The Need For Change in Higher Education

By Caenisha Warren

It’s a new year. A new time for perspective, purpose, and progress. As staff within Christian higher education, it seems that no matter the year, 1760, 1860, 1960, 2016, race is still a barrier. However, we can see from college campuses around the country, the fight for equality and equity in education is demanding more than a resolve of representation and numbers.

I do not believe there exists a flawless institution. I do believe, however, education is an area that has the potential for reinvention, creativity and possibility. Diversifying numbers and equitable curriculum are only a start to the rejuvenation necessary. The cause of civil rights is taught as an issue of our past, disregarding the continued legacy of Native genocide, immigrant exclusion, slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration.  So let’s be honest about the cultural fabric of America and acknowledge the shaping of race on history, as well as today’s systems, institutions, relationships and social development. All kinds of life take place in education. It is not purely knowledge that educates us; relationship, experience and environment have their place. Everyday things tend to matter.

In preparing to write this post, it seemed small, perhaps everyday things found their way present in my week. Micro-aggressions that took place, from the close and personal – the hostilities of being black in an Asian family – to the public and stranger encounters.  Just last week while at brunch with my cousins, our poor waiter was extra nervous about serving a table of African Americans that his hands noticeably shook. You could hear the tinkering rattle of the dishes from his unsteady hand. You may not think anything of this, but the issue of race leaves us wondering as to where it might show up in everyday life.

These reoccurring, discriminatory acts – whether indirect, subtle or unintentional – have a deep impact that is raising voices in education.  On any given campus, there’s the occasional blatant racial slur, comment or joke. Yet more common are things such as the questions or comments about hair, the need of validation for cultural appropriation, negative assumptions and discipline towards people of color, the use of descriptive words like articulate or intelligent in reference to you, when scholarship assumes to mean un-/under- qualified, or even the tireless expectation to be the “teachers” about race and culture.

This is a reality: America is still unsure how to deal with and talk about race; and the educational institution is no different. In the unique educational arena, students, staff and faculty are coming from communities and residences that are likely more homogenous, into a shared experience within a mixed socio-economic environment. Yet, this place of possibility and ideation only seems to follow the status quo in dealing with black and brown bodies. Micro-aggressions, small but numerous, take their toll on the educational campus because they present a lack of real change or progress.

We no longer live in explicit slavery or Jim Crow, but we are far from saying that the effects of racialization are truly behind us. Change in education requires more – than having enough diversity to meet compliance; than an inclusive curriculum; than a growing list of clubs, programs and lectures.  As a member of this community, I am looking for more than lists, programs or boxes you can check off as evidence of progress.  I am seeking a place to belong, where creativity, invention and change is possible.  In the everyday relationships, interactions and experiences between students, staff, and faculty, this is where real lives are impacted, both in and outside the classroom.  This is where the desire for change is needed.

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