White People Owning our Whiteness & Resistance

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 am a part of a team that teaches a large, graduate and doctoral level class on group dynamics and leadership at The University of San Diego. In our class meeting a few days after the Las Vegas shooting, the class took time to unpack their experiences with the tragedy. Through the conversation, the topics of White men, privilege, and terrorism became the focus of the conversation. Just as we were transitioning from our large group meeting into a different aspect of the evening’s course, a White male student announced to the class “I’m White and I didn’t kill anyone so I don’t know what you want me to do.”

If you are a White person who works in student affairs, you may react like I did. You might want to treat this person as if they needed a lecture, thinking that my position required me to tell them what was what and exercise my power. You may have also felt some combination of frustration, anger, and sadness about this student’s statement. Frustration of how disruptive these types of moments to learning. Anger to the depth of entrenchment this student has in white supremacy, patriarchy, and the myriad of oppressive systems with which those intersect. And sadness as to how very easy it can be to lose hope for White people when these are the loudest White voices in a room. This student represents a clear, loud embodiment of the work still to be done. I wanted them to know that I was not like them. To reinforce, they were worse than me; I am better.

This moment is rooted in perceiving this student as a representation of what we hope to work against. Instead reflect on how this student represents you. Even if you, possibly as a White person, never reacted in this particular way to a similar situation. You likely might have become defensive and resistant to acknowledging the ways in which a part of who you are benefits from and actively enacts violence against people in different positions or identities. Take a breath, take a moment, and get in touch with one of those memories. Once you have it, hold it with you through the rest of this post.

My research focuses on how bell hooks’ work Teaching to Transgress offers student affairs professionals new ways of engaging in their work. I also examine how reading Teaching to Transgress impacts the experiences of people who hold multiple dominant group identities as they navigate their own understanding of their identities and the way those identities impact how folks take up their work in this field. It struck me for this particular class session students had read a few chapters of Teaching to Transgress, which seemed like an important bit of synchronicity.  In trying to make more sense of the experience, I returned to the book myself in hopes it would offer insight.

Almost immediately I found sections in which hooks writes about her experience with students resisting new pedagogy and experiences challenging long held norms.. hooks writes about how this resistance is especially pointed when the larger system within which those environments exist reify those norms instead of encouraging new ways of being, learning, and engaging with themselves and others. If a student (or a student affairs professional) has never had to ask questions about how being White exists within a system of Whiteness, and they do not participate in continuing that conversation, it’s not surprising they push back against the assertion White men need to take ownership of their participation in said system and the violence it creates.

To disrupt this thinking, one tool is including examples of our own personal resistance when we work with other White people who are resistant to the reality all White people are invested in white supremacy. I offer an example of how in my work with a different student in the same class a few weeks later. The theme of the class was Social Identities, Intersectionality, and Essentialism, which again centered discussions of White men, privilege, and the impact of those systems on groups. A Black woman in the course observed that when the conversation shifted to the topic of White men and their privilege, two White men had a very noticeable change in their body language, and asked what that shift was about. One White man responded, “well, I identify myself as more of an active listener in this class. I also have had a very, very, very, very long weekend; I’m very very tired, so I’m sorry if it looks like I’m not paying attention.” After a few moments I said to him, “Right now, I really want to distance myself from you. I really don’t want to be associated with you right now, because I want to see you as another White guy who is just making excuses for not wanting to do the work. And I am coming to realize this is because I don’t like that I also have in the past and still do use the excuse of being tired to avoid engaging in conversations about race and my own expressions of Whiteness.”

Check in with yourself again; how does this exchange makes you feel? Once you have identified one or a few of those feelings, try reflecting on what the experiences and memories to which these feeling are connected. Which of the people in this exchange were you in those memories? What happened?

I ask each of you to reflect because, ultimately, the resolution to these stories is not in how each one individually was resolved or how each of these individual White people (White men in these cases) were able to better understand their White identity and whiteness as a system. My own desire to offer you all (and myself) the comfort of resolution is another example of the ways I am resistant to owning the deeply ingrained, systemic nature of these dynamics and my participation in them. If I was to say the resolution to these interactions is in the future, potentially generations from now, down a road we for which we don’t yet have a map, and that one mile marker on this journey might be the process of taking ownership of the ways in which we all resist the dismantling of white supremacy, would you still want to take the journey? If I tell you I feel all the feelings you feel about that journey, and I still want to invite you on it, would you be willing to go?

Questions to Ponder (& respond to in the comments):

  • In what ways would White people taking ownership of their Whiteness impact your work?
  • In what ways would White people taking ownership of their Whiteness impact your experience in ACPA?

Conor P. McLaughlinConor P. McLaughlin recently graduated with a PhD in Leadership Studies from The University of San Diego. Conor researches student affairs professionals and the ways in which those who hold multiple dominant group identities can work to create justice on their campuses. Conor is currently searching for a job, and spends most days writing, playing video games, and scrabble. Conor is forever practicing making the perfect cup of coffee.

Pronouns: They/them.

Twitter: I don’t use twitter, but you can follow me on Instagram @xconorx and #phdressed

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