When Tokenization abounds…

Posted: May 3, 2012 in Contemporary Politics, Education, Sociology

When you choose a career as a professional sociologist that studies race and ethnicity, immigration, and organized labor –you know you are signing up for a career where you try and teach students and those around you that: 1) Inequality Matters; and, 2) there are a multitude of ways that inequalities based on race, class, gender, and sexuality manifest themselves in everyday life.  On good days, you’re grateful when the majority of your students “get it.”  You relish those moments when your students aren’t trying to “please” you by trying to simply give answers that they think you want to hear –and instead they get real and say what they truly think and start true and meaningful dialogues, regardless of how uncomfortable people may feel.  These lessons and meaningful discussions, however, are often tempered by the realities that lie just outside the doorway to your classroom.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself astounded by the ridiculous amounts of tokenism that permeate the academy.  As many of you have already seen in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education –Naomi Shaefer Riley a journalist affiliated with the neo-conservative “think tank” (I use this term loosely) the Institute for American Values attacked Black Studies and 3 specific graduate students after simply reading their dissertation titles. She provides no empirical evidence for her assertions, and fails to offer any type of substantive critique based in empirical research.  Furthermore, she asserts in a second blog post that because she is a JOURNALIST she doesn’t need to read or provide evidence before writing a 500 word essay.  I’d argue that this type of arrogance that has lead to the downfall of journalism as we know it.  The very simple fact that the Chronicle of Higher Education gives space to racist blog posts with no empirical basis, and written for the sole purpose of spreading vitriol and demeaning a program that’s desperately needed in order to diversify the academy –should make all of us question whether the Chronicle of Higher Education should legitimately be considered the standard bearer for higher education news.

The real danger, however, is that this type of unfounded and uninformed opinion has become the accepted norm.  Instead of actually looking at the realities that surround us everyday, we allow institutions and people to believe that race (or any axes of difference really) doesn’t matter anymore.  That somehow the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 magically ‘fixed’ all racial inequalities and we no longer need to pay  attention to the persistence of race based inequalities in health, housing, incarceration, and housing (to name a few.)  People point to individuals (e.g. President Obama) as proof that success has happened for minorities –but fail to look at the system and the ways it needs to change.  These attitudes permeate all areas of higher education where adminstrators, professors, and institutions see no problem in tokenizing students or professors and using them as proof of ‘what a good job they’re doing” —when in fact they’re simply reproducing the racist, sexist, homophobic mores that historically have gone unquestioned in the halls of academia.

For more years than I can count, I’ve been haunted by the fact that I’ve had the same conversation with a multitude of students of color around this time every year.  Student X comes to my office, they’re unhappy and want to leave.  They’re seeking support, affirmation that their feelings are important, and want some advice.  Unfortunately, after five years, I’m all too familiar with the sources of the unhappiness, and the importance of the student being able to exert some semblance of control over their reality.  At some point in the conversation, they talk about how angry, mad, stressed, and confused they are by how they’re being treated by others in the university.  The student will say something like, “When I told Administrator Y that I wanted to leave, they immediately started lecturing me on why I should stay.” Or, “Administrator Z keeps cornering me and pressuring me telling me I need to make a decision and that they think I should stay.”  In almost every single instance, the student ends by saying, “It’s funny that now that I want to leave –people want to “help” but they are still doing the same thing they always do –talking over me and not listening to me. “

Imagine what life would be like if we listened more and talked less.  Instead, we’ve created a culture in higher education (and broader society really) that privileges the promotion of unfounded accusation and self interest without regard to empirical real world experience.  In higher education, we become so focused on tokenizing people of color that we encourage a culture that lets people care more about numbers and window dressing, than we do about substantive engagement and contribution.  This type of culture allows for the persistence and legitimation of unfounded attacks that lack any real substance or merit.  In addition, it promotes the idea that the way to diversify education is by investing in the ‘claiming’ of students rather than true engagement and conversation with students.  In the end, this type of tokenization leads to anger, resentment, and the transferring of talented and amazing students who could have enriched our university

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Comments
  1. Annemarie says:

    You’ve articulated feelings I share. Far too often lately I feel like I’m under siege as a woman, but even more often as a person of color, not simply for myself, but by proxy for my students. Debate is structured so to even discuss race or racism is seen as old-fashioned, “playing the race card” or “seeing victimization everywhere.”

    I’m not sure what the pushback is. Meanwhile, I see it wearing people down / away.

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