A Call for Anti-Discrimination: Embracing Difference through Respect, Responsibility, and Reciprocity
By Sara Ramirez
“Column Starts a Culture War.”
“Racist Propaganda Is Tearing This Texas University Apart.”
“Texas State University and the War on Whiteness.”
Paradoxically, these headlines drew me in. I am a Chicana—a Mexican American woman who is politically cognizant of a history of Euro-American systemic oppression of poor and non-white people. Spanish was my first language. I grew up in a working-class home. Because these aspects of my identity are reflected in the majority-minority composition of the student body at Texas State, I accepted a tenure-track position, beginning in fall 2018, as an Assistant Professor of English at the University. I want to guide students who—like me—are the first in their families to attend college, have felt inadequate in spaces of higher learning, and will only in hindsight understand how they should have navigated their educational careers. So, when I read Inside Higher Ed, Vice News, and The Root news articles that illuminated the blatant racism on the University campus during the 2017-2018 academic year, part of me reconsidered whether Texas State would indeed be a good fit for my professional goals. Would students use the classroom to remind me, a non-white professor, that “America is a white nation” as white supremacists declared to them in October 2017 by hanging a banner with those words? The possibility is unnerving.
Still, these incidents and headlines are the very reason universities need to draw in faculty and staff who have lived-experience with and political awareness of a U.S. history of intolerance of difference. As a first-year undergraduate student far away from my Texas home, I had no idea I would need such adults when I first arrived on a university campus crowded with students who looked like they had just walked out of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue. Nor did I realize I would need their wisdom when my roommates mocked the diversity video required for all first-years. “Do you feel like an ‘outsider’ because you’re Mexican?” they taunted and then laughed when I responded, “Kind of.” These were the same roommates who deemed me “ghetto” for speaking “improper” English and for listening to hip-hop in our room. These experiences made me cautious to participate in class discussions with such peers; I feared I would say something wrong because I was starting to feel something was wrong with me. Throughout the course of my undergraduate career, I wished for professors who looked like me, had last names that ended with z, and could give name to our shared experiences. However, at the time, I could not put into words why I desired such professors in my life. In hindsight, I realize I needed someone sensitive to my difference as a first-generation, non-white, and underprivileged student. I needed someone with seeming authority to tell me America is not a white nation.
Students of color such as my eighteen-year-old self are not the only ones who have need for faculty of color in the university, as university leaders can also depend on our experiential knowledge to resolve issues around diversity. Note I am not suggesting faculty of color should bear complete responsibility for discussions about diversity on campus. Rather, the university should follow our lead in these efforts.) These issues include the institutional use of the word “diversity” itself. Literary scholar Jodi Melamed argues “diversity” has become a trope of multicultural liberalism, arguing cultural diversity is invited into the university only to maintain neoliberal ideology that portrays “the equality of the free market as the most fundamental expression of equality” (139). The maintenance of neoliberalism (founded on oppression) will not set free people whom anti-discrimination initiatives are intended to help, for freedom depends upon the dismantling of all systems of oppression. Trained in Comparative Ethnic Studies and Gender Studies, I prefer the words “anti-racist,” “anti-sexist,” and “anti-oppressive” to describe the practices universities must actively employ to contribute to the creation of a more just society. Such terms honor the Civil Rights movements that precipitated anti-discrimination laws. These terms remind us we must encourage anti-discriminatory practices in the university as ways to actualize a society free from divisions based on race, class, sex, gender, religion, ability, and other social constructs that keep us apart.
Tellingly, we avoid talking about race so much that we circumvent terms such as “anti-racism” by using words such as “diversity” in its place. Discussing race and racism reminds us of not only systemic and everyday racism but also the differences between us. Black American lesbian thinker and poet Audre Lorde points out, “[I]t is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation” (“Age” 115). Diversity and inclusion initiatives in the university should indeed encourage the embrace of our differences as well as the examination of distortions that result from fearing our differences. Recognizing the effects of these distortions will lead us to understand how and why “the major systems of oppression are interlocking,” as the Combahee River Collective observed in 1977 (234). Yet comprehension is not sufficient. We must affirmatively act to correct these distortions.
Before we can act, however, we must learn to listen to and understand one another. Just as first-generation students and students of color at Texas State are venturing into new thinking spaces, administrators, faculty, and staff may likewise feel lost venturing into new discussions about race, sex, and class. For students such as my eighteen-year-old self and other members of the University, I offer a series of dichos, or maxims, which have been helpful for me as a person of color who, at times, has felt out of place when far from my geographical and ideological homes. I encourage us to take action guided by the philosophy that our lives and experiences are interconnected.
“La/El que nace para maceta del corredor no sale”
This dicho encourages us to leave our comfort zones. It literally means “She/He who is born for the plant pot will not get out of the corridor.” Dear student, you are the plant, and, like any healthy plant, you are going to grow toward the light. Will you stay in the maceta (the plant pot) or grow over the edge of what was meant to contain you? Since you have already left one maceta, your physical home, I encourage you to keep growing and leave el corredor. You were not born for la maceta; you were born to be a Bobcat. Allow your social consciousness to grow in your humanities courses at Texas State. Opt for classes that are perhaps outside of your—or anyone’s—traditional academic comfort zone such as Latina/o Studies or Women’s Studies. Let yourself fall in love with the material you read, watch, and experience in these courses. If you are unable to take such classes due to your schedule, check out the campus bookstore. Which books are Latina/o Studies or Women’s Studies professors teaching? Pick up a used copy, and you’ll be surprised to find out Latina/o Studies and Women’s Studies are not what you once thought. (Believe me. I’ve been there.) Share your new knowledge with your friends and family, who might still be hanging out in their macetas.
Dear colleague, you and I were not born for the maceta either. With respect to discussions about diversity, many of us are much like the students to whom we cater: lost. Though most of us have been educated in schools of higher learning, we have, unfortunately, not been taught how to employ non-violent communication, for instance. We have not learned how to step outside of the ego with which we so adamantly identify. We have not learned the skills of compassion for others’ egos either. Yet we have a responsibility to these students, each other, as well as ourselves to pursue conversations that make us uneasy. We owe it to ourselves to crawl out of our respective plant pots and, when we do accomplish this task, to be compassionate toward others who still see their own macetas as their one and only home.
“No se puede tapar el sol con un dedo”
This maxim translates as “The sun cannot be blocked with one finger.” If you try to block sunlight from your eyes using only one average-sized finger, you will likely fail at the attempt. You will soon realize you need to use five or even ten joined fingers to protect your eyes. This dicho underscores the need for thoughtful and collective solutions for big issues.
Students, you will encounter some difficulties as you navigate your undergraduate career. You may find, for example, especially after you’ve left your maceta, that the pre-health route is not really for you. Like me, as a first-generation student and a student of color, you may have declared pre-health because being a doctor is one of the few careers you’ve seen and heard glamorized. You might also realize that medicine is a career envisioned for you by your family because becoming a doctor/lawyer/engineer is the ultimate marker of success in our society. However, after you’ve taken a Chicana/o Narratives course, you may now want to major in English and minor in Latina/o Studies. (This is what happened to me.) How do you talk to your parents about your change of heart? Such a discussion will require thoughtful planning as your parents loom large like el sol in your imagination. Remember, like a single dedo, you alone may not be able to resolve how to keep them from obstructing your vision. This issue will take more fingers (people) joined together and working cohesively to discover a thoughtful solution. In this case, consider speaking with an academic advisor, a licensed counselor at the Counseling Center, or a professor who has had similar experiences as you have. These are all services free to you. You might also consult with other college friends who have had this “change of major” discussion with their families. While your parents may not change their minds about what they want for you, you will at least have these other people in your corner.
Colleagues, as we venture into discussions of race, sex, and class differences to create a better social climate for students, let us remember that no individual or even a single group will be able to transform Texas State into the welcoming environment we want for faculty and staff of color, students of color, and first-generation students. The emotional and psychological effects of even subtle and unintentional acts of discrimination and making people feel unworthy of inclusion are indeed big problems that must be tackled collectively—like joined fingers protecting our vision from the threatening sun—if we are to effect positive change on campus.
“El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz”
Although this is not a dicho per se, now, more than ever, we must remember nineteenth-century Mexican President Benito Juárez’s timeless words: “Respect for the rights of others is peace.” This statement gained meaning for me through my father. Each time another child would pick on me or if he found out I was picking on someone—most often my little sister—my father would remind me, “Como dijo Benito Juárez, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz.” I had a responsibility to maintain peace by respecting others rights. As a little girl, I once asked my father, “¿Qué es la paz? [What is peace?]” He responded, “Ésto [This],” his index finger pointing and tracing a long arch over our neighborhood street, parched trees, grass, and potted flowers, swaying in the hot summer wind; children riding bikes and skateboards and jumping through a water stream shooting out of a single sprinkler; and back to me. I began to associate peace with this feeling—the feeling of my own stillness and calm as the world moved without disturbing me. Yet I wouldn’t learn the meaning of el derechos ajenos, or the rights of others, and the ways in which some civil rights are infringed upon until much later.
Students and colleagues, in these harsh sociopolitical times, we must recall the lessons of kindness and respect from our childhoods. We must also remember the lessons of struggles for civil rights we learned as adults, for these efforts are not over. While I emphasize respect, I do not advocate a politics of respectability through which we police behaviors deemed “disrespectful” by dominant social standards that only serve to keep poor whites and people of color in their place. Instead, I am calling for all members of the Texas State community to respect one another’s rights to teach, learn, and navigate the campus without fear of physical or psychological harm in the name of la paz.
May these words be useful to the University community as a whole. These dichos are these timeless words of advice, which may incite us to reflect upon not only respect but also responsibility and reciprocity. All members of the University have a responsibility—the ability to respond, if you will—to the call to grow out of our individual macetas. We each have a responsibility to shape an anti-racist, anti-sexist, and overall anti-discriminatory space for higher learning. We are also responsible for engaging in reciprocity by giving back to the communities (or the other dedos, to align with the second dicho) that have collectively contributed to our growth. My hope is that attention to the nuances of respect, responsibility, and reciprocity may lead us to become aware of the interconnectedness of our experiences.
About the Author
Sara A. Ramírez
Sara A. Ramírez, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English. Her research agenda engages Chicana and decolonial feminist literature, visual art, and theory alongside trauma studies. Her first book is tentatively titled “Lo/Cura: Subjects of Trauma in Chicana Cultural Productions.” She is also executive editor for Third Woman Press and co-editor for recent editions of El Mundo Zurdo, selected works from the meetings for the Society for the Study of Gloria Anzaldúa.