“Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a White mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” -Ella Baker, 1964
“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.” – Malcolm X, 1965
I spent the last week filled with anxiety awaiting the Ferguson, MO grand jury decision. While at the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) conference I constantly checked social media hoping the decision would be announced. In full honesty, I wanted to be surrounded by my growing network of scholars or color and long-standing social justice educators when the decision became public. I knew I would need their hugs, strength, and energy to move past the outcome. I also held a poetic notion of leaving the conference and being able to join demonstrations in Washington, DC like so many other activists before me.
Instead, the Ferguson decision was announced a week later. Monday evening I sat alone in my living room in Western, MA watching a live stream of the press conference as the mainstream networks continued regularly scheduled programming. I was already in an all too familiar emotional process of transitioning from leaving a people of color-defense city to the rural life of the “Happy Valley.” This process involves moving into a Strong Black Woman archetype, I suppress loneliness, and navigate the microaggressions (and macroaggressions) of politically correct White people. As I watched what felt like an endless (and quite frankly belittling) overview of the grand jury process by Prosecutor McCullough, I turned to social media for support. Five minutes into he press conference I posted “Ugh this does not sound good…” And unfortunately what I knew in my gut all along became a reality: no indictment.
Almost immediately after the press conference, my email inbox filled with announcements from the two institutions where I currently teach. The swiftness of these replies suggest to me that university administrations had drafted campus statements in anticipation of this decision which is not surprising to me as a former administrator myself. What did surprise me (and perhaps it should not have) was a request for “calm and civility” and urging students to seek out faculty and staff to make sense of the grand jury decision and subsequent protesting. Feeling angry, outraged and devastated I was disappointed in how my administrations did not want to make room for a wider range of emotions. I also was disappointed (and pissed off) that administrations who clearly had some forethought on how to respond to the Ferguson decision deflected to faculty and administrators to handle the aftermath rather than working to organize dedicated spaces with prepared facilitators. While of course I do believe that faculty and staff should and do have a responsibility to support students during this time, I also knew as a faculty woman of color that this burden would rest of myself and my colleagues of color to have these conversations. White privilege as an educator is having the option to avoid these conversations and direct these responsibilities to others.
My immediate reaction to these statements was gratitude that I did not have to be on campuses this week due to the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. I teach “multicultural education” courses at two predominantly White institutions where 43 out of 45 of my students are White. These are the same students who used the word “colored” with no awareness of its historical roots to racism in September. These are a same students who in October repeatedly voiced how they did not see racism in in today’s society, had no relationships with people of color, and felt segregating school systems based on social class was not problematic. It is also important to mention that my students are current and future school teachers often assigned to teach in low-income and/or communities of color. In this context, dialoguing with my students of Ferguson felt unsafe as a faculty woman of color and more than I could emotionally prepare as I still processed my own reactions.
I spent the remainder of the night on Facebook exchanging statement of outrage, disappointment and solidarity with my social justice educators across the country. I had some time to care for my own emotional needs from the Ferguson decision and now I feel sadness to not be on campus with my students this week. I am not ready to hear comments that would defend the “due process” of the grand jury decision nor do I have the energy to yet again prove that racism is real and life-threatening. However, I am motivated to take action.
Teaching a unit on racism this semester I remember the collective reaction of my students after viewing the films Race: Power of an Illusion episode called theThe House We Live In (http://newsreel.org/video/race-the-power-of-an-illusion) and PBS’s Separate and Unequal (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/separate-and-unequal/). My students had felt discouragement after realizing that racism is not fact in the past but very much in the present. Some felt overwhelmed and at a loss on what to do as an individuals. My response to my classes then is what moves me forward now:
Yes racism is incredibly pervasive and overwhelming but we must not let it defeat us. That’s the brilliance of oppression, it makes you feel as if you should give up and accept whatever situation is handed to you. As an educator who has dedicated my career to social justice I have to hope and believe in social change. I wouldn’t be able to show up every week if I did not hold that at the core of my spirit. I have to believe that what I do in the classroom and beyond will make a difference, no matter how small it may feel in a given moment. I have to believe that my students are leaving my classroom with new perspectives and a potential desire to take action as they enter become educators themselves.
While I will unfortunately not be in the classroom this week I plan to reach out to my students. Being off-campus does not alleviate me from my responsibility to my campus or my students. I do not feel ready yet to offer a dialogic space but do feel a responsibility to 1) acknowledge the impact of the Ferguson decision, 2) can offer them readings or videos to expand their learning about racism, and 3) provide them local and national resources to take action against racism. For those looking for resources on how to address the grand jury decision in Ferguson, here are some resources to support your work on campus. I also encourage you all to comment with what actions you plan to do you on your respective campuses.
Dr. Andrea Dre Domingue is scholar-practitioner that focuses on minoritized college student advocacy, critical pedagogy and college student leadership development. She is a Visiting Faculty at Westfield State University and the University of Massachusetts—Amherst. Dre is a long-term member of several professional associations and is the Chair-Elect for ACPA’s Commission for Social Justice Educators. Follow her on Twitter: @dredomingue where she sporadically tweets or email her directly at dre[dot]domingue[at]gmail.com.