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Academia So White

All my life I have been blessed to occupy Black spaces. To start off, I am from Blackity Black Detroit “What up doe?” And so, my entire universe has been punctuated by intentional, profound Blackness for so long that I am still genuinely appalled at the ugliness and depravity of the myth of white supremacy, every time I encounter it. Detroit is so Black and proud, that while I would love to devote an entirely different and refreshingly lighter blog post as an ode to my beloved Detroit, until then – I wholly endorse and invite you to drink in the powerful words, imagery and palpable beauty that is Blackness, as depicted in this recent VH1 episode of #GrowingUpBlack and as experienced through the eyes of fellow, imminently talented Detroiters. And in case your’e also wondering just how my Detroit Black experience ties to the subject of academia so white, be assured that a lifetime of immersion in a sea of Black excellence makes one even more appalled and unwilling to acquiesce to the inane demands of whiteness. So, I might as well just go ahead and preface at the outset that I was recently disgusted enough to with my position in academia that I embraced an abrupt hiatus for the sake of both my sanity and well being. But since I’m clear that my own experience is not unlike those of my peers who have exhaustively documented their woes at the interwoven fabric of racism and academia using the hashtag and pertinent Black scholar coined reference, #BlackInTheIvory I hasten to pen this blog post as an ode to those of us who have duly earned our accomplishment of a personal, academic best in publishing dissertation research so close to our hearts and respective fields of study only to now be relegated to the mediocrity of academia so white. For me, even before taking this unscheduled leave from academia I can attest to being wholly disgusted and even reduced to tears while on vacation no less, because of the inescapable horrors of academia so white.

Before the semester had even begun in this most recent graduate education course I taught from August to October, one student had incredulously documented that as he previewed the course syllabus and rubric governing several modules within the course, he knew in advance that he would require personalized modifications and exceptions in order to ‘excel in the course’. Oh really? Truly there were no surprises here because this presumptuous request for favor had been levied in multiple different forms by no fewer than 3 dozen of my educator/students, per year in my respective graduate courses at a small predominantly white institution (PWI). For the record, the characteristics in common befitting the profile of all those making such formal requests is that the students were exclusively white, arrogantly privileged and every one more demanding than the former, in endeavoring similar modifications to course requirements due to their unique and wildly varying needs. Sigh. It is probably helpful to name that this is a novel occurrence for me as a veteran, K12 educator who has by choice and nearly 30 years of experience, worked exclusively in the Black and Brown Detroit and Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn communities in which I have lived. Please believe despite their current iteration as gentrification central, both of these areas boast of brilliant talent which is reflected the countless Black and Brown scholars whom I had long prepared for college, without even the slightest hint of unearned privilege and/or lowered expectations in my skill set. Sadly, I know now that the Black excellence to which I was afforded as both a student and a teacher in the Detroit Public Schools is somewhat of an anomaly. Because just a few years of being a professor in white spaces has unwittingly taught me that the preservation of white supremacy is the only, inescapable goal of the #AcademiaSoWhite environment. In this student’s case, he sought to circumvent the universal expectation that students culminate the course by crafting a rigorous curricular unit which leverages the gist of unwrapped Common Core Standards and ensures the seamless alignment between rigorous curriculum, formative assessments, while still ensuring evidence of widespread student learning. Alas, this student preferred albeit demanded instead to use a less rigorous set of standards, as his subject/district neither required nor mandated cross curricular fluency and/or apparently high expectations. So rather than to rise to the lofty expectations inherent in the course as outlined, this student opted to rather aggressively assume the role of the squeaky wheel in ensuring that this graduate course be relevant and to paraphrase his words, ‘useful to his needs’ as a non-core subject teacher in pursuit of a graduate degree. According to him in clear, documented form he neither planned nor expected to be held accountable for the incorporation of rigorous, core subject standards as it was reportedly outside of his ‘comfort zone’ and other professors had willingly retrofit their course requirements to duly meet his needs in the past. Okay, so now having laid out the key features of merely one case study of the gross perpetuation of whiteness in academic spaces, some of you might still be wondering why this request would be so emotionally triggering and what does it all mean from an institutional and systemic perspective of academia so white?

Essentially, an attempt to leverage privilege in an academic context has little difference from the power imbalance of a racist commander in chief insisting that he has been re-elected when the numbers clearly fail to support this illusion. And it is akin to the now commonplace scenario of a racist demanding that a person of color speak English in their presence or identify themselves and their address/license/purpose on demand, or risk becoming subject to the same institution of police violence and oppression that criminalizes Blackness for simply being. This student’s request was not an anomaly and has come in countless forms, at the behest of any number of students over my time serving as an adjunct in this particular institution. The audacity of the request meant that I would once again be called upon to reinforce whiteness willingly or suffer the consequences of their bad behavior throughout the course, including but certainly not limited to: challenging me on every assignment for which said student was not granted a perfect score; publicly interrogating my professionalism, experience and/or credentials (especially in the presence of their peers), as a means to incite a cadre of likeminded hatred and discrimination fueled queries by others accustomed to weaponizing whiteness. Also, this behavior is typically accompanied by an unending barrage of persistent email requests demanding that assignments be graded and thoroughly evaluated in advance of due dates, so as to require the level of on demand qualitative feedback to otherwise absolve themselves from the obligation of fulfilling the required course readings. Trust me, it’s an exhausting, unending and vicious cycle of truly unadulterated white privilege. Add to this frequent occurrence, the typical rules that apply, which are to provide scholarly advisement and demonstrate evidence of a speedy 48-hour or less response to any/all student requests. Sheesh! This pattern undoubtedly normalizes a systemic perpetuation and inappropriate catering to whiteness and choosing violence of sorts. Because ultimately and no doubt adding insult to injury and harm, these students are wholly prepared to go on record as weaponizing their whiteness by penning scathing and woefully unsatisfactory teacher evaluations (without merit), to punish those like me, who dare resist giving in to them and their illusion of authority. In many ways, this ensures that the ranks of those tenured and highly affirmed at the top rung of academic ranks look like, act like and blindly reinforce the unwritten rules of engagement within an academia so white norm. Somehow, all of us who operate in the unsavory confines of this reality quickly recognize that the goal is to make it easy for whiteness (read: abject mediocrity), to thrive. Of course, this does not apply to all students and all settings and there are thankfully students of every background, persuasion and iteration, who make the latter more tolerable because they openly expect and even welcome and appreciate academic rigor and the true acquisition of knowledge. However, for me the students who admittedly thrive in the face of high expectations, not unearned privilege, being the norm happen to have exclusively been the Black students whom I have had the honor to teach. I have come to know for sure that these are the only students for whom I am prepared to labor for in future academic contexts.

And in terms of context given my own unwelcome immersion in academia so white, perhaps complicating my visceral reaction to the otherwise customary email sent in mid August when I had deigned to take not even a full week, but merely 2-3 days hiatus from my persistently busy and admittedly stressful work demands; it was my intention to enjoy a family vacation by safely traveling by car to another part of the state and briefly engage in some pandemic imposed relief (and long neglected self-care), prior to the start of another academic year. The thought of true vacation was fleeting as I was still bound to checking my university email and expected to adhere to strict response timelines so as to ensure being present and attentive to students needs. And as you know by now, I did not fall in line to the exhausting, inhumane demands of whiteness, but rather fought valiantly against the system. But before doing so, I cried. I cried because I was simply sick and tired of being sick and tired. I cried because this email was not new, but merely a nightmare of a recurring theme and seemingly a permanent fixture of my graduate professor portfolio at an institution so white that I would often still be the “only one” in professional learning and faculty peer spaces. I cried because there was no scenario in which my capitulation to or abject refusal to uphold and reward whiteness resulted in my favor. Ultimately, my lengthy response to this young man was not unlike my patient explanation to others before him: Yes, you must adhere to course requirements and sure, although there might be infrequent exceptions made to fashion course content to the practical application of your physical education, or preschool or non traditional education course, it was still wholly expected that one would learn to leverage CC curriculum standards alignment as this was indeed an objective of the course. The course was designed to challenge him and all others to learn best, research and evidenced based practice and not meant to cater to his prior level of comfort and experience. His later documented attempts to challenge countless assignment grades and to appeal to the college for a grade change from a B to an A-? Well, this was just par for the course and to be predicted because effort, hard work, and scholarship is merely an unacceptable pill for whiteness to swallow. Truly in their myopic vision, resistance to their feigned delusion of white supremacy is futile and will therefore always be subject to them being a Karen and calling the police, or being a Derek Chauvin and actually being the police armed and ready to weaponize their whiteness. For I have learned the hard way that those with unearned privilege and fragility will always choose violence in defense of whiteness, academic spaces are not a panacea. In retrospect and clearly – I had endured enough and wouldn’t be long for the oppressive demands of this world a few 8-10 short weeks later. Although I did not know it at the time, I had mentally decided I could no longer endure the degree to which countless students’ documented microaggressions prevailed, particularly as it manifested in the form of their relentless demands for unearned favor especially whilst safely ensconced in a system in which their privilege dictated that everyone fall in line to inequitable, lifelong expectations of entitlement. Academia is so white, so mythical and ultimately so dangerous a microcosm of society, that in this space we allow whiteness to prevail in magnified, unchecked, and blatant forms through our own efforts to just go along and get along within the muck and mire of it all. Universal acknowledgement of the ‘academia so white’ truth, is important to establish at the outset of one’s academic career, because to believe that mis-education is uniquely relegated to K12 spaces without permeating a much larger, vicious cycle of dysfunction is as misguided as believing that a kitten can grow up to be anything other than a cat.

Higher education like white supremacy, summons its unearned power and distinction from the intentional, exclusionary nature of its boundaries. Because elitism and so-called specialness is baked into the very foundation of being afforded access in this white supremacist social construct, what institutions of higher learning and whiteness have in common is that they thrive on reinforcing the race, class and power stratifications upon which oppression thrives. What’s more is the academia so white state of the academy is functioning exactly as it was intended to. Despite visible hints of progression in other areas of societal evolution towards equity and inclusion, academia persists as a dated relic of systemic and institutionalized racism, showing little sign of longterm viability or hope. That academic spaces routinely foster anti-Blackness is widely researched and documented by countless numbers of my Black scholar colleagues. Kudos to each of my predecessors, peers and virtually all of us of good conscience, for not shrinking silently into the background but instead choosing retaliation against this violence. Shout out to those of us who amplify our voices, c/o public or private protests and those of us who opt to leave with our talents and Black labor, white wealth rather than opting to subject ourselves to suffer the inhumanity of whiteness in silence. In my own case, it has taken several weeks to process and to somewhat coherently respond to the violence inflicted in this only my second adjunct professor appointment in my brief academic career. This recent experience, spanning for only the past 3 years and 6 months, seems an interminable time to endure the precarious balance between my love of teaching and the invisible labor of being Black in such an unwieldy and inequitable white space.

But if nothing else, I am blessed to have gleaned so many insights from the favorable and especially the tough learning experiences inherent in this work. Ultimately, and this is an entirely personal decision for which I would never judge others for begrudgingly having to suffer; I determined that my proud Blackness, humanity, decency and morality would no longer allow me to uphold the illusion of white supremacy by doing the work of an educated and experienced professional, while being paid pennies on the dollar because of the inequitable adjunct title and full professor workload. Similarly, I say no mas to being the only one in a sea of whiteness. Because this graduate education work was performed at a PWI, with little to no diversity amongst either the students or faculty, I was routinely subjected to the abject racism and white privilege of a seemingly endless line of adult educators who sought exceptions, workarounds, demanded immediacy in the face of their often incredulous requests for deference and who essentially demanded (if not fully expected), to receive A’s for nary the slightest bit of effort nor scholarship. I kid you not, within my three and a half year tenure and much to my chagrin, I encountered graduate students who refused to refer to me as Dr. Nkenge or even professor, but who persisted in referring to me by my first name only – as an expression of their feigned supremacy and refusal to submit to any level of decency, authority or common respect. So this final incident as outlined herein, was merely a nail in the coffin for the increasingly frequent ways that my students (and sadly some of my faculty colleagues), demonstrated their disdain of being subjected to learn or teach graduate course content alongside my Black excellence. It bears mentioning, that in addition to the apparent universal expectation for deference and nothing less than perfect scores, despite less than exemplary performance, the final straw for me came when the college administration and my clueless, white male supervisor openly reinforced and I daresay, rewarded this behavior by affirming that once a student duly interrogates an assignment’s grade (even after the final grade in the course had been posted – that I would in turn, be expected to justify my rationale and/or alter a grade for affording them less than perfection in the face of their piss poor, elementary-level mediocrity.

So yeah, kudos to any/all who urgently sound the alarm as colleges and university’s nationwide get embarrassingly called on the carpet for such unforgivable gaffe’s as: mistaking prominent Black faculty as the help; hesitating to grant tenure to Pulitzer Prize winning journalists like Nikole Hannah-Jones, and for otherwise taking an ‘L’ every single time they protect, reinforce and perpetuate systemic whiteness despite the deleterious harm it does in contributing to the oppressive norms of the scourge of white supremacy on the global stage. However, because countless academic spaces exist as a mere microcosm of society, and people like me have the privilege of ensuring that more, not fewer of the Black scholars of tomorrow look like the Black faces of so many of our noteworthy heroes and predecessors who intentionally cultivated Black genius, we must be as fiercely outspoken and proactive in rejecting the harm of whiteness as people of good conscience are called to do in every other space where justice and equity are still elusive. All too often, we forget to include the illusory precursor of the prevalent myth when we refer to whiteness and in doing so we in turn, empower the perpetuation of the sick institution by choosing to silently become complicit in the evils inherent within an oppressive system. In short, no amount of well-meaning platitudes about equity and/or attempts to diversify faculty or student bodies (of course only at the lower rung, because few if any changes are ever warranted at the top rung of tenured, world-renowned, respected scholars), will impact the current state of academia. It is up to those of us who didn’t earn our terminal degrees to perpetuate whiteness to courageously buck the system. We are the few who must continually reject occupying the lowly, status quo positions of being a scant number of gatekeepers. We are those who earned our doctorates in honor and respect to our ancestors who devoted sacrificial lifeblood and scholarship in deference to the pursuit of justice, equality and freedom from oppression. We must continue to testify as we are called upon to document the pervasive whiteness and mis-education inextricably entwined at the highest level of academics. It is up to the people revolutionary enough to usher in the significant changes needed in #AcademiaSoWhite spaces to increasingly render these so-called institutions of higher learning as less than relevant or worthy of our Black presence, research, scholarship, blood, sweat and yes, even our tears. It is especially incumbent upon those of us blessed to work in empowering Black spaces, to still vehemently resist mimicking the mediocrity of whiteness and the internalized self-loathing which accompanies it (akin to the scandal unfolding in our very own prestigious institutions of higher learning, like the proverbial Mecca of Howard University). How demeaning it would be if the larger HBCU exemplars opted to render themselves complicit to the horrors present in white spaces and otherwise obsolete, to the extent that they selectively choose to ignore the righteous and warranted demands of its too Black, too beautiful and justifiably revolutionary scholar ranks, like the students aligned with the #BlackburnTakeover collective. Certainly, a heartfelt salute and credit is due to both the students and the faculty who skillfully and of necessity, navigate these academic mine spaces and who unduly encounter inescapable levels of dysfunction and harm, as we are forced to grapple with the not so hallowed halls of academia. Academia so white is pervasive and must be dismantled in all of its insidious forms. It is up to each of us to do our level best to make it so.