An open letter to Macalester College: Addressing racism
Opinion

An open letter to Macalester College: Addressing racism

Dear President, Provost, and Your Majority White Administration:

I hope to address Mac’s failure to retain students, faculty and staff of color on campus and question its structural polities, such as a majority white faculty personnel committee. I hope to put these failures in light and context of the national, historical and institutional oppression of people of color in academia. I will also add in my personal experience with racism at Mac, as well as talk about the security I found with advisors, faculty and staff of color which ultimately led to my retention.

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Please allow me to establish several parameters, obvious truths. Macalester is small, and there are constraints as far as who it can admit—both for students and faculty. Macalester is elite, selective. We can therefore surmise, bearing in mind both its selectivity and the constraint of its population, that every person on campus is not unintentional; there is reason behind their presence.

Please also let me note the 100-plus difference between white faculty and faculty of color, as this is the first and fundamental problem. I also want to clarify Spaniards are racially white, and therefore do not reflect the Latino population, or faculty of color. It is ignominious that Macalester should conflate the colonizers with the colonized—white bodies with people of color—expressly to maintain some quota for Latino bodies. The representation for Latino faculty is questionable, and is already low.

A very interesting pattern emerges after 2006 between Black and Latino faculty of color – it appears there is a trade-off in order to maintain a status quo in the overall representation of Black and Brown bodies. Whenever the “Hispanic” representation increases, the Black representation decreases; indeed, the percentile difference between these two groups remains, on average, around four percent. This suggests that the representation for colored bodies – specifically Brown and Black – must maintain a status quo, an aggregate maximum. This Black-Brown Trade-Off occurs while representation for Asian American representation also decreases (especially when we consider the fact that Macalester added the Chinese Major with a multi-million dollar grant from Freeman during 2003-2007, which allowed the college to make many hires in Chinese related areas), which remains consistent with the Black-Brown Trade-Off. As for Native American faculty, there were three in 2003, but only one left in 2013—a huge drop despite the fact that the Twin Cities has the largest Native American urban population, which further demonstrates Macalester’s dismal record of maintaining Indigenous bodies as either students or staff.

Meanwhile, something very peculiar happens: while all groups of faculty of color decrease, the white faculty increases. Reminding ourselves of the constraint of employees Macalester can hire, this trend suggests that faculty of color were cut in order to accommodate more white bodies as full-time faculty. Some may argue that the “Hispanic” population increases, and this is technically true (not withstanding that Spanish/Spaniard bodies are not representative of Latino bodies)—but this only occurs because Asian American representation decreases, despite the financial boost from Freeman. The data demonstrates that if one group of faculty of color increases, the other decreases, which suggests further that there is no racial distinction between faculty of color: the aggregate sum of all people of color must meet a certain status quo, which is never to actually increase.

This equation seems to be: Faculty of Color = Asian + Black + Native American + “Hispanic”, where the Faculty of Color is a fixed quota. Indeed, we see this glass ceiling below:

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We can therefore refine the equation as: 20 percent Faculty of Color = Asian + Black + Native American + “Hispanic,” so that no individual group of people of color can exceed the already low maximum percentile.

This systemically racist architecture creates the illusion of multiculturalism, internationalism and inclusion, while in actuality it fosters a majority white campus with no real investment in people of color outside tokenism. I use architecture pointedly because at this time it is also important to note that more than any other department, the faculty from the Math, Statistics and Economics department is disproportionately white. In this respect, the intentionality for the mathematical, institutional suppression of faculty of color seems more apparent.

This trend is not dissimilar to how Macalester manipulates its quota for students of color. There is a glass ceiling. Within the students of color, there is a distinction between the students of color and “box-checkers”—those who use a blood quantum as a qualification to “check the ethnic box”; i.e., somebody who is 1/64th Cherokee who does not identify culturally, until the admissions process.

As for the staff of color, the tokenism is even more obvious. The Dean of Multicultural Life rotates every or every other year, especially if the dean wants seriously to do something about the consistent failing retention of students of color.

Let’s also take a look at the department coordinators, the gatekeepers at the ground level. They can make or break the daily function for a student, a fellow staff and even faculty with a welcoming gesture, kind remark or the denial of a legitimate request for learning and teaching. It may seem trivial that a department coordinator refuses to update the status for the faculty of color, or tell her that she may not use the department lounge to meet her students, or that she must pay for the copying of her student writing out of her own pocket, but when accumulated, the daily trivial stone becomes a crushing boulder. Further, these are acts of discriminatory micro-aggressions which, when looked at the fuller scope of this case, also further indicates the intricate levels of racism [Professor Wang] Ping has had to endure. Looking at all the departments at Macalester, we do not see a SINGLE body of staff of color as coordinator. Every department coordinator is white.

The same goes for the staff for the President and Provost and the academic deans.

The same goes with the major committees that make important decisions regarding Macalester’s future, which are 99 percent white, one percent or no faculty or staff of color representative: Faculty Personnel Committee, EPAG, Grant Committee, Center for Scholarship and Teaching, the President’s advisory committee, and the newly formed Strategic Plan Committee.

I cannot presume your privilege, but I can say until your history is rooted in the First Generation Third world, you will not understand what’s at stake with Ping’s case. You might have experienced the normalization of privilege—that everybody you meet is beyond knowledgeable, can afford organic food and make a smart joke about literature. You might have become normalized with the discussions of the United Nations, hegemony and narratives of oppression. You might have even become normalized to this idea of protesting—that your voice would be heard, your agency still a given.

I was almost embarrassed to have my parents at Macalester’s graduation. Because my mother could not spell “stomach” or “virus,” I would write my own absentee notes in grade school. I had to be sure not to “outsmart” her or any family for fear of alienation. My parents still don’t really know the difference between organic foods and GMOs. This knowledge, this class, is your privilege. I, for some reason, have been given a taste of this privilege, and this in and of itself is a gift. I grew up not knowing where I would be in the future. In my neighborhood, even the best talent goes wasted. In the third world, barrio, hood, ghetto, your neighborhood is most often the height you will ever achieve. There is no such thing as mobility. Your success is more a lottery, winning favor from your teacher, or keeping silent so that you don’t end up on their bad side. Your privilege allows you to be surrounded by intellects, people who can network, who understand the intricacies of sociopolitical realities. My parents do not know this. When at graduation, I did not invite my parents to speak with other parents; I knew they couldn’t keep pace with the conversation. Between my parents and the wealthy, well-informed parents, I could see the sharp contrast between my roots and my future. It was a dream to gain that knowledge I sought, but I could never forget my roots.

I identify with Ping, because our roots are not dissimilar. I identify with Ping’s struggle, because she is not alone. Her story is not just mine, but also represents my many friends who did not make it through the educational systems which are not catered to succor students of color. Even when former professors would remark on my insight, I couldn’t help but think the talent and intelligentsia there was in the North Side, my old home. Ping’s story is crucial because it is the American Dream. I hate that phrase—American Dream—because it is a reality which is given only to a select few. I wish all my friends from the North Side were given the opportunity I was, but it is not so. Ping’s story is about the academic advancement for all people of color, despite the education system’s game of favoritism and discrimination.

Macalester—especially through the nurturing of faculty of color like Ping—has granted me the ultimate resource: self-knowledge, figuring out how I think, which is something beyond education. I came to Macalester from the North Side of Fort Worth, which is also known as “Little Mexico” for its predominantly migrant population. I had textbooks that were older than me; the majority of my teachers were unqualified to teach their given subject. Every year a friend of mine was killed. My mother dropped out of middle school, and though my father graduated from high school, he did not have anybody who believed in him enough to guide him to college. “Little Mexico” is known as a dead end.

I felt alienated on campus. It wasn’t enough that I was surrounded by white people, I was surrounded by white people who thought they understood the experiences of a person of color. White people who would ask me about Puerto Rican desserts when I was Mexican. I became the unofficial spokesperson for all things Latino. I became the token, having to receive problematic questions and had to tolerate the disappointment in my classmates when I wouldn’t perform the stereotypes they already held of me. After one semester at Mac, I printed out a transfer application to the University of Chicago—my original first-choice, whose full scholarship I declined because of my belief in Macalester.

I found solace in the English Department because of its diversity. I was taught by Wang Ping, Marlon James, David Mura, Kristin Naca. It felt like home.

I came to Macalester feeling guilty – that all my brothers and sisters were stuck in the North Side, with the idea that I somehow won an academic lottery, and my life was already vastly more secure than theirs. I met Ping during a creative writing course, and she immediately told me to pursue creative writing. I was pre-med at the time, and was sure to follow that path. Knowing that I came from the barrio North Side, it did not make any financial sense to pursue creative writing.I kept coming back to creative writing, to Ping. Her guidance matched what I had been seeking all along. I remember feeling at odds and deeply disgusted that a white man was teaching the Mellon Mays seminar, a class on critical-race studies. I was glad when he left. Growing up on the North Side, you begin to believe in your own powerlessness, in stereotypes, that for some reason you are inferior because of your phenotype, gender, sexuality. Seeing Ping – a successful, strong, outspoken woman of color broke all barriers I had been led to believe in all my life. My future seemed possible.

Something clicked, and all I could do was write. At this time, my grandfather—my one and only solid male figure—was dying. Were it not for Ping’s guidance, helping me understand poetry as a creative force despite all negativity which might surround us, I might have imploded. I was on academic probation—no class mattered to me. How could my classes matter when my grandfather was dying? This meant further division in my already divided family. Ping helped me gather strength, to transform these destructive energies into writing that would grant me recognition. The month after my grandfather died, I was awarded the Loft Literary Center Fellowship in Poetry—the first Macalester student to achieve such a feat, as this is normally awarded to established writers. When I gathered enough emotional energy and collectivism, I found myself climbing out of probation. During graduation, I was awarded with the Harry Sherman Prize in Poetry — a recognition for the “most outstanding manuscript in poetry.” And now, I can happily say I’ve been accepted into Long Island University – Brooklyn’s MFA with a full scholarship and teaching assistant-ship.

If it weren’t for Ping’s teaching and the subsequent recognition of my writing, my professional life would have been different. I’ve worked for the Administration of Fort Worth Independent School District, Assistant Director of Education for Boys and Girls Clubs Fort Worth and I am the Speech Lab Director for Tarrant County College – Trinity River. I use Ping’s methods and the use of poetry throughout the curriculum I design and implement. Poetry has a deep power Ping has demonstrated through every workshop. The thought that the current acting President told her that she is “not good enough” furrows the deepest embers of my anger, exactly because I know the acting President is wrong and unqualified to make such judgments. I have seen Ping’s teaching methods heal my students, create better writers, better speakers. As Administration for Fort Worth ISD, I worked with the “disengaged” “at-risk” “bottom 25 percent” middle and high school students; during one camp, we had trouble putting the boys to sleep because they were discussing poetry, using their voices because they experienced poetry’s empowerment. How, then, can you make such erroneously blanket statements? At what point are you willing to disqualify any justification to your voice? What have you to say against these acts of personal and institutional racism? What do you think is our threshold for such ignorance, and how do you reconcile that ignorance with your position at Macalester, of all institutions?

Macalester, when you take away faculty and staff of color, you take away our dreams. The American Dream, as cliché as it might sound, has always been built by hands of color. We’ve built the pyramids, but never lived inside. Cater your meals, clean the porcelain plate and designer glass, but our people have never eaten the food, at the table, as your equal. By denying promotion, you also signal that this place of subservience is something we must accept.

It bridged one of the biggest gaps between the first and third world: knowledge. It motivates me to take my education further. How should I take it, then, when I see my sister denied promotion; her reputation smeared by such institutional hypocrisy; her personality spat on by people who had no right or legitimacy in making such judgments? Is this how Macalester responds when people of color ask the college to recognize us as intellects, peers standing at equal height? That she should even ask for equality also demonstrates the difference between white freedom and colored oppression. How else is collective humanity and the Third World going to advance if its descendant people of color in the US are not equal pioneers within First World academia?

We People of Color are not your commodity. This academic control is modern imperialism and colonialism. You might not behead our tribal kings and queens, but you cut off the intelligentsia we produce, decide who survives the academic world. You preach a space in which we can reclaim our agency, and yet you hush our mouths at the whisper of justice. Ping’s fight is our own, exactly because this is the intersection of historical oppression and future liberation. If Lealtad’s and Suzuki’s admission as students were post-modern for the time, what does 2013 ask of you—if not the advancement for our staff? You hide behind the mask of Internationalism and Multiculturalism, yet your Faculty Personnel Committee is majority White – with only two Women of Color to represent, presumably one for domestic and one for international “diversity.” I am ashamed of this hypocrisy. Grow up to this century’s demands—we are demanding it.

KP Hong is on the chopping board. Dr. Wang was denied several promotions. Lara Nielson was denied tenure. Delores Richardson has been gone from Mac. The last white man to receive such obstacles was Scott Morgensen, WGSS instructor and member of the LGBT community. Macalester has a closet full of female, queer and colored skeletons. The numbers speak to Mac’s discriminatory actions, and it has now come time to question the systematic oppression which has been occurring. It is now time to bear who has been making the decisions, question still why they hold the power and discuss how we can re-allocate the power from such overtly racist, sexist, and bigoted practices.

The Asian Language and Literature Department hasn’t tenured a single faculty for 20 years, after Suzuki, and she was rewarded with an endowed professor title as a gate keeper. The same thing happened to the Religious Department—the only tenured professors are two white faculty, tenured from 20-30 years ago, and they are also awarded with such titles for keeping potential non-whites and gays out. The same happened to the Women’s, Gender, and Sexualities Studies Department.

I would like to semi-foolishly quote the late Marley, “How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look,” except Macalester students have always been proactive in guarding our professors, mentors, teachers. Instead, my question is, “How long will ‘Macalester’ (because the administration seems indifferent to and different from the Mac student body, past and present) ignore our voices?”

What does it mean when an institution which “pioneers” multiculturalism, internationalism, inclusion, post-racial, post-modern, anti-hegemonic discourse and praxis demonstrates that its own academics of color and queer academics, are not part of the “movement” or “cause?” That this same institution would further marginalize those…our…very same people?

What does this mean for current students of color, whose accolades are mere seeds to the life accomplishments of our professors? Are we supposed to take that as a measure of our worth? Do we already accept our impending defeat, continue applying for grad school, PhD programs, tenure track when the path already seems dead-end? Do we accept the limits of the glass ceiling that also shows us the possibility of sky above, space beyond, just on the other side?

Are we supposed to remain complacent in knowing that we were lucky enough just to be admitted—that when we remember our roots stem from our grandmothers’ labor, find mere and minimal satisfaction, and seek nothing higher? How much longer will we let Mac slip into darkness, or whiteness, before the damage is irreversible? Do we accept this normalization?

When will we accept that bullies from the playground grow up to be bullies in the administration? That their tactics—the means—become more subtle, although the plan—the end—becomes more apparent with time? Our minds bear the incessant scar of informed inferiority, and our bleeding though the damage hides under a veil. The iron fist hits through but the softest of velvet.

Macalester, what do we do?

Your discriminatory actions are no different, if not worse, than the racism I’ve encountered from white men in Texas, exactly because you hail a mask of multiculturalism, internationalism, inclusion and post-modern rhetoric. If anything, I applaud the honesty of racist, white Texas exactly because they do not seek to hide and manipulate, and receive donations from alumni and well-intentioned donors; whereas the current, structurally white administration at Macalester hides and still harms people of color at a much deeper and wider level.

We people, students, and alumni of color are the multicultural pillar, and we are upset. We will make our voices heard, should you choose not to:

  • take immediate action to systematically change the structurally-white administration at Macalester, particularly the majority-white Faculty Personnel Committee

  • reverse the damage to Dr. Wang’s reputation and relationship to her colleagues

  • balance the public relation with a public apology and acknowledgment of said mistreatment

  • guarantee that the remainder of her years at Macalester remain peaceable – no more micro-aggressions, no more retaliations, no more systematic suppression of her talent as a scholar, teacher, and community builder

Nobody—even and especially the President—has any right in deeming anyone’s value, or lack thereof. You should be ashamed of the myth of “white power” you perpetuate through your twists of power, how you sought and seek to maintain the race, gender and national origins hierarchies among Macalester’s faculty, staff, and students in the name of multiculturalism, internationalism and civic engagement.

This issue transcends Macalester’s mask of inclusion. We people and alumni of color now have reason to believe we must protect—even warn—future students of color from entering an academically imperialistic trap which only seeks to use them as a quanta, to manipulate them into perfect ornament in order to climb the ranks, that Mac would sooner dismiss its discriminatory realities and subsequently punish the voice—cast away the agency which has historically been appropriated from people of color—and create tactical illusions to block faculty from organizing from the apparent administrative inequities; that Macalester would use their intricate knowledge of coalitions, agency, post-modernity as a tool to repress the very voices it claims to support and uphold. This is hypocrisy in the deepest sense, and we cannot afford to allow future generations of students of color to become tokenized. It is apparent we have a deeper investment in real progress for our people than the majority white administration.

I want to emphasize “real progress,” because we also won’t accept administrative tokenism. As it stands, the Faculty Personnel Committee contains two women of color to represent all the diversity; the rest of the panel remains majority white. As it stands, there is one Black man who will serve as new acting provost. Should even the Token of Color choose to uphold Macalester’s discriminatory actions, he or she would and will become the object of judicial reclamation; in this respect, it would seem more advisable to hire a white ally than a person of color who would perpetuate the same institutional racism, sexism, bigotry. Metaphorically, there should be neither a Clarence Thomas nor a Ted Cruz on Macalester’s administration—tokens have always been historical, and we will not accept this superficial form of “progress.”

Remember these words, remember your place in context of an increasingly post-modern society, remember your injustices so that you will not repeat them. But, most of all, remember you work for us, with us, not against us.

April 26, 2013

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