The Challenging Complicities project emerged as part of the 2020 International Roundtable. Under the theme, Facing Pandemics of Disease and Race: Radically Rethinking for Liberatory Futures, this project provides opportunities for departments to dive into the ongoing questions that emerge from the 2020 IRT them as they pertain to our own work: What are the pandemics unveiling? What new worlds can we grow?

Participating departments and offices convene to foster conversation around what they are learning, what they hope to accomplish, and how they are creating a process to keep efforts moving for actual change.

Departments listed below participated in the initial year of the project. Staff from participating administrative departments decided they needed to focus on the structure and process of efforts within their own units. Because work across academic departments is more similar, faculty convened for a conversation about the work within and across their departments. You can find additional information about the conversation among academic departments here.

  • Admissions
  • Career Exploration
  • History
  • Philosophy
  • Psychology
  • Sociology

This page outlines questions and resources to frame and guide the process.

General expectations. Participating departments:

  • Meet at least four times during the academic year. We suggest structuring the work to foster collective learning, balancing the division of labor into individual assignments or subcommittees with meetings for departmental conversations.
  • Participate in the convening of departments.
  • By the end of the year, provide a summary of what the department has learned and accomplished.
    • What key themes and issues surfaced about your discipline as you considered the guiding questions?
    • What new directions are emerging as scholars address the ongoing impact of colonial and exclusionary histories and look toward decolonizing and undoing anti-Blackness and white supremacy in academia? What are departments at other institutions around these issues?
    • Did a shared vision emerge from your process?
    • Name at least one feasible goal that emerges from the year’s work to challenge complicity in structural/systemic racism, anti-Blackness and white supremacy. What concrete action(s) will your department take to move toward this goal? How will the department hold itself accountable for the implementation of the action(s)?

Guiding questions. These questions are intended to open up areas of inquiry and discussion. You are not expected to address all of them directly.

  • What are the colonial roots of your discipline? How is the discipline connected to institutions, practices, and ideologies of anti-Blackness and white supremacy?
  • How does this continue to shape what is considered to be of central importance to the field by shaping the kinds of questions/topics/areas that the field explores? How does this limit the ability to recruit and retain more diverse faculty?
  • How might you use this understanding to generate deeper conversations about experiences of BIPOC faculty and students? How is this connected to academic structures that affect staff?
  • Who is the “standard Mac student” around whom we base our work? How is this related to dynamics of racial superiority/inferiority and assumptions about who belongs?
  • How do we collectively (as an institution) reproduce anti-Blackness and structural/systemic racism through our policies, practices, systems, structures, and assumptions about students? How do these create the “standard Mac student”? That is, how does the institution and the work of your office contribute to conditions that those who don’t fit the “standard student” must navigate? What are the dynamics of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality that are re-produced by this creation of the “standard student”?
  • How might you use new insights to create a deeper vision of racial justice? In your department? Your discipline? Macalester? In relationships between the academic institution and broader communities (local, national, and global)?
  • What are departments at other institutions doing around these questions? What might your department adapt for Macalester?
  • What are some short-, medium-, and long-term steps your department might take to address these issues?

Framing Materials to start conversations

A 12-Step Program for Decolonizing the University: A Conversation with Dr. Rodney D. Coates Webinar; Rodney Coates Outlines a 12-Step Program for Decolonizing Academe, Social Science Space, July 26, 2020 (text summary of webinar). (Notes: The essay needs credits for photos and artwork. Image for Step 1:  Escaped slave Gordon, also known as “Whipped Peter,” showing his scarred back at a medical examination, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, photographer unknown, 1863; Image for Step 7: Libertad, Ester Hernandez, 1977. Coates uses the term “Hispanic” in Step 9. This term hides colonial relationships and erases Brazilians and others who are members of the Latinx community that don’t fit under the category “Hispanic” because they don’t connect to Spanish language and culture. Here is one resource with more information. Both labels can be problematic due their historical colonial roots )

  • Coates’s list offers ways to identify structural and systemic racism, performative ally-ship, and white privilege (even as his use of the term “decolonization” for this list is problematic as it erases the distinction between settler colonialism and racism). How do you see these in your department and at Macalester more broadly?
  • What are practices to undo these?

Bedelia Nicola Richards, “Questions Institutions Should Ask Themselves to Determine If They Are Operating in a Racist Way,” Inside Higher Ed, May 25, 2018.

  • This article offers a useful list of questions directly related to the Challenging Complicities project.

“‘Dear Professor’ from Learning Scientists on Anti-Blackness,” BLM Scholar Strike 720, Sept. 8, 2020. This video raises key framing points and questions:

  • In the history of your discipline: if the history of ideas in your discipline doesn’t include Black scholarship, it’s not neutral. How have Black scholars worked to disrupt racist notions within our fields? Where is their work on our syllabi?
  • Even if your course (or departmental curriculum) might cover seemingly neutral or objective topics, anti-Blackness is ubiquitous once we actively engage in noticing. What do you see in your departmental curriculum?
  • Learning can become a performative act that doesn’t align with sense-making, developing identity as a member of a community or creating new ways of knowing and being with other people. What would happen if there was less emphasis on performance and more on sense-making, identity within community, and creating new ways of knowing and begin with others?
  • Who we judge as capable and who we judge as smart stems from a racist history of eugenics that shapes tropes around race and intelligence. We must educate ourselves and our understandings of learning and its connections to anti-Blackness so that we can intentionally counter anti-Blackness in our learning environments. How do you see this in specific policies and practices in your department and at Macalester?
  • Importance of attending to trauma (including racial trauma) and develop relationships that contribute to healing rather than reinforcing racial hierarchies. How would this change your work in the department and the college?
  • Each of us needs to take responsibility for creating safe environments for Black scholars to share their ideas in teaching and public scholarship, without the threat to their flourishing. It’s not enough to try to be inclusive without working to create better university environments for students and scholars. What might this look like?

Additional Resources

IGC Summer Series Webinars

Duchess Harris (American Studies), William Hart (Religious Studies), Brain Lozenski (Educational Studies, IGC), Kenjus Watson (San Francisco State Univ.)

Francis Eanes and Eleni Schirmer, “For Higher Education, a ‘Return to Normal’ Isn’t Good Enough,” Jacobin Magazine, April 4, 2020

Brian Lozenski, “The Black Radical Tradition Can Help Us Imagine a More Just World,” Truthout, June 23, 2020

Ashley McCall, “What if We Radically Reimagined the New School Year? Chicago Unheard, July 30, 2020

  • What if we refused to return to normal?
  • “In her memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist, Patrisse Khan-Cullors (one of the women who sparked Black Lives Matter) states that  ‘our nation [is] one big damn Survivor reality nightmare.’ It always has been. America’s criminal navigation of the COVID-19 pandemic further highlights the ways we devalue the lives of the most vulnerable. We all deserve better than Survivor and I don’t want to help sustain this nightmare. I want to be part of something better.”
  • What if we designed a school year for recovery?
    • What if we moved from narrow and rigid quantitative measures of intelligence that have colonized education space… and instead blazed a trail for reimagining what qualifies as valuable knowledge?
  • What if we prioritized hard truths and accountability?
  • What if we really listened?
    • What if we created space to acknowledge the fear, anxiety, frustration and confusion students, staff, and families are feeling?
    • What if we made space to acknowledge the anger and demands of students?
  • What if we made life the curriculum–and connected education to what is happening?

Vimal Patel, “Covid-19 is a Pivotal Moment for Struggling Students. Can College Step Up?,” Chronicle of HIgher Education, April 14, 2020.

  • What would our work look like if Macalester programs, policies, systems, pedagogies, and cultures centered on students like Elizabeth Ouanemalay and others who struggle with the ways that these work? What would need to change for students like her to be as much “standard Macalester students” as those around whom the campus is currently built?
  • What would need to change for the challenges students like Ouanemalay and Angelo Villazana to be addressed for all students by the institution (rather than creating special “help” for them)? What would need to change in how we standardize approaches to issues that are shaped by students’ socioeconomic class backgrounds and learning abilities/disabilities?
  • What standards underlying our work might need to change–what would we need to measure up to?
  • How might we re-think what it means to be a high-quality educational institution? How does our definition of excellence rely on who we already serve well–who we enable to become excellent by our policies, systems, structures, and assumptions about who is capable?
  • How do we collectively (as an institution) reproduce anti-Blackness, and structural/systemic racism through our policies, practices, systems, structures, and assumptions about students?

Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” Financial Times, April 3, 2020

Dian D. Squire, Bianca C. Williams, Frank Tuitt, “Some Academic Institutions Use Ideologies and Strategies from the Past to Control and Surveil Black People,” Inside Higher Ed, August 28, 2020. (The authors’ longer article, “Plantation Politics and Neoliberal Racism in Higher Education: A Framework for Reconstructing Anti-Racist Institutions” is in the Challenging Complicities shared drive).

  • “Plantation politics”: “the psychological and political warfare Black people are subjected to in traditionally white institutions that render them invisible while exploiting their labor for profit.” The authors’ work examines how “academic institutions can use plantation ideologies and strategies… to control, repress, and surveil Black people and their resistance.”
  • “‘[P]lantation politics’ helps us to identify the machinery of white supremacy in higher education–how it operates, how it views us, which entities act as barriers to equity and justice, what we need to tear down, and how we might build something new.”
  • The article looks beyond campus policing that is sometimes the focus of attention in the control and surveillance of Black people to “the capitalistic enterprise that higher education has become: a business that preys on Black people for their invisible and un- or underpaid labor, time, and energy.”
  • The authors point to the foundational role of the histories of the control and exploitation of Black people to the “processes and capital accumulation that enabled many academic institutions to exist.” How might we use this challenge to “set a new vision for what universities can look like [?]” They call for a vision “where Black people are safe and their essential contributions (and sacrifices) to the academy are valued. Where people have their basic needs met by institutions truly dedicated to the public good and dismantling systemic oppression…. Black studies, gender studies, queer studies, ethnic studies and other necessary programs are fully funded, offering students access to an education that nurtures complex understandings of this country and our global communities.” What do we need to do to move in that direction?