In Defense of Dirty Laundry | Vitae

In Defense of Dirty Laundry

By David J. Leonard

January 15, 2014

We lament, vent about, and dissect student interactions all the time. From hallway conversations to conference sessions, from publications to dinner parties, shop talk is commonplace. And it’s generally accepted.

But now, of course, that talk is moving to a new space: Facebook. To some observers, this is a thing to be bemoaned. In a post on The Conversation, Chad Abushanab spells out this view: Facebook, he argues, is not an appropriate place “to air your classroom’s dirty laundry.”

“What makes this approach problematic,” he writes, “is that you are essentially having a conversation about the decisions of a student in your professional care in a public forum without inviting that student to participate.”

Sounds reasonable enough, right? But there are two problems with this line of thinking.

The first is that the technology isn’t the issue; the way we make use of it is. Facebook can be used for good or evil—as a source of power or a source of harm. Irrespective of the technology used, shouldn’t we question the nature of the conversations we have, rather than the tools we use to have them?

Which brings me to the second problem with Abushanab’s denunciation: Why reduce all faculty conversations on Facebook to “airing dirty laundry,” “putting it out there,” and “venting”? Sure, that stuff happens. But there’s more than narcissistic grousing going on here. These social-media spaces exist in response to the very real isolation and individualism that permeates academia. And these online conversations can be helpful, cathartic, and empowering.

To dismiss them as nothing more than cattiness erases the pedagogical importance of discussions around classroom dynamics. Are teaching forums merely spaces for venting? Should we dismiss the deluge of journal articles and books dedicated to real-life classroom scenarios as inappropriate? No, these communities are about self-care, about preservation, and about growth. They are about education and the desire of so many teachers to continue to improve inside and outside the classroom.

Abushanab suggests that it would be more advisable for me to raise student issues with a colleague who may be teaching that same student, rather than chatting with a larger group that has no direct knowledge of the situation. But that presumes that face-to-face conversations and discussions among campus colleagues are possible.

In a world of small and squeezed-together departments, officeless adjuncts, 4-4 loads, “road scholars” teaching on multiple campuses, and growing service and scholarship demands, weekly meetings to discuss classroom dynamics aren’t necessarily possible. The weekly lunch at the faculty club—where professors supposedly gather to process class happenings—seems like something out of the Hollywood imagination, if it ever existed.

Beyond the question of feasibility, there’s another question: Would you actually rather talk about this stuff with your campus colleagues than with your social-media peers?

Within my social-media community I see all sorts of descriptions of student behavior. There are posts about students who miss class, yet come to office hours to ask, “Did I miss anything important?” There’s a status update bemoaning yet another incident of plagiarism. There’s a post lamenting an essay that doesn’t distinguish between the Civil War and the civil-rights movement.

Venting and commiserating aside, though, many more posts seek advice and help: “I have students that are using their computers in class and instead of paying attention, they are on Facebook. What should I do?” This is the type of question for which it may make more sense to seek support and advice from colleagues at campuses across the country, from colleagues who teach at different types of schools and within different disciplines, than from those who share your own classrooms, students, and academic culture.

More importantly, Facebook and other social-media platforms provide a space where academics can discuss issues that might otherwise be dismissed by colleagues. How many faculty of color have turned to Facebook following a conversation with a white colleague that ended with “I think you are reading too much into the fact that students refuse to address you by Dr. or Professor”?

How many female professors have used Twitter to discuss sexual harassment or sexism within the classroom or on their evaluations? Might an audience of friends and social-media peers respond differently than male colleagues on campus, whose privilege and misogyny may preclude them from even hearing these issues? In other words, every faculty member doesn’t have an equal ability to share and process the inequality she or he may encounter inside and outside the classroom.

Continue reading at  In Defense of Dirty Laundry | Vitae.

More at Stake than Football in Grambling State Boycott | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

More at Stake than Football in Grambling State Boycott | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

More at Stake than Football in Grambling State Boycottt

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

This week student-athletes at Grambling State University said enough is enough: refusing to practice and play their scheduled game against Jackson State University, during what was JSU’s Homecoming Weekend. Grambling Sate’s unified group stood up to denounce the lack of voice afforded them, the working conditions under which they practice, and the dangers associated with playing collegiate football at Grambling State University.

Yet, two narratives have emerged in response to the player boycott: that of entitled athletes and the dysfunction of Grambling State University. Deploying longstanding racial stereotypes, anchored by dominant white racial framing, and a narrative that inherently pathologizes and demonizes black bodies, the media discourse has conveniently erased the root issues. Look no further than the comments section, which consistently reflects the “shut up and play” reframe, noting that the student-athletes should be content with “whatever” since without football they would not even be on campus.

At one level, the dismissal of the players’ concerns and their boycott reflects a lack of understanding of collegiate sports. They are protesting their labor conditions, which include: having to purchase Gatorade themselves; being forced to hydrate from a hose under the stadium; 14 & 17 hour bus rides—making being a student and an athlete difficult, if not possible; and team facilities and player equipment covered in mold and mildew. According to a letter from the players, “The uniforms are poorly cleaned and contribute to the multiple cases (of) staph infection. Several players have been infected with staph multiple times.”

Despite media coverage that has for the most part glossed over the specifics, and a surface narrative that instead plays upon that of spoiled (black) student-athletes, the protest is about abysmal work conditions; it is about health and safety. Coverage that frames the story around entitled (black) student-athletes, who don’t deserve to be on a college campus except for football, contributes to a lack of national concern that ignores the broader issues at work.

On another level, the media discourse has focused on “in-fighting” and the “failures” of the administration. Seemingly reducing the issue to “black-on-black” conflict and the incompetence of HBCUs, the national media has erased the systemic contexts in which HBCUs function. Rather the conflict is symptomatic of the divestment from and privatization of education—it’s bigger than Grambling State University.

The state of Grambling football is a window into the larger neglect of higher education in Louisiana as well as the precarious situation facing many HBCUs. The situation at Grambling has everything to do with the decisions of Governor Bobby Jindal and a GOP-led state legislature.

Continue reading at More at Stake than Football in Grambling State Boycott | NewBlackMan (in Exile).

What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is mine: The White Nature of Meritocracy

A recent post from, entitled “Meritocracy or Bias?,” prompted widespread debate on social media regarding race, affirmative action, and definitions of meritocracy.

The study here does not reveal a fluid or shifting understanding of meritocracy.  Yes, in one context white respondents were “asked to assign the importance they thought various criteria should have in the admissions system.”  Not surprisingly, this group cited test scores and grades as the centerpiece of any admissions’ decisions.   Given racial stereotypes and the broader discourse regarding affirmative action, is it surprising that merit was defined through standards PRESUMED to be advantageous to white applicants?  Is it surprising that hard work and “earning” admission to a college of university erases both history and contemporary inequality in such a manner that whiteness is central to dominant definitions of merit and deservedness?

In the other context, white respondents “received a different prompt, one that noted that Asian Americans make up more than twice as many undergraduates proportionally in the UC system as they do in the population of the state.” When told about potential Asian applicants, the definition of merit shifted the focus away from test scores and GPA.  Instead of those traditional metrics, white respondents now saw leadership and other intangible qualities as important.

The findings are revealing on so many levels.  The mere mention of Asian American applicants seemingly scarred the white respondents.  One can deduce that “Asian American” conjured up a narrative of academically successful applicants whose test scores and grades would lead them to rise to the top (unless merit was defined in other ways).  It should also be noted how Asian Americans is seen through the narrative of model minority discourse.

The author of the study, Frank Samson, describes the findings as such:

Sociologists have found that whites refer to ‘qualifications’ and a meritocratic distribution of opportunities and rewards, and the purported failure of blacks to live up to this meritocratic standard, to bolster the belief that racial inequality in the United States has some legitimacy. However, the results here suggest that the importance of meritocratic criteria for whites varies depending upon certain circumstances. To wit, white Californians do not hold a principled commitment to a fixed standard of merit.

At face value, there appears to be a dynamic shift in what constitutes merit, what constitutes the desired standards colleges and universities should use for admission decisions.  Yet, in both contexts, the desirability of and centrality of whiteness remains clear.  Whiteness is what is meritorious and everything else is secondary.  The rules and the standards must reflect and reaffirm the spots reserved for white students.  “Why is this journalist and the researcher portraying whites’ takes on meritocracy as fluid when the evidence presented actually suggests they are as rigid as can be,” notes Dr. Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo, associate professor of Culture, Gender, and Race at Washington State University. “Whites believe in meritocracy as long as it keeps them and their children on top. Nothing fluid about that, as fluidity suggests some kind of shift in mentality and/or behavior.”

Indeed, there is no change to their definition or understanding of meritocracy.  It is not a shift in what are the desired qualities or qualifications perspective students should possess but an effort to preserve white entitlement. If rules need to be changed to preserve white admissions then that takes place. It seems that there is continuity in terms of definition of merit and that begins and ends with whiteness.  In other words, this isn’t a “flip flop” as argued, but the manifestation of racism, white privilege, and the racial standards that are engrained within American culture.  It is about focused effort to maintain a system that preserves and protects white entitlement; it is about protecting spots presumed to be for “whites.”  The predetermined rightful place of whites within higher education remains constant.  The paths to achieve this reality changes but the centrality of white supremacy is steady.

The efforts to protect white privilege, to enshrine white spots in higher education, and to otherwise center whiteness as the basis of merit is nothing new.  The examples are endless throughout history from voting rights to rights of citizenship (due process; innocent until proven guilty whites; guilty until proven innocent for people of color).  And the rules and laws simply shift according to the needs and desires of whiteness.  In 1915, a team of Filipino clerks defeated their white American bosses in volleyball.  Refusing to acknowledge the merit of their victory, the white bosses denounce their play as “unsportsmanlike” and “deceptive,” they simply changed the rules to protect white merit.  No longer able to bump the ball 52 times before sending it over the net (which they reportedly did during this match), Filipino teams were allowed no more than 3 bumps (their white counterparts, unlimited).  Just as with this study, the definition or understanding of merit didn’t change, the rules to protect white merit and privilege adjusted as necessary.

In 2003, MIT’s Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, found that applicants with “white sounding names” were 50 percent more likely to receive a callback from a potential employer.  Although the resumes were identical between black and white applicants, those with “black sounding names” found calls infrequent.  Put another way whiteness or the perception of whiteness was worth 8 years of work experience.  To those employers, white was right.  To the respondents in these studies, white is also right.  What is right, deserving, and meritorious about whiteness may change contextually; yet the desire to preserve “white only” admission slots is clear. Fluidity, no; entrenched racism and the protection of white privilege, without a doubt.

The study offers a clear message, with its consequences evident in the ongoing assault on affirmative action: What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is mine. And that is the white definition of meritocracy.

NewBlackMan (in Exile): Social Media Saved My Life

Social Media Saved My Life

by David Leonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Q: What happened after hackers shut down Twitter for a day? A: Twitterers were relegated to communicating the old fashioned way, through Facebook!

Q: Why is Facebook a great site for loners? A: Because it’s the only place where they can talk to a wall and not be considered a loser!

Q: Why is Facebook like a refrigerator? A: Because every few minutes you keep opening and closing it to see if there’s anything good in it! (Source)

It has become almost commonplace to mock social media. Whether describing it as a distraction, as a waste of time, or a world that is otherwise detached from reality, there is almost a cottage industry at scoffing at social media. Steve Tobak is indicative of this line of thinking:

Instead of living our lives, we’re watching our timelines on a two-dimensional display. Instead of doing, we’re content to observe events and post milestones on Facebook (FB). We’re becoming a society of watchers.

Sure, I know you’re all intelligent adults who understand there’s a world of difference between watching and doing. But that doesn’t change the reality that the vast majority of you are doing way too much observing and a whole lot less doing than you used to.

What’s the impact of our crazy obsession with gadgets and social media? It turns each of you a little more into a poor, lazy, lifeless drone every day.

Irrespective of these jokes and the constant disparagement of social media as the demise of “civilization,” social media saved me.

A couple years ago, I often wondered about my career in academia. Many nights (and early mornings) I contemplated other jobs, pining for anything, something other than my current existence. I lamented going to graduate school, I lamented the academic culture, and I even fantasized about a world where I could have traded my Ph.D. for something else. If it hadn’t been for student loan debt, financial obligations, my family, and my colleagues, I would have packed my books and bounced. While partly a fantasy, and partly the result of the intoxicating belief that the job is always enjoyable on the other side, I genuinely considered leaving academia. I thought long and hard about turning in my Ph.D. so I could become an ex-academic.

Between budget cuts, campus politics, disengaged students, societal disrespect for education and the stresses of life, I found myself continually asking, “does this matter;” I found myself hating the job. Maybe it wasn’t even the job but faced with tragedies, when witnessing so much pain and suffering, none of it seemed to matter. Whereas I spent so much of my life with freedom dreams, I found myself confronting nightmares.

This wasn’t just about hatin’ the job since a job “ain’t nothing but work,” but suddenly loathing everything that meant so much to me: reading, teaching and writing. I wanted out. I wanted to do something; really anything else. And that is why it hurt so much. I was slowly beginning to hate myself. For so long, I had seen myself, my identity, and my very existence in relationship to being a teacher, a scholar, a writer, and commentator—working to dream the world anew. In a sense, I hated myself because my identity was wrapped up in the “work.” Since it has never been just a job for me, my growing frustration and anxiety about the “job” was very personal. As a writer, teacher, scholar, and person committed to fostering conversations about equality and justice I felt as if I was betraying myself, betraying those who sacrificed so much for me, and otherwise taking advantage of my privileges by not using them in the pursuit of justice. I was being selfish. With these feelings and emotions, I couldn’t imagine another year, much less a lifetime on the academic grind.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan (in Exile): Social Media Saved My Life.

Lewis Gordon: The Problem With Affirmative Action | Truthout

The Problem With Affirmative Action

Monday 15 August 2011

by: Lewis R. Gordon, Truthout | Op-Ed

(Photo: _Davo_)

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the famed African-American literary scholar and director of the Du Bois Institute at Harvard University, recently reflected the following in an interview on National Public Radio: If it weren’t for affirmative action, he would not have been admitted to Yale University, regardless of how high his credentials were and he would not have had the opportunities to demonstrate his talent over the past four decades.(1)

Gates’ admission reflects a fundamental problem with affirmative action. It works. I had the opportunity to reflect on that out loud in a discussion at the Race and Higher Education conference in Grahamstown last month when I asked: “Are there no mediocre white people in South Africa? Is every white person hired, every white person offered admission to institutions of learning, an excellent candidate?”

My rhetorical question was premised upon what Gates and many other highly achieved blacks know and that is the myth of white supremacy is the subtext of the “qualifications” narrative that accompanies debates on affirmative action.

When I was tenured at Brown University, the process required evaluations of my work from five referees. Expected performance was a published monograph, several articles, satisfactory teaching, service and signs of international recognition. My dossier had the following: three monographs (one of which won a book award for outstanding work on human rights in North America), an edited book, a co-edited book, 40 articles (several of which had gone in reprint in international volumes), two teaching awards and service that included heading a committee that recruited 23 scholars of color to the university. The process for my promotion and tenure was dragged out because of continued requests for more referees. The number grew to 17.

There was a comparable white candidate in the philosophy department. He also supposedly worked in existentialism, one of my areas of expertise. His dossier? A contract for his dissertation and a few articles. His case was successful. His contracted dissertation was published several years later. He has since then not published a second book. He is now a full professor at that institution. Over the years, I have only met one person in his field who knew of and spoke well of his work. That person was a classmate of his in graduate school.

Was affirmative action necessary for my promotion and tenure? Yes. But as should be evident in this example and no doubt Gates’ and many others, there is another truth. Was investment in white supremacy necessary for less than stellar whites to be promoted? Yes.

Affirmative action, which brought people of color to the table to learn first-hand about the level of performance of their white predecessors and contemporaries, stimulated a reflection on standards in many institutions. As more people of color began to meet inflated standards, what were being concealed were the low standards available to the whites who preceded them (and no doubt many who continue to join them as presumed agents of excellence).

To continue reading click here: The Problem With Affirmative Action | Truthout.

White Boy Remixed: Whiteness and Teaching Race

White Boy Remixed: Whiteness and Teaching Race
| special to NewBlackMan

This summer I have dedicated to reading that stack of books I have been wanting to read. The 4th installment (I will write about the other three books on my blog) was Mark Naison’s memoir – White Boy. Naison, a professor of African American Studies at Fordham University, chronicles his personal, political and academic journey, responding to those who have ubiquitously asked how he as a white man became a professor of African American Studies. With a tremendous amount of honesty, openness, complexity, and vulnerability, Naison explores his own history as a teacher, activists, and source of community empowerment. While the book chronicles a powerful story of the 1960s – the anti-war movement, the Panthers, Columbia, identity politics – it is a story of a dynamic man whose life and insights teach us just as he has taught his students for several decades. In telling the story of the “white African American Studies professors, Naison offers a narrative that highlights how whiteness matters but how it does not define or over-determine the arch of his life or career. It is a story that resonates with me on so many levels, leading me to want to share my own story.

Like Mark Naison, I have been consistently asked about my entry into Ethnic Studies. In my first class at Washington State University, I had a student that constantly wanted to know my story. The student could not understand why this White guy was teaching African American film – what had lead me to be me – In the course of the class, he asked “How I can to be the Eminem of Ethnic Studies?” While the class oohed and aahed, some thinking it was a slight against me and others thinking it was a point of celebration, I saw it as a good question, one that could lead (and did) into some important conversations. Another day I had a group of students who came to my office asking me to settle a bet about how I came to Ethnic Studies, each having a different theory – (a) I grew up in the Black community; (b) I had a Black girlfriend or a Black wife who had taught and encouraged me to learn; (c) I was just down. In fact, I have been asked several times if I have a Black girlfriend who educated me about blackness, taught me to be committed and down, and pushed me down my educational and career path.

On another level, I have been asked if I am a “culture vulture,” in the tradition of Elvis, in that I am “taking” and “impersonating” something that I am not, in my educational and professional choices. I have also experienced much celebration being a white guy in ethnic studies. Most often such comments reflect desires for colorblindness as a presumed end goal; that is, my presence in Ethnic Studies supposedly embodies the fulfillment of King’s dream or a sign of progress. A student once sent me an e-mail that said that world was changing racially, for the better, because the best rapper was white, best golfer is black, best basketball player was Asian …and their ethnic studies teacher was white. Not to be outdone, a student cited my presence in Ethnic Studies as evidence of colorblindness, to discount our discussions about racism and inequality. However, what the student failed to see is whether or not their teacher was White, or the president is Black, racism remains a constant.

I am certainly defined by my whiteness, whether teaching ethnic studies or driving through Colfax; yet my relationship to Ethnic Studies, social justice struggles, my scholarship, my pedagogy, my ideology, my gaze upon the world, and my understanding of racism/privilege/inequality is not overly determined by a monolithic white identity formation. As Bakari Kitwana argues in Why White Kids Love Hip Hop, “Each Person has a unique story that brought him or her to hip-hop. Looking at the micro reasons as well as the macro ones helps us make sense of a contemporary hip-hop scene in which a new generation is affected by America’s racial history and in the process is constructing a new politics.” In others words, my arrival to and place within the field of Ethnic Studies (or a larger racialized discursive field) reflects a myriad of factors and experiences, ones that are neither defined exclusively by nor immune from the realities of whiteness, racism, and contemporary racial politics.

I grew up in Los Angeles in a middle-class family that spent most of its income on schools, not so much because of concerns of “safety” or even the quality of education available in the public school system. I went to an elementary school founded by Hollywood Communists, including Charlie Chaplin. During my life, I have never gone to school where we did not call our teachers by their first name; I did not receive “grades” until the 9th grade. More instructive, both detention and the pledge of allegiance were completely foreign concepts to me until high school. This educational background clearly established a foundation but this only tells part of the story.

Continue reading at New Black Man