“Do you work here?” | GW today
By Greg Varner
For African American students, attending a predominantly white college or university can be isolating and traumatic. They may face various forms of emotional abuse, causing damage to their self-esteem and well-being.
That was the topic Thursday of the second annual MLK conference sponsored by George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development (GSEHD), “Examining the Master’s House: African American Students Experiencing Psychological Violence at Predominantly White Institutions,” presented virtually by Deniece Dortch, Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration.
The title of Dortch’s lecture was inspired by the late Audre Lorde, poet and author of the collection of essays, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”
The event was introduced by Assistant Professor Dwayne Kwaysee Wright, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives at GSEHD, who also moderated the Q&A at the end.
After brief welcoming remarks, Wright quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Birmingham Jail Letter,” written in April 1963 in response to white clerics who had urged King to curb civil rights protests and s Instead rely on court cases. to advance the cause of integration. In his response, King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Dortch presented research findings gleaned from a series of interviews with pseudonymous doctoral students at a school in the Midwest, also called by a pseudonym.
One of Dortch’s participating doctoral students, “Assata,” was pregnant with her fifth child when her department chair told her, “Oh, we’re going to invest in birth control for you.” White women told her she was pushing back the feminist movement.
Another PhD student was told by an adviser, “I’m probably not supposed to tell you this, but I actually pulled your application out of the rejection pile,” establishing an inappropriate level of debt. Such statements can make students feel trapped and further distort already unequal power relations.
Racism, Dortch said, complicates and amplifies such abuses. At a school where almost no students of color attended, “Monica” said she was asked “Do you work here?” Structurally isolated, “Ivy” felt like an impostor.
Black students may encounter facial expressions suggesting they are viewed as incompetent, intrusive, or otherwise suspicious. Their research may be considered inferior or cited without attribution. They may encounter peers who think their own theory trumps the real experience of a black person.
“Insinuating debt, college theft, racial teasing, the perpetuation of racist ideas, and structural isolation are examples of emotional abuse,” Dortch said.
Without dismantling systems of oppression, cycles of violence will continue in the academy, Dortch concluded. Each of us in academia can benefit from the system, but policies need to be revamped and curricula revised to better include collectivist practices. Land processes should also be restructured and new guardianship models introduced.
“We cannot dismantle the system from within the system because we are benefiting from it, supporting it and perpetuating it at the same time,” Dortch said. “We can, however, disrupt the usual cycles of violence within academia and especially in predominantly white institutions like the one in which the study was based.”
A response to Dortch’s speech was given by Laura Engel, GSEHD Associate Professor of International Education and International Affairs, before questions were posed to the audience, which numbered more than 150 at its peak.
“The rich accounts provided by study participants really paint a devastating picture for us,” Engel said.
There are two main traditions in education-related scholarship, Engel said. The “consensus tradition”, exemplified by figures like Émile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons, “attempts to illuminate the ways in which education preserves society”. In contrast, the conflictual tradition is an approach more rooted in the study of power dynamics. Dortch’s fellowship, Engel said, is rooted in this latter tradition.
Most of the African-American doctoral students in Dortch’s study, Engel noted, were “prone to silence” in response to the difficulties they faced. Dortch’s research, Engel said, presents “a loud and clear call to action” and highlights the need for continued consideration of diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education. .
“It’s not just about working in doctoral studies,” Engel said, “but it’s about our whole community.”
After repeating the quote from “Letter to Birmingham Jail” with which Wright introduced the event, Engel quoted the following sentences from King’s letter: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable web of reciprocity, bound in a single garment of fate. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
In response to a question about whether she had seen any disturbances of violence during her time as a faculty member, Dortch said no.
“Lorde tells us that when we use the tools of the master, only the smallest and tightest changes are possible,” Dortch said. “When considering equity and justice work in higher education, many excuses are given as to why ‘we’ are unable to make things happen (time, lack of funding, lack of human capital, etc). It seems that the values embraced around fairness and justice never quite seem to match our values in use.
“But have you ever noticed that when people in power care about something, barriers are easily removed, rules seem to disappear, and funding seems to magically appear? That’s because when the master wants the house move, she moves.