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Reflections On Nominal Diversity In Academia By Victor Ray

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Conditionally Accepted

victor rayVictor Ray is a PhD Candidate in sociology at Duke University. He will begin as an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville this fall. His research is on organizational responses to racial and gender discrimination. You can follow Victor on Twitter at @victorerikray

Below, Victor reflects on his frustration with his department’s award-winning level of diversity, at least on paper, that contradicts the otherwise exclusive department climate, norms, and practices.

My department just won the inaugural Dean’s Award for Inclusive Excellence, an award that is meant to reward the department for “extraordinary achievements” in promoting diversity in its graduate student body.  I was surprised by the news, as my experiences as a student of color in this department have been less than inclusive and other than excellent. Although students of color are indeed admitted to the graduate program, and even make it through to the…

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“Maybe You’re Overreacting…?” — On Emotional Control

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Conditionally Accepted

Let me start with the premise that I, as a sociological social psychologist, recognize emotions as socially constructed non-verbal ways of communicating a feeling or thought.  Sure, I know there are biological and physiological explanations.  Blah blah blah — as a social scientists, I am always asked to concede room for the “real” science fields to explain the social world.  (Can we start asking chemist, “have you considered that this may be socially constructed?”)  However, I stand by my point because emotions are 1) regulated by social norms and 2) used in the context of labor or work.  For example, we have tacit rules about the emotions one should convey at a funeral or wedding.  And, some jobs demand specific emotional expressions as a part of one’s labor (e.g., flight attendants).

It seems, like everything else we study in sociology, there is an aspect of emotions and how they are…

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On Teaching “White” Literature in a “White” Classroom as a Person of Color

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Every single time that I have taught the work of an early European or Euro-American writer whose characters or texts express racist beliefs or use racist words (Twain or Conrad for example), at least one pale-skinned student will speak up to defend the author’s racism on the grounds that racism “back then” was just part of the culture. We can’t blame Thomas Jefferson for his racist assessment of African people because “everyone was racist back then.” Some students have actually argued that the n-word cannot be considered a racist term in the context of texts such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Heart of Darkness because “back then” that was just the word everyone used to describe black people. To call Marlow’s (in HOD) use of the n-word “racist,” these students argue, is to unfairly impose upon that character a contemporary, “politically-correct” morality. I have to remind them that the n-word has always been a negative term and was never ever neutral. I also inform that that at no point in human history have all “white” people or all indigenous Europeans been racist. In places and times when oppression of others (any kind of Other) was the dominant ideology, there have always been dissenters.

The fact that these supporters and defenders of racism use the falsehood that all white people are or were racist in a particular time period or location to try to defend against the accusation of racism seems to be in direct conflict with the fact that often the same people will froth at the mouth in fury as they accuse antiracists of assuming that all white people are racist. Of course, a true antiracist would never assume that all “white” people share the same set of thoughts or behaviors, but this fact is apparently irrelevant in the face of the paranoia of the Euro-American student sitting in my class who assumes that any unfavorable representation of any European (even if it is of that European’s own construction) is an indictment by me of all people of European descent and especially of any people of European descent who happen to be in my classroom.

What I find exceptionally odd about this phenomenon is that so many people of color are overtly and covertly accused of paranoia on a regular basis whenever they discuss their experiences of racism with their “white” acquaintances. Shortly after I moved to Auburn to start my PhD program, one of the professors in my department decided to welcome me by telling me where I could find “soul food restaurants” in town. He concluded his list of restaurants and locations by saying, with a shrug of his shoulders, “Well, we eat that kind of food too.” A few years later I told a pale-skinned redhead this story, and she was quick to let me know that it was in fact not a story about racism but a story about a kind man who was just trying to be helpful. Now, this kind man did not ask me what type of food I liked to eat so that he could point me toward the best burger joints or sushi restaurants in town. Nope. He made the assumption that I would be on the lookout for “soul food” because that’s what people like me eat. His final statement, using the plural first person rather than the singular, only served to prove that he was thinking in terms of group behavior, group identity and had failed to see me as an individual, a person. It also demonstrates that he was not assuming that I would need to try soul food because I was new to the South or that he assumed anyone living in the south would need to know where to find soul food. If he viewed soul food as linked with Southern identity rather than “black” identity, he would not have needed to say “We” eat it “too.” He was from the South.

I had assumed that anyone with a functioning brain could see why what he said was racist, but apparently that is not a fair assumption. I have so many stories like this: I present a narrative of racism, and a pale-skinned person tells me that I’m being “paranoid,” “hypersensitive,” or just “determined to find racism everywhere.” Or they provide a narrative of the events that But now, interpreting course content about racism as an attack on “white” people is definitely not paranoia. My brown-skinned, female instructor is talking about what King Leopold of Belgium did to the people of the Congo in the nineteenth-century? Clearly, she is attacking me, a person in her class in the 21st century, and clearly she hates all white people in the 21st century. Again, this is definitely not paranoia. This is Fox News logic. If I feel that I am being attacked, then I am being attacked even if the instructor has not indicated any connection between the characters in the text and the people sitting in her class at the present moment. What she actually says is not important, because I know what she really means.

An odd thing about the way that Euro-American students glean evidence of my alleged racial hatred from the texts I teach is that this same process never seems to work for the positive or non-racist representations of people of European origin. In one semester for an early literature class my students discuss the works of several authors representing a variety of perspectives and issues. I will teach, for example, William Bradford, Anne Bradstreet, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Ralph Emerson, Nathanial Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Lydia Sigourney along with, of course several writers of color.  But when students complain that I am “bashing white males,” representing “white” men as evil, or attempting to make “white” people feel guilty, they are only talking about some (and not all) of our discussions about Bradford and Jefferson. For these writers I choose selections from their large texts that deal with the historical significance of these writers—Bradford’s explanation of why the “pilgrims” left England or Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence—along with some of the excerpts that represent their racist attitudes. Of all the authors I teach in a semester, two authors who express racist notions are viewed as my attempt to color all “white” people as racist and make my students feel guilty for being “white.” Students take my teaching of Bradford’s classism, racism, and homophobia as an affront to white identity. They take my acknowledgement of Jefferson’s racist attitudes about Native and African Americans as an affront to “white” identity. But they do not take my teaching about the feminism of Bradstreet or the poetic innovation of Whitman as compliments paid to “white” identity. They do not take personally my enthusiasm for Dickinson, nor do they assume that I am secretly trying to convince them that all “white” people write great poetry.

It is clear to me that the way some of my European-American students respond to my curriculum is determined by their own expectations rather than by what actually goes on in my classroom.

What Should “Racism” Mean?

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The Weekly Sift

There’s a type of faux scandal that’s been happening … well, I haven’t exactly kept track, but it seems like there’s a new one every month or two. They all fit this pattern: President Obama does something that symbolically asserts his status as president, and the right-wing press gets outraged by how he’s “disrespecting” something-or-other related to the presidency.

So, for example, in January, 2010 this photo caused to ask whether Obama was “disrespecting the Oval Office” by putting his feet up on the antique desk.

Of course, it didn’t take long to uncover similar photos of previous presidents, none of which had raised any particular outrage at the time. But everybody forgot again, and so we had an almost identical flap last September. “This just makes me furious,” one woman tweeted. “He was raised so badly.”

Or remember last May when marines held…

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Teaching and the Power to Disrupt: Notes on Shannon Gibney

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The story of Shannon Gibney continues to serve as representative of many other less publicized cases like it. We must hold universities accountable when they seek to coddle and perpetuate the prejudices of those students most in need of education.

2 Dope Sistahs

Image courtesy of criminlatt/ Image courtesy of criminlatt/

disrupt– to interrupt the normal course

If someone were to ask me why I teach, I would probably have a two-part answer. First, I have always loved school, so teaching just comes naturally to me. It provides me with an opportunity to do the things that I love–research, reading, and writing. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I love the fact that education has the power to disrupt. In fact, I think it is my job to disrupt students’ thinking.

When you mentally wrestle with a difficult topic–whether it is calculus or philosophy–it may blow your mind at first. Once you begin to understand, you can pick up the pieces of your mind and rearrange them, but you are never quite the same again. This thinking process can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary exercise in order to learn.

disrupt–to interfere with an activity

I have been thinking about these…

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On “Black” and “White” and Law Enforcement

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Some time ago I was awakened at 2:00 a.m. by the sound of people brawling outside of my house. I walked toward the sound, peaked out of my front window, and saw a large group of people in the middle of the street in front of my house.  I heard more yelling, breaking glass. Someone kept screaming, “I’ll fucking kill you! I’ll fucking kill you!”

I dialed 911.  I described to the operator the things I had seen and heard and asked her to send someone out to break up the fight. But she needed more information.

“What color are they?” she asked.

“What?” I said.

“Are they black or white?” she said.

“Why does that matter?” I asked.

I was confused and annoyed. I think my tone of voice reflected this. The operator hung up on me. I waited inside my home for an hour, unable to sleep, listening to the people outside shouting death threats and expletives at each other. The noise moved up the street away from my house, died down completely, started up again with only a couple of voices, and ended up in my neighbor’s yard.  I peeked out the side window and saw my neighbor stick his head out of his front door and speak sternly to the two or three men standing near the bushes next to his front porch. The men walked away, and things were quiet for the rest of the night. Before I went back to sleep, I checked the time. It was 3:35 a.m., and in the time that had passed, no police officer had shown up on the scene. This was particularly odd because I lived within four blocks of a police station.  I still wonder if the 911 operator decided to disregard my call because I refused to play the “black/white” race-labeling game.

I had not meant to be difficult. When she asked about the color of the angry mob, I was truly confused. Partly due to the fact that I was drowsy from being awakened prematurely and partly due to the fact that it didn’t even occur to me to take note of the ethnicity of members of the angry crowd, I truly didn’t understand what the operator meant. When she clarified “black or white,” it occurred to me too in that moment that I had not noticed the skin tone of any of the people. In order to answer her question I would have to go back to the window and try to ascertain what skin tones I could see under the eerie glow of the streetlamps and then, based on that info, determine if the police would categorize these guys as “black” or “white.” It also occurred to me that the information that was necessary for helping the police to identify the group I had already provided. When one considers that this was a group of at least ten people, standing in the middle of the street, standing directly in front of my house (I had provided my address), and screaming obscenities at each other, the skin color or ethnicity of the individuals seems irrelevant. I doubt that if I had said “white” and the men turned out to be “black,” the police would have driven past them in search of a “white” mob. Their color did not matter, so why did she ask the question?

Why is it important for law enforcement to racialize suspects? One might argue that determining whether a potential suspect is “black” or “white” is just practical. Cops need physical descriptions of people in order to know whom they’re trying to find. This explanation is unsatisfying when one considers that “black” and “white” are not physical descriptions of any human being. Notice the difference between the two questions posed by the 911 operator. She first asked for “color,” which would be a physical description. She then asked if the people were “black or white,” no longer asking for a physical description. Humans do not come in those colors.

Human beings can be described as having a range of skin tones: very dark brown, dark brown, medium brown, light brown, dark tan, tan, light tan, peach, pink, beige, and everything in between. “White” is the color of copier paper or the dry-erase board in a college classroom or snow. “Black” is the color of the space between the stars in the night sky or the fur of a panther. “Black” people do not exist. “White” people do not exist.

On college campuses, when someone is assaulted by a brown-skinned assailant, the reports will warn the campus community that the assailant was “black.” On one campus, bulletins were posted in the campus buses describing an alleged rapist as “black” and accompanied by one of those police sketches that manage to look simultaneously like everyone you’ve ever met and no one you’ve ever met. Once I heard a campus police alert about a “black male wearing a yellow sweatshirt.” This seemed to me highly ineffective because the suspect could simply dispose of the yellow sweatshirt in order to merge inconspicuously into the larger group of “black” males on the campus and in the city. Of course, this is not how such a description really works for law enforcement. It is not intended to identify an individual but rather to point the finger at the group. This type of race-labeling as a substitute for actual physical description is used to justify the harassment of scores of African-American and Latino men who have skin any shade of brown.

How do we stop this?

On Having “White” Friends

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When someone accused of being a racist says, “I’m not racist. I have lots of X friends,” do you ever wonder if those X people think of the speaker as a real friend? Does Hollis Johnson think of Paula Deen as part of his family or does he just tolerate that racist bitch because she’s paying his salary?

I recently realized that, while there may be people out there who count me among their “black friends,” from my perspective I have had very few “white” friends since I was a child. I have known and currently know “white” people that I might introduce as friends although many are really more like acquaintances or people-who-have-talked-to-me-more-than-once. I have a host of “white” people in my Facebook friends list. But I have had an extremely limited number of real, deep, meaningful relationships with “white” people. And, after careful consideration, I have determined that it’s not me; it’s them.

I have not intentionally segregated myself away from “white” people. In fact, because of my career and personal interests, I tend to find myself in places populated with more “white” people than people of color. Yet I have formed few lasting connections. This I believe has to do with how the potential “white” friends I have known in my adult life have dealt with me. In my adult life, most interactions that I have had with “white” people who could have been potential friends have turned sour because the “white” friend engaged in some behavior that made me aware of an invisible wall between us, constructed by them, impenetrable by me.

I post this in the hopes that all the “white” people out there who think they have friends who are not “white” will reconsider how they really see those friends. The chances are that, if you have ulterior motives in striking up a friendship with a person of color, you will do or say something that will reveal your motives.

The Anthropologist

One day my “white” friend will say something that lets me know that our friendship has been little more than her attempt to learn about “my people.” We will be discussing some political, social, or less weighty issue. I will state an opinion. Her eyes will open wider, and she’ll say “So that’s what black people think about X. I’ve always wondered.” Or she will ask me, “What is the black perspective on X?” Or she will make a generalizing comment about some mundane aspect of my daily existence, revealing that she assumes that my mundane routine is indicative of the lifestyles and habits of all people like me: “Oh, so black women do wash their hair more than once a month? Because I thought they couldn’t get their hair wet.”

This “white” friend will often try to participate in what she perceives to be my culture. She will get her hair braided in cornrows, or attempt to learn whatever butt-centered dance is supposed to be popular among African-Americans at that moment, or strike up a conversation about how much she loved the latest [insert popular hip-hop/rap artist here] album only to be visibly disappointed when she realizes I don’t know what she’s talking about. For people who are not African-American, this type of “white” friend might smoke hookah, wear turquoise jewelry, sport a sari, or learn a few words of Spanish and then never shut up about how much they understand the struggles of immigrants, or any other culturally-specific appropriation.

These words and behaviors reveal that the time I spent thinking of this person as my friend, she only thought of me as an object of study, specimen A, the Samoan to her Margaret Mead. For her I am not an individual, I am representative.

The Critical Eye

This type of “white” friend reveal themselves whenever I am lured into enough familiarity with my white friend to think that I can complain about my woes, and I make the mistake of relating an instance in which I encountered racism. It always happens in the same way. (1) I tell my story. (2) My “white” friend tries to convince me that what happened to me in the story wasn’t racism. Sometimes my “white friend” suggests alternatives: “Maybe he/she was just having a bad day. Did you think of that?” “Maybe the server was nice to the ‘white’ customers and not to you because he knew them from somewhere.” “Maybe this.” “Maybe that.”

This “white” friend offers his own analysis because he thinks that I am incapable of bringing a critical eye to my own experiences. He assumes that I, like all people of color in the U.S., am eager to experience racism, and when I fail to experience actual racism, I resort to calling racist that which is not. This “white” friend will often take me to task for what he assumes to be my affinity for unfounded anger. He assumes that I am less human and, therefore, do not have the same capacity for rational thought and careful consideration of evidence that he has.

The Humanitarian

This “white” friend’s primary motivation for befriending me is so that he can feel charitable. He is the first to welcome me to a new environment, to tell me how wonderful it is that I am there, and to eagerly laud the benefits of “diversity.” “I’m so glad you’re here,” he says to me, “I love diversity.” Well, terrific. Glad I have your permission to occupy this space. It does not seem to occur to him that I do not need validation. This is because. . .

. . . This type of “white” friend sees people of color always as abject, always as targets of pity. He imagines the most pitiable internal and external circumstances for most people of color and feels that by extending the “white” hand of friendship he is ameliorating what would otherwise be an unbearable existence. He is always thoroughly encouraging and say things like, “You know you’re actually quite bright” or “You’re very articulate” as if this is a surprise. I am the dog in breeches, the native to his Marlow.

The Compartmentalizer

This type of “white” friend is warm and engaging only in certain environments when she is alone with me, when there are other people of color around, or when we are together with others in a circumstance that requires our interaction such as a classroom setting. However, when this “white” friend sees me in a public place beyond the established locations of our relationship, she will pretend not to know or even see me. Usually, the “white” friend is with someone she knows, but whom I do not know: a boyfriend, a fiancé, a parent, another “white” friend.  This “white” friend seeks to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to have the “black friend” that proves that she is not a racist without having that friendship impact the status she holds in her racist world.

The Beauty Contestant

This type of “white” friend, typically female, only wants to be friends with me so that she can feel physically superior in contrast. If the “white” friend and I are out together, the “white” friend assumes that all men will prefer her to me. Any man who directs more attention to me will immediately become the subject of ridicule by this “white” friend. A man who she initially finds “cute” or “hot” will suddenly become “creepy” if he asks for my number instead of hers. She will take every opportunity to deny the physical beauty of women of color and laud the beauty of “white” women. She will watch Bend it Like Beckham and loudly and repeatedly whine that Keira Knightley is sooo pretty, and it doesn’t make sense that she doesn’t get the guy, trying to deny to herself and everyone else that Parminder Nagra is prettier than Keira Knightley.

This friend will engage in frenzied preening of her straight hair whenever she is in my line of vision. She will go on and on about how much she loves her hair, stressing such features as its ability to “blow in the wind,” and she will make frequent sympathetic remarks about the limitations of curly hair. She will lament that her skin is so “white” and patronizingly say to me, “You’re actually lucky that you don’t have to tan” as if she were passing out alms to the poor. If I dare to express an appreciation for my own appearance, this “white” friend is quick to admonish me for being “stuck-up” or “conceited,” reminding me that “It doesn’t sound right to talk about how much you like yourself.”