The Costs of Avoiding Discomfort: Addressing White Supremacy in Student Affairs

The ACPA18 Convention team reached out to colleagues to share their experiences with whiteness and engaging white supremacy in higher education and the field of student affairs. This post is part of a series of reflections and narratives engaging this topic as part of ACPA’s Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice & Decolonization.

I wrestle with how to begin this post.  I wanted to name my excitement about Convention being less than five months away, a time I find nourishing and life-giving for my work in this field.  I thought about how I wanted to make you, my reader, ready to engage in the material that’s coming next in this post.  I even originally removed the subtitle from this post, hoping more people would engage and our social media algorithms would not filter it out of feeds and timelines.  And this wrestling process is part of the issue of the nice field of student affairs (and education in general; Ladson-Billings, 1998): our desire for comfort often comes at the cost of actually naming and addressing White supremacy head-on.

As our Association dedicates material, psychic, and physical resources to addressing White supremacy through the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization, it is critical that White professionals, practitioners, administrators, and educators better commit to naming white supremacy, talking about it (rather than using facilitation as a means to not have to confront our own stuff), and take action to confront it in one another and in our programs, practices, policies, and structures.  And today, I want to talk about the first two components of addressing White supremacy as a field – naming and discussing White supremacy.

For many White folks, the phrase “White supremacy” is fraught with images of men in white hoods and burning crosses and swastikas.  It prompts images of those with “hate in their hearts” and people with intentions to actualize that hate.  White folks do not associate this phrase with Christopher Columbus, the ways in which we discuss the “achievement” gap in higher education, or even about their own everyday actions. Because discussions of White supremacy and racism are often about “those” people who have “hate” as an everlasting part of themselves.  

White folx often measure racism and White supremacy by what’s in their hearts (see Gene Demby’s great discussion of this with Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton on the podcast Another Round; starts at 03:45 and lasts until 19:00) rather than the actual effects of their actions.  This seems to bring up the old adage that we judge ourselves by our intent but others judge us by our actions.  And yet, this is often forgotten when White supremacy is discussed.  It seems like White supremacy and racism require malice in order to be named those things.  That’s not how it works.  

Moving past the immutable-hate fallacy of white supremacy is only part of the labor we must commit to – what is required for us next is to name how it shows up in our histories, decisions, programmatic frameworks, and ourselves.  This is where we often run into discomfort and allow this discomfort to stop us from having needed conversations and actions. Folks would rather talk about anything else but how they have been socialized and organized by White supremacy and racism. And I do mean anything. But we must commit to address white supremacy boldly because our discomfort around discussing White supremacy is continuing to cost people their lives, livelihoods, and life chances.

Here’s a story to illustrate my point.

In my previous role as a practitioner in an LGBTQ resource center, I had the joy and pleasure of working alongside some brilliant intercultural aides charged with facilitating community building in our halls alongside our resident assistants.  In addition to these community building efforts, these students also had to do outreach to students who were academically at-risk. This involved knocking on residents’ doors to check-in with them, see how classes are going, and offer support via campus resources. In many ways, this intervention had proven fruitful to addressing those who were academically at-risk.

However, processing this part of the job duties with students, they would name the following:

  • “It’s really awkward to just start a conversation with someone I don’t know.”
  • “It’s difficult to just stand at the door with no answer.”
  • “I just don’t see how this is effective.”

As the students were sharing, I listened and responded: I see how this may be uncomfortable and hard for you all. I do. I would ask this in return: “Are you saying your comfort should take priority over those students’ success?” The room got quiet. After a long silence, one student spoke up and said “Wow. I hadn’t thought about it that way.”

White professionals and educators must divest from comfort around discussing White supremacy as it relates to our personal and professional lives.

Divesting from our comfort means addressing the legacy of Christopher Columbus as a violent settler who enslaved and killed Native peoples. Divesting from our comfort means challenging the ways we center Whiteness when we invoke the “achievement gap” as a problem in higher education (i.e., students not meeting the same standards and outcomes of White students) and instead framing this gap as the “institutional responsibility gap” where we as institutions and institutional agents bear more responsibility to address educational inequities. This divestment requires us to be challenged and challenge others; to reflect on what we do in our professional worlds and how we exist in our personal lives, and; actually commit to change and not just say we’ll do better (link).

So, to my White colleagues, I ask you, how much longer will you avoid discussions about White supremacy in the name of your comfort? If we are truly a field dedicated to social justice and inclusion and as members of an Association committed to racial justice and decolonization, our comfort cannot continue to be prioritized.   

For folks interested in further thoughts about addressing white supremacy as a field, check out:

  • “On Student Affairs Educators and White Supremacy” (link)
  • Higher Ed Live: #ThisIsUs: Confronting the Continuing Realities of White Supremacy in Higher Education (link)

Alex C. LangAlex C. Lange (pronouns: they/them/their) is a first-year doctoral student at the University of Iowa. They continue to be invested in researching white supremacy/supremacists in higher ed, queer and trans student experiences/development, and critical and post-structural methodologies. You can find them on Twitter at @itsAlexCL or check out more of their blogs at itsalexcl.com.

References

Ladson-Billings, G.(1998). Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7-24.

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