Academia: On What Happens to the “Urban Student of Color” After High School, After College and Beyond the Classroom / or When the “Urban Student of Color” Becomes the “Urban Teacher” / or Not Your Token Guinea Pig, Show Pony, or Likable Person of Color: Refusing to Seek Validation From White People in Positions of Power / or When Attempting to Tokenize the Untokenizable / or When Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed and Cut Out / or Coming to Terms With Burning That Bridge When It Was Fucked up to Begin With / or A Break Up Letter With Academia

What I wish I could tell my 14 to 18 year-old high school self working in the NYPL (New York Public Library):
Stay. Don’t go. Don’t attend college in search of a career or path. You know what you know, and what you’ve always known. What’s already been known. By you and those before you. Those that paved the road for you and for those like you. What you already know is suffice. Academia cannot, will not, change that. The truth and funds of embodied knowledge already exist inside of you. Are etched, sketched, and embedded in your DNA. In your bones. Line your marrow and courses through your blood. That which is ancient, inherited, passed down to and through you. For you.

The violence of your education will continue to replicate and reproduce itself, no matter how many degrees, accolades or institutionally and artificially designed knowledges you obtain. Because that is what education in America is designed to do. It is not meant for people like you. The brown/the poor/the queer/the immigrant/the borderland/the gutter likes of you. That is not you. Was not made by you. Does not belong to you. It is not yours to own.

See those books? They are your friends. They have always been your friends. They have never let you down. Stay with your friends. The answers will never come from that which seeks to destroy you.

Sincerely yours,
Your future self.

**

So here’s the thing about grad school: it’s hard as fuck. And not just the actual work of reading and writing—because if you have gotten to this level you probably have somewhat mastered those skills by now—but rather hard because of everything else that surrounds the actual work, and the things that one goes to grad school to work on and think through.

Here are the things that they don’t tell you about being brown, first generation, poor / slash / rising working class, attending graduate school and navigating higher education:

  1. You will be made to feel that you have to be a martyr; have to choose between your studies and full time employment that produces actual, physical and substantial monetary checks that adults, like one that you are, should be receiving;

  2. There will come times when your bank account will threaten to close, and at other times completely deplete, because of bureaucratic bullshit, and old wounds, triggers and past trauma of growing up poor will flood you all at once–undo you, undo adult you–and threaten to engulf you and bring you under its tide;

  3. White people will talk about poor and working class people and communities of color, make gross generalizations, unapologetically right to your face and in your presence, in your company, and not flinch or bat eye, but rather, gloss over you, and invite and expect you too to join in;

  4. White people will align themselves with you if they see they can benefit from you, pick at your brain (for free) and profit off of your thinking and theorizing, off of your trauma and lived experiences, while building lucrative careers off of the likes of you and other communities of color, and invite you too to join in;

  5. You will truly find out the meaning, through lived experiences, how “not all skin folk are kin folk,” time and time again;

  6. You will find yourself having to simplistically and reductively describe the complexity of what you do to your family, the people that raised you and have known you the longest, as “going to school,” “work” and “studying”;

  7. You will arrive to your aha-moments of crystal clear clarity that a) education is bullshit, b) that your higher education is a replay of your entire K-12 education, and that c) American schools, American schooling and American public education is not meant, was never meant, will never be meant, for folks like you to survive.

**

Here’s the thing about grad school, in an era of social media and technology: you, your words, your thinking, your image, will be constantly surveilled, by friend and foe alike. Will be used against you, held up to the White Eye and White Light, whenever possible.

You will never be able to appease everyone: your family will threaten to disown you if you keep posting “radical” and “liberal” things. Your childhood friends will get annoyed by all your work-related educational queries and questions. Your grad school acquaintances, work affiliations and professional connections will get annoyed by all your “personal posts.” Even people who you don’t have on your Facebook, or who don’t have Facebook at all, will know what you have written because people will always find a way, reason or excuse to have your name in their mouths and other’s ears.

Words like “professional” will be thrown around to measure, evaluate, judge, critique, and control you. When in reality what they are saying without saying, what they are asking without asking, is: be more WHITE.

“Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power — not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.” ―Bell Hooks

Here’s the other thing about grad school, in an era of technology and social media and: I post “personal” and “professional” things on my Facebook because I am person and a professional. I cannot divide or separate those two things. Asking a person of color to do so is colonialist.

I am a person of color in professional settings and spaces. Settings and spaces that were not designed for me, or people like me, but that I––that we people of color––no matter what, still have to participate in and navigate. Defining what is professional and what is not to a person of color is colonialist. You can’t hold people of color accountable to things they never agreed to, created, or asked to be evaluated by. As Audre Lorde has been reminding us: “The master’s tools will never, ever, dismantle the master’s house.”

I post about grad school to dispel any (White) myths about this (White) ivory tower because navigating it ain’t easy. I post for all the people of color who wonder what grad school is like and who they themselves will never get to go.

I post about grad school to write myself into a structure and system that constantly tries to write me out of it.

My grandmother had an elementary school education, my mother a high school education. No one in my immediate family has graduated college, let alone gone to grad school. I post about grad school to honor them. Because there have been too many women of color in my life who have worked their fingers to the bone so that I can have an opportunity to do something different. Something that’s not manual labor, like they had to do. I post about grad school to honor them. Because I carry them, their hard work, their dreams and visions, their fighting spirits inside me all the damn time.

I post about grad school to convince myself that I am not crazy and to be in community with others that fear that they might be too.

“When I was in college I was told that if I learned the codes of power I could then use my knowledge of these codes to work to challenge the marginalization of communities of color. Now that I am positioned by many people as proficient in these codes of power I am now told that my critiques of dominant conceptualizations of language that marginalize communities of color are invalid.

The system is rigged. People of color who are positioned as not competent in the codes of power are blamed for their own marginalization. People of color who are positioned as competent in codes of power are told that they cannot critique this marginalization. People of color are damned if they do and they’re damned if they don’t. Meanwhile, white supremacy remains intact.” –Nelson Flores

**

When I got accepted into this Ph.D. program, I left the transfer high school I worked at, and stopped working in Pre-K to 12th grade schools altogether, to further my own studies. To spend time with my own thinking and thoughts. I thought that doctoral studies would be different–as a student, as a practitioner as an expert. Having completed a masters in teaching program and degree–having proven a mastery of a discipline and a craft–I thought that engaging with adults, and at this level of my academic and professional career, would somehow be easier. Having been a professional student for the past 25 + years, for the majority of my life, I thought I had it all down. Thought I understood the system, and how to navigate it, only now better with age, time, emotional distance and lived experience. I had grown up.

Four years into this program, and now in my 5th year of teaching in higher education, I’m realizing more and more how glaringly similar and parallel Pre K to 12th grade public education and higher education really are: the hoops, the obstacles, the forms of assessing knowledge, the gatekeeping, and the overwhelming and unbearable Whiteness of it all. How they are designed to inform, mirror and reflect each other. How they are cut from the same cloth.

Academia, and American schools, schooling and public education, are and have been colonial projects. Are institutions and practices that exist and operate on stolen land. The most destructive force and dangerous nature–currently and since the inception of this nation–has been the White, male (and almost always heterosexual) ego. Of the deep investment of White people in Whiteness and White supremacy. Of the deep investment of White people in White people. Have been founded through violent, genocide, White supremacists and White supremacism. Are cut from the same cloth. Thus are designed to inform, mirror and reflect those same principles, processes, practices, tools and tactics.

Being part-time faculty at private institutions like The New School makes me grateful that I am no longer an undergraduate student, there or anywhere else. Honestly, nothing’s changed there since I graduated. Only now I have language–something I did not have back then. I have the language, theories, frameworks, and tools to articulate that which acutely felt and experienced but did not have the language for yet.

And still, I’m constantly worried about how much time, energy and effort students of color put into trying to change structurally racist, violent and dehumanizing policies and practices while also trying to get an education and graduate. Trying to change the university’s White culture. Trying to change White administrators. Trying to change the hearts and minds of White people.

Policies and practices don’t just exist in vacuums or on their own accord. They are created, shaped and carried out by individual and collective people’s ideologies. Schools, schooling and educational systems are microcosms of our society, societal culture and values at large. They reflect the culture, ideologies and beliefs of our society. What we value. They have value because we give them value–knowingly and unknowingly; implicitly and explicitly. Thus, policies and practices that schools, colleges and universities carry out have value because we give them value. So generation after generation, cohort after cohort, student after student, these institutions will continue to exist, function and operate the same or parallelly similar because our larger society does as well.

It is the responsibility of White educators, White faculty members, White administrators, etc. in schools and educational systems to really step up and help create these structural changes. To reconceptualize and redistribute power–their own power– because students and folks of color shouldn’t be the ones carrying the brunt of this work––both the lived, racialized experiences as well as worrying and working themselves to death for change. For a change to the systems and practices that they did or their people did not create.

Four years into this program, and now in my 5th year of teaching in higher education, I have come to the realization that academia is just as corrupt, if not more, than private corporations. Just more fucked up because they–we–know better. And like Maya Angelou has been telling us: “…when you know better, do better.” We know better, yet still do wrong.

But White people will always think they know more than you. Better than you. Study you, and believe that they are the experts of you, in and about your own life. “Pick your brain,” learn from you, and then co-opt and steal your own production from you. Use your own words, tools and analyses against you. Benefit from you, and then discard you when they no longer need you. When you are no longer, to them, serviceable. Then blame you for what has been done to you. Leave you to survey your own damage, assess your own devices, and still have the nerve to charge and bill you for you.

**

Growing up White folks never tried to befriend me, in or outside of school settings. Never introduced me to their families. Never invited me into their homes. Never asked me to participate in their extracurricular activities. Regarded and treated my mother–a visibly brown skin woman of color–and her two children like roaches that dared to walk on their streets in broad daylight. Dared to take their subway trains. Dared to sit on their seats. Dared to shop at their stores and establishments. They always made the extra effort to remind us that these, and other things, were theirs–not ours.

The higher, further and deeper I get in academia, in my teaching profession and political activism––that despite it all I made something of myself––the more White people want to befriend me. Want to sit down, converse and “pick my brain.” Want to have and spend time together-–my time––with no form of compensation or at least the tact to inquire about forms of reciprocation. Without crediting me for my intellectual work, intellectual production and intellectual property. Want me to be their connection and bridge to their liberation. Want access into my–our world–while humanizing and legitimizing theirs.

They fetishize us/fantasize about us/want to be us. Without actually giving up their power and privileges. Without taking on our issues or problems head on, by locating its source and origin, and aiding in its destruction. Without challenging the systems that they, and their people, historically and currently, create, recreate and participate in. The systems that disenfranchise, silence, and eradicate us. Want to absolve themselves of all responsibility and lull themselves into historical and cultural amnesia. Want to be seen as singular and individuals, while people of color will always be forced to speak on behalf their entire race. Want to seemingly befriend and surround themselves with us, yet go back to their White worlds, White families, White lovers, and White lives that remain untouched. But then they wonder why and when people of color desire to not, and actively choose to not, engage with them. When and why people of color tell Becky” “No, you can’t sit with us.”

The reality is that no matter how many years of teaching a White educator can have under their belt, how many courses or students of color they may have taught throughout their career, how well traveled or “authentically” well they may speak non-English languages, how thoughtful they “participate” in cultures not their own, how many years they may have lived in “urban communities” in proximity to people and communities of color, how much they want, feel or believe to sympathize, empathize or understand issues that effect and impact people and communities of color: these things cannot, will not ever replace the racialized, lived experiences of said individuals/people/communities of color. Point, period, blank. End of discussion.

While there is certainly no singular, monolithic “people of color experience”––has never been and will never––a racialized body is a racialized body. Is read and treated in society and in schools as a racialized body. Something a White body––a White person––cannot ever experientially understand. A racialized experience and existence that cannot ever be (re)created or (re)replicated unless personally experienced, and thus never understood intimately. Always at a distance and never in lived proximity.

While it may be perhaps important to create opportunities for White educators and White people to share their, perhaps, unique, individual stories and life trajectories, these  cannot center or privilege those stories and narratives while (consciously or inadvertently) glossing over, dominating, silencing, invalidating and erasing those of individual people and communities of color. Not on our time. Not on our watch. Simultaneously, White people need to know is that people of color don’t need White allies. What we need are accomplices: White folks ready to get and go down when shit goes down.

And often, that’s where, in my experience, the alliance from White people ends.

**

Advertisements

Teaching: On Adjunct Teaching While Brown, Queer and Latinx

LaGuardia Community College holds a special and soft place in my heat. Having grown up a few blocks away between the neighboring borders that intersect Woodside and Sunnyside, the sight of LaGuardia’s buildings always signaled to me, while crossing the 59th Street Bridge on train or by car, and from Manhattan into Queens, that I had arrived home.

Going to schools in the neighborhood where one lived in wasn’t an option for me, or my sister, or other families like ours–but rather a given. Yes, we went to neighboring schools perhaps because they were the most centrally and conveniently located. However, the real, often untold reason was because they were the only options that either, one, we knew about, or two, that we were told about: by teachers, school administrators and other people that knew better. Framed as options, but in reality, they were the only choice.

I went to Flushing High School because it was a straight-shot ride on the 7 train to the last stop. I rationalized that I could easily catch up on sleep or get homework done during the solid, uninterrupted commute. Afterwards, I went to Hunter College on and off again for three and a half years before transferring to the New School. It was the only college I had applied to because it was the only college I had heard about, a family friend had gone to their school of social work years before. No one in my family had gone to college, and no one aside from me has since graduated. I don’t remember the specifics of the application process, but I do know that I wasn’t encouraged to apply to other schools–other CUNYS or private schools–or that going away for school was an option.

I say all this, and give this context and background, because it shapes and informs my decisions, pedagogy and politics and as an adult, a practitioner and professional. Choices and options. It why I went into teaching (rather than other more profitable fields or professions), why I teach where I teach (rather than in other institutions that pay more for similar or even less work), and why I teach the things that I teach (rather than teaching from packaged curriculum or textbooks.)

Teaching at LaGuardia, and returning to my childhood community, is my choice and option.

**

Teaching is hard. It is fundamentally the most humanizing kind of work.

But being a person of color, a teacher of color, and a student of color–existing and navigating between these textured, multilayered, and interlocking identities–is the most jarring, out of body, kind of experience. The most difficult kind of work. The kind of work that white people will never have to experience, let alone understand. We have survived what this writer describes as surviving institutions that were not made or designed for us.

I often describe my coming into teaching as accidental; the role and identity of teacher never feeling quite natural. Who am I to be in front of the classroom? What do I have to offer? To contribute?

“Because white eyes do not want to know us, they do not bother to learn our language, the language which reflects us, our culture, our spirit. The schools we attended or didn’t attend did not give us the skills for writing nor the confidence that we were correct in using our class and ethnic languages. I, for one, became adept at, and majored in English to spite, to show up, the arrogant racist teachers who thought all Chicano children were dumb and dirty.” –Gloria Anzaldúa, “An Open Letter to Women Writers of Color,” This Bridge Called My Back

Teaching for me is a political act; a purposeful and intentional reconceptualizing and remapping of what gets taught in the classroom. What constitutes as knowledge and intellectual production, while simultaneously interrogating, challenging and re-envisioning who gets to do the teaching.

Teaching, on the macro, is a political act, but on the micro–the nitty-gritty, everyday, on-the-ground praxis–is fundamentally humanizing work. Vulnerable. Scary as fuck.
Having to navigate dualing and often competing identities of being a person of color, a teacher of color, and a student of color often feels contradictory.

**

As an adult, practitioner and professional, as a person of color, a teacher of color, and a student of color, in the fields of teaching and urban education, there are little to no safe spaces for me, and other people of color like me.

Being in mixed racial and class spaces, and listening to white people in positions of power talk about students of color, and about/across race, class, poverty, immigration, education, etc.—often in an abstract and non-lived experiential ways—as a person who intersects all these spheres and categories is the most cringe worthy, out of body experience. The colonized at the colonial labyrinth listening and witnessing the colonizer talk at and talk roundabout colonizing and colonization.

White folks who talk about how “diverse” and important community colleges are, and praise all the folks of color who graduated from CUNY colleges and come back to teach at CUNYS, but according to Le Google, they all went to private and elite universities:

17553578_10155119671293670_9117875145401715096_n.jpg

**

Here’s the thing about being a person of color: no matter how many years you study, or how many degrees you accumulate, white people will always think they know more than you. Better than you. Study you, and believe that they are the experts of you, in and about your own life. “Pick your brain,” learn from you, and then co-opt and steal your own production from you. Use your own words, tools and analyses against you. Benefit from you, and then discard you when they no longer need you. When you are no longer, to them, serviceable.

Then blame you for what has been done to you. Leave you to survey your own damage, leave you to your own devices, and still have the nerve to charge and bill you for you. For what has been done to you.

What a profound neurosis, what a deeply disturbance, is the white ego.

How pathetically sad.

**

When I walk through LaGuardia’s door I remember my year’s at Hunter College. How I too was once a SEEK student.

I was a SEEK student during my three and a half on and off undergraduate years at Hunter College. Every time I enter LaGuardia’s buildings I am reminded of that. Back then, I remember experiencing (though lacking the words or language able to fully describe) the program and the “services” it provided like a white person’s hand extending a handout festered with pity, stinking of low expectations and presumed incompetence.

I knew that pitiful stank all too well.

Remember feeling stupid and worthless taking math remedial classes, the bane of my existence, even though I had scored college credit earning grades on my history, English and French advanced placement exams. Remember feeling all the pre-established course requirements like an extension of high school’s regent diploma, the high school experience I had just left not that long ago. 

I didn’t even know what the program’s name stood for (which now I know is Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge Program), nor its herstory/history (which now I’m learning is incredible, activist-centered, feminist, rebellious and militant). I remember SEEK just being that extra check that allowed me to pay the books white teachers who taught the anthropology courses said I needed to have. The canon. Books I have never touched since again. 

I was once a SEEK student.

**

It’s funny how we give so much value to a piece of paper. 

This paper has allowed me to walk through doors and have them opened. This paper has allowed me to be hired over the phone or over email before even meeting me face to face. A piece of paper that gives me so much power and yet can still be treated like shit and assumed, by white people, that I know nothing. Resurrects a wall of difference and disconnection between me and my family. 

It’s funny how we give so much value to a piece of paper.

**

It was my second week of teaching at LaGuardia and I was sitting alone early one morning waiting for the reception to bring copies of readings for class, I was bombarded by two faculty at the department where I’m teaching a course at. 

They: who are you? How did you get in here? What are you doing here? Students are not allowed here!

Me: My name is José Alfredo. I’m a new part time faculty and visiting fellow from the Graduate Center. And sorry, who are you?

They: ohhhhh.

Me:

**

Real talk: 75-95% of the time I feel like I’m not meant to be a teacher. And it’s not because I don’t know to teach, or that I’m not creative and innovative in my course design, materials and assignments, or that I am not smart enough and don’t know a lot about a lot of things, or that I don’t know how to give good feedback, or that I am not flexible or compassionate. But rather, it’s because those who are the most unqualified—have never taught or been trained as a teacher—offer uneducated opinions, and often unsolicited advice, on teachers and teaching. Assume to know more and better than you. Pick and pull at one’s teaching and pedagogy apart, in ways they have never and would never dare a cis, white male teacher. 

As a queer male of color, that shit has followed me in every aspect and sphere of my life: familial, academically, profesional, personal, etc. The most unqualified people always assume that they know better or more than me.

People always wonder and talk K-12 public education, “at risk” youth and students of color, and how to best prepare them to enter the “real world.” Well let me tell you what can happen to said student in the real world: no matter how much you study and prepare yourself, no matter how much prove your intelligence, skill sets and gain credentials, no matter how much good you do in what you do, there will always be people—almost always white people, but also the occasional person of color—who thinks that they know better than you, at what you do and at what they do. Will break your back and then ask you why your back is hurting. Will humiliate you and then ask why you are emotional. Will drain and deplete you, not replenish you, and then ask why you are stifled in your imagination. Give you paper and glue to make wings but when you fly and soar too high, burn your wings to the ground so that they can fly higher.

Somehow everyone wants and feels magically qualified to assess teachers. But how many of those very people wanna put in the sweat, labor, and costs that it takes to be a good teacher? Go get trained, study and get degrees to be teachers? Clearly by what’s currently going on in America, and in the confirmaron of this ridiculous secretary of education, the answer is clearly not enough.

**

Last Thursday, after class and on my walk to the train station, I made a stop at a fancy gourmet supermarket and stocked up on way too many overpriced food items. Afterwards I stopped by the local wine store and picked up a nice bottle of wine. I told myself in both occasions that I had worked hard these past couple of weeks, and deserved to treat myself. I had earned the splurge. I climbed into bed, and even before finishing a glass of red, I knocked out and slept for a solid two or three years. It was only 2 in the afternoon.

Here’s the things that students don’t know about adjunct professors:

  1. We are typically students ourselves, studying, working on our Ph.D.s, while navigating similar bureaucratic bullshit, like them, except on a deeper, higher and more pervasive level, and with more complex and career altering consequences;
  2. We get paid per credit, per class, and often have to teach 3-4 classes to make a pale semblance of a salary or work several part time jobs and still struggle to make ends meet, like this adjunct professor. Full time tenured faculty at CUNYs and private colleges typically teach 1-2 courses as well, but have, you know, an actual salary, and carved out time to advise and meet with students one-on-one as many times as they need to throughout the semester because it’s part of their paid job description.
  3. If you’re a good professor and thoughtful teacher you construct and build all of your own lesson plans, materials and curriculum from scratch, pull from multiple lenses, disciplines and theoretical frameworks, rather than teach from a standardized textbook or the same crusty, outdated course year after year, like many professors even at the doctoral level do.
  4. Your work as an adjunct professor is a tireless, never ending and often a thankless job because at the end of the day you and your course are just one small small small fraction in a factory model that tends to over burn and overturn adjuncts and over churns students until the next adjunct or student comes along.

**

From 10 plus years of teaching and working with people, one of the biggest learnings I’ve had to wrestle and come to terms with is that you can’t go into teaching or education wanting to “save people.” Especially people of color. It’s contradictory, paternalistic, and ego-centric; the self-serving need to help and “save others” as a means to humanize our own existence. To feel our roles and titles as important, necessary, and having purpose in this world. Especially for white people.

The reality is that we won’t be able to “save” or make an impact in each and everyone student and young people’s life. 

Heck, we might not even be “liked” by many or all of our students. And that’s okay. People need to want to save themselves. Be able to save themselves. Given access to opportunities and structural support to fuck up and make mistakes. To stretch, grow, learn and evolve. To try again and again. To save and realize themselves for their own selves.

We can (and need to) support, provide guidance, compassion and encouragement along the way. Be their #1 cheerleaders all the way til the finish line. But we can’t carry them to the finish line. Can’t walk or run their journeys for them. Can’t own or assume the weight of their decisions, mistakes or journeys as our own.

Neither can we lose sight of our own saving, journey–of our own selves–in the process.

**

I’ve been mediating and reflecting a lot lately–today in particular–about teaching and what it means to be a teacher. What it means to be regarded as the teacher and expert, while also being a listener and learner. What it means to be the shaper and wielder (of the course content), while also being malleable, flexible and adaptable to change (as a community member). What it means to be the craftsman but also a consumer. What it means to be the assessor yet holder, possessor and keeper of so many multiple, intersecting and competing things. To carry all these things in your mind, heart, spirit and body.

I’ve been mediating and reflecting a lot lately–today in particular–what it means to be a teacher. What it means to be teacher of color, who they, themselves, have undergone the same or similar kind of teaching or educational environment that they, then, return to. Have experienced a lifetime of a sanitized, white-washed, colonized public education. What it means to be a teacher of color who have mostly had racist, privileged and mediocre white teachers. Teachers who have never given a shit about them, their lives, their identities, or their cultures. Teachers who have never asked to hear their stories. And in spite of this, or perhaps because of this, do everything in their power and human capacity to do and be better.

Everyone has (and can have) an opinion and critique about teaching and a teacher’s pedagogy: what was said + what could’ve been said, what was done + what could have been done. Endless and infinite would’ves/could’ves/should’ves. Sometimes dids and sometimes did nots.

But who is thinking about these teachers and what it means for them to be the assessor and holder, possessor and keeper of so many multiple, intersecting and competing things and carry all these things in their mind, heart, spirit and body?

To all the teachers of color,  past, present and future: I am thinking of you.

I see YOU.