Why Higher Ed Can’t Change

Back in 2017, I wrote a piece titled 5 Invisible Barriers Preventing Change in Higher Ed. The past five months of living, breathing, and working in higher education amidst a viral and racial pandemic has enabled me to see things a bit differently. Now I see the real barrier preventing change in higher education – white supremacy culture.

Below is a list of questions either I have asked myself or have been posed by another person verbally or in writing in recent months:

  • Why are so many college faculty, staff, and administrators afraid to make mistakes?
  • Why are the ideas of treating our students with kindness and centering teaching in trust often received with defiance and skepticism?
  • Why do administrators feel the need to control communications with written protocols, especially in a time of crisis?
  • Why are so many faculty requiring students to turn on their webcams?
  • Why are higher education institutions so resistant to remote work?
  • Why are the millions of dollars tied to educational grants governed by ridiculously short submission timelines?
  • Why is it that we cast blame on our students and refer to them as “weak” and “underprepared” instead of scrutinizing our teaching and institutional processes?
  • Why is emotion so excluded from scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education?
  • Why are women academics shamed for putting caring in front of scholarship amidst a global pandemic?
  • Why are teachers rarely included in decisions about the decision to adopt teaching tools?
  • Why is it that leadership is tied to one’s title, as opposed to the impact of one’s work?
  • Why is it that quality is measured by quantity, rather than the value of the experience?

Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun have written that the characteristics of white supremacy culture are: perfectionism, sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, progress is bigger/more, objectivity, right to comfort.

It is often said that changing culture is difficult because it is so hard to see it. The metaphor of a fish swimming in water is often used to convey the invisibility of culture. But this metaphor excludes the fact that culture is only difficult to see if you don’t make efforts to move outside of it.

By engaging in conversations with my Latinx, Black, Indigenous, and other peers of color and listening to/reading their work, my eyes have been opened. By moving between institutions and working in different sectors, my eyes have been opened. When the values of racist culture are made visible to you, when you see how they undermine change within the very institutions that serve as pathways of social mobility, when you see how it influences your own behavior and undermines not only racial justice but also your ability to live an authentic life – you cannot unsee it. You are left with two choices: 1) shut up and keep doing what you’ve always done or 2) lean in and be part of the conversation, despite the discomfort it brings.

White dominant culture has such deep levels of denial and is behind disconnection from ourselves and other people. White dominant culture hinders authentic connection between people by placing a premium on being right, on pretending we are ok, on niceness, and reinforcing the good/bad binary. Doing the work of anti-racism requires a lot of practice in being in a state of not knowing and that can be uncomfortable for many of us. White dominant culture teaches that you if you make a mistake, you are a mistake but we don’t have to buy into that. We are ALL harmed by injustice, white people, too. 

Unleashing Social Change Podcast, Episode 18: Tema Okun, Duke University – “Facing Into Your Own Racism with Courage and Love”

If you’ve made it this far through this page, please take a few minutes to read White Supremacy Culture and focus on the antidotes provided for each characteristic. And then ask yourself the recommended discussion questions:

  • Which of these characteristics are at play in your life? In the life of your organization or community? How do they stand in the way of racial justice?
  • What can you and your community do to shift the belief(s) and behavior(s) to ones that support racial justice?

And I will add to that list, how do these characteristics prevent you from doing meaningful work and living an authentic life?

4 Comments

  1. kandace knudson

    Thanks for this, Michelle. I will check out that source. I’m also reading Caste by Wilkerson, which is gut wrenching. I have to read it in small doses because it takes me time to connect the dots between my family’s behaviors and ideologies and the horrors I’m reading about: racism is so deeply ingrained in our existence.

    Reply
  2. Kristin Smith

    Kandace, I just finished Caste, and it was indeed gut wrenching. I had to do it a chapter at a time on long walks over a few weeks. As Michelle said above, once you see it, you cannot unsee it. The magnitude can feel overwhelming. And then I remember my colleagues and friends who work to see and uncover, and I am moved and forward…I keep thinking about the starfish on the beach story…and how “it mattered to that one…”.

    Reply
  3. Kristin Smith

    Kandace, I just finished Caste, and it was indeed gut wrenching. I had to do it a chapter at a time on long walks over a few weeks. As Michelle said above, once you see it, you cannot unsee it. The magnitude can feel overwhelming. And then I remember my colleagues and friends who work to see and uncover, and I am moved and forward…I keep thinking about the starfish on the beach story…and how “it mattered to that one…”. I am also struck by the White Supremacy Culture link included here, at the overlap with the toxic masculine.

    Reply

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