Teaching Race During Global Crisis – #BLM Guest Post

[We continue to solicit #BLM guest posts. We pay $150 for accepted posts. 1000 words ballpark; profanity welcome. Poetry/art also welcome. Due to overwhelming response, new posts will go up August/September. Please send a draft or query/pitch to Karen at gettenure@gmail.com]

Aundrey Jones is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC San Diego. His research is focused on the cultural politics of war in Black Southern California since the 1940s. He is also an active member of Pillars of the Community – San Diego.

As we can all agree, this spring semester has been unlike anything ever experienced before. As a PhD candidate who adjuncts across different campuses across the city, merging both the semester and quarter systems, I have had to juggle multiple student rosters and have them translated into a functioning remote learning environment without much department supervision. Three and a half weeks into quarantine, around early April, I can say that I may have finally bounced back and fully reconnected with the students I once shared a classroom with. It felt good. I actually missed them. 

A few weeks after the spring semester ended for my Africana Studies course at San Diego State University titled “Black Political Participation in America,” I began to receive emails from students expressing not only their gratitude and appreciation for the semester, but more specifically how the recent deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd (and the subsequent responses to their murders) “make sense” given the nature of our course. Many of these emails were from my non-Black students, who now felt equipped to comprehend the uprisings and convey the message effectively to their families and friends. Some of them even went out to protest. It was refreshing, to say the absolute least. Especially after having spent all week devastated.

Fast forward a week later, at UC San Diego, my home institution, where I teach freshman writing. As the quarter winds down, final projects have been excused and lighter assignments have been put in place to speak to the local protests occurring across the nation.

Week 10 arrives and my inbox is filled with emails from students asking for me to cancel the final project (which I’m all for) but with the imperative of doing so to demand that I, the instructor, “demonstrate [my] allyship to the Black community and support for UC San Diego students by using your position of power in this academic setting and taking action now.” I do not have any Black students in this course. And I wonder if they had forgotten I was Black when deciding to send me this email. 

These are just two small examples of how my interactions with students, varying by course, signify my relationship as a Black doctoral candidate in Ethnic Studies to the university – both materially and in the abstract. Yes, I am usually one of the only (if not the only) Black male instructor in my immediate settings, and as imagined, the go-to designate when it comes to explaining matters concerning anti-Black racism to my non-Black peers. For the record, I’ve been called everything from “violent” and “sexist” to “cool” and “funny.” Whether it was in graduate seminar, where I often wondered why I never had a syllabus that assigned W.E.B. Du Bois or Ida B. Wells and the like, or the skin crawling effects after having to explain the difference between “people of color” and “colored people,” my academic surroundings have never ceased to remind me of the usefulness of my Blackness. I will never forget the day after Trump was elected and how many of my crying white colleagues gave me hugs asking what they can do for me to fight racism.  

San Diego is an interesting place to witness the intersections between teaching, living, and researching the anti-Black world in which we inhabit. San Diego is the most militarized city in the country, with the largest active duty/retired population living alongside a monumental terrain of military weapons manufacturing, research, and development. With UC San Diego being 32 miles from the U.S. – Mexico border and San Diego State being 4 miles west of La Mesa, where a 59 year-old Black woman named Leslie Furcron was shot in the head by a rubber bullet while participating in the weekend protests, San Diego comes with its own set of dangers that highlight the permanence of anti-Black and anti-immigrant discourse. Often appearing to operate in the shadow of whatever Los Angeles is doing, San Diego still has its long, precarious history of racial violence and exclusion, but not to be forgotten alongside its equally long and fortifying history of Black and Brown unity, resistance, and belonging.

This also edges onto how I have come to understand the similar yet competing climates between teaching at an R1 university (UCSD) and an R2 (SDSU), on top of writing my dissertation and entering the job market in the fall (God willing). Thinking and talking about racial Blackness at UCSD has been akin to pulling teeth, both in undergraduate and graduate settings. While I wouldn’t necessarily say the exact opposite applies to my space at SDSU, I will say that it does represent a kind of terrain that best highlights how the university utilizes its Black academics: too much at the wrong time or not at all.

And again we are witnessing a time like no other: COVID-19 and the widening call to abolish policing. With the staggering numbers of Black people dying from the virus while being killed by the police, anti-Blackness is showcasing itself to be at the center of a world we hope to either navigate or destroy, as many are seeing for the first time what Black people have known for centuries. What we also know is that explaining everything does not stop with our students and colleagues, but largely for the entirety of all non-Black people we must live with and around: friends and family. 

Years of these experiences brought me to both seek therapy and deep isolation. So in the meantime, I’ve urged folks to find their own means of protest. Keep the Black people in your life safe at all times and help construct a world where Black people don’t have to keep dying and having to explain why they die so much. Have these conversations before your kids experience their first and only Black teacher/professor. It would really help.

Black people, let’s continue to always show up for each other whether in the streets or the academy.

As-salaam alaikum.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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