a wedge to open doors?
I have realized that my antiracist expertise as an Americanist from Canada can actually serve the work of disavowing anti-Blackness and colonialism in the United Kingdom as a problem “over there.” Here, it does not make sense to acknowledge the land when “indigeneity” is co-opted by racist and transphobes in the former heart of empire. Instead, I can acknowledge the foundational role played by eugenics given the entanglements between my institution and Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin and the founder of eugenics.
Access to institutional research resources has meant access to resources for me to research the institution. The first book I read upon my arrival was Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. The first academic symposium I attended was on the Queer Caribbean where I met Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman , whose important and divisive activism at my university forced an institutional reckoning with anti-Blackness and other racist, structural oppressions emergent from eugenics. It is not lost on me that I have job security and he does not. When, in 2015, he ran an event called “Why Isn’t My Professor Black?” I had to learn, and am still learning, what it means for me to be here — and to share this knowledge and sense of collaborative critique broadly with students and staff as my colleagues and comrades. In What’s the Use? (2019), Sara Ahmed takes my institution as her case study on diversity work, eugenics, and higher education. I try to hold her insights in mind as I find myself trying to make change under the questionable banners of “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “decolonisation.”
This education via my institution of higher education haunts me transnationally. In 2019, I was in Philadelphia on a short-term research fellowship and curiosity led me to see if the papers of the American Eugenics Society at the American Philosophical Society held any archival trace of Galton. Among half a dozen materials, I came across a handwritten letter by Galton referring to a piece he had written for The Times published June 5, 1873: “Africa for the Chinese.”
Long before sociologist William Petersen’s now infamous coinage of the term “model minority” applied to East Asians and positioned as anti-Black, Galton similarly turned to the promise of Chinese immigrating to east Africa as racialized others more amenable to white supremacy. Galton let forth torrents of anti-Black aspersions, while praising the “Chinaman” as “good-tempered, frugal, industrious, saving, commercially inclined, and extraordinarily prolific” who “thrive in all countries.” The justification of Chinese settler colonialism in 19th-century east Africa anticipates Chinese neo-colonialism in the region today. In writing this piece, I find that Nathaniel Coleman , too, has written about Galton’s letter, archived on the British Chinese Heritage Centre’s website as a call for solidarity — #BritishChinese4BlackLives.
Reading against the grain of Galton’s letter to the editor, I speculate about the unlikely seeds of another possible education for the Chinese diaspora. Galton writes of the “Chinaman”: “All the bad parts of his character, as his lying and servility, spring from timidity due to an education that has cowed him, and no treatment is better calculated to remedy that evil than location in a free settlement.” To spite the father of eugenics, I seek to contribute to an education for my Chinese international students that can be liberatory for them and bring them to solidarity with Black and other minoritized peoples rather than the expected neoliberal education of a superficially diverse global elite who will maintain white supremacy.
Perhaps the lauded “diversity” of the modern Western university — in its aspirations, failings, and structural violences — best epitomizes the latest iteration of what Lisa Lowe calls the intimacies of four continents, the entanglements of Black enslavement, Indigenous dispossession, and Asian indentured servitude that constitute modernity and the liberal subject. But in this place, I try to foster counter-intimacies when and where I can, knowing that our convergences are insurgent possibilities for other ways of being and learning together.
Featured image: “Artwork along University Ave W by Art Crop in St Paul, Minnesota” by Lorie Shaull is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
 Suggested readings: This list is a point of entry into the larger conversation on this topic; therefore, I strongly encourage use of these sources as pathways to additional inquiry.
Baker-Bell, April. Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. Routledge, 2020.
Blakeney, Alda M. “Antiracist Pedagogy: Definition, Theory, and Professional Development.” Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, vol. 2, no.1, 2005, 119–132.
Borsheim-Black, Carlin. “‘It’s Pretty Much White’: Challenges and Opportunities of an Antiracist Approach to Literature Instruction in a Multilayered White Context.” Research in the Teaching of English (2015): 407–429.
Condon, Frankie, and Vershawn Ashanti Young, eds. Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication. WAC Clearinghouse, 2016.
DeChavez, Yvette. “It’s Time to Decolonize that Syllabus.” Los Angeles Times, 8 (2018).
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, 540–554.
Kynard, Carmen. Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacies Studies. Albany, SUNY Press, 2013.
Ladson-Billings, Gloria. The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. John Wiley & Sons, 2009.
Lanehart, Sonja L. Sista, Speak!: Black Women Kinfolk Talk about Language and Literacy. Austin, University of Texas Press, 2010. doi: 10.1017/S0047404504323055
Love, Bettina L. We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. Beacon Press, 2019.
Lyiscott, Jamila. Black Appetite. White Food.: Issues of Race, Voice, and Justice within and Beyond the Classroom. Routledge, 2019.
Paris, Django, and H. Samy Alim, eds. Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World. Teachers College Press, 2017.
Richardson, Elaine B. African American Literacies. New York, Routledge, 2003. Doi: 10.4324/9780203166550.
Royster, Jaqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change among African American Women. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. Doi: 10.2307/j.ctt6wrb9s.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Wayne State University Press, 1986.
—. Smitherman, Geneva, and Denise Troutman-Robinson. “Black women’s language.” The Readers Companion to US Women’s History, edited by Wilma Mankiller et al. 1998, 65–66.
—. Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans. New York, Routledge, 2006.
Stanback, Marsha Houston. “Multiple Perspectives: African American Women Conceive Their Talk.” Women and Language, vol. 23, no. 1, 2000, 11.
Tatum, Beverly Daniel. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And other Conversations about Race. Basic Books, 2017.
Troutman, Denise. “They Say It’sa Man’s World, but You Can’t Prove that by Me”: African American Comediennes’ Construction of Voice in Public Space.” Speaking Out. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2006. 217–239. doi:10.1057/9780230522435_12.
Young, Vershawn Ashanti, Rusty Barrett, and Kim Brian Lovejoy. Other People’s English: Code-meshing, Code-switching, and African American Literacy. Teachers College Press, 2014.