Ideologies of Absence: Anti-Blackness and Inclusion Rhetoric in Student Affairs Practice
Colorado State University
Despite inclusion rhetoric in student affairs, anti-Blackness shapes the experiences of Black graduate and full-time professionals, who are both hypervisible and invisible in student affairs. Using four scenarios reflecting composite narratives, the author discusses how inclusion hides the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness in student affairs practice. Offering a new framework, the author discusses four ideologies of absence: (un)belonging, (un)safety, (in)validation, and (un)reward. These ideologies of absence are contrasted with four ideologies of Black presence.
Keywords: Afro-futurism, Afro-pessimism, anti-Blackness, student affairs
I wish to express my sincere appreciation to the scholars and professionals who reviewed this paper and offered valuable feedback: Drs. Z Nicolazzo and OiYan Poon, Mx. Romeo Jackson, Ms. Shaunda Brown, and Ms. Jaelyn Coates.
IDEOLOGIES OF ABSENCE:
ANTI-BLACKNESS AND INCLUSION RHETORIC IN STUDENT AFFAIRS PRACTICE
Scene 1: Black student approaches Black graduate faculty member about assistantship climate
Black Student: I keep hearing from my supervisor that they’re getting feedback from other people that I look mean and unapproachable. I don’t know what they mean by that. My supervisor told me to try smiling more.
Black Faculty Member: [Immediately thinking how familiar this sounds and how much they have been given this same message.] Hmmm. How does that make you feel?
Black Student: It makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me. Like, I just be sitting there at my desk doing my work or whatever. I’m minding my business you know and so that means I’m unapproachable?! It’s like they want me to constantly be having some stupid smile on my face all the time. I do smile when it’s warranted.
I just don’t smile all the time.
Black Faculty Member: [nodding] Of course.
Black Student: I’m not going to shuck and jive just to be seen as professional. Is that what it takes to be in this field? If so, maybe I made the wrong choice.
Black Faculty Member: Yea, I’m thinking of Stepin Fetchit and the idea that in order to be palatable and seen as not aggressive, Black people are expected to perform for the benefit of white people.
Black Student: Yea, exactly. That’s not how I’m set up.
Scene 2: Aftermath of 2016 presidential election; heightened racial animus on campus and in residence halls. Black student comes to Black faculty member to debrief how they are feeling. Black Faculty Member: So, how’s it been going in your residence hall?
Black Student: Doc it’s been rough. I’ve got residents [Students of Color, Queer, and/or Trans*] in distress. My RAs [resident assistants] are stressed out. I don’t know what to do. I’m dealing with my own responses to all this and it’s like I don’t have anywhere to go to process that stuff, you know?
Black Faculty Member: Yes, I understand what you mean. Have you talked with your supervisor about this?
Black Student: You mean my cis hetero white man supervisor? [sighs] Yes, I did.
Black Faculty Member: So…? How did he respond?
Black Student: The way they always respond in this department when we – those of us who are People of Color and/or are Trans* – bring up stuff like this. We’re told that we have a job to do and that we can’t stop just because we’re having a hard time. I KNOW I still have to do my job. I AM still doing my job. I just want to have the fact that I’m struggling too – not just my residents and staff – to be recognized and supported.
Black Faculty Member: [audible sigh] That sounds perfectly reasonable to me.
Black Student: Well, I was told that wasn’t his job and I should go to the counseling center.
Black Faculty Member: … [at a loss for words] … I’m sorry that you got that kind of response.
Black Student: Yea, me too. This field does a great job of talking about social justice, but they suck at actually practicing it. It’s bullshit. I mean, I’m sorry to curse, but I can’t be fake about it. This field is bullshit sometimes.
Scene 3: Impromptu conversation between Black woman professional and Black faculty member.
Black Faculty Member: I just had a Black graduate student ask me if she should straighten her hair before going to her first professional conference. I asked her why she would even be thinking about that. She told me that she just hadn’t seen many Black women in the field wear their hair naturally and was concerned she wouldn’t be taken seriously.
Black Woman Professional: Oh, I know exactly why she is concerned! I have been told that I should consider straightening my hair before going on job interviews to look more professional.
Black Faculty Member: [sighs] When are we going to ever get past that nonsense? What did you do?
Black Woman Professional: Oh, trust and believe that I wore my hair natural, the way it grew out of my head! If I didn’t get a call back or an offer because of my hair, that’s not a place I want to work anyway.
Black Faculty Member: That’s exactly what I told this student.
Scene 4: Black professional is out for coffee with a Black faculty member on campus.
Black Professional: Doc, you would not believe what I just had to shut down in this search committee meeting!
Black Faculty Member: What do you mean? What happened?
Black Professional: So, you know we brought three candidates to campus, a white man, a white woman, and a Black woman who was the last candidate. In our last search committee meeting, someone had the audacity to say that they didn’t think the Black candidate would be perceived as “professional.” I asked them why not. They said that it was because she answered questions “too directly” and she might be too harsh. Don’t you know other people agreed with her!
Black Faculty Member: Wait, they said what now?
Black Professional: That the Black woman was too direct and harsh! Now the white woman answered questions just as directly, but they were excited that she would “fit” well with the rest of the office.
Black Faculty Member: You’re joking with me. You’ve got to be. I can’t believe that no one else in that room recognized how blatantly racist that was. It’s such a stereotype that Black women’s forthrightness is seen as aggressive and hostile.
Black Professional: Doc. I wish I was joking. I was sitting there and could hardly believe this was happening.
Black Faculty Member: So, I know you said something.
Black Professional: Of course I did, Doc! Not on my watch! All they said was, “Oh.”
Black Faculty Member: That’s the best they could come up with? “Oh?” Ridiculous. I’m so glad you were there. Imagine what would happen if you hadn’t been there to disrupt that.
Black Professional: I know, Doc, I know. I can’t be everywhere though.
The four scenarios above represent actual conversations I have had with multiple Black graduate students and full-time professionals in student affairs. These composite narratives (Patton & Catching, 2009) are indicative of the nature of interactions Black students commonly have with white, and sometimes other racially minoritized, student affairs professionals. As a Black faculty member, I have become accustomed to being the repository of such stories that come with the implied request for support and affirmation (Guiffrida, 2005; Patton & Catching, 2009), as well as for justification of why Black people should continue in this field.
In this essay, I will explore the anti-Blackness of such interactions targeting both Black graduate students as well as Black full-time professionals in student affairs. After addressing Patel’s (2016) three questions of answerability (Why this? Why now? Why me?), I will reference the use of cultural intuition (Delgado Bernal, 1998) and stumble data (Brinkmann, 2014) to inform this analysis and how language is (not) used. The review of the literature further explores the racial and ethnic demographics of student affairs professionals, the resultant hypervisibility and invisibility of Black student affairs professionals, the framing of inclusion in student affairs, and racialized tropes – also known as controlling images (Collins, 1999).
The following portions of the essay focus on ideologies of absence, a framework to explain how anti-Blackness not only shows up, but also affects the experiences of Black people in student affairs. I also enunciate a theory of change (Patel, 2015), Black futurities in student affairs drawing on Afro-futurism, a vision of how to move forward out of anti-Blackness and white supremacy.
As Patel (2015) discussed, it is important to consider from where our ideas for educational research and praxis come. Too often, she asserted, colonial frameworks rooted in deficit assumptions inform educational research and praxis. Such frameworks locate the problems and solutions in minoritized individuals instead of in the structural systems that create and sustain conditions that result in the opportunity gaps realized by minoritized communities (Patel, 2015). I have chosen to frame the exclusionary and isolating interactions experienced by Black student affairs graduate and full-time professionals as reflective of perpetual systems of anti-Blackness operating unnamed and unchecked in the field of student affairs. This is not an issue located in the mentalities and personalities of Black people that, if those mentalities and personalities changed, would result in different and more positive experiences. The general climate in the field is characterized by white supremacy and anti-Blackness and this posture is sustained and mutually reinforced within individual student affairs divisions and offices. This is evidenced by the (un)belongingness, (un)safety, (in)validity, and (un)rewardedness prevalent in the climate of student affairs targeting Black graduate and full-time professionals.
Some may wonder why I am focusing on anti-Blackness instead of racism more generally. First, alongside settler colonialism (Tuck & Yang, 2012), as Ibram Kendi (2016) and Craig Steven Wilder (2013) have discussed, the ideology of anti-Blackness represents the foundation of the structures of anti-Black ideologies, enactments, and dispositions in the United States. Second, anti-Blackness has been and still is part of the socialization of new immigrants to this country, reinforcing a racial caste system that works to maintain the structurally degraded position of Black people relative to all others (Patel, 2015b). Third, anti-Blackness persists even in higher education despite espoused values of diversity and inclusion (Dancy, Edwards, & Davis, 2018) and regardless of the presence of Black leadership (Bonilla-Silva, 2015). AntiBlackness is more than prejudice or bias; it is a multifaceted paradigm of thought in action that works against the survival and life chances of Black people, ideas, and ways of being in the world through structures of white supremacist domination (Dancy et al., 2018; Sexton, 2012). Anti-Blackness hides within the rhetoric of inclusion, unexamined and unchecked, excluding and targeting Black people through ideologies of absence.
By centering anti-Blackness, I acknowledge that I am drawing on an academic lineage of Afro-pessimism led by such scholars as Frank B. Wilderson III and Jared Sexton (Wilderson, Hartman, Martinot, Sexton, & Spillers, 2017; Sexton, 2012, 2016) but which has proliferated in diverse directions. Despite this ideological proliferation, Afro-pessimism can be said to generally deal with “questions of how and whether Black people can be constructed as members of humanity, when mainstream frameworks have primarily relied on white supremacy to create definitions of ‘humanity’” (Prescod-Weinstein, 2017, para. 2). Applied to student affairs and this discussion, these questions are of how and whether Black people can be constructed as wholly members of the student affairs profession, when mainstream frameworks of professionalism and fit in student affairs have primarily relied on white supremacy to create definitions of the ideal student affairs professional.
By adopting an anti-Blackness framework, it is important that I acknowledge my framing of anti-Blackness runs counter to three contentions that Olaloku-Teriba (2018) has raised with regard to the perceived limitations of Afro-pessimism to support change and transformation. First, I am not arguing for the exceptionality of anti-Black oppression over and above all other iterations of settler colonialism and white supremacy. Rather, as indicated above, I am asserting the historical rootedness and present intransigence of anti-Black oppression within the U.S. context. Second, Olaloku-Teriba (2018) references the Puerto Rican Young Lords Party as an example of non-Black People of Color who were able to learn from and use the tools of the Black Panther Party. I believe that what the Young Lords understood was that they could not fully analyze or counter ideologies and practices of racialism broadly without examining the origins of race and its particular manifestations in Black death. Third, I position antiBlackness as consistent with a broader critique of settler colonialism in that anti-Blackness is made possible by and necessary to settler projects of colonialism, imperialism, and militarism. Anti-Blackness is one iteration of a broad ethic of domination enforced in settler colonial and White supremacist societies. Despite Olaloku-Teriba’s contention otherwise, to be anticolonial and anti-racist are not oppositional but diunital.
Discussion and exploration of anti-Blackness and white supremacy in the practice of student affairs is not only timely, but also necessary, given the national sociopolitical climate that has exposed the pervasiveness of these oppressive systems in particular. Anti-Blackness and white supremacy have continued unchecked despite declarations that the Obama presidency (January 2009-January 2017) had introduced a new era of post-racialism in the United States (Bonilla-Silva, 2015) that was disrupted by the campaign, election, and presidency of Donald J. Trump beginning in January 2017.
Discussion of racial justice and decolonization in the field also necessitates deeper exploration of the ways in which anti-Blackness and white supremacy show up in the professional experiences of Black student affairs graduate and full-time professionals. ACPA-College Student Educators International (ACPA) launched their Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization under the leadership of Dr. Stephen John Quaye in 2016 (ACPA, n.d.). NASPA-Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education (NASPA) has identified equity and diversity among its 10 focus issues (NASPA, n.d.). These general conversations about equity and diversity, as well as the seemingly more specific and actionable focus on racial justice and decolonization, implore the field to take seriously the particularity of (in)equity, (in)justice, (non-)diversity, and (anti-)colonialism as they affect and reflect the perpetuation of antiBlackness and white supremacy.
Finally, to date the empirical and scholarly discussion of white supremacy and whiteness in the field of student affairs has been limited to theoretical frameworks of higher education (Patton, 2015; Patton, McEwen, Rendón, & Howard-Hamilton, 2007), the field’s scholarship (Cabrera, Franklin, & Watson, 2016; Harper, 2012; Patton, Harper, & Harris, 2015), and its enactments in student affairs graduate preparation (Bondi, 2012; Hubain, Allen, Harris, & Linder, 2016; Linder, Harris, Allen, & Hubain, 2015; Linder & Simmons, 2015; Robbins, 2016). Although Black graduate students have led this discussion through conference presentations and papers (Brown, Thompson, Spears, Hillard, & Butler, 2018; Stewart, 2018), theses and dissertations (Grimes, 2018; Johnson, 2019; Lacy, 2017; McLaren Turner, 2016), as well as chapters (Stewart, Collier, & Lacy, in press) and journals outside student affairs (Turner & Grauerholz, 2017), anti-Blackness in/as student affairs practice has not received broad attention in the published scholarship of the field. This has resulted in graduate student scholarship – that has been largely qualitative – to be seen as isolated and not representative of general patterns in student affairs practice. Additionally, the integration of popular culture may be seen as comical or trendy but not “real” (J. Coates, personal communication, January 18, 2019). Itself an enactment of anti-Blackness (exorcising the legitimacy and validity of Black people’s experiences), this knowledge erasure also reflects ongoing epistemic bias against qualitative methodology and the elitist positioning of only certain kinds of knowledge as scholarly. All of these reasons provide compelling impetus for the current discussion.
Black feminist scholarship (Collins, 1999) has affirmed subjectivity as a valid standpoint from which to engage theory and empirical analysis. In so doing, these scholars referenced above have acknowledged that those targeted by structural oppression are often better equipped to perceive and analyze their conditions and the systems that produce them. Over the course of the last 24 years, I have been in conversation with other Black graduate and full-time professionals and I couple that with my own experiences as a Black full-time professional, Black graduate student, and now a Black faculty member who has taught in four graduate preparation programs. These interactions and experiences have made me intimately familiar with the anti-Blackness that attends the experiences of Black people in student affairs work. This lens, a cultural intuition (Delgado Bernal, 1998) enables me to perceive and collect the stumble data (Brinkmann, 2014) of everyday life that evidences anti-Blackness in student affairs practice.
Further, at this point in my career in the field, I feel compelled to speak out and against the practices that serve to exorcise and erect barriers to the inclusion of Black graduate and full-time professionals in student affairs. I refuse to allow narratives of exceptionalism and deservingness to rationalize the presence and success of some (including me) in order to invisibilize structures of anti-Blackness that yet function to prevent and suppress the participation and contributions of Black people in student affairs generally. In the spirit of my Black forebears (Baldwin, n.d.; Davis; 2016; hooks, 2000), I am motivated by my love for this field to take a stand.
A final point about the language used throughout this essay. Writing is an exercise of power (Stewart, Croom, Lange, & Linder, 2017). I contest and challenge those enactments of power in two ways in this essay. First, among those enactments of power is the function and use of capitalization, which works to (de)elevate certain groups (Pérez-Huber, 2010; Stewart et al., 2017). Though inconsistent with formatting guidelines recommended by the American Psychological Association (2009), I have chosen to follow Pérez-Huber (2010) and not capitalize white while capitalizing Black and its related forms, including Blackness. This capitalization practice helps to center and elevate the systemic conditions and perspectives of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), while decentering white people and whiteness.
Second, I use the term graduate and full-time professionals throughout this essay instead of demarcating full-time staff from graduate students as the only ones deserving of professional status. By using graduate and full-time professionals, I distinguish the status difference as one of percentage of effort not one of the nature of the work. Refusing to say graduate students and professionals recognizes that graduate students in student affairs are expected to show up as professionals from day one in their assistantships. In the absence of supporting graduate preparation programs, the very same responsibilities of the graduate assistantship (or two or three combined) would comprise those of an entry-level full-time professional. As a result, it is an artifice of patriarchy and paternalism to deprofessionalize the graduate student employee’s contributions to the professional function of a student affairs unit.
In this section, I discuss what is known of the demographic presence of Black student affairs professionals and how inclusion is framed and has been contested within the field. I conclude with enunciation of the racialized tropes and controlling images (Collins, 1999) that confront Black people in the United States.
Racial/Ethnic Demographics of Student Affairs Professionals
Data regarding the demographics of student affairs professionals are hard to capture. The two general student affairs associations, ACPA and NASPA, record demographic data on their memberships, but do not publicize such data. It is commonly understood that most full-time Professionals of Color are concentrated in multicultural/ethnic student services roles (Stewart, 2016). This ghettoizing of BIPOC professionals serves to isolate and exclude these professionals from broader inclusion and engagement with student affairs practice.
Moreover, this demographic composition results in the hypervisibility and invisibility of Black student affairs professionals across the field and also within institutional divisions specifically. Hypervisibility is the condition of being subject to heightened scrutiny, observation, and policing due to one’s limited representation and affects Black graduate and full-time professionals in student affairs (Krusemark, 2012; Stewart, Collier, & Lacy, in press). Invisibility, on the other hand, speaks to the corollary experience of being ignored, dismissed, and invalidated also due to one’s limited representation (Krusemark, 2012). In student affairs, the limited presence of Black graduate students and full-time professionals is characterized by both conditions. The actions, demeanors, and decisions of Black professionals are hypervisible, subject to enhanced critique/criticism to write narratives of either exceptionalism or in support of narratives of Black professionals’ – to borrow from Gutiérrez y Muhs, Flores Niemann, González, and Harris (2012) – presumed incompetence.
Existing alongside this hyper/in-visibility, student affairs has asserted a set of competencies enunciating expectations for student affairs practice (ACPA & NASPA, 2015). There are 10 competencies that include social justice and inclusion. ACPA and NASPA (2015)’s summary of this competency area stated,
This competency involves student affairs educators who have a sense of their own agency and social responsibility that includes others, their community, and the larger global context. Student affairs educators may incorporate social justice and inclusion competencies into their practice through seeking to meet the needs of all groups, equitably distributing resources, raising social consciousness, and repairing past and current harms on campus communities. (p. 14)
Within the document, further enunciation of the social justice and inclusion competency is portrayed as having foundational, intermediate, and advanced levels. The progression from foundational to advanced competency reflects movement from basic awareness and understanding to increasing enactments of advocacy, action, and leadership in social justice and inclusion initiatives in one’s own work and institutional context (ACPA & NASPA, 2015).
Rhetoric of Inclusion
I don’t want equal rights with the white man; if I did, I’d be a thief and a murderer. What I really feel is necessary is that the [B]lack people, in this country will have to upset the applecart. We can no longer ignore the fact that America [sic] is NOT the “… land of the free and the home of the brave.” (Hamer, 1967, p. 15)
In the legacy of Black Civil Rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, both popular figures and academic scholars have heavily critiqued inclusion as a goal and as failing to produce sustained transformative change in, and disruption of, institutional systems of power (see Ahmed, 2012; Kondabulu, 2019; Stewart, 2017a). Particularly, Stewart (2017a) has noted that the rhetoric of inclusion (and diversity) has proven to be a “language of appeasement” for institutional leaders to avoid the more challenging and disruptive discussion of equity and justice. Contrasting diversity and inclusion with equity and justice, I pointed out that inclusion rhetoric extols four goals as ultimately desirable within higher education communities. First, the multiplicity and plurality of ideas is encouraged with the assumption that the best solutions come from the proliferation of ideas and discussion. Second, inclusion rhetoric asserts the need for all members of the community to feel safe. Safety is understood as feeling comfortable and being comforted in whatever ideological positions one holds. Third, the unequivocal validity of all opinions and perspectives to be expressed and supported is heralded. Biased language and hate speech cannot be punitively dealt with in the interests of free speech and cultivation of respectful and civil dialogue. Fourth, inclusion rhetoric seeks to reward changes and improvements that reflect demographic shifts toward greater diversity, but not cultural or organizational shifts toward greater equity. Ultimately, inclusion rhetoric seeks more voices at the table representing diverse communities without inviting the critique, challenge, and (de) construction of existing systems of power and privilege (Stewart, 2017).
Racialized Tropes and Controlling Images
In the midst of diversity and inclusion rhetoric that sometimes extends to discussions of social justice, anti-Blackness can exist through racialized tropes and what Collins (1999) coined as “controlling images.” As Collins (1999) and Kendi (2016) have both reviewed, portrayals of Black people as lazy, hyper/de-sexualized, domineering, criminal, and dysfunctional have pervaded the U.S. consciousness informing national and state policy, from public welfare to education to policing. These racialized tropes and controlling images, rooted in white supremacist colonial ideologies, also inform approaches to the so-called achievement gap among students by race and ethnicity in education from primary to tertiary levels (Fine, 2018; Patel, 2015a). It would be disingenuous to presume that these tropes and images have not affected the way Black graduate and full-time professionals are understood, and consequently treated, in student affairs practice.
Ideologies of Absence
These racialized tropes and controlling images inform the ideologies of absence reflected in the opening scenarios presented in this article. An old, familiar approach to children’s presence in the company of adults is that they should be “seen but not heard.” Ideologies of absence position Black graduate and full-time professionals in student affairs akin to children who should be present (included) but not heard (disrupting the status quo). Following, I will identify four ideologies of absence that are corollaries to the four goals of inclusion enunciated earlier.
Absence as (Un)Belonging
Although inclusion rhetoric seeks to make everyone feel like members together of one civil community, this first form of absence works to render some to belong, but not others. As a counterpoint to the theoretical framework sense of belonging developed by Strayhorn (2012), belongingness is a condition produced by institutional systems and structures that include some, while excluding others. People are subject to belongingness narratives; it is not a frame of mind or attitudinal disposition alterable by psychological conditioning. In fact, being made to belong, “citizenship,” is a privilege bestowed upon those who have assimilated to ways of being and doing that have been normalized, optimized, and centered within institutional systems based on whiteness. At the same time, others are made not to belong for failing to display appropriate ways of being and doing.
Each of the scenarios that introduced this essay portray forms of absence as (un)belonging. The first scenario involves a Black graduate student who has been made the subject of conversations about his disposition and fit for student affairs work. This student is being made not to belong for failing to portray the normalized student affairs demeanor of perpetual cheerfulness. This is evidenced by the proposed solution that the student simply smile more. Belongingness also
comes up in the second scenario through the supervisor’s injunction to his Black graduate student to focus on doing the work and not to the ways they are personally struggling to make sense of the national sociopolitical climate. The crux of the message is that the right way to belong in student affairs is to prioritize work and service to others over one’s need for a caring community. The third and fourth scenarios illustrate the specific ways that anti-Blackness couples with misogynoir (Bailey, 2010; Trudy, 2014) to target Black women in the field. Black women’s choices around hairstyle and appearance generally, as well as communication styles render Black women uniquely subject to unbelonging in student affairs.
Absence as (Un)Safety
The second goal of inclusion is safety, feeling safe and being safe from too much challenge. This is contrary to what Arao and Clemens (2013) have coined as brave spaces. Brave spaces encourage risk taking and distinguish the discomfort of being challenged from being exposed to psychological, emotional, or physical harm. This refutation of “safe spaces” that center and prioritize the needs of those who are privileged denounces the idea that comfort is requisite for safety to exist. Like belonging, dominant narratives extend safety to some while withholding it from others. Similarly then, one can be made (un)safe as an outcome of one’s assimilation or fit with the dominant culture. As both subject and object, Black professionals both are made unsafe and are made to be unsafe for others within dominant student affairs culture.
A return to the opening scenarios will make this clearer. The injunction to smile more and make oneself less intimidating has historical import for Black people, and particularly for Black women. The display of a flat affect – a resting face – is interpreted as hostile, aggressive, intimidating, and mean (Clifton, 2015). These assumptions are made in the absence of any other provocative behavior. Others perceive themselves to be unsafe in the presence of a Black person who is not actively and consistently playing the role of the happy Negro (Stewart, 2015), one who is not “shucking and jiving.” Alternately, the enforcement of Black smiles and softness works to render Black professionals unsafe in their work environments, not free to express themselves, or not, as they see fit.
Absence as (In)Validation
The dominant rhetoric of inclusion sees all ideas as equally worthy of expression and discussion. This unequivocal validation places fascist rhetoric alongside enunciations of #BlackLivesMatter as both sides of an issue that must be given equal platforms on campus. In so doing, fascist ideas are validated as appropriate expressions in the public sphere (Stewart, 2017b) while antiracist ideas are validated only if expressed in the presence of its opposite. Again, validity and validation are best understood as an enacted force instead of as the inherent quality of an idea.
The second scenario provides a useful illustration. Recall that in this exchange, the Black student/professional-in-training is told that their own feelings of (un)safety on campus and in the local community has no relevance for the performance of their professional duties. They are told that they still have to do the job and to take their needs for validation and support outside the workplace to the counseling center. Moreover, in another iteration of this conversation, a Black professional is told unironically in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election that “conservative students need to feel safe too.” The assertion of the need to preserve the safety of conservative students is made in the total absence of any evidence, historically or currently, of systematic suppression and silencing of conservative ideologies through law, custom, physical violence. However, Black student affairs staff, who are witnessing the realtime violent suppression and silencing of anti-racist activism through multiple forms of state violence, are told that their needs for safety, affirmation, and support are invalid. Moreover, the haunting specter and ongoing reality of the systemic proliferation of Black death are invalidated.
In another way, each of the other scenarios also engages forms of invalidation. Relaxed dispositions, forthright engagement, and just showing up as one was born are each rendered invalid and contrary to expectations of professionalism. Professional validity is found in being deemed approachable, palatable, and consistent with how everyone else (i.e., white people) shows up in the work space. The problem here lies not with these Black students and professionals. The solution to these scenarios is not for them to smile more, straighten their hair, repress their emotions, or work on being more indirect and passive in their approach to others. Quite the contrary, both the problem and the solution lie in the unqualified adoption of anti-Black, white supremacist ethics of practice. Being made valid and being validated is a privilege once again reserved for those are already protected by systems of power.
Absence as (Un)Rewarded
Stewart (2017a, 2018) also noted that inclusion efforts seek to reward effort and incremental changes in compositional diversity in an organization. This reward system does not lead to institutional transformation nor does it disrupt systems of power that are in operation. Such rewards focus attention on cosmetic, superficial changes easily measured through quantifiable data. The mere presence of Black people (as well as other People of Color) in student affairs relative to their historical absence is seen as laudatory. The proliferation of “firsts” to achieve this or that position, award, and/or leadership role is considered indicative of progress. Moderate increases in the proportion of Black applicants to a graduate program or inclusion of Black finalists for a position outside of multicultural affairs and ethnic student services are celebrated. Institutional stakeholders credit themselves with providing support and impetus for these signs of progress.
As a result, Black professionals are made into rewards and symbols of progress in a power structure that remains unaltered. Though not specifically enunciated in the opening scenarios, the tokenism to which Black graduate and full-time professionals are subjected is yet apparent. The tax for presence, for professional entry, is assimilation. Once allowed into the field through graduate preparation and full-time employment, the Black professional is expected to show up in the field in ways consistent with dominant norms.
Moreover, the Black professional themself is unrewarded for their presence. Presumed to be the beneficiary of benevolent inclusion efforts by white senior administrators and faculty, Black professionals’ own labor and creative genius to navigate structural barriers to access these institutional spaces is downplayed or even disregarded. Further, any weaknesses are justifications of prior doubts about their admission or hiring, while successes are scrutinized and held under suspicion. In a power structure that goes out of its way to recognize and reward white effort over effectiveness or achievement, Black effort is deemed inadequate and is unrewarded.
Through these four forms of absence – (un)belonging, (un)safety, (in)validation, and (un) rewarded – Black graduate and full-time professionals experience an anti-Blackness that works systematically and structurally to exorcise and reduce their professional chances in student affairs. This is not to say that Indigenous and other People of Color do not share these experiences. They do. However, it is important to recognize that being subjected to anti-Blackness does not dilute the fact that anti-Blackness is in operation. Also, not all Black graduate and full-time professionals will resonate with these experiences. Ethnicity and (im) migration history, social class background, professional mentoring, and/or prior experiences navigating historically and structurally white environments, differentially impacts how Black graduate and full-time professionals experience anti-Blackness.
Futurities of Blackness in Student Affairs
So then, what? Patel (2015) noted that one’s critique is only as good as one’s theory of change. Heeding her call, I turn from the focus on the intractability of Black death in Afro-pessimism to the realities and possibilities of life – for Black people and others – in the technocultural ideology of Afro-futurism developed by Mark Dery (2008) in the early 1990s and further advanced by Alondra Nelson (2002). As Steven Thrasher (2015) noted, [A] tenet of Afrofuturism deals with black people being told they must adhere to divisions that don’t exist, and only accept a limited number of stories about ourselves, such that we have an extremely limited concept of what material reality can be. (para. 7)
As Wilson Okello (2018) has noted, Black bodies are more than vessels of oppression and trauma, but rather also exist as carriers of transformation and liberation. As such, I invoke Afro-futurism to reject these ideologies of absence couched in student affairs’ practices of the rhetoric of inclusion. In so doing, I forward new stories about Black graduate and full-time professionals and the material realities of our student affairs practice.
I refer to these new stories as ideologies of Black presence. I understand this presence as twofold: Black as present and accounted for and Black as present then, now, and again. Black presence as present and accounted for affirms that Black graduate and professionals are – as the current idiom goes – outchea. To be outchea [out here] is to be visible and engaged in whatever comes one’s way. Black graduate and professionals are present and accounted for, showing up and showing out as the Black cultural expression says. Despite efforts to exorcise and contain Blackness, Black graduate and full-time professionals are indeed outchea and taking charge of their own lives and professional trajectories.
Black presence as present then, now, and again speaks to the historical (then), present (now), and ongoing future (again) of Black people and Blackness in student affairs practice. From Dean Lucy Diggs Slowe at Howard University in the early 20th century to current collectives of Black graduate and full-time professionals in online movement and support spaces such as the Twitter presence of @BlkSAP (Black Student Affairs Professionals), Blackness has influenced, directed, and changed the course of student affairs practice. This influence, direction, and change is promised to continue through upcoming generations of Black undergraduate students seeking to enter the field of student affairs.
These presences make themselves known through four forms of this ideology of Black presence: Black belonging, Black safety, Black validation, and Black reward. I explore each of these briefly. Black belonging draws on the acknowledgement – shared with Indigenous peoples – that lineage and ancestry matters. A common Black expression, “Who your people?” reflects that belonging comes through connection to a historical lineage of presence. Family members and professional mentors come together to construct lineages of memory and motivation. These lineages also are turned to as an explanation of how one is showing up in a space. Who your people are positions you as a recipient and bearer of accountability and responsibility to live up and into the hopes and dreams of those who pushed you forward. Belongingness unbecomes notions of disposition while becoming an apparatus of connectedness to family, community, and self.
Black safety is likewise rooted in connectedness. Stories abound among Black people of finding safety in Grandmama’s bosom, her kitchen, behind the porch curtains. Grandmama may not know anything about your particular profession or professional woes but led with love and desire to see you be full of life. Our Grandmamas capture the vital role of elders and the femme ethic of nurture, compassion, and guidance through “tough love.” Grandmama did not excuse and agree with everything you did, but skillfully combined correction and love. Senior-level Black faculty and professionals of all genders in student affairs can be “Grandmamas” to Black graduate and full-time professionals providing warmth, affirmation, guidance, and validation.
Black validation then extends the notion of Black safety. As Black educational historians such as Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot (1983) and Vanessa Siddle Walker (1996) have found, segregated Black schools were incubators of excellence because Black teachers were able to specifically and intentionally validate and nurture the development of their Black students. Such incubator spaces function as more than collection plates of grievances. In fact, such spaces as @BlkSAP, NASPA’s African American Knowledge Community, and ACPA’s Pan-African Network carve out safe spaces for the nurturing, development, and launching of Black genius in student affairs practice. These safe spaces are designed not to protect participants from the discomforts of engaging competing perspectives. Indeed, Black people have no access to such escapism. Rather, in alignment with the actual intent of safe spaces (Ahmed, 2012), incubator spaces for Black student affairs graduate and full-time professionals can help to strengthen and equip participants to remain present. It is important to note, however, that in order to fulfill this validating function, such spaces must not then replicate other forms of whiteness and settler colonialism by excluding Black queer, trans*, immigrant, and religiously diverse graduate and full-time professionals.
Finally, Black reward as a form of the ideology of Black presence prioritizes high expectations for achievement of identifiable goals and going beyond the bare minimum. As the Black cultural saying goes, you are not given the most for “doing the least.” Rewards are withheld from those merely meeting the minimum qualifications but are extended to those who strive for excellence. Moreover, achievement despite the obstacles of white supremacy is noticed, acknowledged, and held up as testimony of the refusal to be (made) absent. The presence of Black reward rejects notions of reward as something granted later after a hard life/career. The presence of Black reward makes reward a right-now happening and one that is best given by and through community. In the safe bosom of Black validation and belonging, Black reward functions against other reward systems designed to reify “mainstream frameworks [that] have primarily relied on white supremacy” (Prescod-Weinstein, 2017, para. 2).
Rejecting anti-Blackness and its expression in these ideologies of absence goes beyond increases in demographic representation and goals of achieving critical mass of Black graduate and full-time professionals in student affairs programs and offices. Such a recruiting push unaccompanied by deep transformative change in consciousness could further the hyper/ invisibility that Black graduate and full-time professionals already face. Those in the field must acknowledge that the perpetuation of internalized anti-Blackness has a broad reach to white, non-Black POC, and other Black student affairs professionals. Anti-Black student affairs practice is incapable of achieving racial justice or decolonization and is incapable of leading or inspiring true transformative change toward equity and justice. Consequently, student affairs practice, and higher education generally (Stewart, 2017b), must make a deliberate turning toward Blackness, neither away nor aside from it, as an ethic of anti-racism.
#BlackLivesMatter in student affairs too.
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