On the Manifestation of White Supremacy (in the Academy/Higher Education)
Sometimes you have to walk lonely country roads alone to hear and see differently.
But, I saw it with my own two eyes. I’ve seen it many times. It is so stealth, that you can’t grasp it. It is an experience that snatches speech. It is that powerful. It literally steals your voice.
It unfolds with such subtlety, like a slithering snake, blending in with the colors, camouflaged as legitimate and belonging, until it strikes, like lightning, quick, piercing. White Supremacy.
I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences with the manifestation of White supremacy and power. It is connected, in part, to this issue of White people as allies and this post, including this video with 14,000 views of an Insight Into Diversity webinar that I was a part of with three white women and three Black women
But, this is very different. White power; White male power. White Supremacy.
There are certain manifestations in the dignified, sanctified walls of the academy of higher education that I should know by now, so that I’m not bamboozled, but because of its manner of operation, I am rarely able to grab the knife out of the air before it pierces my soul.
- A request to change the agenda before the meeting: an attempt to co-opt, shift, silence.
- A strangely shortened meeting. A meeting that should include plenty of time for discussion is scheduled for half the time of other meetings.
- An announcement at the beginning of the meeting, that seems routine, yet suggests a seemingly harmless alternative solicitation of guidance, outside a regular process, a gathering of feedback and input. Seemingly harmless and appropriate, except everyone else has been sworn to confidentiality. Some of us have been called aside to be reminded of the confidentiality.
- An orchestration of voices. It seems that individuals have been assigned speaking roles and orders. Subtle, yet, staged.
- After the staging of conversation, and a call for a new process, there is an orchestrated asking of feedback and thoughts from those in the meeting. This request for feedback is made after the dominant view has been expressed and legitimated and seconded and thirded by dominant power figures and positions of authority. And, after, step #3 above which moved more dominant outside voices into the room. Thus, this seemingly open call for feedback is a guise and rouse to be able to justify a seemingly democratic approach to rebut any accusations that there was no opportunity to feedback, dialogue, and engagement. The call out for feedback is made, as the time seemingly ticks away on the very short meeting. It is clear that feedback is not really welcomed.
- The atmosphere has shifted towards one end of the seesaw. The decision has been made. Any feeble rebuttal will fall on deaf ears. The rebuttal can only be feeble at this point; there are no words that can change the decision; there is no time; and the weight required to shift the seesaw is too monumental.
- The meeting ends, seemingly with unanimous consensus. There was no vote asked for or taken. No opportunity to vote no or abstain. An injustice and inequity has been perpetuated, and you were in the room. Are you part of that inequity and injustice? Did you sanction it with your presence? Even if you did speak up? No one knows you spoke up, because the confidentiality of the process requires silence, and the report out is “unanimous.”
- If no votes are even taken, and others are in charge of the “report out,” even voices of dissension can be minimized, marginalized, or eliminated.
A woman – the only one in her department – recently reminded me that if we do not require unanimous decisions in departments, minority voices are literally silenced around policy decisions. Yet, “unanimity” can feel coerced with a silent pressure, to not always be the “outsider,” the “agitator,” the “disagreeable one,” the “hard to work with one,” the “not collegial one.” So, we are always forced to quickly choose: when, how, why, what for, to speak up. We have to conduct a very quick cost-benefit analysis; which chips to cash in; which chips to hold; which words to speak; which to swallow, and in so swallowing, cause ourselves to suffocate and choke and gag.
Lately, I’ve seen White Supremacy suggest only for diversity issues that we need to engage “governance.” This call for “governance,” “faculty governance,” is again, a difficult issue to challenge, for why shouldn’t faculty “weigh-in.” What I have come to realize is that it is often JUST DIVERSITY, EQUITY AND INCLUSION issues that get called out for more governance input. “We need their buy-in,” “their support.” Excuse me, help me to understand, we (diversity professionals) are being required to go get input to change structural racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist policies, practices, and procedures that perpetuate inequality, inequity, by going to the same structures and people that created the policies, practices, and procedures and benefit from them, …. to what…., beg them to change?
The “requirement” for governance input is an effective delay and destruction tactic, because the systemic structural change will go into the “ether of governance” never to emerge. And you can’t act like you don’t want input, because that isn’t “inclusive.” This is the insidious operation of White Supremacy.
There is also the doubting of your voice, your story, your version, the questioning, the challenging, the proving again and again. It’s never enough. We are never enough.
I wrote, excuse me, excuse, I have something to say, almost trying to convince myself that I do have something to say; that we, women of color; people of color, we have something to say.
I continue to think about how to continue to have voice, especially in the zoom world, in these meetings, staged and orchestrated for pre-determined outcomes, under the guise of democratic meeting and processes.
I often sat in shock at such meetings as they unfolded. I literally could not speak and was not supposed to speak. I remember many many meetings as the Assistant Secretary of the University at Vanderbilt. For eight years, I was responsible for taking minutes for the Board meetings, a board of extraordinary power and wealth. I became invisible, like the Black butler and servers who stood silently at attention in the dining rooms of powerful White people as they discussed plans to continue to perpetuate White domination and the oppression of African-Americans. We were in the room, not at the table, but in the room. We have been in many rooms, silently bearing witness to injustice, trying to decide next steps, sworn to secrecy. I was able to witness extraordinary shifts of wealth, and the orchestration of power and privilege. I just took notes, careful not to say too much, even though most minutes were never seen by those outside the “circle of trust.”
Some of us are in the master’s house; there have always been some of us who have been in the master’s house, for we are there for a reason. But we will be slaughtered, just like those who are not in the master’s house. What do we do, those of us in the room where it happens? Those of us at the table where it happens? We are there for a reason. Many more women and people of color and women of color are becoming full professors, are presumably part of the inner circle of power in the academy. Will they be able to use their seat at the table? How will they use it?
Those of us who are doing diversity work with appointments as the chief diversity officer seemingly have been hired to dismantle privilege and create equity. Yet, we may have been hired to “quiet the discontented” and seemingly pacify them with an “insider,” to whom blame can be attached for inaction and ineffectiveness, while those who continue to perpetuate White Supremacy remain invisible, silently slipping away into the Whiteness of the world.
And, thus, the impossible job of Chief Diversity Officer.
In the Book of Esther, Mordecai, a Jewish man, had raised Esther, his cousin, as his own daughter, after her father and mother died. The king, seemingly in search of a less willful wife and queen than Vashti, who refused the king’s order, solicited virgin girls from across his kingdom. Esther was one. Eventually, she was made queen. She was in the palace when the order went out to destroy the Jews. Mordecai counseled Esther that though she was in the king’s palace, she was not immune from the order. He said, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Esther 4: 14.
In obedience to Mordecai, Esther devises a strategy to save the Jews. This strategy includes a powerful example of the use of language – language that has to be moderated and molded when confronting power and privilege: “If it please the king, and if I have won his favor, and if the thing seems right before the king, and I have his approval” (Esther 8:5). It is this language of supplication that we might be wise to use, a deference, a humility, before speaking truth to power – an attempted disarming, before attacking. She, too, is willful, like Queen Vashti. She just has a different approach.
I am reminded constantly that this work – this diversity and equity work of justice – is like a chess game. I’m glad my father taught me chess.
Chess requires you to always be on your toes, watching all the pieces, trying to recognize if and when you might be the pawn, disposable, able to be sacrificed, always at the mercy of capture, yet perhaps, able to silently move down the board to become a queen. A Cinderella possibility of redemption. Always on the look out, we must be in this work of social justice. And, so there is so much anger, or righteous indignation, at all the maneuvering we must do, without the code.
White Supremacy has its own code and way of operating. There is a code and expectation of confidentiality that is communicated to others, so that what happens behind closed doors, stays behind closed doors. This code –is only for you to follow – for you are being controlled and managed, to not seek understanding from others outside the room. But they who are in power move outside the circle of confidentiality, all the time. They have their own rules; they are not subject to the operation of the rules that are meant to control others. This is the “Good Ol’ Boy’s Club.” What a name. White Supremacy even usurps and applies the word “good” to an insidious perpetuation of power, dominance, and oppression.
I’ve been privileged to be in many rooms of power. I wish I could be less horrified and more prepared to respond in the moment. The power of White power is so powerful it often silently saps my strength and literally renders me speechless, at the very moment I have a right and responsibility to speak up. And every time, I have to gird up my loins, and summon every iota of power to speak, to say something, often not in the right order, and not the right words, but with every ounce of courage and conviction, I am making myself say something. Rarely, but sometimes, I am able to shift the atmosphere.
I often have to find my community to debrief, to process the operation of White supremacy and power, in defiance of the confidentiality to which only I am subject:
Me: Girlfriend….let me tell you.
Me: Yes, I am like, “What the _____ just happened?” Help me to process this. I think, wait, no, I know, that was the operation of White Supremacy, White Power, and White Privilege.
Girlfriend: Yes, of course.
And, then, as she reminds me, they – those who have just perpetuated an injustice — are often drinking beer and whisky, celebrating their victory, and here I am having nightmares of men in army fatigues, stabbing and charging at me in my dreams. They have moved on; I am suffering; strategizing a response, perhaps by email where I can get my words in the right order; my heart bleeding inside; silent ulcers eating away at lining built over years of swallowing words.
What I have come to learn over time is how to use a combination of the master’s tools and the slave’s tools, because though the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house (Audre Lorde), they do provide a way of understanding how the house was built and what is needed to remove doors, walls, and beams.
I have learned some of their games and tools and strategies. I have listened and watched enough, behind the scene, out of sight, gathering intelligence, like Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman knew the master’s tools. She had to know the master’s tools, mindsets, strategies, and ways of thinking. She, then, had to redirect, repurpose, reconstruct, and retool their tools.
I’m glad I’m a sociologist and a lawyer. Though law school on one level seemed to be a complete waste of time, especially after first year, it gave me a way of thinking about issues, finding the gray, understanding that there are two sides to most issues, and nothing is quite as it seems. And then, sociology became activist and practical. It gave me words and language and understanding. When I read Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins as a graduate student getting my doctorate, I learned about domains of power and I am grateful, because that one concept has so impacted and informed my activism, my ability to understand power, and my attempts to dismantle power.
I learned that there are four domains of power. It starts with the hegemonic domain, a domain of ideology and ways of thinking. Ideologies become operationalized through structures and social institutions (structural domain of power) and processes (disciplinary domain of power) and people (interpersonal domain of power).
Let me give an example. Religion is an ideology – a way of thinking. It is operationalized through the structure of churches/mosques (structural domain), each with a guidebook, rules — Bible, Koran (disciplinary domain), and individuals, – ministers, priests, pope (interpersonal domain).
White supremacy is an ideology. It became operationalized through the structural institution of slavery/segregation (structural domain); which had specific rules, like Jim Crow/segregation laws (disciplinary domain), that were implemented through slave owners/sharecroppers/police (interpersonal domain). The Civil Rights Movement changed some of the ways White supremacy operated, so that it is less overtly manifested sometimes, and occasionally more covert and subtle. Yet, the recent killings of Black people, the federal military presence, the police brutality, remind us over and over again that we are still governed by a society steeped in White supremacy, White power, and White privilege.
I believe that dismantling systems of power requires understanding systems of power. In my first book based on my dissertation about Black girls being marginalized and silenced in Detroit as part of the single-sex school debate for Black males (Critical Race, Feminism, and Education: A Social Justice Model), I posited an approach to social justice activism based on interrogating the operation of these domains and identifying decision-making points for where activism could be most effective and transformational.
Sometimes activism must challenge the ideology. This is a tough place to start, for ideas that have been embedded and ingrained are hard to transform. Sometimes activism can challenge social institutions, yet institutions like education institutions or religious institutions that have been around for a long time are challenging to dismantle. Sometimes activism can challenge rules, laws, policies, procedures. This is a place of possible transformation, but we must remember that often most rules are not written, and are invisible “practices” parading as policy. These are more difficult to challenge. Finally, activism can occur through individuals – identifying potential allies who might be malleable, and willing to shift their position and approach. I often use a multi-tiered approach – seeking allies, even if temporary; challenging policies/practices/procedures; educating about ideologies; and working towards restructuring structures. This is the work; this is the call. I speak out, in my own way, sometimes loudly; sometimes in writing; sometimes privately; sometimes publicly; sometimes in a meeting; sometimes after a meeting.
I know that those of us, who like Esther, believe we have been called to this work, cannot remain silent, even when we are in the “master’s house,” or the “king’s palace.” We do not get to be queens. We have to be warriors, always prepared for battle, for the work of equity, diversity, and social justice, requires an extraordinary level of vigilance. We do NOT want to be the only one out on the battlefield. We want White allies who understand how White power, supremacy, and privilege work and are willing to be the Joan Mulholland’s of the world and work to dismantle it.
I remember a White woman administrator once told a woman of color that she was able to get things done because she had “White girl moves.” She called it that: a code about the way of being in the world that White women use to get what they want and to get certain outcomes. I have seen “White girl moves” shift work from White women onto women of color. I have seen “White girl moves” castigate and ostracize women of color. I have seen “White girl moves” perpetuate racism and even uphold sexist ideologies. I have seen “White girl moves” remove responsibility and accountability. I have seen “White girl moves” silence women of color. I have not seen “White girl moves” work for justice. I’m curious: When will White women use their “White girl moves” for justice and equity, and to challenge White supremacy? I’m not saying I haven’t seen White women allies. I’m just saying that there is such a thing as “White girl moves” that seems to operate in a similar fashion to White Supremacy.
So, recently, I’ve started calling on potential White male allies. Some who were silent in the meeting to say, “What’s up? Let me tell you about the White power and Supremacy that manifested itself in the room.” I ask, “DID YOU SEE IT? DO YOU CARE?” I ask, “If so, what will you do about it?”
You know, sometimes, I just want to be like Queen Vashti and tell the King, “No.” Instead, I sit in my “bubble of love” as my home office corner was named by a colleague with art from my son
and write incendiary essays, as my way of telling the world, as Esther did, “No, not on my watch.”
Leave a comment for a discussion engagement:
Have you seen or experienced the clues of White supremacy? Are there other clues? Let’s build the list of what we need to be prepared to see and dismantle, step by step.