Pushing for change in academia

I wrote the following email to all members of my department. I share it here in case anyone else is living in a space that would benefit from having the difficult conversations about racism that we all need to be having. The system WILL NOT CHANGE unless those of us who benefit from the system demand change.

Email sent May 30, 2020

Subject: Responding to racism in our country, state, university, and department (Content warning: racism, privilege)

To the students, faculty, and staff of [my department]:

I hope this finds everyone well. First, I want to say how proud I am of each and every one of you. I have witnessed so many exceptional responses to the pandemic, from faculty and teaching assistants quickly transforming courses; to students identifying and sharing resources for rent, food, and living expenses; to the development of virtual communities where we could collaborate to lessen the stress of working from home; to the parents and caregivers who are doing everything they can to keep loved ones safe. I am impressed and glad to be part of this community.

Content warning: racism, privilege

At the same time, I acknowledge the trauma so many of YOU are living with. This trauma may be brand new, may be lifelong, or may be intergenerational. It may stem from living in a society where racism, ableism, sexism, heteronormativity, transphobia, and other biases are pervasive and often ignored.

This message is difficult to write, but I – as a tenured Professor, as a white woman, as a well-funded, “respected” scholar – have vowed to continue to use my voice and my privilege to speak up for the greater good.

I was heartened to read President Stanley’s message acknowledging the impact of racism on Black and other people of color. I am in solidarity with this message – it is vital that we acknowledge the real racist events that occur within our spaces, listen to Black and other POC voices and lived experiences, do work to understand how we can take action to build more equitable and just spaces, and act to work for sustainable change. This is exactly the right moment for each of us to reflect on our privilege, listen to others, decide what sort of department, college, university, and world we want to live in, and act. I am acting and I invite you to act with me. 

Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it is not a problem to you personally (source unknown). I would go a step further and add: Accepting a biased system because the bias benefits you makes you part of the problem. We all benefit from privilege. I certainly do. I do not kid myself that I am solely worthy of the position I hold. Rather, a combination of luck, hard work, and bias allowed me to rise to the exceptional career I have today. I also recognize that I make mistakes, hold biases, and must always be learning. If you would like to learn more about privilege, I recommend Teaching Tolerance. If you object to the term “white privilege” in that reading, ask yourself why and learn more about white fragility.

I assume most of you are aware of racism in the U.S (here is a good primer), especially as the media reports on deaths deemed newsworthy. I wonder, however, if you are aware of racism at MSU, in our College, in EES, in your work spaces, in your classes? I could provide specific examples of racism within our spaces – many of us could – but addressing specific incidents will never result in sustainable change. Sustainable change requires addressing systemic racism and bias. It requires recognizing that the systems we live in were built by specific people to benefit specific people. The very polices, practices, and procedures through which academia operates are rooted in bias. And institutional racism can be very hard to spot.

We are all complicit. Yes, the geosciences are the least diverse science field. No, it is not acceptable to have a nearly all white faculty. No, it is not acceptable to have so few U.S. graduate students of color. No, it is not acceptable to ask students, staff, and faculty – especially POC and/or international colleagues – to be productive in the face of so much trauma and inequity if we are not all actively and continuously working towards lessening the harms we have all caused. If you want to learn more about systemic racism and what can be done about it, I suggest starting with the many resources at the Urban Institute.

My lab does research on access, inclusion, equity and justice; members and affiliates of the lab are experts and we can point you towards other national and international experts – many of them Black or other POC – who are worth reading and listening to. Racial Equity Tools is a good place to start as you think about how you can act. Please reach out if you want to do more.

Be well,

Julie

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