“We are made constantly and painfully aware of how little effort white women have made to understand and combat their racism, which requires among other things that they have a more than superficial comprehension of race, color, and Black history and culture. Eliminating racism in the white women’s movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak to and demand accountability on this issue” (CRC, 1977).
I am going to take a page (literally) from Resmaa Menakem and say outright that this post will resonate differently for different people. And that’s OK.
White readers will likely ignore it, get defensive, cry, and/or respond with outrage, because that’s what centuries of white privilege has trained them to do. I’m asking them to be conscious and curious about their own responses, to make room for a version of the story that does not center their experience or perspective.
Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx readers will likely recognize a version of their own experiences in my words because the story I’m about to share is far from unique. I’m asking them to take what they need (if anything) from my words, but please don’t let it sap your energies in the same way dealing with it has sapped mine.
SUNY New Paltz is a predominantly white institution with a profound culture of “tacit” white supremacy that inhabits each and every corner of the campus community. (The hashtag #AcademiaSoWhite comes to mind.) I’ve worked here since 2014 in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department; I am now tenured. In 2016, I created a network for faculty and staff who identify as people of color (POCN). Our purpose is to provide a space where we can rest, feel “safe,” and support one another. That said, white supremacy knocks at our door all the time. Sometimes we respond with a message meant as an intervention, a way to turn harm into a teaching moment; sometimes words are not enough and we organize an event. As the founder of that group—who often sends out those emails or event invites—I am no stranger to backlash emails, hate mail, cyberbullying, bridge burning, requests for unpaid intellectual and emotional labor, etc. I am also the person who receives emails in confidence from people of color (students, faculty, and staff) needing affirmation, back up, resources, and support.
SNP is also the home of “from the ground up” anti-racist practices such as the Black Lives Matter at School Collective and the Anti-Racist reading group. Efforts like these, attempting to change our campus culture, are sometimes supported by those with institutional power and other times resisted or simply ignored. The number one hindrance to our collective efforts, in my opinion, is the inability of our white community members to decenter their own white desires coupled with a social resistance to speak directly, call harm what it is, and take and/or demand real accountability.
Diversity and inclusion efforts to encourage conversations about race across our campus community over the last year, have predominantly taken the form of town halls that leave many students, faculty, and staff of color wondering: what was the point of that?
In our last POCN meeting, we reflected on our critiques of these town halls and asked ourselves: if we were going to encourage conversation about racism on campus, how would we go about it? Members shared a variety of ideas, but the one that resonated the most—a community check in—came from the director of one of our incredible programs for supporting (primarily) our students of color (we have three: EOP, SMP, and AC2). Following the model of our brilliant colleagues, we decided to facilitate a “community check in” for POC faculty and staff. The first concern was how to extend an invitation to this check in to everyone while making sure OUR voices were heard and centered. A key aspect of the community check in for the students was keeping faculty and staff, who were not moderating, in the space of the chat to ensure that student voices were centered. We adopted this model.
On Monday, I sent out an email invite for the check in that included this note to our white allies and accomplices:
“Non-BIPOC members of our community are welcome to join, but asked to keep their participation in the chat. We are intentionally creating this space to center the voices and experiences of BIPOC and need our white allies/accomplices to respect the need for that space.”
On Tuesday, while I was attending the community check in for students, I received this email message:
For the purpose of this blog post it doesn’t matter who the message came from. Someone forwarded my message to a friend off campus and that person responded to me by accident(?).
Look, I know that everyone complains about work to their friends, but the content and the ideological presumptions behind the complaint is what matters. What’s most important is what this message makes wildly visible: the pervasive culture of white supremacy and specifically white entitlement on our campus, despite (or maybe because of?) our “diversity and inclusion” efforts.
This person, these people, are mad because they don’t have access to the CENTER of a space that we created for ourselves. Over the years, when the POCN has shared a critique of an event on campus—we are often told a version of: if this event doesn’t suit you, host your own. And we have. But the reality is that even when we do create our own spaces, white people feel entitled to those as well. We had no intention of silencing white allies. Our true accomplices in anti-racist work wouldn’t assert complaints like this in the first place.
If you want to know why people of color leave this institution, look no further than the sentiment of this email (“you can’t say anything? can’t make this stuff up!”). The notion that all space is their space and that it’s inconceivable that people of color would be the center of the conversation is eerily reminiscent of the “you will not replace us” belief system.
If you want to know why students of color feel unsafe and unsupported in their classrooms and/or in their departments, look no further than the sentiment of this email. One of these people works here, but this one person is not the issue: it’s the culture of our institution.
If you want to know why the culture of white supremacy will not die at SUNY New Paltz, start with really simple everyday things like noticing who is actually taking the time to learn about racism or to engage communities outside of their own. Anyone with a modicum of connection to people of color would know what the acronym BIPOC stands for, and for those who want to be actively anti-racist the move is to educate yourself as you are a member of a learning institution that serves and employs Black Indigenous People of Color.
I’m sure there will be backlash from this post. It will likely cause more harm. It will likely make working at SUNY New Paltz that much more difficult for people of color who have the energy to engage it. I’m really glad the POCN and the BLMS collective have a check in scheduled for tomorrow, because I, for one, will need it.
4 thoughts on “On white people upholding a culture of white supremacy at SUNY New Paltz…”
This is well put and very true. Please send me an invite for tomorrow evening
No, you can’t make stuff up like that reply. Never would I have expected that kind of response, which shows how not being surrounded by one’s peers of color can make even a POC a little clueless. Living in Kingston for five years, and not having many fellow Latinx people in my milieu (the arts, living in uptown district, working in a place that serves a mostly white clientele) has shielded me from a lot of white aggression and cluelessness. Because I work from home, mostly, I found I literally had to find portraits of POC (in thrift shops) to hang on the walls in my home after I noticed that I wasn’t seeing enough POC IRL. Crazy. I was like, at least in my home I can see these faces. This is why this forum, and checking in tomorrow is important to me. Being the one or rare POC surrounded by mostly white people can also make one lose touch. It’s easy for white people to be kind to the one POC they see (for example, me, back when I lived in Kingston) in their day to day. Especially when this person is not only relatively light-skinned and tall (attributes approved of) but also has an association with very white institutions like The New Yorker, or the O+ festival (which though they fund many artists of color are still perceived as a gentrifying influence and resented by POC) that many (white and other) people revere. Let’s face it, even being at SUNY “legitimizes” a person of color in the eyes of whites, if only to a point before they remind you that you’re Other. I know that I’ve been spoiled. I’m saying it’s not just on white people, it’s also on POC who are in a safe place with the white people, because for one reason or another they’re seen as unthreatening. We all need to show up and not get lazy about it. We have work to do.
I am a white ally and I am embarrassed by the email. I apologize on behalf of the white person who wrote it.
Well stated. It’s all so tiring. It IS the burden we carry. Oh that more non-BIPOC would use their power to lighten the load!