Author, media producer and public speaker Austin Channing Brown wrapped up a series of Zoom conversations as a part of our Inclusive Excellence Speaker Series that centered around the Black experience at predominantly white institutions and offered suggestions on the work of racial justice ahead.
In one of the talks, held on Thursday, October 22, 2020 at 2 p.m., Austin opened the discussion with a history of her own awareness about race at the many institutions she attended. She also discussed her impetus for writing the best-selling book “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness.”
“This book is really just me trying to name what it is that makes women of color feel so different. Because it can be really hard to name,” said Austin.
A Q & A ensued, and Austin went on to answer a question about overcoming feelings of bitterness and the perils of it when doing the work of racial and social justice. She called for us to be honest about the institutions we have created and the existing obstacles that are preventing the success of minorities.
As an example, she mentioned a school she attended in Chicago that took pride in welcoming racial minorities but did little to support them while there, leading to high dropout rates among first-semester students of color.
“I think all of us have to be honest about the institutions that we have created,” she said.
In regards to bitterness, which she referred to as a response to injustice that “makes sense,” she warned against it.
“My concern with becoming bitter … is that bitterness eats away at you more than it eats away at the institution,” she said. “That bitterness becomes consuming and creates very little space for change, for transformation, for hope.”
“My hope would be is that before you get to bitterness, that you would be able to name the source of your anger and what you can do about it. If there isn’t anything you can do about it, I highly recommend leaving … If the choice is between better or bitter, I want you to choose better,” she said.
Austin went on to talk about the importance of recognizing that each experience with oppression is unique and that we must be as aware of our own oppression as we must be of the privileges we each enjoy. In addition, we must recognize that certain people experience more than one source of oppression based on race, gender and other markers, a theory known as intersectionality.
When Vice President of Organizational Development and Human Resources Amy Bosley, who helped moderate the Thursday afternoon event, mentioned the College’s recent effort to revamp its recruitment practices, Austin said institutions should not rely too much on the concept of company “fit” if they are serious about diversifying their workforce.
“What most white people mean by [fit] is: Do I want to have lunch with them on my lunchbreak? Do they feel familiar? Do we have the same things in common?” she said. “That framework produces the same people over and over and over again, and it does not create space for diversity to live, let alone to thrive.”
“What white institutions need to begin to do is begin to name the cultural elements that have made them white,” she added.
Austin also said employees should be able to critique the institutions they work for with the understanding those critiques come from “a place of love.”
In regards to recruitment, Austin also mentioned some business and hiring consultants are now recommending that the workforce be diversified “in batches” to prevent against the alienation of employees who may find themselves to be the only person of color in a given department.
On the question of what white employees can do to support Black colleagues, Austin said:
“It’s huge to have white allies,” she said. “It could make the difference between someone staying at school or leaving.”
She added that allies support colleagues both by intentionally becoming educated on racism and by spending time with them. Allies are also people who are willing to challenge detrimental policies.
“I personally deeply believe that racial justice; the pursuit of racial justice should be a multiracial campaign,” she said.
While the task of addressing racial disparities within large institutions such as Valencia can difficult, Austin added, every institution must approach the task uniquely and with creativity.
“My encouragement is to drag your own seat over to the table and plop down in it saying ‘Here is what I would like to have happen.’ And then let all the voices at the table figure out the best way to make that happen,” she said.
In regards to a question about helping prepare students for systems less likely to accommodate inclusive values, Austin suggested the College provide opportunities for students to affect change.
“Valencia could be the place where all students, but particularly students of color, get to practice making change … I was a part of an institution where I got to flex my muscles making changes … all of those became tools for me to use in the workplace.”
A question about disaggregating student data came up during the session, and Austin said it’s important to compare that data against national data to get a clearer picture and also acknowledge data does not measure all experiences.
In closing, Amy remarked on Austin’s graphic T-shirt, which had the word “VOTE” written on it, while also mentioning Valencia’s recent efforts to encourage faculty, staff and students to head to the polls on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.
Austin said voting is a right her ancestors fought for, noting she is among the first generation of African Americans born with the right to vote in the United States.
“It blows my mind, but also makes me even more determined to exercise that right … I’m grateful to be in a country where I get to exercise that right.”
The 2020 Inclusive Excellence Speaker Series consisted of multiple collegewide and community events that included faculty and staff, community leaders, student leaders and an affinity group of Black and Latinx female employees. In all, approximately 486 individuals participated in the conversations in recent days.