Carol A. Hand
Yesterday, I finished drafting the first half of a book I’ve been writing. I know it’s just half because I reached a transition point. I had to alternate between living “in the field” for several months to conduct a study of child welfare in an Ojibwe community with living in a distant Euro-American city to teach at a university. The first field immersion adventures are now written and a double teaching load is about to begin in this past reality. I’m not sure what if anything to include from those days at the university.
At this point in the telling, I remember how difficult those transitions were. In many ways, I was still an outsider. Only the context had changed. I relied on the same critical ethnographic frame of mind and habits to make sense of my time in academia. I continued to write fieldnotes, just in a different setting. After experiences in several different universities, I had collected a series of stories. But no journals were interested in publishing them, even though I felt the messages were important. Finally, I gave up trying. It’s one of the main reasons I began blogging.
This morning, I revisited the last version of the manuscript and decided to share it here even though it’s rather long. My experiences trying to find a publisher actually influenced the title and brief “About” statement for this blog.
This is a place for important creative and critical works that question the status quo. Academic journals and media tend to serve as gatekeepers, enforcing standards that limit works to those that reflect “the ways things have always been done,” thereby screening out creative works (prose, poetry, art and pieces that interweave different media). The intention for creating this blog is to encourage dialogue about possibilities and support for alternate ways of communicating that celebrate the inclusiveness of diversity.
I did share edited versions of some of the stories in earlier posts when I began blogging almost three years ago. This morning I realized how much I have always regretted the need to separate them from the context.
Although universities have been proclaiming their commitment to diversity in recent years, evidence shows that disparities still exist for faculty of color, particularly for Native Americans. This is true for social work programs as well, despite a professional code of ethics that professes an emphasis on social justice. The values that guide the hiring, performance evaluation, and promotional policies of universities and social work programs are often incongruent with those from cultures other than the professional class of Euro-Americans in positions of power. Descriptive data paint a bleak picture of the difficulties faculty of color face in academia, but these data do not capture the multidimensional challenges for those whose cultures differ. This essay interweaves a series of essays that are drawn from the participant observations of an Ojibwe scholar in academia in order to illustrate the individual and institutional costs associated with discrimination and exclusion.
[A heartland university] offers a supportive and diverse environment for its students, faculty, staff and visitors. The Office of Equal Opportunity, Ethics, and Access … is responsible for administering and monitoring the University’s equal opportunity and diversity-related policies pursuant to … relevant federal, state and local statutes. – (name withheld to protect identities)
[A western university] capitalizes on its unique strengths to create knowledge, provide an active learning environment for students, and offers programs and services responsive to the needs of [state citizens]…. The University also educates competent and humane professionals, and informed, ethical, and engaged citizens of local and global communities; and provides basic and applied research, technology transfer, cultural outreach, and service benefiting the local community, region, State, nation and the world. – (name withheld to protect identities)
[A midwest university] will be a national model as a responsive, progressive, and scholarly public service community known for its accomplished record of engaging people and ideas for common good…. We believe that a university community connects the perspectives and backgrounds of diverse social and academic groups of people. To meet this aim, a university community must be inclusive in its composition and support a civil atmosphere and a tolerant environment for learning…. Our learning community is distinguished by a pervasive commitment to diversity and inclusivity, international perspectives, support for those with disabilities or special needs, and engaged in community service. – (name withheld to protect identities)
Despite these lofty proclamations, my experiences as an Ojibwe scholar in academia have made me realize that universities are not as accepting of differences as they claim to be. I know that my experiences as a scholar of color are not unique. In general, faculty of color have continued to be under-represented in academia. In 1980, less than 5 percent of full-time faculty were African American, less than 2 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent were Asian, and less than 1 percent were Native American, when cumulatively people of color composed about 20 percent of the U.S. population.
By 2003 people of color were almost 33 percent of the total population, and the proportionate representation of faculty of color within “predominantly White colleges and universities” was even more troubling: 5 percent of full-time faculty were African American, 5 percent were Asian, 2 percent were Latino, and less than 1 percent were Native American. Faculty of color tended to be “heavily represented … at the lower ranks of lecturers and assistant professors” merely because they were different. These numbers often mean that a faculty member of color may be the only person of color in their department at a given university, and one of only a few in the overall institution.
To address the lack of diversity, universities have focused on recruiting faculty of color. Often, these new faculty are expected to meet not only the universal requirements for all faculty (teaching, scholarship, and service), but also to shoulder the university’s diversity initiative. This “shadow curriculum” means extra duties–to sensitize White faculty and administrators on diversity issues, teach diversity courses, serve as tokens on university committees as the minority voice, present workshops on topics of diversity, and advise students of color. In essence, some scholars of color see this approach as harmful window-dressing that marginalizes or ghettoizes the responsibility for implementing diversity programs, placing the burden on faculty of color without making necessary institutional changes or providing necessary recognition and supports for these additional expectations.
Faculty of color also face challenges as they perform their required duties. Their scholarship is viewed as suspect by White colleagues because it often focuses on issues of concern to communities of color, challenging dominant paradigms in their disciplines and critiquing colonial hegemony. As teachers, they are more likely to face discrimination from students, faculty, and administrators, and less likely to be able to find collegial support and mentorship. Given this context, it is not surprising that faculty of color are more likely to report “lower levels of success and job satisfaction.”
The situation for Native American faculty is particularly challenging. For decades they have represented less than 1 percent of full-time faculty. They are also less likely to attain tenure than members of other ethnic groups. In an effort to highlight the experiences of Native scholars in academia, a special issue of the American Indian Quarterly focused on the accounts of Native American students, faculty, and staff and their allies. Many Native Americans in academia “have found themselves in tough situations because of their political views, teaching styles, and quite simply, because of their race and/or gender.” Author after author described how they were systematically marginalized by those in power in university settings. Other Native American scholars also described negative experiences in academia.
In part, as Shawn Wilson argues, these experiences reflect contrasting epistemologies. Indigenous peoples operate from a foundation of relationship, while those of European immigrant descent, who compose the majority of tenured faculty and key administrators, value competition and emotionally distant objectivity. Perhaps these differences also reflect deeper cultural contrasts, as Rupert Ross suggests. The Ojiway and Cree peoples Ross served as an Assistant Crown Attorney operated from a belief that children were born in a state of “original sanctity,” as gifts from the Creator, as “good,” a profound contrast to the belief of Euro-Canadians that children were born in a state of “original sin,” as evil.
The institutions that develop from these profoundly different worldviews likewise differ. One nurtures and protects without coercion, and the other polices and corrects. One builds supportive networks around those who are experiencing difficulties because they are viewed as important members of the community, the other rejects those who do not fit because they are viewed as easily replaceable. One views leadership as a sacred responsibility to exercise wisdom, generosity, and mercy to ensure the well-being of all one’s relations, the other views power as a symbol of personal superiority and a divine right to exercise dominion over other people and the natural world for one’s personal gain.
I hoped the academy would be more aware of these cultural contrasts and more accepting of differences in my chosen discipline, social work, particularly given the centrality of social justice, one of the six core values listed in the code of ethics. The Code further states,
Social workers are sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice.
Like the majority of Native American graduate students Gordon Limb and Kurt Organista studied, I entered the field because I was drawn to the compelling traditional mission to help disadvantaged people while working to address structural inequalities and oppression. As the following stories illustrate, what I experienced and observed in three different universities was definitely not in accord with my expectations. I wrote these stories as a way for me to make sense of my experiences and observations, and sometimes, as a way to survive by interpreting events through a different cultural lens, seeing the lessons, absurdity, and humor in situations where I had very little power to prevent individual or community harm. My purpose for sharing these stories is to heighten the awareness of faculty and administrators to the view of academia from a different lens in hopes that together, we can create a more inclusive future.
FIELDNOTES – REFLECTIONS ON LIGHT
Lest I forget, I want to record my impressions and reflections of this living experience. As a new assistant professor, rather than trying to find an apartment in a strange community, I chose to stay in small, dark concrete graduate student apartment complex. This proved to be a short stay given not only the oppressive administration but also the health dangers posed by monthly pesticide spraying and the wall-mounted furnace that belched out long, hairy, black dust. Even renting this place was an affront to my spirit–an adult who has held many responsible positions in my career. I was made to feel like an errant child without agency or legitimacy by the omnipotent “office of residential life,” and by the department chair who had to advocate on my behalf.
For someone who is used to feeling a sense of vision and freedom that comes from living with a vista of wetlands, forest, and sky, in a home where no one may enter without approval, the loss of privacy and freedom was all the more notable. The loss of beauty was all the more acute. And being treated like a child was all the more hurtful and angering.
These feelings have relevance to the topic of my research: institutions and the paradigms on which they are founded. For a people who are prepared to be competent and self-sufficient in a challenging environment, with finely tuned skills and sensitivity, Euro-American society and institutions are indeed an affront to the spirit. The rigidity, the belief that people need to be policed in order to work or live according to arbitrary behavioral and material standards is insulting and oppressive.
It was not only the ugliness, the architectural heaviness of this structure, and the absence of light and windows to the world, but how it was reflected in the social structures, the everyday interactions with those in petty bureaucratic positions that were also an affront to the spirit. For people who have been acculturated to live according to the path of life, the oppression of all types of judgments and the loss of freedom is especially acute. This theme runs through Euro-American social structure, with its rigidity, heaviness, negative judgments of the basic nature of people, and policing functions.
The very foundations of Euro-American social structures and institutions limit choice, vision, and joy. You work and strive and behave to achieve a superficial outward appearance of conformity because you must–otherwise others will judge you as deficient and further limit your rights.
The question becomes how to communicate this profound paradigm difference. I should be grateful for the experience of living and working in a situation where these dynamics are excruciatingly apparent. And perhaps I am–the fact that I have become conscious of some of the dimensions and complexity of oppressive macrosystems is at least for now a way to cope. But I am afraid I will forget–hence this memo. Experience has taught me that the brutality of some institutions (such as state agencies) and the pettiness of the bureaucrats who staff them (perhaps because this is how they can best cope with their own oppression) can have soul-deep negative effects. I want to remember and to continue to reflect on these forces of hegemony.
DANCING AND THE CATEGORIZATION OF CONTINENTS
I went to see a documentary called “A Long Way from Home.” On a weekday evening, I entered a dimly lit basement with folding chairs and saw a cluster of people gathered in an alcove at the bottom of the stairs. This was advertised as a screening of a Native American documentary. I expected food and laughter, and a warm welcome. What I encountered was quite different–an uncomfortable hello from several fifty-ish White women in flowing scarves. There were maybe ten people scattered around the room in folding chairs awaiting the evening’s event—a lecture and video presentation. Most of the audience were Euro-American, with the exception of four young women from Africa. (I only learned this later when they asked questions at the end of the presentation.) I found it odd that no one thought to ask the very small audience to introduce themselves.
One of the women present introduced the speaker, a former faculty member who had developed the video. The speaker was a small gray-haired Euro-American woman in a black pants suit and flowing bright scarf that kept falling from her shoulders. As she spoke, she continually pulled at the scarf, readjusting it, only to have it begin slipping off again. She briefly described her video–a chronicle of the efforts of an Indigenous group to rebuild their tribal identity and culture and to obtain federal recognition.
The video was a fairly amateurish production. Interviews, photographs, and drawings were interspersed as the story slowly unfolded. A group of people coalesced and elected a tribal leader. They talked about their efforts to rediscover their culture and language. The leader of the group had amassed a considerable amount of money during his years of work as an engineer on the Alaska oil pipeline. (There was no discussion in the video of the consequences of this work for Native Alaskans or the environment.)
The video was disappointing, and even troubling. Here I was in a group of people who had little interaction with Native Americans. The documentary left a strong impression that there were no real Native American cultures anymore–only those that were being reinvented. (This is not to say that cultural revival is not important. It is!) There was no mention of the more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States, the more than 200 Native languages still spoken. And the questions were even more disturbing. It was one of those times when I did not even know what could be said in this setting, so I remained silent. I did notice that the four African women kept looking at me. It is true that I am rarely identified as Native American when I am away from northern Wisconsin, although I did resemble a number of the people in the video.
Then, an amazing thing happened. Each of the four African women asked questions. One asked a question about cultural bias. “How is it possible for someone outside of a culture to represent that culture in an unbiased way?” The speaker responded that she had taught journalism, and each semester, she began her class by writing all of her biases on the board. She explained that because she knew all of her biases, she was able to report from an unbiased perspective. The next question was a complex query about the effect of colonialism on indigenous peoples around the world.
The speaker’s response made me feel as though I had entered not just a strange culture, but had also somehow been transported back in time to the 1950s. She threw her ever-slipping scarf over her shoulder with an exaggerated movement, raised her right arm to the ceiling as if in a dance recital, and stood tall.
“I have just come back from a sabbatical in Africa where I had the honor of being selected to study traditional dance. And it is so fascinating. You know, African dancers as they move bend low and reach toward the earth. When Native American people dance, they reach upward toward the sky.”
As she uttered these remarks, she glided across the space in front of the audience, first bending low and reaching toward the floor, throwing her slipping scarf over her shoulder repeatedly, and then, reaching toward the ceiling. The questioners were silenced. The only people who spoke afterward were Euro-American academics in the audience, each sharing what they knew were the crucial issues for Native American people. I wondered as I listened how many had ever spent time on a reservation, or visited an urban Indian center.
Out of politeness, I stayed until the event ended. On another occasion, I would have sought out the women from Africa. Their questions reflected such astute insights. I wondered if their reactions were similar to mine. The arrogance of someone categorizing continents!
Yet, my emotions were raw. I needed to reflect on this evening, so I walked silently up the stairs and out of the building. As I headed toward my car in the dark, I suddenly understood that time warps are real. I had not realized before that difference here had that added dimension. I doubted that I would be able to reach across this double divide to speak to people who already knew all of the answers about Native people. I felt as though I was a long way from home–a home not only in place but in time. And I wondered if I would ever find my way back.
GRASPING TIGHTLY TO THE SYMBOLS OF POWER
Let me write about a metaphor of power before I forget. In this story, I lived under the oppressiveness of invalidating judgment for over two years. Interestingly, those who made this judgment claim to operate from a stance of strength-based social work practice. In fact, some of them have authored works that purport to teach others how to operate from a social justice framework. But that is another story for another time. The story I need to record today is about the illusion of power. It is a memory of the past, but has implications for the present and the future.
It was graduation day at the university. A prominent faculty member, a self-proclaimed feminist who was scheduled to deliver the graduation address later in the day for MSW students, arrived dressed in high-heeled clogs. I watched her walk as I took my position behind her in line as we walked toward the auditorium, worried that her clipped and unsteady gait might spell disaster. Although my inclination was to reach out to help steady her balance, my culture had taught me it is rude to intervene in another’s path without an invitation. Thankfully, we arrived at the hall without incident.
Following my unsteady clog-clad colleague, the social work faculty entered the large sports arena for the university commencement ceremony. We proceeded to our assigned seats toward the front, on the left side of the arena. Faculty from the anthropology department were seated several rows behind us. The commencement began with a blessing by a respected Tribal elder, followed by speeches from university officials. The highlight of this particular commencement was the keynote address by the governor. He began his address by dedicating it to “the first, best, ‘state citizens’.”
As I looked at the prominent presence of Tribal elders and leaders on the stage behind him, I thought this was a hopeful sign. The governor than noted, “the first best state citizens were not the explorers or timbermen or miners who came, or those who built the railroad that spans the state. The first, best citizens were the farmers and ranchers who made it their home and who, through hard work and sacrifice, made the state what it is today.” As the governor said this, I heard a collective gasp from the anthropology faculty, and many others scattered throughout the arena. Yet, my social work colleagues appeared too enraptured with the governor to notice.
After the ceremony ended, my colleagues gathered to discuss the speech. My clog-clad colleague gushed, “That was such a powerful speech. The governor is such an eloquent speaker!” The rest of my colleagues nodded enthusiastically in agreement. I just couldn’t let this pass, so I quietly added, “I thought it was very disrespectful of Native Americans.” Only one of my colleagues responded, “Oh my god, I never would have thought of that!” The rest became silent, exchanged glances, and walked away.
We went on to the next ceremony for social work graduates, located in a in a smaller room. Faculty sat in a row on the stage behind the podium where those chosen to deliver encouraging words spoke, facing the waiting graduates. Those of us who remained seated had an interesting, behind-the-scenes view.
When the time arrived for my colleague to deliver her address, she shuffled to the podium with her carefully crafted speech in hand. I watched as she placed her papers on the podium, gripped the sides of the podium tightly with both hands, and stood on tip-toe. As her speech stretched on, her grip increasingly tightened as her ungrounded stance caused her to wobble. Although I do not remember any of her words, I remember the image of the ever-tightening grip that turned her knuckles white. (As mine do when I grip the steering wheel of my car when I drive on icy roads, a similar feeling of ungroundedness and fear.)
I have pondered this scene. The podium, a symbol of power gripped evermore tightly, became a prop to steady someone who needed, for some reason, to appear to be what she was not. I also reflected on the fawning deference shown to the governor. All too often, we revere people in positions of power, not necessarily because they have anything meaningful to say, but merely because of their socially constructed status. The lesson for me is to be sure that I take the time to be sure-footed, to be well grounded, so I can walk and stand with mindfulness, grace, and certainty. And to take the time to remember what is really important: simplicity, humility, concern for others and the earth.
I wish my colleague well. Yet, I witnessed how this need to grip the symbols of power often resulted in unconscious ways of invalidating others, be they students or colleagues, when she was not on stage in the public eye. Her lack of grounding also affected Native people in other ways. She developed the diversity class for master’s students, and only included Native American literature that confirmed misinformation about the disfunctionality of contemporary Native Americans in a state, community, and institution that already had significant anti-Indian biases. I share this story to encourage others to be aware of the invidious seductiveness of the symbols of power. We are most tempted to grasp them when we are most fearful, least grounded, and least balanced, and without balance, we can do great and lasting harm to others.
This morning I awoke with a memory of a symbolic experience that has remained dormant for more than a year. The setting was the annual college retreat. It was a time of significant turmoil in the school of social work. One colleague had made an unfortunate decision. He did not cite the sources he used to create a fairly unimportant bureaucratic document, although he did insert a blank page entitled “Acknowledgments” at the beginning of the document. He was pilloried behind his back by faculty for his oversight and proceedings were initiated by the school to sanction him in the upper reaches of the university. It was a hurtful, ugly time–and the response was so out of proportion to the alleged offense.
There was an unacknowledged context. This colleague, relatively new to the system, was different in notable ways. Perhaps it was a legacy of working-class roots. Yet all he really wanted was to belong, to be respected. From the start, his difference and his desire to fit in were a point of vulnerability. The response of the system was to marginalize him, to isolate him, to deny him the very things he most wanted. From the margins, he produced the document. No one helped, although a number of other people were responsible for collaboration and final oversight. The “breach of professional ethics,” or “plagiarism” as it was labeled, was defined as his alone. And the system set out to sanction him in the most profound ways.
It was the beginning of my second year. I tried to find less hurtful solutions—solutions that would enable people to resolve differences in a way that promoted face-to-face honesty and healing. My pleas went unheeded. To pathologize an individual for one misjudgment is hardly an example of “strength-based and empowering practice.” We are all more than one mistaken action. My colleague also was good at research, kind to students, and supportive of the newer members of the faculty. Yet his strengths were not acknowledged by the system; only his deficits were the focus of hallway and closed-door conversations.
His plight was particularly salient for me. I was also isolated. As the sole faculty person of color in the school, an Ojibwe in a state that was particularly prejudiced against Native Americans, I was on the margins like my pilloried colleague. He had been consistently kind and welcoming to me despite his treatment.
With this divisive turmoil brewing, social work faculty attended the college retreat. It was a divided college, attempting to merge unlikely disciplinary partners who had little in common with social work. In an effort to promote greater understanding of each other’s profession, the chair of each school briefly addressed the assembled audience of more than 100 faculty and staff. The chair of social work talked about the teamwork and unity of the school, how supportive faculty were of each other. I wondered what planet I was on as I looked around and could see the various social work factions seated in distant corners around the large auditorium. The speakers droned on for the entire morning.
And then there was lunch. The dean announced that the theme of lunch was to bridge the disciplinary divides. Staff and faculty were expected to sit at tables arranged by month of birth. This would give people an opportunity to interact with others whom they did not know. So, alone, I headed for the dining room. For some reason I can no longer remember,
I was a few minutes late arriving. The tables were all filled, making it hard for me to see the centerpieces that specified the birth month. Finally, after circling the room a number of times, I discovered “February.” I approached the table and noticed that it was full. Two of the people at the table, one a colleague from my school and one from another discipline, spoke in unison. “There isn’t any room here. Why don’t you sit at the overflow table.” On the margins was the overflow table, empty of place settings and occupied by a sole colleague from the college. He was not faculty, he was support staff–an unacknowledged source of divisions. He was a computer technician originally from China. And he looked so alone. I asked him if it was okay for me to join him. He did not say no, so I sat down. We talked as we sat alone through the meal, and it was an interesting, although uncomfortable, conversation across cultural, language, disciplinary, gender, and age divides.
As lunch ended, my pilloried colleague sat down with us as well. The misfits by virtue of race, class, and status in the hierarchy shared a table on the margins. This symbolic encounter remains with me, although my colleague is no longer here. It is symbolic of why I feel it is so hard to stay. In the intervening year, I still sit on the margins although I have tried everything I can to bridge divides without compromising my integrity. I am accepting the likelihood that it may not be possible for me to find a place at the table here. I know there are other tables in other settings where differences are welcomed, and even celebrated. And I know there are many in this world who go hungry, who have no table that welcomes them. Those with privilege have a responsibility to remember that their work is to make sure that hunger and exclusion are ended.
“WHY ARE YOU SO DIFFERENT?”
“Why are you so different?” my colleague asked. I suspect that, in part, my response to this question has contributed to being ostracized and pathologized by faculty who are unable to hear the many ways this question could be asked and the many possible, legitimate, responses.
As I read this neutral question on a written page, there are so many possible meanings. There are so many ways tone of voice, spoken inflections, facial expression, and body language suggest intent. Meaning or intent is also nested within context. The individual histories of the person who asks and the person who is asked frame the meaning, the way the question is interpreted. The history of relationship between the asker and responder matters, as do differences in history and degree of belonging within the system where the question was asked. Power differentials, both in terms of hierarchical status and long-term relationships with the system, matter as well. And equally important is the congruence between how the question is asked and the publicly stated mission of the agency in which it is asked.
As a child, I asked this question many times. As I pondered the amazing diversity of the six-pointed shapes of snowflakes that fell on my dark mittens on a winter day, I asked “Why are you so different?” with a sense of wonder and awe. As a child who grew up between two cultures yet not fitting neatly in either, I asked myself “Why are you so different?” with a sense of genuine puzzlement. Embracing that sense of difference actually led to authentic efforts to learn to understand the world from as many diverse perspectives as possible. My favorite children’s story was about the Churckendoose, a little bird that was a mixture of a chicken, turkey, duck, and goose. Difference in this story was simply that, difference. There were no values assigned to being one creature or another, and no interpretations of being superior or inferior as a result of difference.
As a teenager, the question was more emotion-laden. I wondered why I could not simply be a part of the cliques that reached out to include me, but not others whose difference was more visible and seen as inferior. (These were the people who were the most interesting to me.) Difference that meant inclusion or exclusion was based on family socioeconomics, religion, appearance, perceived intelligence (either too much or too little), or being “cool,” whatever that meant. I respected peers who did not seem to care about their exclusion.
Instead of joining cliques, I reached out to those who were excluded, not in an attempt to forge an anti-clique, but to understand the position of difference as a somewhat consciously chosen stance of resistance. I admired the courage of those who were willing to carry the responsibility of thinking critically, who were willing to challenge norms and social expectations in visible, creative ways.
As a young person searching for a place to belong, a role and career that had meaning, difference had new connotations. It was time to believe in the message of the Churckendoose, a time to explore as wide a range of diversity as possible. I lived in the hills of Appalachia and on Indian reservations, and worked in the inner city of Chicago while I attended an exclusive Catholic women’s college. I survived the streets of Hollywood, and experienced the possibilities and disappointments by being part of a New Age commune. Among my friends, I have counted priests and prostitutes, artists and legislators, people who were poor and rich, blue collar workers and university professors.
Difference enriches my life and my understanding of the world. Like the snowflakes on my mitten as a child, it is a source of never-ending wonder and engenders curiosity.
I did not hear this sense of wonder and curiosity in my colleague’s question. It was intoned in a way that sounded more like an indictment. For more than a year, the indictment has remained. Yet perhaps, just perhaps, is there a possibility of building understanding? As long as I am here, I am willing to try to model a sense of wonder and openness to new experiences and different ways of seeing the world that are liberatory. The lesson of the Churckendoose has served me well for a lifetime. I hope that I am able to bridge the divide between those who see the need for predictability, stability, and a degree of certainty, and those who welcome ambiguity and the as-yet-unknown as an opportunity to explore a more inclusive world.
I am reminded of a passage from Hyemeyohsts Storm’s work. If we place people in a circle, facing inward toward a multifaceted object in the center, each will see only one side, and each view will be incomplete. If each person can share their perspective with others in the circle, a fuller picture will be possible for all. Afraid of difference, we will see only what falls within our limited gaze. How can we teach this partial frame as the one truth? Why would one want to insist that this is the only true reality? And why would anyone be willing to believe such a ridiculous assertion? Difference is the rule, not the exception, and a wondrous gift of wider, deeper vision and understanding. It is at least honest to ask, accusatory or not, “Why are you so different?” It is, hopefully, the beginning of an ongoing dialogue.
MUSINGS WHILE CLEANING ROCKS
When I am almost 60, I discover a new avocation: washing little rocks that I have excavated as I dug gardens and a small pond in my yard. Although time consuming, I want to line the little pond with rocks that came from that very spot. It has given me time to reflect on many things. I am sure my neighbors, if they see me, will think I am crazy as I sit for hours scrubbing decades or centuries of dirt from something that appears, at least in this cultural context, to be so worthless and ordinary. Yet, as I watch dusty brown lumps transform into multi-colored, uniquely textured, and variously shaped stones, I begin comparing it to the work I do as a professor.
I realize one of the principles that guides my work with students involves taking time to look for the inner beauty and strength of students whom many others might overlook, or even dismiss. Like the rocks, many have been covered with years of dust, yet underneath each is lovely and unique. And like the stones that dry after their washing, they retain only a little of their lovely colors in an arid environment. Yet, put them in water, and their rainbow colors are visible once again. So too, the right environments allow beauty and uniqueness to shine through people as well. The question I ponder is how to create those environments, not only for students and the professionals they will become, but also for the clients they will serve. There is a Taoist saying that suggests an answer:
The best people are like water.
They benefit all things,
And do not compete with them.
They settle in low places,
One with nature, one with Tao.
I have also wondered about the paradox of too much knowledge and naming. I have not ever had a course in geology–strange, given that I have taken courses in almost everything else. I cannot name any of the rocks: I don’t know when, where, or how they were formed. I wonder, if I did know, would I be able to appreciate their loveliness without cataloging, ranking, or judging in some way? Would I be able to see each individual stone in its uniqueness from a more educated, scientific perspective? I honestly don’t know. I do know that I have not run off to buy a book or enroll in a geology course.
I can usually (but not always) apply this principle of nonjudgment when I work with students. I can rarely apply it when I work with colleagues. Again, I ponder this difference. And I do run off to buy more textbooks to understand how I might do a better job of respecting those who have power and use it to oppress others, always with the goal of becoming more effective at ending oppression, but the answers still continue to elude me.
I also ponder the journey these stones made. What was the world like as they formed? Where did they begin their journey? Where have they traveled? And what have they experienced that has polished the surfaces of some and splintered others that are jagged and sharp-edged? (The ones with jagged edges don’t go into the pond: they serve as a ring around the edge.) Is this the difference, at least from the perspective of an Ojibwe academic, between students and colleagues? Is it that I can see the smooth surface of those with less power, and only the jagged edges of those with power? Is my response to power differentials related to an automatic resistance to the legacy of colonial oppression? Or is it related to the Tao saying, a recognition that status is really only a social convention maintained by those in power for their own short-term benefit that is ultimately unfulfilling? Have the hard times experienced by those without power polished their surfaces, while those with privilege remained jagged for lack of transformative challenges?
I wash rocks and take the time to get to know students, but my colleagues tell me I should be more “productive.” Yet, to find the beauty in everyday life, to plant gardens that have begun to transform my working class neighborhood, is not wasted time. It has expanded possibilities. To help students believe in themselves, and to model how to work with clients in an authentically empowering way, will perhaps be of greater benefit than yet another journal article or conference presentation. It is the living art of washing rocks, or touching lives, that lets the best in others shine through. Taking the time to find beauty in others is surely needed in present and future times.
I have continued to try to understand why I am able to be sensitive to the experiences of those with the least power in any given setting, but maintain a judgmental stance toward those who have power. Not all people in positions of power need to be resisted. There are many colleagues who use their power mindfully to help students or clients see their own beauty and uniqueness. However, there are also colleagues who use power to tumble away all uniqueness, to judge difference as deficiency or deviance. Often this seems to be due to deep insecurities, perhaps unconscious or well-intended, to help those who are different to adjust or acquiesce to the demands of the “real world.”
It is probably wiser to help students develop their own capacities to challenge accepted social constructions that limit opportunities for all of us to express our inner beauty and celebrate the inner beauty of others. The difficulty is to be in that liminal space between those without power and those who use power in oppressive ways, to buffer those without power from harm without harming those who use power in hurtful ways, to be like water and benefit all. Can it be that this buffering, like the power of water, will wear down and smooth the jagged edges?
THE BURDEN OF THE SENTINELS
It is tragic that three students have committed suicide in the past two years. The faculty who worked with the students are grieving and confused. In an effort to heal, the head of student counseling services came to discuss suicide during the faculty meeting yesterday. I did not know the students who died, so as a person on the margins, my reaction to the discussion was very different than that of my colleagues. In fact, the discussion left me deeply troubled. The focus was on a new university policy. In order to reduce liability for the university, faculty would be required to force suffering students to meet with the dean for possible expulsion. The head of counseling services explained that suicide was a form of violence perpetrated by imbalanced individuals on those around them. They needed to be stopped.
When the discussion of suicide ended, no one asked what we might do differently in the future. When we seamlessly moved on to mundane issues, I was angry and distressed. I have seen the way our actions as faculty create problems for the most gifted and sensitive of our students. So I asked what we might do differently. There was no response. The conversation shifted to how to use the corporate credit cards. My response was to get up and leave the meeting at that point, slamming the door as I exited the room.
I know my colleagues interpreted my behavior as strange and annoying rather than as the only way I could express the depth of my distress. So be it. This reflection is my attempt to make sense of the strength of my reactions. And typically, my reflections are based on stories and metaphors that may seem unrelated.
A while ago, my partner shared a story he heard on public radio about the experiences of researchers who were conducting a study of a community of chimpanzees. Early in the study, the researchers noted that about 5 percent of the community appeared to exhibit all of the characteristics of depression. They stayed on the periphery of the community, they rarely engaged in social activities, and they appeared lethargic.
With the best of intentions, the researchers decided to treat this isolated group for depression, so they removed the “depressed” chimpanzees from the community and worked with them. The treatment seemed to work. But each time the researchers returned to the troop, they noted that new chimps had taken up posts on the periphery, and they too were removed. At the end of the year, the whole troop was dead from an undetermined cause.
The researchers hypothesized that the sentinel chimps played a crucial role on the boundaries, scanning the environment and warning the troop of danger. Without sentinels, the troop fell prey to external predators. This raises questions about the importance of the “boundary spanners,” those who remain on the periphery to scan for external threats while still relating to the community, albeit in a distant manner. I have pondered this story’s links with my own observations of the burdens carried by people who are on the margins of society because of their difference.
It has been said that those Native people who are the most sensitive and gifted are the ones who do not survive. It is only those who are the strongest physically and psychologically who survive. For me, it is no wonder that Native people who carry the gifts of vision appear most susceptible to addiction. They are the boundary spanners who can see what can be, perhaps what should be, and how far we have strayed from that possibility. To be surrounded by a global society that is focused on exploitation of resources rather than preservation for future generations, on gratifying the self-interested pleasures of the moment rather than the preservation of meaningful relationships, why would not the burden sometimes be too great to bear?
To listen to a discussion of suicide, then, to hear it described as a form of violence perpetrated by deficient individuals on others, is profoundly disturbing. Is it sane or reasonable for sensitive boundary spanners to settle for the insanity of war, the destructive exploitation of nature, the disparities that mean some individuals can buy gold-laced shower curtains while many people throughout the world die of starvation? Where does the violence originate that leads to despair for those who are most sensitive? Does it help give heart to boundary spanners when we label them as deviant? When we medicate them to see the world through a drug-induced haze of mediocrity? When we fail to understand the profound suffering of those on the boundaries who try to warn those in the center about the dangers that surround the community?
When people choose to end their suffering, is it their violence or ours as a society that is the cause? To take one’s own life is the most profound sacrifice. It may be the only way left to alert others of the dangers we face because we have created a world where the brightest and most sensitive among us find no hope, no comfort, no sense of a deeper meaning in life. And when they die, who will be left as sentinels to alert us to the dangers that surround us? Who will protect us from our self-destructive consumerism and exploitation of the environment and others’ labor? Who will alert us to the slow death this imbalance promises for those generations to follow?
The well-meaning among us who would remove the sentinels for their own good may only be hastening the death of that which makes us most human. We can try to convince those who see what we cannot that their visions are hallucinations. We can anaesthetize them and preserve them in a state of half-life because it makes us feel “moral” and it makes our life more comfortable. Yet, by doing so, we do not even serve our own self-interests. The lesson of the chimpanzees is that we need to understand what the sentinels are telling us.
We need to create a space to truly listen to what they are trying to tell us about a world that has become toxic to the most sensitive among us. It may be the world of our classrooms. It may be the world outside. How can we, as social work faculty, learn from the sentinels about our own practice as teachers and advisors? Are there things we need to change about how and what we teach to create a place where sentinels can preserve a sense of hope and possibility? I do not have the answers to these questions. I grieve the deaths of these students even though I did not know them as individuals. And I grieve the lost opportunity to explore this issue in a thoughtful way with others. Encouraging awareness and sensitivity places students at risk, doubly so because the interventions described yesterday are so inadequate from my perspective.
These are not evil people I have described. They all have many strengths and have made some important contributions in their fields. Yet, as these stories show, those who unconsciously serve as gatekeepers to protect the status quo can shatter the self-confidence of individuals with less power, destroy promising careers, or even contribute to the despair that leads some people to commit suicide merely because they are different.
Administrators and faculty with privilege in positions of power carry a responsibility to be aware of the consequences of their actions. These stories are my attempt to underscore the urgency for those with power in academia to become aware of the costs associated with exercising power and privilege in ways that are disempowering and oppressive, rather than ways that are liberating and enlightening.
I have witnessed the consequences of gatekeeping for gifted faculty colleagues, whose differences in culture and sexual orientation made them vulnerable. Many were pathologized and forced out of academia because they just “didn’t fit.” The racism or homophobia they faced in classrooms (and among White heterosexual faculty) was attributed to their inability to teach, rather than as an opportunity for multicultural teams of allies to dialogue with students about issues and solutions to the problems of discrimination.
The challenges my colleagues faced as publishing scholars were due more to the shadow curriculum they shouldered as “the” diversity program that Brayboy writes about, rather than to their lack of competence or commitment. I have witnessed dedicated students from disadvantaged backgrounds struggle to obtain an education to help others in their situation, only to be told that they were not “graduate material” for specious reasons.
And I have witnessed other sensitive students driven to despair, and sometimes, to suicide. These are not individual pathologies. These are serious structural issues we need to address if academia is to live up to its aspirations to contribute to a future that is more welcoming of the wondrous diversity that characterizes our nation and world.
As I pondered these reflections over the years since they were written, I now view them as acts of everyday resistance to the colonial privilege that dictated how everything I said and did was interpreted. When faculty and administrators in a social work program publicly refer to those in their midst who are different as “isms,” (i.e., the targets of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism), something is amiss in terms of an authentic commitment to respecting diversity and working toward social justice.
Like bullies on a playground, the status quo in academia has the power to dictate the rules of the game and the terms and limitations for inclusion of those who are outsiders, those who are different in some way. While outsiders often know the rules and the consequences for resistance, they may choose, as I did, to stand in integrity, to protect those most at risk as best they can for as long as they can from arbitrary abuses of power, and to give witness to the everyday injustices, describing them through their own lenses. But it will take far more than one or two faculty members to provide support and encouragement for colleagues of color, to collaborate on innovative ways to transform discrimination into learning opportunities for students, to advocate for students who are facing discrimination, and to serve as whistle-blowers when all other avenues fail.
There are costs for those who choose to stand in integrity. Comparing the experiences of the only two Native American faculty who were hired by a western university and denied promotion, Maxine Jacobson notes that, although there was a thirty-year gap between the first and second faculty member, their experiences were eerily similar. As the ally of the second Native American faculty member, she observes
“Why do you have to be so different?” This was asked of my Native American colleague during our last year. It was asked because she presented alternative perspectives at faculty meetings and challenged procedures and practices that were not at all congruent with the stated social justice mission of the program. The question seems innocent on the surface, but it gets at the very core of what was wrong–an organizational culture comfortable in its White privilege and content with the easy road of pathologizing and punishing those who do not comply. It is a question that keeps change at arm’s length by requiring it only from others.
Not all academic institutions are so willing to waste valuable resources represented by faculty and students of color. For instance, Smith College has spent more than ten years transforming not only its social work department, but the entire college. Administrators, faculty, staff, and students have been transforming every aspect of their program to be not only more inclusive, but also to incorporate an anti-racist stance, a perspective that goes beyond merely incorporating differences by acknowledging privilege and power disparities. Their student and faculty make-up, curriculum, and relationships with outside constituencies have all been reviewed and changed to be more inclusive.
Transformation takes the courage to look at one’s own biases and privileges and the willingness to shoulder the hard work of confronting the procedures and practices that keep hegemony firmly in place from one generation to the next. It is my hope that these simple stories will touch readers’ hearts and inspire change.
- U. S. Census Bureau, Population by Race. Exum, “Climbing the Crystal Stair,” 385.
- U.S. Census Bureau, “Population Profile of the United States”; Alex-Assensoh, “Race in the Academy,” 5.
- Alex-Assensoh, “Race in the Academy,” 5.
- Brayboy, “The Implementation of Diversity”; Corntassel, “An Activist Posing”; Dua and Lawrence, “Challenging White Hegemony; Exum, “Climbing the Crystal Stair”; Iseke-Barnes, “Racist Hierarchies of Power.”
- Brian M. J. Brayboy, “The Implementation of Diversity.”
- Exum, “Climbing the Crystal Stair”; Brayboy, “The Implementation of Diversity”; Dua and Lawrence, “Challenging White Hegemony.”
- Iseke-Barnes, “Racist Hierarchies of Power”; Russell, “From the Bottom of the Education Barrel”; Stanley, “Coloring the Academic Landscape”; Fenelon, “Indians Teaching about Indigenous.”
- Essien, “Visible and Invisible Barriers”; Iseke-Barnes, “Racist Hierarchies of Power”; Smith, “The Tyrannies of Silence.”
- Alex-Assensoh, “Race in the Academy,” 5.
- Exum, “Climbing the Crystal Stair”; Alex-Assensoh, “Race in the Academy”.
- Cross, Brown, Day, Limb, Pellebon, and Weaver, “Status of Native Americans.”
- Devon A. Mihesuah, “Introduction.”
- Mihesuah, “Introduction,” 46.
- Calhoun, “It’s Just a Social Obligation”; Corntassel, “An Activist Posing”; LaCourt, “Descriptions of a Tree”; Mihesuah, “Activism and Apathy”; Nunpa, “Native Faculty”; Trucks-Bordeaux, “Academic Massacres”; White and Sakiestewa, “Talking Back to Colonial Institutions”; Younger, “A Painful Time.”
- Deloria, “Reforming the Future”; Russell, “From the Bottom.”
- Shawn Wilson, Research Is Ceremony.
- Ross, Dancing with a Ghost.
- Although I usually avoid simplistic cultural contrasts, evidence from the accounts of Native American faculty cited in this article clearly show evidence that these differing paradigms are significant. The contrasts also reflect the synthesis of an extensive review of literature related to Ojibwe culture and history drawn from ethnographic and historical studies, accounts of explores and administrators, and novels, narratives, and recorded accounts by Ojibwe people. The list of sources is too extensive for this article and is available in Hand, An Ojibwe Perspective.
- National Association of Social Workers, Code of Ethics.
- National Association of Social Workers, “Code of Ethics,” 1, para 2
- Limb and Organista, “Comparisons Between Caucasian Students.”
- The observations that resulted in these stories were recorded from 2001 to 2011. I began recording them as fieldnotes, a habit developed during my doctoral research, a critical ethnographic study of the child welfare system. For more information on fieldnotes, see Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw, Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. For more information about the distinctions between traditional ethnography and critical ethnography, see Thomas, Doing Critical Ethnography.
- Berenberg, What Am I.
- Storm, Seven Arrows.
- Dreher, The Tao of Inner Peace, 90.
- Hartmann, “Transcript: Drugs, Depression & Chimpanzees.”
- Brayboy. “The Implementation of Diversity.”
- Jacobson, “Breaking Silence.”
- Jacobson, “Breaking Silence,” 277.
- Basham, Donner, Killough, and Rozas, “Becoming an Anti-Racist Institution.”
- Stanley, “Coloring the Academic Landscape”; Tatum, “The Complexity of Identity.”
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