In Solidarity and Support of Black Lives
From Faculty of the Department of Sociology, Texas A&M University
Like many other academic communities across the country, we wish to acknowledge our outrage at the murder of George Floyd and the countless other Black, brown, and Indigenous people who have lost their lives as result of systemically racist policing in the United States. As sociologists, as educators, as researchers, and as community members we join with academic institutions across the country in bearing witness to the racial injustices that have led us to this moment. As a department we recognize that the recent uprisings across the nation are an expression of deep-seated pain, anger, and frustration that has long gone unheard—the result of a long history of anti-Black racist violence and systemic economic, political, and social racial oppression.
Throughout this moment of social uprising triggered by the horrific murder of George Floyd, we have seen plenty of virtue-signaling emails and advertisements from retailers and bureaucrats “standing against racism.” As a department, we would like to make a commitment to do more than signify abstract support for anti-racist sentiment. We would like to mobilize in this moment to facilitate changes that will make our department and the university a more racially equitable place.
We acknowledge that over the past few years, multiple faculty of color have left our department. At least one of them specifically cited a lack of institutional support in dealing with racism in the Texas A&M community as a basis for leaving. The diversity committee, along with the rest of the faculty, have already begun taking actions to create better processes for communicating and responding to instances of discriminatory bias and racism in teaching. However, we acknowledge that it is our responsibility to do more.
The diversity committee today makes a commitment to produce a list of action items for creating racial equity to bring to the faculty in the October faculty meeting.
We understand that making the department and university more inclusive for communities of color is our responsibility; it should not be a burden that falls on the shoulders of students of color who already experience the heavy weight of racial inequities and hostilities at Texas A&M University. We have read the carefully drafted letter submitted by the non-Black graduate students in our department (reproduced below). We will use the information to inform the construction of our action item list. We do want anyone who has more thoughts, questions, or concerns to feel comfortable reaching out to the diversity committee. With that in mind, we welcome and encourage graduate student input as we create institutional change, but we recognize it is our responsibility as faculty to do the labor of creating these changes. Black Lives Matter.
From Non-Black Graduate Students, Department of Sociology, Texas A&M University
The world is on fire. From Minneapolis to Rio de Janeiro, Chicago to Paris, Washington DC to Toronto, people fill the streets to protest the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, David Mcatee, George Floyd, João Pedro Mattos Pinto, Tony McCade and countless others to name. Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with video after video of Black people shot with rubber bullets, pepper sprayed, and violently pulled out of their cars. Streets are filled with tanks and white far-right vigilantes. Black protestors are battered until they bleed. People are attacked for breaking curfew even though they have just left work. All of this against a foggy backdrop of tear gas ricocheting into crowds. As a nation, we have watched Black people scream into the night, release their trauma and pain into the wind, only to meet them with silence.
Sociologist Eric Anthony Grollman tells us:
being a brave academic entails refusing to prioritize self-serving interests at the expense of knowledge production and social justice. Rather than avoiding risky endeavors to protect one’s position and status, a brave academic uses her position, status and expertise to effectively advance knowledge and equity, despite the risks.1
Graduate students are by definition precarious workers. We know we are replaceable. In a time where funding is especially hard to come by, the costs of academic bravery seem significant. However, we must address the collective inaction of the department in response to the global murders of Black people.
The Department of Sociology has a long history of housing—and training—scholars of race and racisms, many of whom are now leading ASA sections, serving on editorial boards of high-ranking journals, winning university- and national-level teaching awards, and publishing books and articles that shape conversations within the discipline and beyond. Our department’s success is indebted to the Black intellectual traditions which formed the bases of critical theories and methodologies; the Black research assistants who collected data and contributed to analyses, sometimes without recognition; and the Black interlocutors and respondents studied to gain powerful insights into the lived experiences and outcomes of racism, without which such research would be impossible.
As non-Black graduate students, we invoke this history in calling upon faculty and administrators to provide our Black colleagues with tangible support. We call for the following, which in light of the history of the department, we believe are fair and equitable:
- A working and learning environment where anti-Blackness is neither practiced nor tolerated. Faculty, as holding the positions of power and status, must interrupt anti-Blackness when they witness it in their classrooms, during faculty and committee meetings, and among their graduate and undergraduate students. Anti-Black attitudes and practices can emerge in the following ways:
a. Gendered racism. When directed toward Black women, gendered racism manifests as critiques of their personalities and presumed aggression or coldness, as well as the expectation that they provide emotional care for faculty and students. Black men can be presumed standoffish and intimidating, and expected by faculty to confront undergraduates requiring disciplinary actions. This gendered racism means that Black graduate students’ efforts are rarely honored or recognized for bolstering the mission of the department, or for improving the climate for undergraduates and graduate students of color.
b. The erasure and invalidation of queer Black students’ multiple marginalized identities. White heteronormative standards mean that cis gender and heterosexual students will not have their pronouns, gender expression, or identities questioned by faculty, nor will they become the topic of suspicion or gossip for affirming themselves on the basis of those identities. Black queer students must be provided the same respect and not made to choose between their identities.
c. Expecting Black graduate students to be the sole authority on race, racism, and Blackness in courses, where they are often the only Black student, only increases the isolation and frustration they experience in class. Black graduate students must be brought into discussions for their intellectual contributions, and be given opportunities to engage with the discipline not as spokespeople for the concepts being taught, but as scholars.
d. Paternalistic mentoring on the basis that Black students are incompetent, deficient, or oppressed beyond their own agency and ability to create their knowledge—and not merely reproduce their advisor’s agenda—must be avoided. Such a mentoring style stifles Black graduate students’ professional and intellectual growth.
- Intentional, conscious, and present mentoring. Black graduate students are at high risk of benign neglect from mentors, who may intend to advocate for and support students, but who in practice exhibit “non-directive, laissez-faire behaviors that leave their students floundering.”2 Reading Black students’ work, grappling with the ideas they propose, and providing deep feedback can help counter benign neglect. Further, advisors may other or fail to understand their students, which threaten Black graduate students’ success.3 Mentoring should be rooted in recognizing the various forms of cultural capital Black graduate students possess as well as exposing aspects of the hidden curriculum.
a. At the same time, we recognize that the dwindling number of Black faculty threatens to render the department incapable of mentoring Black students in meaningful ways, for meaningful career preparation. White faculty must respect and learn from the models Black faculty create. This is not to suggest that Black faculty do more uncompensated labor, or that power relations be activated to pressure senior Black graduate students into providing this mentoring. Instead, this requires that white faculty study the literature on critical, effective mentoring practices. To ensure that this work does not fall on Black faculty, the department can obtain funding from the College of Liberal Arts or The Office for Diversity, which would allow us to compensate Human Resource Development experts who can oversee this training. The department must take seriously that mentoring Black students requires efforts above and beyond practices which might be meaningful for non-Black students—who have more persons in the department who can model survival and success in academia.
- An acknowledgment that anti-Black violence is not merely a “moment” for Black graduate students.4 As a predominately non-Black department, the present focus on anti-Black violence may resonate with us as one fleeting moment of injustice—though as sociologists we should be aware of the historical roots and the structural nature of the problem. This knowledge must be used to develop an active awareness of the chronic stress Black graduate students experience as they live through these violent systems. We must then translate this awareness into actions that bolster the retention and mental health support of Black graduate students beyond referring them to Counseling and Psychological Services.
As an authoritarian regime threatens our freedoms, academic bravery must be practiced now more than ever. Non-Black faculty, and especially white faculty, must hold themselves and their colleagues accountable. Our actions should not only strive to describe social injustices, but also challenge the reproduction of those hierarchies within our walls. We believe this work supports and expands upon the critical mission of the department that drew us here.
1 Grollman, Eric A. “Celebrating Academic Bravery.” Inside Higher Ed. (2019) https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2019/01/04/why-we-should-acknowledge-academic-bravery-opinion
2 Gay, Geneva. “Navigating marginality en route to the professoriate: Graduate students of color learning and living in academia.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 17, no. 2 (2004): 265-288.
3 Martinez-Cola, Marisela. “Collectors, Nightlights, and Allies, Oh My! White Mentors in the Academy.” Unpacking and Dismantling Privilege (2018).