In recent weeks the University of California San Diego has been affected by a series of racist acts, including the hanging of a noose in the library and an off-campus event that involved demeaning caricatures of African Americans. Though UCSD served as the site of the initial controversies, actions taken by mostly unknown members of the UC community at Davis and Irvine have led many to question the university system's commitment to diversity. Some say the incidents illustrate only that pockets of homophobia and racism persist, while others argue that students of color and individuals identifying as LGBT face a pervasive atmosphere of intolerance on campus.
Either conclusion remains extremely troubling. At the very least, recent events have spurred a dialogue that needed to occur. The advocacy of UCSD’s undergraduates, notably students of color, and social organizations like the Black Student Union, the central actor in the protests, have forced the campus community to address internal questions regarding race and equality. Questions about privilege, whiteness, structural racism and the place of social scientists and historians in the struggle for social justice serve as central themes in UCSD’s collective conversation. A good representation of this discourse is second year PhD candidate Elizabeth Sine’s recent letter to the university. The point here is not to convince anyone of the protesters' arguments or demands, one way or another -- those are conclusions individuals will need to draw for themselves.
Rather, Sine suggests that we use this experience as an instructive way to come to terms with how people see themselves in the university, how they see each other, and how factors such as privilege and whiteness intervene in such interactions. As Sine notes, the key is adopting a “politics of listening": learning to listen from not only our own methodological and epistomelogical views, but those of other persons and disciplines. We need to recognize intersectionality. The letter is provocative -- some might react negatively, some positively, and some may remain on the fence. So be it. Sine’s letter represents well the ideology that many of the scholars in UCSD’s History Department embrace.
Dear Allies, those I know and those I don't (i.e., whomever may read this):
Before and above all else, I want to thank the BSU, MEChA, and everyone else who helped to ignite the movement taking place on our campus, and who have helped to open up some real maneuvering room within this university for all of us who want to transform it and to make it a fully public institution. I write today not only in celebration of the struggle we are currently engaged in, today, these past few weeks, and—for many of us, in varying ways—for a long time before that, but also with an eye toward the long haul we have ahead.
Like many have already noted, the diversity of coalitions and people who have come together to support this movement, and to support the demands laid out by the BSU, is remarkable. The effort to challenge the racialized hierarchy that holds this institution together, and to combat the ongoing process of the university’s privatization, has brought together so many people, across lines of racial and cultural difference, and across the ranks assigned to us by the university system—undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, staff. I want to address the question of how we might continue to build and engage in meaningful dialogue and common struggle across lines of difference, with particular attention to varying forms of privilege and underprivilege attached to those differences. More specifically, I want to raise some issues and questions for students committed to the struggle for greater diversity in the university who are operating from positions of privilege—white privilege or otherwise.
I think most who read this will recognize the institutional nature of the racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia that the student movement aligns itself against. I think many recognize the uneven and hierarchical nature of the distribution of power in our university system, as well as the extent to which the ongoing corporatization of UCSD in particular, and public education in general, threatens to intensify already-existing inequalities and modes of oppression (with a particularly menacing threat to underrepresented groups within our community). And I think that it’s important to acknowledge, and to become comfortable thinking and talking about, the implications of the university’s hierarchical structure for internal relations within our movement—what it means to engage in struggle, in a coalition as diverse as ours, against an institution that has been designed to privilege some at the expense of others.
Indeed, it is vital for all of us to understand that the problems of racism and inequality are collective, and that every person here has an important role to play in the struggle against the denial of human dignity and for institutional change. At the same time, the institutions of privilege and inequality that exist on this campus and in our society mean that we all approach this struggle from different vantage points and from a playing field that has never been even.
And so, trust to exist among us and for the full strength or our collective action to be realized, I think we have to take fully into account the varying forms of privilege that come attached to our to our socioeconomic status, our racial and ethnic identifications, our gender and sexual practices, and whatever other factors affect our social position and relationship to each other. In fact, I would go even further to say that those among us whom this university has been designed to benefit bear a responsibility to think critically about, and to disinvest from, our own social advantages (beginning with a recognition that those advantages are not a pure result of our own hard work).
Surely, there are many among us who have been thinking about working through these issues for a long time. But I think it’s worth putting on the table for serious reflection and discussion in this critical moment in which new forms of solidarity are taking shape and when there is so much at stake. We have to be comfortable acknowledging the ways in which some one who is racialized as white (such as myself) cannot ever really understand the experience of racial oppression, even as we participate in the struggle against it. And so, for such individuals, the struggle against institutional racism must begin with a disinvestment from whiteness, from the advantages of middle-class upbringing—from whatever other advantages have been tied to the social positions we were born into.
So, what does this mean in practice? What does it take to disinvest from privilege—from white privilege, or class privilege, male privilege, or the privileges attached to normative sexual practices and identities? Of course, there is no simple or singular answer to these questions. But there may be a couple of starting points to build on.
To begin with, as I’ve already been suggesting, I think it will be difficult to move forward without making transparent the ways in which various forms of privilege operate across lines of difference within our coalition. Whether this occurs on the level of personal
reflection, in the realm of political thinking, in our informal discussions with each other, I think it’s important that the issue is brought out into the open.
Secondly, we must bring into a practice a politics of listening. It is way too easy, especially given the individualism promoted by our social institutions, to become absorbed in the way this struggle looks from a particular and personalized vantage point. The danger of this kind of individualist tendency is that it threatens our solidarity by blinding us to the ways in which multiple struggles are intersecting and overlapping in this movement, even as they all ultimately challenge inequality and corporatization in the university. Listening and taking seriously each other’s needs and concerns will not only help to strengthen our solidarity and our movement but will help us to avoid reproducing the kinds of hierarchies that we are struggling to transform.
The disparities of power that shape relations across race, class, gender, and sexuality do not have to persist. But I believe that they can’t be dismantled without our open acknowledgment of them, our critical and careful reflection on them, and a deliberate effort to extricate ourselves from them and to bring into practice a different kind of social relations that prioritizes the dignity of every one here, in ways that UCSD’s administrative power structure has not.
Laying bare and discussing openly the hierarchies of privilege that shape our university—and the social, political, and economic institutions that dominates it—will be uncomfortable for some, but I can guarantee it’s a lot less uncomfortable than enduring first-hand the kind of isolation, marginalization, and oppression that many students on our campus have been experiencing for a long time. And it is necessary to move forward together toward taking back our university.