Friday, August 18, 2017

White Supremacy and the Liberal Arts

There’s no question that the liberal arts college, the prestige model of American higher education, has been inherently reactionary and even White Supremacist.  For it has rooted itself in a meta-narrative in which the most prized knowledge in the U.S., filtered through Europe, is a bleached package from Greece and Rome.  Linguistically and otherwise, of course, there are legitimate reasons to trace legacies from these two empires.  Problems arise when the influence of Africa, Arabia, and Asia gets deliberately ignored.  Invasions, migrations, and the nature of these empires itself make the lines from Athens and Rome to Europe and the U.S. very messy, but that is not how the Classics, etc., get taught.   Further, the original 7 liberal arts were much plainer, pragmatic, and career-oriented than what the American version has become. (A good read is Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s essay, “We Condone It By Our Silence: Confronting Classics’ Complicity in White Supremacy,” Eedolon: https://eidolon.pub/we-condone-it-by-our-silence-bea76fb59b21.)
True, critiques of Whiteness, colonialism, White Supremacy, the politics, culture, and terrorism of slavery, etc., do get expressed at liberal arts colleges.  But they remain on the frothy surface of what goes on.  Institutionally, ethically, and psychically, the colleges remain bastions of Whiteness.
One factor that contributes to the impervious character of the colleges is that they depend economically on middle-class and upper-class White families.  If the latter didn’t exist, neither would the colleges, which are worried now that the demographics are shifting, but which seem incapable of acting on the worry.  The liberal arts colleges that are most successful at recruiting and retaining students of color have, for example, percentages of Black students in the low single digits.  The rest have percentages that hover around or below 1%–in 2017, coming up on 400 years since Africans were forced into slavery on these shores.  The demographics alone of the faculty, student body, and upper level staff mean that White Supremacy gets baked into everyday life on a liberal arts campus.
Given the percentages, it doesn’t require much imagination to envisage what life is like for Black students on these campuses.  Daily micro- and macro-aggressions. The extra duty to serve to educate White students, faculty, and staff who, at best, express their liberalism by being “interested” in “what it’s like” to be Black, and who at worst discriminate, ignore, dismiss, and belittle.
Further, these colleges–in spite of the image of broad-mindedness they project–are bastions for faculty who deploy the propaganda of “political correctness.  –And who deploy the weird logic that diversity must equal lower standards, when in fact some of the most academically incompetent students are White ones whose family wealth has paved an easy road.  The colleges also tend to attract faculty who are White and middle class and ruling class and who bring the same ignorance and prejudice to their teaching as any White American would.
So, at a liberal arts college, it is likely that one might hear from faculty and staff such utterances as the following, and I’m not kidding:
“Why don’t they [Black students] just go to historically Black colleges?”
‘”It’s White, conservative Christians who are most discriminated against around here.”
“If they [students of color] don’t like it here, they’re free to leave.”
“I’m sick of diversity.”
“I’m much more interested in the declining percentage of White males in higher education.”
“I don’t like hiring African American colleagues because they arrive with presumptive tenure.”
And so on.  And such comments are made from a position of safety, and they’re made by faculty of stature, not as one might think by the notorious cranks in the faculty, although they make them too.
It’s still common for liberal arts faculty to make the “native informant” move, whereby, when a question related to African American history or culture comes up in class, the professor turns to the one Black student in class (or allows a White student to do the same) and asks the Black student to become a spokesperson for an entire ethnicity.
Faculty of color, especially Black faculty, have a hell of a time, too.  White faculty will compliment them on being “so articulate,” or just simply act weird around them.  Black faculty must often take on the invisible burden of counseling Black students about how to survive at the college.  This requires added hours and emotional/intellectual energy.  It’s like sailing into a stiff headwind.
The scale of liberal arts colleges can make teaching and learning more effective.  For the most part, professors, not adjunct faculty, teach the classes.  This is not necessarily an improvement, but at least the pay is fair and the professors are bit more invested in the place. But in spite of the cosmopolitan self-presentations of these colleges, they tend to be insular, figuratively incestuous, and provincial.  Greek systems, inherently reactionary, traditionally racist and misogynist, only reinforce these qualities.
The identities of liberal arts colleges usually depend on illusions of “tradition,” and “tradition” and various kinds of safety and care figure heavily into liberal arts marketing.  And of course we know how tradition and “safety” can be translated into White Supremacist practices.  For example, Black students at liberal arts colleges routinely get followed or accosted by “Security” for no reason than that they are Black. It is a problem that is both chronic and acute.
In spite of highly promoted and self-congratulatory “diversity” efforts involving modest changes to curricula and programming and lots of noise about a welcoming, tolerant community, most liberal arts colleges have hardly made a dent in their Boards of Trustees (often composed of White wealthy alums), faculties, and administrations.  They tend, strategically, to silence straight-from-the-shoulder critiques of the White status quo by pointing to modest, even token, changes.  White faculty, staff, and students often go directly to playing the victim, complaining that they mean well, aren’t racists, and have done a lot, so why are you being so ungrateful?   You know that move as well as I do.
As with the nation itself, I don’t see any serious changes ahead for most liberal arts colleges when it comes to examining their White Supremacist character, assumptions, and practices.  The self-interrogation, discipline, patience, and strength required just isn’t there, and there are simply too many rewards, many of them monetary, for staying the same.  And, culturally, there is just too much invested in the mirage of “the small liberal arts college”; this powerful illusion is part of the White Supremacist “American Dream” that Ta-Nehisi Coates describes and analyzes  in Between the World and Me. Arguably, American liberal arts colleges contribute as much to the White Supremacist status quo as does the Republican Party, with its dog-whistles and Southern Strategy, its fake textbooks (in which, for a Texas example, African slaves are referred to as “immigrants), its mask of Christian piety, and so on.   Most of these colleges have endowments large enough to stay White forever, so they will.
Further reading:
“How White Supremacy Lifts Liberal Whites,” by Gail Cornwall. http://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/openforum/article/How-white-supremacy-lifts-liberal-whites-10812043.php
“Top-Ranked Liberal Arts College is Calling for Its President to Address Its ‘Legacy of White Supremacy,'” by Abby Jackson.http://www.businessinsider.com/amherst-college-protest-against-legacy-of-white-supremacy-on-campus-2015-11
“For Christ and His White Kingdom–An open Letter to the Wheaton College Community on White Supremacy,” https://thetatteredrose.wordpress.com/2013/12/09/for-christ-and-his-white-kingdom-an-open-letter-to-the-wheaton-college-community-on-white-supremacy-on-campus/
“Diversity in This Progressive Cycle: Where Are We? An Issue Too Close to Us–We Cannot [sic] Possibly Ignore It,” by Luke Carberry Mogan. https://www.theodysseyonline.com/diversity-in-this-progressive-cycle-where-are-we
“Bates + Who? An Open Letter to the Bates College Faculty.” http://www.thebatesstudent.com/2017/05/bateswho-an-open-letter-to-the-faculty-of-bates-college/
“White People Are Amazed that a White Woman Was Treated Like a White Woman,” Michael Harriot, The Root.  http://www.theroot.com/white-people-are-amazed-that-a-white-woman-was-treated-1795272316
“Race and Racism at Colorado College: Revealing Micro-Aggressions and Institutional Negligence,” by Han Sayles, http://www.ciphermagazine.com/articles/2017/1/12/race-and-racism-at-colorado-college
“De-Segregating International Relations: A Conversation with Robert Vitalis on ‘White World Order, Black Power Politics,” http://toynbeeprize.org/conversations/de-segregating-international-relations-a-conversation-with-robert-vitalis-on-white-world-order-black-power-politics/
“The Case of the University of Puget Sound Three,” by Clifford Cawthon. https://southseattleemerald.com/2017/01/03/the-case-of-the-university-of-puget-sound-three/
What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and ‘Bias’ in Higher Education, by Michael Bérubé, W.W. Norton, 2007. 


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