The ACPA18 Convention team reached out to colleagues to share their experiences with racial justice 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.
Flashback to the ACPA17 Convention in Columbus, where I fell victim to the sunken place. I was coming from an identity social and within in two minutes of stepping outside I was accosted by a car passing by yelling racial/ethnic slurs: “What are you doing out this late Nigger, you shouldn’t be here.” Being Black in America socialized me to push through unfazed and merely cross the street. Within five minutes a different car passed me, and the passenger shouted similar words: “Go home, Nigger!” and in retrospect, that additional beratement left me broken. I kept blaming myself as it relates to either my locs or my wardrobe identifying me as an outlier. However, I was reminded of the quote by Thich Nhat Hanh, “When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look into reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.”
In that brief moment, I fell into the sunken place. In the film, “Get Out” writer/ director Jordan Peele describes the sunken place as an evil purgatory that suppresses the freedom of black folx by being the manifestation of oppression in which, “no matter how hard we scream, the system silences us.” At that moment, I felt silenced as I got caught in the infinite loop of despair in which racism and white supremacy left me unable to live my best life. Imagine your Blackness being the agitator and consequence of someone else’s privilege? That is how the sunken place grabs ahold of you by emotionally paralyzing you to strip you of your sense of agency by forcing you to concentrate on your perceived failures. During this period, I was fixated on my notion of failing to assimilate or why my Blackness was enough to intrigue. And in the same breath, I asked why being Black made someone feel like I was negating them? Juggling the ideologies of being Black, exploring the pathology of Blackness and reconsidering the role whiteness played in my actualization as a Professional of Color in Higher Education, plagued my spirit throughout the time of the convention. I began asking myself the following questions when it came to being a Professional of Color in Higher Education:
- Why do my well-intended colleagues use intellect to deflect their insecurities around racism and anti-blackness in America, particularly in Student Affairs?
- Why do you have to learn that to survive and thrive in this field, one must become fluent in speaking/acting/behaving as a “white cis-hetero able-bodied neurotypical privileged male”?
- How often do Professionals of Color operate unseen for their humanity and are only viewed for their diversity?
- Why do Professionals of Color have to invest so much physical and emotional labor for an academy that divests in their ability to feel actualized as well as recognized as a contributor to their place of employment?
- Why I am NOT allowed to be a Professional of Color in Higher Education versus being conditioned into a being a professional in Higher Education who happens to identify as a person of color?
- Why do white folx choose to care to confront racial injustice and colonization in private? Why do they only address transgressions of justice one-on-one, after a meeting or via electronic post?
- Why do white folx choose not to defend People of Color and Indigenous folx or work on Racial Justice and Decolonization in pubic without it being a box checked or gold star to be earned?
When I referred to Blackness and Whiteness earlier, I am exploring how people make sense of their identity, which is different from being Black or White. In my opinion, being Black or White are phenotypic identifiers like having curly hair or freckles. How Blackness or Whiteness is expressed or is actualized is a different story. Often we make the notion of Blackness or Whiteness about the individual while missing the mark that identity also perpetuates a system of perceived and realized oppression as well as discrimination.
Here is an example, statistics tell us that 19 people succumb to shark attacks annually while there are 3,536 fatal unintentional drownings a year. We often label white supremacy as the great white shark and not the water in which the shark dwells. Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre poet/activist/educator offers this insight: “Sometimes, you are a lit match dropped into a boiling ocean. Sometimes, you are a stray dog proud of the sunrise after a long night of barking at the moon…White supremacy is not a shark; it is the water. It is how we talk about racism as white hoods and confederate flags, knowing that you own those things, and we don’t… as if we didn’t own this history too, this system—we tread water…”
There is often a sense of uncertainty when it comes to understanding the root of Blackness and Black identity. The truth is this, we have developed a lie about Black identity to sustain a lie that safeguards some people to have advantages while others do not. In this protection, a person of color is led to believe that the being Black and actualizing Blackness is perverse.
Nonetheless, I can assert that there is nothing wrong with being Black or embracing one’s Blackness; HOWEVER, there is everything wrong with working within a society that desires the masses to endorse this false narrative. Gone should be the notion of being considered three-fifths of a person because being Black does not make you less human. It is not an emblem of weakness, repulsiveness, corruption or evil. Blackness is bold, it is powerful, it is resilient, and the real magic lies in its ability to persist through systems of injustice to allow the next generation to feel even more empowered than the previous.
So how do we resist the urge to fall in the sunken place?
People who identify as a Person of Color and Indigenous (POCI) or as white can both thrive as well as survive in the sunken place within the realms of Higher Education. Being in the sunken place in Higher Education becomes a place of normalcy and complacency with the status quo that allows white supremacy to flourish. With that, I offer you this:
Start to decolonize your identity as a practitioner to initiate a process of mindfulness. Begin to prioritize your self-worth and self-awareness as a tool to liberate yourself from destructive behavior, actions or practices that negatively impact your professional and personal life. Additionally, begin to examine the dynamics of anti-blackness, white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, trans-misogynoir and other forms of injustice that infiltrate the social power constructs within which we all are conditioned.
Allies & Accomplices:
Emotionally and mentally disrupt what you have been socialized not to notice. This can be difficult and challenging, but it requires you to accept things about yourself and your socialization that you do not consciously acknowledge when it comes to examining what parts of your identity grant you the power to elevate folx who feel a sense of powerlessness. Consider your allyship as a library card that expires every day. What are you doing tomorrow to renew your membership? What risk are you willing to take to liberate someone else? Essentially, I am asking you to know the time and place to Show-up, Show-out and Say-less. Show up for us, by willing to actively engage in the work toward our liberation. Show out for us, by honoring our contributions and metaphorically giving us our roses while we are still here and not when you choose to hashtag on social media. Say-less, in the sense of acknowledging when you take of space in an attempt to displace or erase us from history as you tell it and as we continue to write it.
Lastly, even though my Blackness consistently falls through the cracks, I am honestly at peace rather than in pieces because I choose to remain whole when society labels me as broken. It’s quite easy to become consumed by the pathology of Blackness because being Black is tiring. Imagine the energy being expunged to own it, to be proud of it, to be empowered by it, to be an example of it, to be in solidarity of it while still having to educate others why it’s worth it! Though we are tired of doing the “work”, we will never “stop clocking-in” to dismantle the system that denies us the feeling of purposely portraying it unapologetically. #SorryNotSorry
Olajiwon McCadney (he/him/his/they/them/theirs) works as the Assistant Director within the Office of Intercultural Affairs & Inclusive Programming at Lebanon Valley College (LVC). Additionally, McCadney is doctoral candidate at Northeastern University, in which McCadney plans to explore the pathology of identity particularly Blackness and whiteness along the praxis of fit in its role in leadership development, behavior and actualization of minoritized staff.