Within academia in recent years, there has been a concerted effort to re-center the perspectives and rights to free speech of the status quo at the expense of the safety and wellbeing of queer, trans, racialized, and Indigenous communities. Historically, critical race scholars have identified the centering of freedom of speech as an exercise by the old-guard in white supremacist culture to repurpose and repackage language about political freedoms in an effort to retain white settler control of a society that has long outgrown stunted ideologies about binary gender norms, and the continued oppression of Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities. Through our hard-fought lessons learned from often painful lived experiences as queer, trans, and Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) scholars and activists, this paper aims to: 1) Archive and document the testimonies and experiences of multiply-marginalized students and emergent faculty in the field of community psychology in a mid-sized Canadian university; 2) Utilize critical and intersectional analyses in unpacking the layers of violence and harm expressed and experienced through case examples; 3) Use our experiences to share strategies on the successful navigation of white supremacy in the academic spaces in which we work and learn; and 4) Call academic disciplines, including community psychology, to action by identifying their ethical responsibility to cultivate non-violent spaces for BIPOC people.
The “Ivory Tower” is more than just a metaphor or emblem of the western academy. For racialized, Indigenous, queer, differently abled, and equity-seeking groups trying to survive the academy, the very image it conjures of a cold and uninviting white structure, perhaps carved from actual ivory, standing as a prophetic symbol representing the carnage of past and ongoing colonial violence within its hallowed white halls. Our very existence, our very presence is a disruption; thus, this paper serves as documentation of our stories, survival and disruption.
This paper serves as a collective reflection on our group discussions, which have informed the crafting of case examples that are composites of our collective experiences and depict the intersectional violence we individually and collectively experience daily as Indigenous, racialized and/or queer people within the academy. By unpacking these case examples, we draw attention to the nuances and layered complexities of the manifestation of systemic racism, transphobia, and oppression in the western academy, and in the field of community psychology, more specifically. Through the hard fought lessons learned from our often painful lived experiences as queer, trans, and Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) scholars and activists, this paper aims to: 1) Archive and document the testimonies and experiences of multiply-marginalized students and emergent faculty in the field of community psychology in a mid-sized Canadian university; 2) Utilize critical and intersectional analyses in unpacking the layers of violence and harm expressed and experienced through case examples; 3) Use our own experiences to share strategies on the successful navigation of white supremacy in the academic spaces in which we work and learn; and 4) Call academic disciplines, including community psychology to action by identifying their ethical responsibility to cultivate non-violent spaces for BIPOC people. That is, the purpose of this paper is to document our collective invisibilized experiences of violence in academia and to give support and guidance to those who experience similar oppressions, while calling on academic disciplines and fields of practice to take accountable and rectifiable action. As such, we reference the misappropriation of free speech advocacy only to provide a necessary context within which our experiences and discussions are situated.
Who We Are
We are a diverse group of graduate students and faculty in the Community Psychology program at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, within the settler nation-state of Canada. Our identities involve many intersections - we are Black, Indigenous, people of colour, queer, trans, Two-Spirit, differently-abled, and white allies. We meet on a monthly basis to discuss our ongoing work as a collective, centering themes of racial injustice and Indigenous sovereignty, in conjunction with misogyny, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, and classism - both within and outside the academy. Our meetings have become a space of refuge to engage in critical anti-oppressive conversations about how we navigate and survive within postsecondary institutions, the field of community psychology and academia more generally - all of which operate within white supremacist ideology. In the absence of spaces to engage in open, honest, and transparent discussions about our experiences, we recognized the need to intentionally carve out room to engage in critical, collective, and reflective conversations and praxis. The following statements and case studies are nested in a burgeoning culture of accountability in research that steers the process of academic writing away from imperial positivist “objectivity,” where a distant expert is supposed to document research processes without bias or any personal connection to perspectives and evidence, towards academic writing that is both personal, collective, and political. This myth of objectivity is rooted in a long tradition of colonial research from which we hope to move away in order to decenter western and eurocentric worldviews and approaches to research and writing.
To facilitate an understanding of our experiences within the greater context of academia in the settler nation-state known as Canada, we begin this section with an introduction to terminology used throughout this work, followed by a brief introduction to the multiple ways in which Canada has systematically marginalized BIPOC communities under the guise of education.
In the historical framing of our experiences, we will use the following terminology: Settler Colonialism refers to the ongoing processes by which white settlers occupy land, establish exclusionary infrastructure and systems, and claim ownership over land and resources by way of the violent removal of Indigenous Peoples on their lands (Glenn, 2015). Racialized refers to those of us who have been categorized as ‘Other’ within white supremacist societies, based on socially constructed racial categories (Ontario Human Rights Commission, n.d.); such racial construction has resulted in tangible and material differences, as well as psychological antagonism, in how we are perceived and treated in western society. BIPOC refers to Black, Indigenous, People of Colour - a term originating in queer activist spaces within Toronto, Canada (Garcia, 2020; Grind Toronto, 2013) that aims to unite Indigenous, Black, and racialized people in liberation work. At the same time, we acknowledge that the ongoing processes of systemic white supremacy and settler colonialism uniquely impact Black and Indigenous Peoples who face the most dire consequences of white supremacist society - the legacies of slavery, which drives capitalism to the present day, and colonialism, which continues to erase Indigenous sovereignty and ownership of territory (Sunrise Movement, 2020). In utilizing these terminologies, we outline how white supremacist logic underpins Canadian society.
Free Speech or Hate Speech?
We define white supremacy as the principle that a culture of whiteness -a transmutable socially constructed concept associated with people of european heritage who possess white skin - is superior to all other cultures, and thus, more deserving of centrality within society. A culture of white supremacy normalizes experiences of white people and expressions of whiteness, regularly centering and legitimizing these narratives within policy and practice (Bondi, 2012; Gillborn, 2006). White supremacist and colonial logics underpin both mundane and extraordinary racist phenomena, normalizing and legitimizing everything from genocidal policies, starvation, and the forcible removal of Indigenous communities from their lands for white settlement and capitalist profiteering, to the racist categorization of natural Black hair as “unprofessional” and “untamed” compared to silky white tresses within the academy and other workspaces (Simmons, 2019; Smith, 2012). The most recent manifestation of white supremacy that has emerged within academic spaces is the prioritization of white narratives, fragility, feelings of safety, and free speech at the expense of the safety, wellbeing, and human rights of BIPOC communities (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 1990). The result has been a sweltering campaign that aims to co-opt and misappropriate ideologies about the right to “freedom of speech,” which is used to thinly veil white supremacist, racist, homophobic, and xenophobic rhetoric.
At a superficial level, the recent resurgence of advocacy for freedom of speech in the Canadian context seems to harken back to historical free-thinkers and those who fought for democracy within, and outside of Canada. Advocates for unbridled freedom of speech reference the importance of engagement in academic debate, honouring the Socratic method of intellectual interrogation, which underpins the western positivist academy (Delgado & Stefancic, 2018). However, a closer examination reveals that this resurgence and co-optation of the free speech movement is led primarily by conservative, white, cisgendered people, who claim their right to free speech while denying the humanity, realities, rights, and lived experiences of those belonging to marginalized communities, namely, queer, trans, and BIPOC communities (Off, 2016; Tabachnick, 2018). Using free speech advocacy to frame their actions, many proponents of “open inquiry” within the academy provide significant platforms for white nationalist and neo-nazi collectives within Canada to further their racist, xenophobic, anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, and anti-2SLGBTQ+ rhetoric.
The frequent dismissal of hate speech, as a necessary consequence of white, patriarchal, cisgendered free speech is intentional and violent in the harm it causes racialized and marginalized people, who are already systemically silenced in our society (Elghawaby, 2018; Koggel, 2018; Kurtz et al., 2008). In particular, this harm is illustrated through an analysis of those who are afforded the right to freedom of speech. For instance, in the wake of recent public outcry against ongoing settler colonial violence and police brutality directed towards BIPOC communities in Canada and the United States (US), freedom of speech has been publicly denied to protestors fighting for justice through the systematic use of paramilitary weaponry, including flash grenades and tear gas (Rogers, 2020). Protesters supporting the Black Lives Matter movement have been labeled “disruptors, thugs, and goons” by the 45th President of the United States (Trump, 2020). In Canada, land and water defenders peacefully protesting environmental destruction have been forcibly removed from their lands and have been the targets of rubber bullets and tasers - state violence carried out by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in British Columbia on Wet’suwet’en territory (Hosgood, 2020), and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee in Caledonia, Ontario (North Shore, 2020). To be clear, there is no “correct” way for Black, Indigenous, and people of colour communities to protest for their (our) lives and livelihoods.
The misappropriation, weaponization and selective nature with which the argument for freedom of speech is applied within the Canadian and US contexts reveals the nefarious mask project of white supremacy behind the free speech movement, which has long been verified and voiced by critical race scholars (Matsuda et al., 1993). Historically, critical race scholars have identified the centering of freedom of speech as an exercise by the old-guard in white supremacist culture to repurpose and repackage language about political freedoms in an effort to retain white settler control of a society that has long outgrown stunted ideologies about binary gender norms, and the continued oppression of BIPOC communities based on dated and problematic racial hierarchies (Matsuda et al., 1993). A white settler’s right to free speech does not, and cannot be permitted to trump marginalized people’s human rights and their right to exist - free from discrimination and violence (OHRC, 1990).
The Problem of White Supremacy in the Academy
When educational institutions brazenly use the narrative of freedom of speech to carve out space for white supremacist viewpoints, their connivance in racist violence is immediately recognizable. However, in the Canadian context, white supremacy in educational institutions extends beyond conscious discrimination. Historically, Canadian white supremacist educational institutions were leveraged as tools of colonial violence that systematically targeted BIPOC communities with generations of abusive policies and practices (Smith, 2004; Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012), including segregation and physical abuse in spaces such as residential schools and the schools for colored children (The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children Restorative Inquiry, n.d.; Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015). The violent oppression of BIPOC communities carried out through Canada’s educational institutions illustrates that modern systems of education within Canada are built upon a foundation of white supremacy. The policies of these colonial governments and religious regimes continue to play out through history for Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour. For instance, it wasn’t until 1951, when the Indian Act was amended, that Indigenous Peoples were able to keep their “Indian” status if they wanted to pursue higher education. While Canadian educational institutions increasingly generate diversity-related policies, there is limited research on the practical impact of these policies (Smith, 2004). Current research demonstrates that experiences of exclusion, discrimination, and oppression are far from a thing of the past for Indigenous, Black, and racialized students in Canada.
Despite academic institutions’ diversity and policy statements, BIPOC students and faculty continue to experience racism and discrimination, the effects of which are compounded by the ongoing denial of racism as an issue within postsecondary institutions (Bailey, 2016; Milem et al., 2005; Morrison, 2010; Mohamed & Began, 2019; Santa-Ramirez et al., 2020). Indigenous, Black, and racialized scholars and students within Canada continue to address how universities have denied the role that racism plays within the academy, as those in power continue to create barriers to transformative structural change, and equitable, safer spaces (Bailey, 2016). This denial is deeply embedded in the structures of academia where diversity statements can be used as a screen for institutions to hide systemic inequalities. Furthermore, these policies and statements are often inconsistent in practice, inadequate to transform institutions, and fail to challenge the dominant culture and discourse of whiteness within academia (Henry & Tator, 2010; Robinson, 2013; Santa-Ramirez et al., 2020). Additionally, diversity initiatives often fail to meet the demands for accountable change (Ahmad & Swan, 2006; Bailey, 2016; Mohamed & Beagan 2019; Morrison, 2010), as these statements and policies are often limited, intangible, and have minimal impact for Indigenous, Black, and racialized students, staff, and faculty. This lack of action and denial by academic institutions perpetuate the violence of racism, invalidation, and lack of support for BIPOC faculty, staff, and students.
For Indigenous, Black, and racialized students, staff and faculty, the academic experience is often fraught with multiple barriers and forms of discrimination, which can include microaggressions, tokenization, self-doubt, isolation, and frustration. (Bailey, 2016; 2011; Hubain et al., 2016; Mohamed & Began, 2019; Verjee, 2005). In addition, the lack of BIPOC representation in staffing can lead to feelings of isolation, and being positioned as an outsider (Mohamed & Began, 2019). This often leaves Indigenous, Black, and racialized faculty and students with the exhausting burden of continuously vocalizing the harm of racism; moreover, BIPOC people are expected to educate white peers, professors, and administration about racism, which can lead to trauma-inducing events and burnout (Grant et al., 2018; Morrison, 2010; Timmons et al., 2009). Simultaneously, there is pressure for Indigenous, Black, and racialized faculty and students to assimilate and succeed in the white academic culture. This places Indigenous, Black, and racialized students and faculty in a precarious position of trying to succeed within a primarily white academic space and engaging with a colonial curriculum that fails to reflect their experiences or histories (Delgado & Stefancic, 2018; Mohamed & Began, 2019; Morrison, 2010; Verjee, 2005). Therefore, Indigenous, Black, and racialized faculty and students are faced with the unfortunate truth that universities at large, and disciplines that operate under the guise of social justice such as community psychology, continue to be in denial about their own systemic racism, violence, and oppression.
Calling-out Community Psychology
Community psychology (CP) was birthed inside these white supremacist institutions and continues to coexist complicitly inside of and benefit from the ideologies, policies, and regulations of these institutions. Indeed, our North America-centric, white-washed, a-historical and a-critical creation story of ‘Swampscott’ was itself born out of whiteness. Community psychology, as an institutional discipline, continues to play-out what Angelique and Culley (2007) refer to as the andro and anglocentric history in US community psychology; which resonates loudly in the Canadian context, as well.
Thus, in community psychology, we need to engage in a collective reckoning of this history of discrimination and oppression in our educational institutions and disrupt how it plays out in nefarious and systemic ways inside the bounds of CP, including research, training, and praxis. Thomas (2020) asks of CP, “Whose knowledge matters? Who decides what is social change? Where do we get our theories? How does a field develop when its founders are mostly [w]hite men?” (para. 5). In a recent open letter drafted by Black, non-Black POC, and white scholars in CP (Society for Community Research and Action, 2020), authors called-out the Society for Community, Research, and Action (SCRA) for its silence, disbelief, and disregard for the experiences of BIPOC students, faculty, and scholars and demanded the development of an intentional and critical process towards creating space for BIPOC students, faculty, and scholars to engage fully with CP. The authors of the letter argue that:
White supremacy plays out in the ways that we continue to do an appalling job of attracting and retaining Black students, scholars, and practitioners in Community Psychology programs and SCRA, while over-researching Black communities. We cannot continue to exist as a field if this is how we operate. In this way, we continue to maintain systems of anti-Black racism that deter and push out Black scholars from training in, and identifying with the field of Community Psychology (para. 10).
In this letter the authors outlined four demands, including: (1) Putting tangible resources back into Black communities, (2) Acknowledging our complicity and maintenance of white supremacy culture in SCRA, (3) Developing our understanding of anti-Blackness and white supremacy, and (4) Engaging in collective action to dismantle anti-Blackness and white supremacy in CP. We have little, if anything, written on the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and students, staff, and faculty of colour in CP. Our knowledge comes from lived experience and stories shared between friends and colleagues. These experiences paint a picture of systemic anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous erasure, and white supremacy being produced and reproduced inside the very spaces we are claiming to build for justice. Therefore, this paper seeks to create written space for BIPOC students and faculty in CP to share some of their collective experiences.
In crafting this manuscript, we chose to audio record and transcribe two of our monthly group discussions - our November, 2019 and January, 2020 meetings, respectively. We then engaged in a collaborative process of reading and reviewing the transcripts to identify the salient themes that emerged, and subsequent to this, conducted a thematic analysis of the transcript data. Three team members then worked together to read through the thematically analyzed data to narrow down some stories of our experiences that really captured and exemplified nuanced and complex issues. These stories then formed the foundations for our case examples, which are the result of the amalgamation of our experiences. While the case examples are composites of our collective experiences, they are not embellishments.
Utilizing case examples and our own lived experiences within Canadian academic institutions, in this section we illustrate the current impact of white supremacist and discriminatory practices within educational institutions, and specifically within the field of community psychology.
Case 1: Free Speech and White Supremacy are Bedfellows
A white, cisgender, woman-identified graduate student is a teaching assistant for a first year geography class. During one of her tutorials, the teaching assistant takes the liberty of going on a tangent and makes harmful racist statements (such as using the n-word) and transphobic statements (such as denying the validity and grammatical correctness of gender-inclusive pronouns). This leaves many students feeling uncomfortable and unsafe, but given the power dynamics of the university classroom, they feel unable to voice their concerns, so they bring the issue to the attention of their racialized instructor. The instructor schedules a meeting with the teaching assistant to discuss the matter. The teaching assistant escalates the issue to the media, declaring that the instructor has obstructed her right to freedom of speech. Despite having no collective agreement that protects the freedom of speech of teaching assistants, primarily because the course content is not created by them, the university decides to side with the teaching assistant by publicly apologizing to her, and the racialized professor is effectively thrown under the bus and is forced to make a public apology. Within the context of ongoing misappropriation of freedom of speech, these apologies served as catalysts for validating the perspective of the teaching assistant, who proceeded to harass transgender, nonbinary, and racialized students in the university halls by taunting them with name calling. The teaching assistant also hosted public events on the university campus that centered white supremacist, anti-immigrant, and transphobic ideologies. These situations exacerbated through national news and social media outlets, escalated a roaring wave of harm in the university climate for students, faculty, and staff who identify as Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Colour, Two-Spirit, queer, transgender, or nonbinary.
This example depicts the ways in which free speech is repurposed, repackaged, and misappropriated to justify and normalize hate speech that denies the realities and lived experience of racialized and marginalized people. Arguments for free speech that serve to deny trans people’s right to exist, or the existence of systemic racism in society, also simultaneously serve to center cisgender and white people as victims. Often, white people claim to be victims of “reverse racism,” yet there is no empirical evidence of systemic racism towards white people, beyond their refusal to be accountable and take responsibility for the way in which white supremacist logic has been utilized to benefit white communities. It is all too opportunistic and convenient that at the moment in our collective history where conversations about racism and marginalization have become national and international conversations in the western world, the status quo ramps-up and disseminates new messaging to recenter themselves as victims under the banners of “reverse racism” and “white lives matter.” Proponents who benefit from white supremacist logic need little more than their opinions to make this issue one that white politicians stand behind, because opinions (not facts or evidence) are the only things white people need to validate their realities in a white settler state. Colonial settler nation-states like Canada and the US originate in an alternative fact-verse reality that white-washes history and centers the glory of white people to the detriment and erasure of everyone else. The now infamous Amy Cooper - who studied at our neighbouring university right here in Waterloo, Ontario - made international news when she called the police on an innocent Black man who told her to leash-up her dog in a park with clearly demarcated signs mandating leashes. Cooper knew and understood very well the power of her voice as a white woman to play the victim and garner sympathy and protectionism from a system built on criminalizing Black people (Singh, 2020). Amy Cooper is a perfect example of the way white fragility and white tears are weaponized (DiAngelo, 2018), just as free speech, when used by white nationalists, is weaponized against non-white, cis, hetero people, cultivating a culture of unsafety for marginalized groups.
Case 2: White Fragility Absolves White People of Accountability
A tenured professor who is white, queer, and woman-identified has an extensive history of racist, transphobic, and generally discriminatory behaviour towards students in her classroom. In one of her classes, a group of racialized and queer PhD students were harmed by the instructor’s words in dismissing a Black trans person’s womanhood. As a collective, the students decided to hold the faculty member accountable for her words and actions. First, the students provided her an opportunity to clarify what she meant, in the event of miscommunication or misunderstanding. When it became clear that the faculty member intended her discriminatory sentiments and refused to acknowledge the oppressive nature of the statements, students sought mediation using the designated university processes. Throughout the mediation process the faculty member continued to evade accountability by offering non-apologies and villainizing the students as troublemakers who were “too sensitive” and who just wanted to “get out of doing their course work.” The instructor claimed that students were guilty of obstructing her freedom of speech, despite the fact that the students clearly articulated that her free speech was not more important than their human right to exist as queer, racialized and marginalized people. The instructor also centered herself and her mental health, rather than the impact of her actions on the students and the program at large. Students were actively discouraged by the university administration from making a formal complaint, despite the instructor’s history of violent and discriminatory remarks. On top of the labour of trying to progress in their PhD coursework, students were made responsible for educating their instructor on the harmfulness of her words and for navigating university policies, procedures, and personnel, who could assist them in a process of holding the instructor accountable. Despite their attempts, the instructor declined participating in a transparent process of reconciliation and mediation, leaving the students to process and recover from the trauma with no support from the university and no resolution. Consequently, many of the students opted to disengage from the university community, aside from completing required course work, further disadvantaging them as they moved through the institution, unprotected within their own program and department.
This case example demonstrates the contrasting ways in which the university responds to white students, as evidenced by Case 1, with the white teaching assistant, versus the queer BIPOC students of this case study. It also demonstrates the layered way in which white people are provided ample opportunities to center their own vulnerabilities and use the protections provided to them - such as tenure and whiteness - by the academy to center themselves as victims, while villainizing and infantilizing queer students of colour, who they claim have diabolical ulterior motives for naming the violence they are experiencing. BIPOC people, such as the students in Case 2, are always asked to provide insurmountable volumes of evidence to substantiate their claims of oppression. Whereas white folks need only express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions; no actual evidence required. Power in the academy is never analyzed when it serves to protect the interests of the institution - which remains a predominantly white workforce - from legal liability. In fact, while all university institutions have some form of conflict resolution process or ombudsperson, these offices are very rarely trained on how to understand and address racism as a form of violent harm that needs to be eradicated.
Predominantly white institutions provide an alibi for white supremacy. These institutions simultaneously problematize BIPOC students as trouble-makers who are ultimately raising issues that make white people feel uncomfortable, because they are unable and unwilling to address or contend with the issues of racism, erasure, and oppression. Garner (2016), notes that in the conceptualization and actions of whiteness, the structural inequities that uphold whiteness in the academy remain reinforced, supported, and unexamined, as white privilege continues to manifest and harm those not of such privilege, and who resist the oppression wrought by the structures (Hughes & Giles, 2010). It is for this reason that predominantly white spaces feel threatened when more than one BIPOC person gathers together. In our experience, such spaces are characterized as “militant.” We view them as libratory and revolutionary.
Importantly, another layer of how racism operates - even within queer communities - is highlighted in this case example. Namely, that white LGBTQ people can participate and be complicit in racist, discriminatory, and oppressive violence. Identification with one minoritized group does not give one a monopoly of understanding - in any intimate way - of the oppression experienced by other minoritized groups. We are each individually constrained to our own experiences of the world, and so a white, queer-identified person is not more able to understand the realities of racialized people than their straight counterparts. In virtue of being situated within the bounds of whiteness, there are limitations to the analysis of white queer communities, white women communities, etc. Often we find that these communities are complicit in racist violence (Furman et al., 2018).
Case 3: The Burden of Explaining Racism
A racialized instructor is invited to give a guest lecture in a seminar course to a group of predominantly white graduate students. In fact, only one student in the class is racialized and one of the white students has made no secret of expressing that he does not think systemic racism exists and that he believes racialized people in the larger CP program demonstrate reverse racism against him. For the lecture, the guest instructor has been asked to share with the class focal points regarding critical race theory and immigration. As a racialized, first-generation immigrant, the guest instructor gives a vulnerablizing, personal testimony of her own experiences of racism in the CP program, and in academia more generally. During the question and answer portion of the class, the instructor for the class – who is a white cisgendered man – asks the racialized instructor, “so much of your work focuses on race and racism. Do you always have to talk about race and racism? Does the concept of intersectionality have to include a race analysis? How do you know that racism is occurring, how do you know that your perception of racism is not a result of your focus on race and racism in your work?” The racialized guest instructor, caught off guard by the question - moreover, given the topic area she was asked to present on by the primary instructor, and the fact that she has to engage in this conversation in front of a group of predominantly white students - takes a deep breath before thinking about how to respond. This is not her first time being put on display and asked by white people to explain racism and provide evidence of her experiences of racism in order to “validate” her lived experience.
Far too often, BIPOC people are asked to validate their experiences by providing evidence, specifically evidence that meets the standards of white scientific empiricism. Our narratives, testimonies, and accounts of lived experience are thought of as anecdotal, biased, and non-factual - clearly unworthy of being taught or acknowledged in most university classrooms. This is juxtaposed with the inherent value bestowed upon the white glare in education systems and academic institutions that uphold a white supremacist logic. If it cannot be observed from the white gaze - felt, touched, prodded, and measured, it is thought to not exist. It is this same line of logic that through colonial processes stripped our communities of our connections to language, culture, spirituality, traditions, and land. This empiricism is regurgitated in our university classes so much that students have an unhealthy romanticization of the problems quantitative and empirical research can actually address and solve in our world. University classes rarely teach students that objectivity is an illusion, and even at the quantum level of reality, the very act of observation changes the material conditions of what we are observing. For instance, light exists as a wave in nature, but the act of observation makes it appear as a particle (Molecular Expressions, 2016). There is no such thing as objectivity. Even the act of playing an “objective observer” in a study where one monitors disease progression (i.e., Tuskegee Syphilis trials) or poverty and disenfranchisement, with no intention to intervene or find an approach to address the pressing issues, is a political choice. Namely, the decision to merely observe oppression caused by social inequity but never intervene is to serve the aims of the white supremacy that caused the disparities in the first place. Even in a field such as CP, which claims to center ideals such as intersubjectivity, social justice, and equity ends up being (for the most part) little more than a discipline steeped in a white saviour complex that relies on feel-good interventions into “communities at-risk,” with little mobilization to shift the systems that put communities at risk in the first place. As such, BIPOC researchers that reaffirm their commitment to centering truth-telling and our testimonies are actively engaged in the process of decolonizing and obstructing the harm caused to our communities by the western academy (Tuhiwai Smith, 2012).
Case 4: The Impact of White Supremacy on the Mental Health of BIPOC Communities
In being confronted with daily experiences of racism and constantly being asked to provide evidence of these experiences beyond their personal testimonies, Black, Indigenous and racialized students, staff, faculty, and their white accomplices conduct a study in 2017, gathering the experiences of racialized people regarding the culture of racism in the broader university. For the most part, the student labour is uncompensated, as the student researchers are not paid by the university to conduct this study and the faculty and staff supervisors are not provided any additional resources or support to undertake the study or adequately compensate their students. Over 200 racialized, Black, and Indigenous students, faculty, and staff partake in the study and a report is produced. The report provides detailed accounts of the various examples of racist violence experienced by Black, racialized and Indigenous people on the university’s campus. The team of researchers host a series of meetings with members of the university administration to highlight the findings of the study and to push for change around issues of racism within the university. The students also task the entirely white university administration to educate themselves and become allied champions of anti-racist, anti-oppression Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) work at the university. For over two years, the administration fails to follow-up on any of the action items specified in the report. Instead, they make a series of commitments to the research team, on which they do not follow through. In observing the wave of companies and institutions making anti-racist statements following the uprisings of Black Lives Matter in 2020, the university makes a statement about their commitment to anti-racist practice and EDI. In this statement, university leadership use the information produced from the 2017 report, but fail to properly cite the students, staff, and faculty authors. Further, the administration proceeds to hire and appoint a Black faculty member to the role of an administrator, downloading the insurmountable task of overseeing the university’s entire EDI action plan onto one racialized person. The Black and racialized students, staff, and faculty in the research team are triggered by their erasure, the overt plagiarism, and the disrespect of their work, and advise that this labour should not be downloaded onto Indigenous, Black, and racialized people, because of the overwhelming burden, stress, and negative impact on mental health.
In the current climate, with the recent ground-swell in some of dominant society recognizing the deep impact of racism, and in particular anti-Black racism, we have collectively witnessed institutions around the world, from the NFL to the academy, pay lip service via anti-racism statements and utter empty words that they will “do better,” lest they face the wrath of the purchasing power of fed-up BIPOC and allied communities. And more egregious, are governance and administrators in institutions that fail to acknowledge the significance of this moment in our collective history, who have failed to make any statements, and worse still, who have failed to look inward to shift their organizational culture. As mentioned, this was the case for the SCRA, the central association in the discipline of CP, which was recently put on notice in a public Call to Action (SCRA, 2020) on their organizational anti-Blackness. This letter was signed by over 400 BIPOC and allied members of SCRA. Too often Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour have to put their bodies, lives, and livelihoods on the line to speak truth to power about racist oppression. The Civil Rights Movement, for instance, resulted in some hard-fought wins that cost many Black people and community leaders their lives. It is on Black people’s backs that Affirmative Action and Equity policies were created, and those policies were in-turn used by white establishments such as the academy to hire white women and utilize the model minority myth, employing more palatable Brown folks instead of hiring Indigenous and Black people. The academy is no exception to this practice, as we see white women with no knowledge or informed analysis about racism or Indigeneity populating Equity offices in campuses across the country. This leaves the brunt of explaining and demonstrating experiences of racism on the backs of BIPOC students, staff, and faculty, and even when they provide their testimonies, the appointed equity officers are incapable of and unwilling to support them. Too often, the work of explaining racism, demonstrating its existence and impact, and doing anti-racist and anti-oppression work in institutions lies squarely on the backs of BIPOC people. To be clear, the folks who need to be invested in anti-racist work are the white people that benefit from and maintain the white supremacist systems causing harm.
Strategies for those trying to survive the academy
In the section below, we provide BIPOC and systemically marginalized folks some practical strategies that we use in our mobilizing everyday, to help us navigate difficult situations within academic institutions. Some of these strategies are informed by a long history of BIPOC, and in particular Black feminist organizing and thought. Others are strategies we have had to figure out for ourselves as we manage these spaces in a tumultuous 21st century context. Rather than focus on conversations of free speech, which has been sufficiently misappropriated and centered by the status quo to cause harm to our communities, we herein focus this discussion on our navigation as intersectionally diverse BIPOC folks in white-dominated academic spaces. This focus is intentional as we are provided few spaces and opportunities to engage in these conversations in combating the multiple ways our experiences are dismissed and absented in academic writing. As such, there is something novel but vital and revolutionary in our sharing our strategies for surviving the academy with other BIPOC, queer, and allied folks.
Take Care: As BIPOC students, faculty, and staff it is important that as we navigate and survive these systems of oppression and violence, that we find ways to take care of ourselves - emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally. One strategy is connecting with each other for support and sharing experiences, including expressing feelings of frustration and anger (Morrison, 2010; The Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977). This is of particular importance because universities often do not offer adequate, appropriate, or culturally-relevant support for BIPOC people. For instance, on-campus counselling supports often do little to support BIPOC students who are navigating issues surrounding systemic racism in the academy, of which the predominantly white counselling staff have no comprehension and little useful advice to provide (Banks, 2020). While it is important to put pressure on the university administration to hire more Indigenous, Black, and racialized staff in reflection of increasingly diverse student bodies, it is also important for BIPOC people within the academy to carve out safe, meaningful, and useful collective spaces for themselves, where they can center and validate their experiences, brilliance, and value. Other related and useful care strategies include, but are not limited to: saying “no” to undertaking work that makes you feel uncomfortable or tokenized; saying “no” to work more generally, taking a break from work; spirituality, connecting with Mother Earth; reconnecting with family, friends, and loved ones; finding supportive online spaces (e.g., Instagram accounts focused on BIPOC wellbeing), etc.
Keep Receipts: Whenever there is an incident or an interaction that left you feeling uncomfortable, or merely one you made a mental note of, document it! Document everything. Include dates and times, like you do in a journal. Keeping track of all incidences, regardless of how small they may seem when they happen. Oftentimes the full realization of what is happening in a moment takes time to crystalize. Very often we fail to trust and follow our intuition about situations that have impacted us negatively, or which made us feel uncomfortable, and often these incidences accumulate over time to really shape our mental health, relationships, outlook on the world, and the social environments in which we study and work. These receipts will come in handy should white supremacist academic spaces, or anyone in the broader structure, wish to villainize or problematize you as the only, or one of few BIPOC people in the space. This is one way of gathering evidence and documenting our truths (Burey, 2020) as forms of knowledge and power (see Torres, 2020, for a more detailed guide on collecting receipts and gathering evidence of your experiences).
Call-out for Accountability: Call-out culture is deeply rooted in a long history of Black feminist organizing (Kahaleole Hall, 2018). Call-outs intentionally disrupt white supremacist heteropatriarchal structures by naming the oppression in full view of a diverse public, who, through such open dialogue, have the opportunity for collective intervention. The status quo thrives on secrecy, the illusion of complicity and agreement, and private conversations that never leave the "inner circle" in the boardroom so as to not perturb the “natural” order of things. There is nothing white-led institutions fear more than public shame and outcry.
Solidarity & Allyship: Murri (Indigenous Australian) Elder, Lilla Watson (2004) shared “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Solidarity is understanding that we don’t all face the same struggles and oppressions; however, there is an interconnectedness between our struggles towards achieving social justice in a society established on white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy (hooks, 1984; Reynolds, 2010). Allyship is when individuals from privileged groups support oppressed groups by actively working to eliminate the forms of oppression that they themselves may benefit from (Goodman, 2011). It is important to remember that allyship is not a badge of honour one can label themselves and wear indefinitely (Kluttz et al., 2020). Furthermore, as alluded to in the Watson quote above, white allies must be diligent and mindful to not take on a white saviour complex, in which recognition is sought for their work in saving others (Kluttz et al., 2020). As Indigenous, Black, racialized, and marginalized peoples, we must stand in solidarity with other marginalized peoples in our fights for justice. For instance, understanding that the fight for racial justice or against Islamophobia and related religious persecution by people of colour, is deeply intertwined with and dependent on the fight for sovereignty of the First Peoples and subsequently racialization of African Diasporic Peoples. Anti-racism is a directionless project if it does not regard the specificity and hard-fought battles waged over issues of Indigenous genocide, anti-Black racism, and the humanism of Indigenous Peoples the world over, who have been exploited in the neoliberal global capitalist empire building project of the western world. Together, we stand stronger with our voices amplified. Focusing solely on our individual struggle, rather than the interrelationship with others, only serves the status quo (Reynolds, 2010).
Always have Witnesses: When entering a room or a meeting with people you do not know or trust, always bring someone you do trust with you into that space. Never go alone. Always have someone who can bear witness to that moment. White supremacist culture is one of perpetual gaslighting, a-historicity, and make-believe realities. You quite literally have a culture of people who have reimagined themselves as the arbiters of the universe - Gods of their own reality. It is integral when entering spaces with such staunch narcissism and psychological mind-trips that you bring reinforcements to help ground you in reality and account for the truth of what is.
All Skin Folk Ain’t Kin Folk: This is a well-known saying in the Black community that has roots in the southern states of the US. It signifies the importance of recognizing that while you and another person may be of the same culture, ethnicity or race, or both be racialized or queer or have any countless number of other identities and things in common, that person may not think the same way you do. They may not see the world the way you do and have a completely different politic than you do. They may not see you as their equal, but as someone beneath them in an imagined pecking order. The colonial project has been very thorough and almost no one in western society has escaped it. The same way white people can view racialized people as inferior to them, Brown people can view Black people as inferior, or Black people and other racialized people can view Indigenous people as inferior in the ‘grand hierarchy of race.’ We are all products of colonialism. We are all subjected to similar school systems that reaffirm the superiority of white features, white history, and white dominance. As such, it should be no surprise that we have internalized a white way of thinking about others as inferior to us, if there is some feature they lack, and which we have that puts us closer in proximity to whiteness (see Fanon, 1963, for more real talk regarding internalized colonialism and racism). This reality often makes it difficult to openly trust people in our own communities, and while we do not encourage paranoid suspicion of everyone, we do encourage holding your personal secrets and thoughts close to your chest until you understand an individual’s politics. Guard your relations.
Understand the system you are in: It is imperative that BIPOC communities achieve a clear understanding of the institutions in which they live, study, and work - be that in academia or elsewhere. Talk to other BIPOC folks to gain and deepen understanding about the hierarchy of the institution, the places and people that are safe and unsafe, knowing your allies, accomplices, and where to find useful information in times of need - the spaces you can go to seek different kinds of services and resources, the people and places to avoid, etc. For instance, a clear understanding of proper protocols, policies, and procedures is integral in predominantly white institutions that are notorious for making up rules in moments that conveniently disadvantage marginalized people. A keen awareness of proper protocols can be an important form of accountability. An institutional understanding helps to prepare you to navigate these systems should a time call for such navigation. Further, getting connected to the intel provided by a network of BIPOC in an institution can be instrumental in helping you avoid situations and circumstances that may be harmful. Often, there are very few BIPOC in a given institution; as such, BIPOC people are often very willing to share their experiences to help others avoid negative outcomes. This network of sharing amongst marginalized communities is a very important resource.
Honour your full humanity: Honour your culture, honour your spirituality, honour your traditions. Trust your intuition for it is your life’s compass on this journey. Reconnect with your family, friends, loved ones, with nature, with yourself. Go out into the bush. Live on the land. Live in the moment. Know Thyself. Honour Thyself. The project of colonialism is a thorough project intent on stripping us of all that makes us human. The very projects of enslavement and genocide the world over are intent on stripping Us, our Peoples, and our Ancestors, the predecessors of, and links to our humanity. The most transformative, radical, important thing we can do to resist is simply to exist. To love, laugh, learn, and honour each other with all our flaws.
Learn from those who came before: As we have mentioned, many of the strategies we pull from are informed by Black feminist scholarship, which teaches tools for surviving white supremacist structures, like the academy (hooks, 1994; Lorde, 1984). Black feminism speaks to Black power and liberation. Because as noted by the Combahee River Collective (1977),
If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression (pp. 22-23).
In this view, the liberation of Black women is deeply intertwined in the liberation of all who are systemically marginalized; hence the approach of mobilizing around the needs of the most intersectionally marginalized in order to meet the needs of everyone else. Black feminist thought, organizing, and activism have been at the forefront of upending racism in the academy and uprooting oppression in our communities and in grassroots organizations in Canada, the US, Latin America, and around the world. There are so many Black women to whom we pay tribute - past and present, who have sacrificed so much and tirelessly worked toward the liberation of our Peoples. To this end, we would also like to recognize and pay homage to the work of Indigenous women on Turtle Island and around the world, who lead in the teachings about decolonization and reclaiming their cultures, languages, ceremonies, traditions, and worldviews and work to free our Peoples from oppression and tyranny. It is on the shoulders of these giants that we stand in doing this work.
Demands for Accountability within Community Psychology
Over the course of this paper, the conversations we have highlighted focus on the deeply intertwined connections of our experiences with the contemporary socio-political issues that are pressing in our broader society, particularly as they pertain to racism. We have interrogated the question, what are the numerous and complex ways predominantly white spaces like the academy reproduce harm and violence towards queer and trans and Two-Spirit BIPOC, and what are the strategies we employ in order to survive these spaces and thrive? In the final section of this paper, we will reflect on how these conversations inform the demands for work on the part of the academy more generally, and community psychology as a practice-based discipline, more specifically.
Demands of the academy
Demands to SCRA
Demands of every CP program
Demands of White Community Psychologists
Connection to the themes of this special issue:
Throughout this piece, we have outlined the realities of the white supremacist academic industrial complex we are confronted by, and the strategies we employ in order to survive these often harmful spaces. In candidly sharing our hopes for Indigenous sovereignty, racial justice, and strategies for survival we intend to break the silence around, and the erasure of the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and racialized students and scholars in the academy. This form of truth telling and knowledge sharing for justice and survival is a revolutionary act in our liberation.
This is for all the freedom fighters who transform our spaces of learning every day as they call-out injustice, and push to make spaces of learning inhabitable and survivable for other Black, Indigenous and racialized people.
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Ciann L. Wilson, Amandeep Kaur Singh, Ann Marie Beals, Rajni Sharma, Brianna Hunt, Ellis Furman, Natasha Afua Darko, Tiyondah Fante-Coleman, Vivila Liu, and Natalie Kivell
Keywords: critical race theory, white supremacist culture, colonized scholarship, 2SLGBTQ+