Writing as a grindstone. Finished writing, unfinished writing, writing ideas, things that I'll never get round to writing, other things. Grinding it out, grinding away. Writing some more.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Students, universities and white supremacy

Students of colour organising is getting serious media attention in the US at the moment. Concerned Student 1950 at the University of Missouri forced the University president to resign, holding him responsible for failing to address racism on campus (“Racial climate at MU”, “Mizzou hunger strike is what happens when universities disregard black lives”, “Concerned student 1950 demands”). Since then, we’ve heard about organising on countless campuses (article on 22 campuses with comments section naming other campuses, demands from students on a growing number of campuses).

One article that caught my attention was about Georgetown University. Georgetown’s history makes the link between white supremacy and its success clear—slaves were sold to pay off debt.

“American universities have only recently begun to publicly grapple with the fact that these elite institutions, like the United States, were literally built on the exploitation of black bodies. Beginning with Brown University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice in 2003, universities around the country have unearthed disturbing truths about how their schools profited from human bondage. For many universities, Georgetown included, slavery made the difference between a viable institution and a shuttered one.”
“In addition to the renaming of Mulledy Hall, Georgetown activists are asking for plaques to identify the unmarked graves of slaves on campus, an annual program to explore Georgetown’s history of slavery, the inclusion of information about black people’s contributions to Georgetown in campus tours, mandatory diversity training for professors, and the rechristening of McSherry Hall, a campus building named for the Georgetown president who presided over the 1838 slave sale.

“But the demand that could have the biggest effect on Georgetown’s future, if the university complies, comes down to money. The student activists have proposed a new endowment fund, equal to the present value of the profit garnered from the 272 slaves, for the purpose of recruiting black professors. It’s a brilliant example of how universities could enact something in the vein of reparations—a tangible admission of the link between the horrific acts of generations past and today’s racial injustice, one that would provide an equally tangible benefit to current and future students of color.” (Georgetown students protest hall named for slave selling Jesuit)
And they’ve had early success (Georgetown renames building).

By clearly founding their campaign on the school’s history, demanding actions to explore how Georgetown benefits from white supremacy and ways to put it right now, the students are offering the school an opportunity for learning and leadership. By grounding their argument in justice, rather than human rights, they invite deeper reflection and relationship building—they invite the school to take responsibility for finding solutions, rather than either denying the issue, or simply reacting to external pressure and doing the least possible.

I hope the school takes this opportunity, and I’ve included two ways they can build from it.

  • To explore how white supremacy not only allows them to be successful, but has also made it harder for other projects to survive. Actions like recruiting more black professors will ultimately help Georgetown remain successful at the expense of institutions with less money and prestige—institutions that have been committed to teaching about white supremacy long before it was politically safe. Not just recognised historically black and tribal colleges and university, but the many organisations teaching about justice. Reparations shouldn’t just mean finding ways to make yourself better and more powerful, it should mean dismantling that power in ways that support those most affected by your actions. In this case, supporting oppressed and exploited communities on their own terms.
  • To look at white supremacy more broadly, including how the school (like every colonial state) was built on the exploitation of native bodies and lands, and exploring how the school benefits from ongoing imperialism.
  • To explore and end ways the school contributes to white supremacy, and prioritise ending white supremacy

Of course I’m not writing about this because I think anyone at Georgetown or any other US university care what I think. I’m thinking about what needs to be done in Aotearoa, and how much I would love if the institutions that the State supported to uphold cultural imperialism took responsibility for dismantling it, instead of playing neutral or pretending they aren’t advantaged by it (I’m reminded of this cartoon).

Leonie Pihama reviews some of the colonial history of New Zealand universities in her PhD thesis (Pihama, “Tīhei Mauri Ora, Honouring our voices: Mana Wahine as a Kaupapa Māori theoretical framework”, PhD (Education) thesis Auckland University, 2001: 49-52). It’s very easy to see that the older universities have benefited from colonisation, because they were developed when colonisation was brutally obvious, but all universities benefit from white supremacy. For example, the three Wānanga have claims to the Waitangi Tribunal showing how they are disadvantaged by the State education system, which prioritises universities.

I’d like to see all the universities examine their past and current practices for ways they have exploited and harmed (and are exploiting and harming) tāngata whenua and peoples of colour and their ways of being. I’d like to see them examine the sources of their power and prestige—at whose expense have they succeeded, how are they benefiting from and contributing to white supremacy/ cultural imperialism? And then, I want them to work with tāngata whenua and communities of colour to put it right.

How do we make that happen?

(note: I use white supremacy to describe the historic and ongoing systems of oppression of indigenous peoples and peoples of colour, including their ways of being. Bell hooks explores the term in her chapter “Overcoming white supremacy: a comment” in Talking back: thinking feminist, thinking black.)

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