On privilege in protest

We appreciate the coverage by Liam Adams in The Chronicle of Higher Education on our paper, “Beyond the Incident: Institutional Predictors of Student Collective Action,” which was recently published in the Journal of Higher Education. Yet while we are glad to see interest in this timely topic, we have seen multiple responses to our work following the Chronicle article that we do not believe capture the spirit of our paper.

Briefly, we would like to address two narratives found in those responses. (For further information and clarification on what was in the original article, we suggest this post from Southern Methodist University.)

Among other results discussed in the paper, we found that institutional characteristics, some of which align with class privilege (e.g., the percentage of students eligible for Pell grants), predict the presence of I, Too, Am Harvard-like movements at colleges and universities. In other words, more elite (where elite is defined by selectivity and, in this case, resources) institutions appear more likely to have had one of these movements on their campus. It is likely that this result, in conjunction with a brief, theory-grounded speculation that we made in the concluding section of our paper was the impetus for the title of the Chronicle article, “Is Protesting a Privilege?,” as well as the tack taken by other articles and posts about our paper.

Broadly, we have seen two major types of responses to our work: one contesting the notion that privilege is a relevant factor and one using privilege as a way to critique the movements themselves. Though coming to opposite conclusions, we believe both response types draw upon a common theme. In each of these views, the notion of privilege is seen as a method for discounting the legitimacy of the I, Too, Am movements. Our research is not meant to comment on the validity of the movements at all. Instead our research leads us to believe that while the motivation or capacity of students to protest may indeed be related to privilege (a relationship that we are certainly not the first to discuss in the literature), the presence of privilege does not by direct consequence delegitimize the I, Too, Am and other similar movements. In other words, (ours, in fact, from the paper) since “it may be that students at more elite institutions possess greater capital (along some dimension) such that they have the ability to protest…other important implications [of our findings] includ[e] one that calls for less elite institutions that are not seeing these campaigns to still remain vigilant against oppressive environments.” In other words, the types of “protest” and mobilization that we, as a larger society, generally focus on may occur more frequently at certain types of institutions. This does not mean that institutions without these protests have healthy climates where the students are able to thrive and succeed.

To those who do not like the implication that protests may largely be more available to students with access to greater financial and social resources to be able to protest, we think that realistically interrogating the role of privilege in political participation is an important part of the work of social justice. Discomfort with the fact that those with fewer resources are often less likely to be heard should not discourage proactive effort, but rather should motivate those of us with privilege to work even harder to engage and uplift communities not afforded the same opportunity to speak out, or, for that matter, to work to change the environment such that the ability to speak out is not something afforded only to privileged groups. We believe that activists and advocates who benefit from various forms of privilege (including class, male, white, etc.) should embrace this understanding in order to engage in the reflective work that it takes to break down the systems that produced that privilege. We, the authors, attempt to do the same as we recognize the aspects of our own identities that have afforded us the opportunities to, for example, make this post.

To those, on the other hand, who see privilege as a means to argue that these protests don’t matter, we push even harder. Among those making this argument, there seems to be a conflation of various dimensions of societal oppression and disadvantage into one “privilege” dimension. In this narrative, issues faced by black students attending elite institutions, for example, are questioned as legitimate due to the relative privilege they experience. This conclusion, to us, misconstrues how privilege works as a concept, particularly to the extent that people see it as something where various dimensions cancel each other out. In our view, this is simply not a useful endeavor. Is the argument of a black man speaking on issues of racism invalid because of his male privilege? Is the argument of a white woman speaking on issues of sexism invalid because of her white privilege? We think not. In both of these example cases and others like them, we want to push people to think more holistically about protest as a form of political information that offers insights, however imperfect, into the experiences of others.. It is indeed possible for us, as people, to listen to the voices of those who speak out while also considering the voices who are not heard.

We greatly enjoy talking about this important topic, and are open to further discussion. Now that we’ve closed out 2017, let us move with peace and compassion into 2018.

In defense of STEM re: critical pedagogy and content

At this point, I’ve participated in a lot of discussions about how to incorporate more critical discussions about race, gender, and power in the classroom, and thus far, they’ve been dominated by people from the humanities and social sciences. I think these are really important discussions, and I’m glad to be a part of them.

For me, these discussions often become a bit uncomfortable when we start talking about STEM. Usually, these discussions start with some comment about the difficulties of incorporating these discussions into the STEM classroom, and responses tend to vary anywhere from an insistence that these topics permeate any discussion to mild (or not so mild) indignation that STEM people don’t seem to care about these issues.

As someone with an undergraduate degree in STEM, and as someone who has spent some time teaching STEM topics, I can’t help but feel a bit defensive in these discussions. I think there are parts of this discussion that are indeed true: I do think that STEM people, on average, do not think about these issues in their daily lives and work quite as much as their non-STEM peers.

That said, I think that non-STEM people tend to forget that there may be significant periods in STEM classrooms where we are literally not talking about people. When I taught about deriving the formula for a correlation, I wasn’t talking about people. When I sat in a classroom and learned SQL, we weren’t talking about people. We were talking about databases and pivot tables. What were the tables in the data about? Many times, not people. (Throughout the duration of my education, I’ve worked with a surprising number of datasets about different kinds of boats.)

Even when we are talking about people, there are often ways in which issues of race or gender or class are not immediately applicable. I’ve had by DNA put through gel electrophoresis on multiple occasions to assess characteristics of my human DNA, but no, I don’t think there was any reason to discuss those types of issues in that moment. At some point in my education? Sure. In that moment or even in that particular class space? Debatable.

There are subtle ways to incorporate critical reflection into the classroom, yes. I myself have made mention of the limitations of using dichotomous indicators for measuring gender identity. However, I feel that as a function of the subject matter, responsibility for STEM educators to use critical teaching is different. Not lessened. Just different.

Where this kind of thinking does fit more universally is in considering the classroom environment. Many STEM fields have traditionally been dominated by white, class-advantaged, heterosexual men. So there are many ways in which the system, as it stands, still systematically excludes marginalized populations from STEM and, as one mechanism, creates uncomfortable and sometimes harmful classroom environments. It’s at this juncture that I think STEM educators need to be most in touch with critical pedagogies. STEM educators have a responsibility to understand how the dynamics they develop in their classrooms and the systems in which they participate contribute, often, to the disparities we see in terms of the participation of othered people in the field. With this, STEM educators have a responsibility to be open to and learn alternative ways of creating learning and living environments that are cognizant of the power in the room.

That all said, I do wish that discussions of critical pedagogy and content  would be more open to the idea that no, all of our respective academic spaces are not the same. No, the concepts we are talking about do not apply in the same ways across disciplines. If we are going to develop ways to create an educational world that is, across the board, reflective of the justice we seek, being sensitive to the variety of ways knowledge is legitimately created is just a practical reality.

Who finds it funny? And why?

Generally, I have very high respect for good comedians as I think it’s one of the most difficult art forms. In addition, various forms of identity, ranging from gender to race to sexual orientation, are often the subject of comedy, which I think can be very difficult to approach. For my part, I think this is okay in certain circumstances. It depends on how it is done.

I recently learned of the concept of “punching up.” The general idea of punching up is that as a comedian, jokes about certain populations are frowned upon if those populations are less privileged than yours, which would be “punching down.” For example, making fun of homeless people generally doesn’t go over well, since most comedians themselves are not homeless. As such, if you’re going to make those jokes, you should punch up – make jokes about people with more privilege.

There are some comics from relatively privileged backgrounds who punch down, and while I go back and forth about whether it’s okay, the joke is often clearly meant to be a caricature of people who are racist/sexist/etc. The joke is meant to highlight the absurdity of the bigotry that does exist. In this post, I don’t want to make any claims about the general quality of any specific comedian as much I want to provide examples of this comedy. Daniel Tosh, as I interpret it, does this fairly frequently and is often allowed to do so because this kind of comedy is a part of his track record.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euayc_HqMbY

While again, I’m ambivalent about whether I think this is okay for Daniel Tosh to do, I recognize that part of what makes me uncomfortable is much less about what he is saying and much more about what others might be hearing.

I think something similar can be said about comedians who poke fun at people who are like them. Iliza Shlesinger does this fairly frequently, poking fun at women (of a certain social class).

In a similar vein, Russell Peters also has a fairly famous/infamous bit about immigrant parents. (At this point, my post is just me posting YouTube videos.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nn5jlrxcpkI

To a certain extent, I think people are allowed to poke fun at themselves and the social groups with which they identify. I think there’s something humbling about taking a look at cultural and social traditions within identity groups and discussing the ways in which we often take them for granted. And of course, there are times when those jokes edge on being reflective of some sort of internalized bigotry, but in general, I don’t think many comedians are doing that.

What worries me about this type of humor is the rest of the audience. In many ways, it’s similar to the way I felt about Sheryll Cashin’s talk at Vanderbilt. Broadly, I can trust black people to watch a Todrick Hall sketch and not take the video as some source of information about what black people are like.

What about white people, watching this video? What about men watching Schlesinger’s work? This problem was particularly apparent to me during the Antoine Dodson craze back in 2010, with the remixed “Bed Intruder” song.

Creative, yes. But I was around a lot of white people at that point in my life, and it became apparent to me during this period that we were all laughing, but for very different reasons. I got a lot of comments from people that indicated that the foundation of their reaction was embedded in their own stereotypes about black people. This video, to them, was just confirmation of what they already believed about black people as a lesser group.

I re-evaluate my position on this pretty much once a week, but overall, I think it’s somewhat unfair that people who wish to make comedy about their own historically marginalized populations have to worry about this. Gay people, in my mind, should be allowed to poke fun at certain things about the gay communities of which they are a part. Of course, there are other problems with the intersections of these identities (saved for another day), but in general, I think this issue is really unfortunate.

Should we, then, ask people to stop this kind of humor? I honestly don’t know the answer. I lean towards no, but I also empathize with the anger expressed by many people in the black community towards black comics poking fun at black people. I get it. My question is whether we should not be allowed to make this kind of humor because of what those in a privileged social class might think. I don’t have an answer. I just hope that we can be more critical of what it means to laugh at identity-specific observational humor. Who is laughing? What are they laughing at? And why?

Diversity for the sake of diverse learning spaces

In 2003 (Grutter v. Bollinger), the United States Supreme Court ruled that the affirmative action policies of the University of Michigan Law School were not unconstitutional. In the dissent, Justice Rehnquist noted that school administrators cited the need for a diverse student body to “ensure that these minority students do not feel isolated or like spokespersons for their race; to provide adequate opportunities for the type of interaction upon which the educational benefits of diversity depend; and to challenge all students to think critically and reexamine stereotypes.” Similarly, the ruling (authored by Justice O’Connor) stated that the Constitution “does not prohibit the law school’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”

This justification is also used here at my own institution, as per the academic strategic plan: “Diversity, in the broadest sense of the term, is absolutely critical to ensuring excellence in our core missions of discovery and learning. The human condition is fundamentally shaped by the context in which we have lived, learned, and now reside. A university offers an exceptional opportunity to bring together people from different personal and scholastic backgrounds in the name of higher learning. The experience of being an African-American is different from that of being a Hispanic. The same is true for gender, ethnic groups, social class, place of origin, sexual orientation, and countless other genetic, cultural and environmental parameters. It is also true that engineers have different perspectives than lawyers, as well as classicists compared to chemists. At one level, all such claims are obvious. The human condition, and human lives, is shaped by these different experiences, and they give rise to very different prisms by which each individual thinks about problems and opportunities and then approaches solutions.”

There are parts of these notes with which I sympathize, and parts that make me deeply uncomfortable. This discomfort isn’t because I think the statements are incorrect; there are various pieces of evidence circulating (especially recently) that cite the benefits that diverse student bodies bring to academic spaces. Nor do I think that there’s any particular problem with stating these benefits, since I do think it highlights the value of perspectives from historically excluded and marginalized populations.

My problem is when this is the only justification provided. In short, it’s not my job as a person of color or as a gay man to enhance your academic experience.

This isn’t to say that I don’t also benefit from a diverse learning space. My undergraduate institution was very diverse in many ways, and I think it really contributed to a healthier environment to the extent that I did not particularly feel isolated, and I did learn a great deal from those with backgrounds different from mine.

For me, though, the most important reason to include more “diverse” populations (in quotes to acknowledge the possible oddity of calling any particular population diverse) is not because of what it brings to others, nor is it particularly because those people will benefit from having more “diverse” colleagues. The most important reason is related to the fact that persons of color (speaking from my own identifications) have historically been excluded from quality institutions of higher learning, which is something (I assume) we agree is morally wrong.

Briefly, I’d add that my feelings here extend beyond academia. The same justification is often used elsewhere, especially in community development. Throughout my life, I’ve seen various news reports about the extent to which, for example, having gay men move into a neighborhood benefits the entire community. While I appreciate the magical powers that these reports have assigned to me in terms of my queer ability to raise the property values of my neighbors’ homes, it still feels tokenizing, as if they need me as a gentrifier (which has its own problems) more than I deserve the right to live in a safe community.

My overall point is that the compelling reasons for diversity should not primarily be because of its ability to increase the excellence of an institution. It should be because that institution has a commitment to upholding justice.

Preserving Confederate memorials to learn from “our” history

My friend Dominique Baker recently shared this story with me. The basic summary is that removing physical relics of the Confederacy from shared public life removes any need for “us” to contend with the racism of “our” history.

A similar argument was made here at Vanderbilt University recently, amidst conversations about Confederate Memorial Hall as well as the Eliza Claybrooke Memorial Scholarship for daughters of Confederate soldiers at Peabody. Besides the argument that there are still people who hold the Confederacy close to their chest as a part of their identity, a similar argument was made that removing relics removes any responsibility “we” have to face “our” ugly history.

I think there is some valid thought here. This nation needs to contend with its violent and oppressive history. “We” can’t just wash away all memory of this history and just march forward for the sake of marching forward.

What I firmly reject about this argument, as is evident from my consistent use of scare quotes, is the idea that “we” all share this responsibility. Let us be clear for a moment: the “we” being discussed here is white people. This much is explicit in Regina Nippert’s article above, as she notes, “We white Southerners are a hot mess. That does not excuse us from the conversation we know we need to have.”

The problem I have with this argument is that it perfectly fits into existing structures of white supremacy. It privileges the needs of white people above the feelings of black people.

I do not attempt here to make the claim that all black people want the removal of Confederate symbols. To some extent, I expect there are probably some who would agree that white people should not be allowed any boulevard through which they can avoid facing history. My issue is not so much the decisions made as a result of this argument as much as it is the fairly uncritical way it has been presented by white people.

Racism isn’t just a part of our history. It exists in our current world, and based on observations from my experience as an activist, Confederate relics can and do contribute to feelings of disempowerment, invisibility, and fear among black people. Discussing preserving these relics in the name of helping white people grow without paying any mind, again, to the needs of black people isn’t a statement of progress.

Sure, it’s great when white people are able to contend with whiteness in a historical and contemporary context. But as I also mentioned in my discussion of white fragility, this exploration of whiteness can dangerously translate into continued ignorance of the needs of people of color.