Why I Will Not Stop Talking about Systemic Oppression or: How I Learned to Give Up and Embrace My Inner Dumpster Fire Nature
Hello, blogosphere, it’s been awhile. Despite my best attempts to be more regular with my blogging, I have really failed. However, there have been a series of situations over the past four months that have made me feel the intense need to break my silence.
As is my usual practice, I want to share a few stories to frame my blogpost.
I am teaching a Foundations of Higher Education course this fall. I started the course out by having students read Dr. Lori Patton Davis’ article, Disrupting Postsecondary Prose: Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education. Students and I follow this up by reading Dr. Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. Students and I follow this up by not letting up. We keep talking about racism, settler colonialism, and the web of oppressive ideologies that are foundational to institutions of postsecondary education. In doing so, I can tell some students—all White students—are disengaged and uninterested in continuing to discuss oppression. I am given indicators that some students—all White students—would rather we just talk about the history, organization, and administration of higher education in “race-neutral” ways. This form of resistance, often, but not always, embodied in non-verbal ways in the classroom is not an unusual experience for me as a critical trans* educator.
I am at the Association for the Study of Higher Education Annual Meeting. I go to a session about embodied pedagogy, where two of my colleagues present an intensely beautiful paper that moves me to tears. I have literally never experienced something as evocative and moving as this presentation at ASHE, but I hold my tears back. During the question and answer portion of the session, a White woman starts praising the two Black presenters of the paper in question. She says that the form of embodied pedagogy they presented was moving, and how wonderful it was, and wow-we-should-all-be-so-brave-and-aren’t-you-something-else-for-doing-this. By doing this, she is consuming the presenters’ Blackness for her own White woman benefit, helping herself feel better that she is lauding their work without recognition of her recentering her Whiteness. She neglects the way that all marginalized bodies, whether we want to or not, engage in embodied pedagogy in the classroom. She positions embodied pedagogy as a performance that one does on a stage at the front of a classroom, a performance that is so “innovative” and “cutting edge,” rather than real, raw, and an always already lived reality for those on the margins. She doesn’t get it.
An open letter to a student affairs professionals Facebook group is blogged by an upper-level professional in the field.* She writes about wanting to work with “happy, whole people,” and states that the Facebook page “has become a place for unhappy, broken, people to showcase their brokenness.” She goes on to threaten the employability of these same “broken people,” who she calls “dumpster fires.” She continually reinforces that she wants to work with “happy, whole, people.” She clearly hasn’t read any Sara Ahmed. She also clearly doesn’t understand how she is furthering Trumpian, alt-right, racist, xenophobic illogic in her call to “reclaim the page.” She doesn’t seem to understand—or perhaps she does—that she is effectively calling for people to #MakeStudentAffairsGreatAgain.
In all of these stories, the common thread is the perseverance of chronic White supremacist ideology in the field of higher education and student affairs. Through this ideological perspective, marginalized peoples’ lives and livelihoods are ignored (story #1), consumed (story #2), and openly disavowed (story #3). Marginalized people are called “broken” and labeled “dumpster fires.” Our future employment is threatened if we don’t fall in line. Our lives are dismissed, and our histories are positioned as just something to get through. Our bodies, and the realities of our always already being in risky situations in classroom spaces—and all over college campuses—is (re)positioned as just an “innovative teaching tool.”
And so this is why I will never stop talking about systemic oppression. This is why, to paraphrase Christopher Guest’s film This is Spinal Tap!, I will turn up my efforts to 11. This is why those of us who are committed to disrupting and unseating White supremacy, systemic racism, compulsory able-bodiedness, trans* oppression, sexism, classism, and their interlocked and accompanying ideologies must come together to continue to resist and build better, more liberatory futures.
This is why, as Dr. Patton Davis (2016) wrote so beautifully in her aforementioned piece, “Plainly stated, higher education has a long way to go” (p. 335). Oh yes we do, and these three stories just add to the heaping pile others have experienced that reinforce the very long road ahead.
So, from one self-proclaimed killjoy, from one so-called dumpster fire (who secured a tenure-track post and is doing quite well on it thus far, thank you very much) to the countless others in our field, I say this:
Keep burning and know that I am burning alongside you.
Keep burning collectively, because together our light is strong, and we will win.
We will not give up.
We will win.
*I have chosen not to link the open letter discussed in story #3, as I do not want to further the authors dangerous and dismissive ideas/ideology. Additionally, the post is easy enough to find given the context and direct quotes I have provided, if readers are wanting to search for it on their own.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.