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Bend the Knee Already

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by Cheryl E. Matias, IRISE Visiting Faculty

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In my over 20 years in higher education one thing remains ever stated but never practiced: Universities and their shoddy romance with diversity. That universities pontificate their alleged commitments to diversity and inclusion they do so at the intellectual, physical, and spiritual expense of those they intend to support; namely, students, staff and faculty of color and other marginalized identities. As a Pinay motherscholar of color who exclusively researches and teaches on the impacts of whiteness, particularly the emotionalities of whiteness, in education and society1 in efforts to better support diverse learners and faculty one would think that in a university’s claim for diversity I (and my research) would feel supported and welcomed.2 Yet, that has never been the case even if large public state universities are more diverse than others in the state. In fact, it never ceases to amaze me how institutional leaders creatively entrench white supremacy on campus. From playing plantation politics whereby they favor a few faculty or students of color by parading them around as their “Black best friend"3 to engaging in ruthless bullying tactics (e.g., false allegations, unmerited investigations, “anonymous” IRB reviews, etc.) to push out staff and faculty of color who refuse to be their puppet (a phenomenon also done in K-12 schools), the proclaimed hopes for diversity and inclusion is just not there. Afterall we, as academics, call it the ivory towers, not the ebony and ivory towers, let alone any sort of chocolate moca. Acknowledging this, pontifications of diversity and inclusion, social justice, and equity are nothing more than a person who fronts by rocking skinny jeans but hates doing so the entire time. Meaning, a Basic Becky4 who sports the jeans to show alignment to the fashionable trend but refuses to deal with the discomfort and takes it off immediately in the comforts of her home and privilege. This is higher education; nothing more than a façade of diversity, glittering images of people of color on their brochures and website pages in the hopes of passing off an illusion of diversity and inclusion. I share this with great disappointment because as scholars we leave behind family, community, and familiarity to join Denver, Colorado where professed liberal and progressive white educators claimed they were ready to engage in racially just education and teaching practices, never have I ever seen such ostracism before for simply doing my job (and doing it successfully). Beyond the passive aggressive racist tactics and the claims of “I voted for Obama” or “My husband is Latino” as some pseudo psychosocial way to distance themselves from the practices of whiteness, the curriculum of true racial justice was, as some white teacher educators and professors put it, “just not meeting the [white] students where they are at.5 As if teachers, many of whom engage in ceaseless racial microaggressions to their urban students of color6 OR professors who engage in ceaseless racial microaggressions to the few college students of color, OR college administrators who engage in ceaseless racial microaggressions to the few faculty of color7 EVER “meet us where we are at.”

And thus, a racially just curriculum that deconstructs whiteness was seen as “too hard” for “our” [read, white] graduate teacher candidates.” One white professor even tried to re-appropriate how scholars of color initially conceptualized culturally responsive teaching for students of color by saying we, as professors, need to be culturally responsive to “our” [read, white] graduate students. WHAT?! All this coming from the mouths of professors who teach these same graduate students (who are expecting to become K-12 teachers) that they must have rigor and high expectations for urban K-12 students of color; something they cannot even ask of those same graduate students. Additionally, meeting where those white teacher candidates, moreover those white professors, are at would sadly be at such a low level of expectation that it would be as useless as a condom with holes.

Therefore, stop faking the funk. Universities need to stop proclaiming a need for critical race curriculum or stop pretending to support race-based organizations if such curricula and organizations are to be used only as salsa; added only when they need to spice things up (a.k.a.) as proof of diversity in their false justification for national accreditation. Instead, in the forever endeavors to truly commit to diversity and inclusion, universities and the university leaders need to be ready to bend the knee. Though many folx of Color already know this, the question then is “Are they willing to concede power?” Or, more poignantly put for the many white teachers in Colorado, “Are you willing to still love your students of color when they become your boss or do you prefer to always have positional power over people of Color?” If history tells us anything, society already knows “power concedes nothing without a demand” (qua Frederick Douglas). So to that, I demand that amidst rising white nationalism, fascism, and a deadly pandemic that highlights how whiteness wagers the lives of people of Color to save itself, folx who are truly committed to diversity and inclusion must seize power; for turning a blind eye and remaining silent are too great a loss for our humanity. And, for those who sit comfortably in their corner office showcasing their strategic plan after plan for diversity and inclusion without ever bearing the burden of what it means to be a diverse individual, bend the knee already.

Cheryl E. Matias, IRISE Visiting Faculty & Associate Professor, University of Colorado at Denver