Scholarship and Practice
The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way you’re accountable. ~ Arundhati Roy
There is an unspoken rule in academe that you don’t “rock the boat” before tenure—before you have permanent employment and job security—that it’s too risky. Some faculty of color, for example, are advised not to attend affinity group meetings or teach Ethnic Studies classes to avoid jeopardizing their tenure and promotion. This deterrence away from the very communities that uplift faculty of color suggests how those in power, such as tenured faculty and department chairs, control out of and through fear. Why is acknowledging one’s racialized ethnicity and teaching diversity courses threatening and subject to policing? Why must one wait for tenure to speak? If a university doesn’t accept one’s voice, does it warrant one’s presence? If faculty store in reserve what they are afraid to say today, will it matter in the future?
My Beninois husband Simon and I were non-tenured in different departments at the same university and chose to speak up/out about injustices in the university. These injustices typically centered on racism. We were part of a small group of faculty of color that shared our concerns with the chancellor—we wrote a letter that opened the door to meetings around a conference table. The injustices we addressed were related to the hiring and firing of faculty and instructors of color.
In time, our small group of five faculty grew into a recognized affinity group for the university’s faculty and staff of color. An Ojibwe elder visited, naming us Manitoulin—an Ojibwe word for “island” or safe haven. As I write this, I’m wondering if we could’ve done more to protect our colleagues, especially international faculty who lost face, and/or their jobs.
The most troubling case in my memory was a Chinese professor who, after more than 10 years, requested a break from teaching Saturday classes. He was missing his young son’s sporting events, among other things. I empathized with him. My son played soccer and I knew the impact of Saturday teaching—it shortened the weekend and extended the work week. One semester, after his many requests were ignored, this tenured, associate professor was assigned a Saturday class and he walked out. After a public hearing with a faculty governance committee, the chancellor demoted him to assistant professor with a $5,000 salary cut. Conversely my Black students talked of a white faculty member who missed classes and was quietly dealt with after students complained. The respect extended to this white faculty contrasted sharply with our Chinese colleague who was publicly disciplined.
There were other dismissals of faculty of color, including international faculty. Remembering these cases is troubling when thinking about the ease with which some white faculty were granted tenure and promotion with minimal scholarship. Discrepancies exist and persist, in part, because departments have autonomy in maintaining vague and arbitrary tenure and promotion guidelines, but also because systemic racism and white supremacy sometimes reward mediocrity.
Students were not immune from racial injustices. In 2003, Black students on campus were traumatized by racist graffiti scribbled next to a promotional poster for Ghosts of Mississippi, a film about civil rights activist Medgar Evers. When Black students reported the graffiti to the administration, it was quickly removed, what students interpreted as white-washing.
Black students in my class were frightened and confused. Someone on campus was communicating violence against Black students. Why didn’t the administration respond by acknowledging the graffiti as unacceptable? Why did it ignore the incident? In response to the administration’s indifference, the Black Student Union (BSU) organized a silent march and invited the media, including Milwaukee TV news. Walking quietly from the Student Union to Main Place was one of the most chilling moments I’ve experienced. I marched behind the students and witnessed the group balloon to hundreds of supporters before reaching Main Place. BSU President Dannie Moore, my student and advisee, asked me to speak. I said it would have been easy to pretend that racists do not walk the corridors of our university, but they do. The racist graffiti was a symbolic lynching and we all deserved to feel safe on campus.
Lessons were embedded in this silent march. When a traumatizing event occurs, people have a need to congregate and witness leaders publicly denounce racism. Meaning is historically contextualized; two words carry the weight of a history of racism. Dannie learned the power of agency. He continued on to graduate school and today is Vice President of Strategic Initiatives and Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at Eastern Kentucky University.
Years later, after the chancellor retired and his cabinet moved on to other positions, a similar racist incident happened and the new administration’s response was quick, well-coordinated, and clear: racism is not welcome here. The administration organized public forums in the theatre attracting more people than available seats. Students expressed fear and trauma, and the entire university provided comfort and solidarity. This incident involved a noose in one of the resident halls.
I remember this incident vividly. It occurred at the start of February—Black History Month—and coincided with Simon’s encounter with the Kenosha Police. He was stopped for wwB—walking while Black—in our predominantly white neighborhood less than two miles from the university. He was driving home from a doctor’s appointment and his illness and fatigue led his car to swerve into a shallow depression on the side of the road. He didn’t have his AAA card for roadside assistance so he started to walk home when several police cars arrived in response to a 911 call reporting a “drunk Black man.” Simon was handcuffed and sat in the patrol vehicle for some 45 minutes while police officers searched his Subaru Outback. Would he have been treated differently had his skin been white, particularly since he was ill and not drunk? We later filed a complaint with the police department and was told that the officer in charge was in training and should’ve been supervised more diligently.
The noose incident is also memorable because the Center for Ethnic Studies, which I directed at the time, organized a teach-in with nearly a thousand students attending the day-long program. A day before the teach-in, a colleague and I received an anonymous letter in our mailbox mocking us for the teach-in. References in the letter suggested that the writer (or writers) was affiliated with a certain committee of administrative mid-managers. It was an act of cowardice—what bullies do in middle school.
Years later, after I received tenure and had witnessed a string of racist micro-aggressions toward faculty of color, I was elected to serve on the Personnel Review Committee (PRC)—the faculty governance committee that reviewed dossiers for tenure and promotion. Serving on this committee exposed the hidden racial politics in academe. I saw discrepancies among departments surrounding the unspoken, invisible, yet omnipresence of race.
One year there was an unanimous recommendation to deny tenure to a faculty who had underperformed in research. This person’s department contested the PRC’s decision and requested a reconsideration. The PRC again voted unanimously not to recommend tenure. Unbeknownst to me, a white tenured faculty (someone who was not on the PRC or the faculty member’s department) was collecting signatures in a petition that was presented to the chancellor. The faculty member—who had not gained a single vote of support by PRC members who had scrutinized evidence, dossiers, files, and records—was awarded tenure and promotion. The PRC was chaired at the time by a South Asian woman with a majority of the committee comprised of faculty of color.
This situation sent a disturbing message to faculty of color. Our collective decision based on evidence (or lack of it) was meaningless. Ironically the faculty who gained tenure and promotion through intervention by white faculty resigned. The petition, created as a sympathetic favor, made public the faculty’s deficiency which, I imagine, was a heavy burden to prove false. Petitions connote an act to right an injustice, yet the faculty was not discriminated against. The rules were clear: there was a lack of scholarly evidence to justify tenure. Black faculty with active scholarship had lost their jobs for reasons ambiguous, questionable, and contested in public hearings. Rules are malleable.
Early in my teaching career, I found safety in calling myself an “accidental professor.” If it wasn’t my intention to teach then, perhaps, I couldn’t be judged harshly if I failed. Over time I realized that nothing is accidental. All of my life experiences contribute to my understanding of academe: public K-12 schooling, undergraduate studies, broadcast marketing and promotion, graduate school, university teaching, and now, administrative work. Collectively my life experiences inform my recent encounters with anti-racism in the streets.
2020 was the year when the “quiet racism” of Kenosha, Wisconsin, my home since 1997, moved from the back to the front stage. It awakened with amplified fury in social and corporate media, then spilled into the streets. It happened on the last Sunday afternoon in August: white Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey stood behind a Black man, Jacob Blake, and pulled the trigger seven times with Jacob’s three young sons sitting inches away, witnessing. Some of us were shocked, caught off-kilter, while my daughter and her circle of activist friends were on call. When she failed to join us for dinner I imagined her at the crime scene protesting police brutality against Black people. This was an issue that fueled the Coalition to March on the Democratic National Convention, a march that had occupied her activism for a year and had taken place in Milwaukee just three days before the Blake shooting. The last week in August unfolded, fixing Kenosha in the international media’s eye—in corporate and independent social media—raising questions that could not be ignored or muted. Latent racism was exposed on center-front-stage.
On the first night of curfew, a wall of Kenosha police, sheriff, and National Guard soldiers dressed in war-gear directed protestors to move south on Sheridan Road. Where are they heading, Seattle independent video-journalist C.J. Halliburton wondered, what’s down there? As it turns out, the police and soldiers were pushing protestors toward a petrol station where armed white civilian men were waiting. Some of them were militia answering a Facebook call-to-arms posted by former Kenosha Alderman Kevin Mathewson. In the melee that followed, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse killed two white protestors and injured a medic with his illegally purchased rifle. He was not arrested but returned home to Antioch, Illinois 20 miles southwest of Kenosha. In ensuing news, video taken hours earlier showed an officer in a military tank welcoming Kyle to Kenosha with a bottle of drinking water.
The following night while walking to join a peaceful protest, our daughter and two friends, one a medic, were “disappeared” by officers in an unmarked pick-up truck—a tactic used in Portland, Oregon to terrorize protestors in scenes reminiscent of college students and freedom fighters disappeared in Latin American countries. Our home was disrupted by a phone call from a friend: “I think Adelana was picked up by the Feds.”
I made several calls to the Kenosha Sheriff’s Department and later learned that what I was told were lies.
Adelana spent 24 hours imprisoned with no phone call, drinking water, and, for several hours, no protective mask against Covid-19. She was in a cell the size of our livingroom rug with five other women and three non-binary people. Their requests for phone calls and medical help went unanswered, though they eventually received masks. Their access to water was a little sink attached to the toilet; no one drank water that night. They communicated resistance through street chanting and found solace in singing songs, such as Bill Withers’ Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.
The following morning when they were transported six miles from the Kenosha County Detention Center to the Kenosha County Jail, Adelana observed one of the strongest women in the group break down and cry when shackles were attached to her ankles. That, combined with hand-cuffs, the orange jumpsuit, and lack of sleep and water had taken their toll. The system was criminalizing peaceful protestors for exercising their constitutional rights. Conversely on the first night of curfew, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was allowed to walk away unfettered in the midst of Kenosha police, sheriff, and the National Guard after killing two men and injuring a medic. This disturbing display of white male privilege contrasted sharply with how anti-racist activists of color were treated by law enforcement workers.
Less than 24 hours after being released, Adelana spoke at a news conference organized by the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression. Buoyed by the supportive crowd, she spoke in the moment, seething with anger against a system of racist injustice. While my former students (wearing Latinos for Black Lives Matter t-shirts) and I joined the march, chanting in unison, Adelana was interviewed by national and international news reporters, including the Associated Press whose article was syndicated around the world.
The following morning she was interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in a live TV interview. The news anchor spoke for many viewers when she said that Adelana chose to violate curfew and, therefore, was detained. Adelana answered that she didn’t think the treatment she and her cell-mates received was justified—that it was devisive. She shared a quote from Adwoa Asentu: Curfew is just another way of saying Sundown Town. Adelana had shared a cell with four other Black people and one Native American, Latina, Asian, and White person (from Norway). The identities of those those disappeared spun a worn, familiar narrative that reified systemic racism.
Weeks later, Adelana and I marched with Jacob Blake’s family and members of Kenosha’s recently formed BLAK—Black Lives Activists of Kenosha—including co-founder Porche Bennett-Bey, named 2020 Guardian of the Year by Time Magazine. Also present was the Rev. Jesse Jackson of Chicago who spiraled me back to the 1980s and a Broadcast Promotion & Marketing Executives Conference in Las Vegas. Rev. Jackson stood at the lectern, looked around the ballroom, and expressed his disappointment that among this influential group he could see only a handful of people of color. Until he said that, I had repressed the fact that my Hawaii Public TV colleague and I were racial minorities, atleast on the “mainland.” Rev. Jackson pointed out the power of broadcasting and our responsibility to diversify racial representations on television. Years later, when I applied to graduate school, Rev. Jackson appeared in my essay explaining why I needed to study multicultural broadcasting. During the 2020 Kenosha march, I stole a quick handshake from the Reverend and silently thanked him.
Awe and wonder. This is what I feel for Adelana and her generation, young people who are politically informed and committed to making a difference—challenging obsolete systems of racism that divide and exploit. While waiting for our daughter’s release from the Kenosha Sheriff’s Jail, I mingled with alumni, college students, and professors from Green Bay, Milwaukee, Madison, Stevens Point, Racine, and Kenosha. What is our responsibility as educators? Our students were in the streets leading marches with megaphones and handwritten signs condemning police brutality and systemic racism. How did public displays of protest intersect with students’ learning experiences in our classrooms? Critical thinking and democratic citizenship are often listed as learning outcomes in our intentionally constructed syllabi and university websites. How do we acknowledge racial unrest in our streets as informing our students and their lives? How do we contextualize our teaching and learning practices in street praxis? In what ways do we invite the world to enter our learning environments? As my colleague Jordan Landry at UW-Oshkosh asks, how do our intersectional pandemics inform our intersectional pedagogies?
One of my Black African colleagues says that the Covid-19 pandemic will soon end with vaccinations now in circulation. Racism, however, will not end. I now see that the momentary blindness that we sometimes experience may not apply to this particular moment. Racism produces and reproduces a persistent blindness—a refusal to see.
My thanks to Professors Adetona Akindes, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and Farida Khan, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, for reading and commenting on early drafts.