Speaking Truth to Power: Black students at PWIs

22 Apr

indexI went to a southern PWI ( Predominantly White Institution) more than ten years ago as an administrator just certain that I was on a mission of truth, justice and the un-American way of social justice. I was not on campus long before both blacks and whites with my best interests in mind began sidling up to me telling me to be careful what I said. Their message was basically one of, people are listening to you and if they don’t like what you say they will get rid of you, and we don’t want that to happen.

I was happy they liked me and wanted me to stay, but puzzled by this seeming fright that if I said something the people in power did not like they would get rid of me. After all, I was a diversity officer, wasn’t part of my job to point out injustices, work against injustices and advocate for change to remedy injustice? The veterans, those who had worked there for a while, knew what it took me several years to find out. The administration was only interested in protecting the status quo–white supremacy–not in making changes. They were however, very interested in getting help pretending to change things or to care about about social justice.

During my tenure I was fascinated at the cooperation of the black folks on campus with this charade. Not only did they do what they were told, they usually pretended to like it. When I asked them things like why there were not more black professors or why some of the programs like study abroad seemed to be virtually without minority representation or why women kept getting leapfrogged by men who had been their subordinates until those men were now their superiors, they all tsk-tsked and shook their heads, ducked and covered and collected their paychecks.

So, this missive is to black students at PWIs. You are on your own. In the vast majority of circumstances the black people on campus as powerless. They have choices, keep their mouths shut, please their superiors, always a white person, and keep their jobs, or advocate for real change and be sent packing. They are not bad people, they want to do better, they simply are not allowed to, it is a binary situation: Stand up–get removed, go along-keep your job. They are powerless and kept that way on purpose. If you do not believe me ask them to give you a list of what they have changed for black people on their campus in the last five years. Do not be fooled by ” We hired a new black director of…..”, unless you see evidence that the new black director of …..has actually done something besides be the new black director of…..As one sage said sometimes we have met the enemy and it is us. In my home school district of Xenia, Ohio we hired fewer black teachers when we had a black head of personnel than before or since. Because he was in the position he was able to help make the district proof against discrimination. “See we are not prejudiced, our personnel manager is black!” Of course, the fact that principals actually do the hiring and the personnel head only rubber stamps was ignored. Thus it is on your campus. Look to see who actually hires and what kind of people they actually hire.  The black head of……. is only as good for the rest of us as he or she is allowed to be, again they are generally powerless. If they really try to effect change they are going to be marginalized or removed.

You on the other hand are not powerless. You can raise questions about why there are so few or no black professors, why things do not change, why committees are formed and people are hired without anyone of color being involved in the decision. You will have to do your homework, of course. Ask questions frequently and of anyone you can find who might listen. Ask why there are no black trustees, or blacks on the board of visitors , if that is true. If there are black folks on these bodies ask them why there are so few black professors or other staff. Ask they why the names of slave owners and klan members adorn some of your buildings without comment, ask them where the voices are of black folks on the campus. Ask they why certain areas of study are considered more scholarly than others, like African American Studies. Ask  any question that comes to mind about the state of black folks on the campus, and for that matter what are they doing to foster and promote and encourage and effect social justice on campus, in the state, in the country, in the world. The fights these days are more subtle. There are no signs that say ” no blacks allowed”, but look around your campus and see how many clubs, choirs, organizations, honors, etc, are monochromatic. Who sits in the fancy boxes at football games? Whose kids and grandkids get to be ball boys and ball girls at the basketball games? Whose pictures are hung in the hallowed halls? .

Our white administrations are good at making pretend changes with pretend front folks ( we called them house niggers in my day) who assure you all is well. Yet, when you are in class and find yourself the only black in class,expected to represent your race as all faces turn towards you when the subject of race comes up  is all well? When you have been at an institution for four years and have never had a black professor, is all well? When honors days come and go without anyone black being on the podium is all well?

Beware the grateful blacks who think they do not belong at this prestigious school and are lucky to have been admitted. Quite a lot of them work there. They are convinced they have been honored to be allowed to sit at the foot of the table and they show up at reunions singing the praises of the school, forgetting the times they were insulted, ignored, passed over, denigrated and devalued. They too will tell you all is well, you just have to try your hardest and love your institution even if it does not love you back.

Speaking truth to power is rarely, if every, popular, but it is necessary if things are going to change for those who come after you. At one point in our history black people stood up and demanded that places supported by common monies serve everyone and serve them equally. We have now sold out to the point where success is not making progress for your race or your gender or your sexual orientation or citizenship status, but whether or not you can make money. If you cannot fight for social justice and make money then you should not fight for social justice. Or, put another way, it is better that I have a nice fat paycheck and the hell with the rest of y’all.

Audre Lorde said ( read her if you are unfamiliar) “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The black people you have on most campuses are the master’s tools. If they were not they would not be there. That means if you see things that you believe are unjust you have to be the power that changes it. It can be done. Even on the most docile campuses there are some folks, and they may not be black, who will help you. But, you need to lead and you need to be heard. Think something is wrong? Change it.  Think something is missing? Say so. You are standing on the shoulders of people who did or you would not be there.  Make up your mind whether you want to be part of the solution or part of the problem.

Don’t join the ranks of grateful blacks unless you can be grateful that you made real change, change that will benefit future students, faculty and staff of all colors by making the institution more equitable and welcoming and not afraid to take a stand for what is right, even if it costs.


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