Genuinely Decentering Whiteness is Going to Make You Angry

Swarthmore presents itself as a beacon for social justice among American colleges, and it largely has the record to back it up. Suffragists, liberal federal judges, ACLU attorneys, and prominent activists have all gotten their degrees, educations, and maybe even radicalizations here. 

Even so, as I write this article, I use a language that is “presentable.” When I speak up in my classes, I use a language that is “academically appropriate”. One day soon, when I interview for jobs or grad schools, I’ll use a language in my interview that is adequately “professional”. I must do these things to gain access to the fields that guarantee success in any majority white field. The academy. Corporate America. Politics. To speak or write in AAVE is untenable. Dropping conjugations of the verb to be  or switching the word “can’t” for cain’t isn’t just unacceptable, it’s ghetto. Before it gets to your eyes, copy editors will spend days combing through any article you’ve ever read (including this one) and removing any trace of my language, recognizing each sentence as a grammatical or flow error, and polish it up to look like yours. For most of you, the language you’re used to speaking and hearing every day is “standard”, and mine is “substandard.” Both are English, but speaking it the way I do makes you uneducated or comedic.

It doesn’t stop there. In education classes, we’re expected to know who Foucault, Bourdieu, and Dewey are. These thinkers aren’t just a piece of the puzzle of knowledge, but central to the field. You can’t be an educator without studying these white educational theorists, and if you don’t know them, your knowledge base is considered lacking. When you walk into a philosophy class, you probably already have heard the names Kant or Nietzsche, and I’d bet everyone already learned about the “great” philosophers of classical antiquity through osmosis in childhood. The Aristotles, Platos, and Socrateses of the world are enshrined in popular culture. Their rational, objective way of seeing the world is reputed above all others, particularly the non-European thinkers who view reality differently. Even in units that are Black-centric, the readings involve the insights and the research of white academics. Oral histories, which I know to be the truth of my ancestors, are always disregarded in place of written ones, packaged nicely with inaccessible language and complicated structures to appease an academia to which most of us don’t even have access. When you speak up about it, you’re shut down. This isn’t just an issue in the Social Sciences and Humanities. In the S.T.E.M. departments, faculty and students alike are still content to pretend that there are no racial dynamics at work in their disciplines because of the “objective” nature of science, conveniently ignoring the fact that less than 5% of life scientists, physical scientists, or engineers are Black.

Swarthmore College has always been a school that prides itself on its reputation. It boasts a colossal endowment and an incredibly low acceptance rate.  One of the factors that goes into that low acceptance rate, however, is standardized test scores. As of 2019, the average S.A.T. verbal score for Swarthmore students was 713, and the average SAT math score was 739. As of 2017, the average score for a Black test taker was 479 verbal, and 462 for math. Obviously, you wouldn’t expect the majority of Black test takers to possibly have a chance of getting in here, simply because their scores don’t measure up, and the school’s demographics reflect that. It’s upsetting that a school that did not allow Black students to step foot in its halls until 1943 knowingly used a test rooted in white supremacy to judge its applicants’ worthiness admission until March — that is, when the coronavirus pandemic forced most students around the country to attend school at home. Now that white and non-Black students could face testing inequality and increased college admissions anxiety, the college suddenly decided that it was only fair to go test optional for the next two years.

Many of the departments and the college itself have released Black Lives Matter statements professing support for Black folks. It’s sweet, but how can you support Black people and root your syllabi exclusively in white history and culture? How can you support Black people, yet demand we drop AAVE from our emails and papers? How can you support Black people and use a racist test to pick out the Black people you decide are worthy of attending your institution and leave the rest out to dry? A lot of you must do some serious reflection and ask yourselves what you are more loyal to: ALL Black people, or the status quo? No more empty words or statements of “support.” It’s time for institutional and intellectual action.

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