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Muna-Udbi Ali is an Assistant Professor of Sociology & Criminology and Justice Studies at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM). Before joining CSUSM, Ali worked as a Visiting Faculty in Sociology, Social Work and Anthropology (SSWA) at Christopher Newport University. Trained as an interdisciplinary scholar, her primary research interests include diverse fields such as Black studies, critical race studies, postcolonial studies, Black feminist studies, criminology, transnational feminism, queer studies, public pedagogy, and public policy.
Outside of academia, Dr. Ali is a community worker, curriculum and policy consultant, researcher, and anti-oppression educator. She has worked in education and curriculum development in Canada, US, Kenya, and Somalia.
An Open Letter to My Colleagues
I have been a professor for two years at two public institutions in the United States. Although all academic institutions are guilty of pushing out Black faculty, staff, and students, being the only Black female faculty in a white department at a predominantly white institution (PWI) – Christopher Newport University (CNU) – was a soul-sucking, toxic environment, that inevitably pushed me out, as it has others due to deeply entrenched and institutionalized misogynoir. White and non-Black people of colour (NBPOC) colleagues have consistently pathologized my experiences, told me how to feel, and policed and disciplined me for speaking up against anti-Black racism.
I love my job, but critically engaging my white and NBPOC colleagues has taken a huge psychological, emotional, physical, and professional toll on me. No matter what I say or do my Blackness is a threat to them. At CNU, a colleague told me on multiple occasions that “[the department] doesn’t need me” and another, that I was “too confident.” I would sit in faculty meetings listening to white faculty debate whether my position at the university, as a critical Black feminist sociologist, was needed. This minimizing behaviour led to me to question my validity as a scholar.
It compelled me to leave the institution earlier than expected.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about academics and the decline in reflexivity that happens after one receives a doctorate. Sometimes it seems as if ego, dogma, and entitlement accompany the doctorate title. The Ph.D. next to one’s name does not work as a supernatural force field impervious to external values or critiques. Yet asking academics for accountability is like getting blood from a stone–it’s impossible. Imagine being a queer Black Muslim woman starting her first full-time academic position at a PWI in a new country and challenging the motives of ‘seasoned academics.’ I was met with so much racist patronizing and gaslighting behaviour that I was pushed out.
I accepted a two-year position at CNU as visiting faculty in Sociology, Social Work and Anthropology (SSWA) given the department’s history of promoting contingent internal candidates for tenure track lines, and the high likelihood of a tenure track search in the very near future for a scholar whose areas of expertise matched my own. Such promise was quickly dismissed within the first five-months of my start date. By January of my first year, I was informally told that there was no future for me at CNU. I spent countless department meetings at CNU having the worth of my position in the university discussed and debated in front of me. I was pushed out by a department that prioritized disciplinary purity over my livelihood and over a commitment to racial justice. I was pushed out by a department that weaponized academic pedigree, rather than challenging institutional barriers experienced by all Black people in the academy. I was pushed out by a department that thought their acts were devoid of anti-Black racism or any discriminatory practices because they claimed to understand relations of power and racism as sociologists and anthropologists. Every time I questioned these departmental debates, I was told “it’s not personal” or “we’re concerned about departmental needs and institutional fits.” This is personal. These microaggressions are indicative of a larger institutional problem of anti-Black racism at CNU and in the SSWA Department.
A few simple questions prove this point. How many Black faculty has the department (or university) employed or promoted? What is the retention rate of Black faculty? What are the reasons for Black faculty’s departure? We don’t just leave good jobs, we are PUSHED OUT by white faculty, and administration. The pushing out of Black faculty is not an individual issue, it is a systemic issue that CNU faculty needs to address.
Reading about racism from a textbook does not mean you understand the experience. The fact that very few questioned the removal of their only Black female colleague demonstrates a lack of understanding and care. The revolving door of token faculty of colour, and the silence around it, needs to be addressed by the department. SSWA is complicit in the lack of continuous and consistent Black mentorship for Black students. What does it mean for Black students when the only other Black faces they see on campus is in service and support work? This university has a long history of systemic and institutionalized racism at every level and requires immediate actions.
Academics love studying Black folks, Black culture, and Black ideas. But the minute they engage with Black people, even as fellow colleagues, the first challenge is met with weaponized white fragility that portrays them as victims. So many believe that they cannot be racist because they have spent their life studying and writing about structures and systems of oppression and racism. But theorizing and studying racism or studying communities of colour does not mean you are anti-racist. Anti-racism is a verb. It requires constant re-education and unlearning. That means feeling uncomfortable sometimes. Instead of reacting, it means sitting back and leaning into that discomfort. Uncomfortable conversations are part of our collective growth. It is not possible to be both anti-racist and conflict-avoidant.
This moment is saturated with disingenuous Black solidarity, empty gestures, cavalier hashtags, and meaningless statements. The time has come for action. Have you contributed to making the university or department a hostile space for BIPOC faculty and students? How will CNU make sure that Black people are empowered and represented in its curricula, departmental meetings, and university committees? How is CNU committed to upending the systemic problems of racism and whiteness in SSWA and all departments? How will SSWA be changing curricula to engage critical conversations on racism? How will SSWA integrate more academics of colour into syllabi? How will SSWA bring an equity and anti-racist framework to hiring policies and practices? How will CNU and SSWA address the push-out of Black faculty and students? How will SSWA ensure that white supremacist logics are confronted and challenged in department meetings? Hire Black faculty in tenure track positions, NOT adjunct or lecturer positions. Stop using the language of ‘disciplinary fit’ to weed out Black candidates from interdisciplinary programs. Stop hiring white folks who study Black people. Stop using white fragility and literal white tears to get your way at faculty meetings. Without engaging with these questions and making radical changes from the top and at departmental levels, CNU is not a safe place for academics and students of colour.
SSWA just hired two more white faculty to start in Fall 2020. As a queer Black Muslim African woman, it is not lost on me that the replacement for my position is a white cis-man who studies African LGBTIQ+ people. Without engaging these questions, the department will continue to replicate its history of pushing out faculty members of colour, like so many departments across the country. Do Black lives actually matter to you? Ask yourself this question before using empty gestures on your social media or performative acts of anti-racism with #BlackLivesMatter or images of you at protests. Uprisings for racial justice are not a branding exercise.
We are in the midst of a crucial socio-political moment to lobby for anti-racist and social justice-based structural changes at all universities and colleges across the country. I want my experiences to compel you, as faculty, to understand that it’s never too late to do better and be better.
Muna-Udbi Ali, Ph.D.