Posted March 20, 2017 by Cooper Point Journal in Community

“RE: Equity, Inclusion, Silence and Fear”

Faculty Emails Reveal Controversy Over Race and Diversity at Evergreen

Here at The Cooper Point Journal we are very invested in sharing information relevant to our campus community and strive to hold the Evergreen administration, faculty and staff accountable for their words and actions. As the Evergreen State College social contract states, the college “governance system must rest on open and ready access to information by all members of the community” In following with this mission, we would like to take some of your time to share something being discussed at this school of which many students may not be aware of.

Recently, following controversy over diversity recommendations made by the Evergreen Equity Council, the all staff and faculty email chain has contained messages that many, including some students who reached out to the CPJ directly and other faculty on the thread, consider to be racist and insensitive. These emails were brought specifically to my attention by students who were concerned about their implications, and as a student of color myself I was also troubled by the disregard for our experiences.

There is an all staff and faculty distribution list (DL), which is meant to be used as a way to quickly disseminate information through the Staff and Faculty to over 1600 recipients; including over 700 student workers, 500 faculty, and 400 staff. Besides being seen by the many student workers who are on this list, these messages are matters of public record and can be requested from the school.

These messages are sent under the false assumption that students won’t or cannot see them. We would like to make it obvious that these messages are already seen by students, and now, can be seen by students who are not also staff. We believe that all Evergreen students have a right to know what professors and other Evergreen staff members are saying behind closed, albeit transparent, doors.

These threads originated late in Fall quarter, following a forum discussing the plan put forth by the Evergreen Equity Council, and have fervently continued, with no end in sight. The tone taken by some faculty members under the assumption that they are a part of a silent majority and also that students will not see them is quite worrying especially the ones in regards to the future of the school, as these conversations have been going on without student input

The issues seem to have began with a faculty and staff meeting hosted in the Longhouse, in which those in attendance were presented with the  2016– 2017 Strategic Equity Plan. The plan was presented and developed by the equity council, who used statistics about student engagement and retention, student interviews and surveys, and their cumulative experience as staff, faculty, and students to determine the best way to proceed in an attempt to ensure equity on campus.

The meeting where the plan was introduced was described by one professor, Bret Weinstein, as such “The event began with a song. The musician (and canoe builder), John Smith, did two things that impressed me. The first thing he did was make me feel, for the first time in my life, like a guest in ‘my own’ country. That this land is stolen is something I have long understood, but it is different to feel it, and I did feel it. Then he made me feel welcome, in spite of the fact that I am effectively a guest that arrived uninvited. It was powerful, and also generous. He then said he was told by someone he esteemed (a friend?) ‘To build a bridge, and get over it’. It’s a good line, and it resonated for me. I wanted to cross his bridge. By the end of the meeting, the bridge was gone, and the canoe was introduced.” He goes on to say,

“Maybe it isn’t mine to say because the canoe isn’t from my culture, but this canoe metaphor felt like it was appropriated for the ironic purpose of cloaking an unstoppable train. You are either onboard, or you are not. You can attempt to derail this proposal, or you can accept where the train is going.”

Weinstein expressing opposition to the proposal by the council had this to say “From what I have read, I do not believe this proposal will function to the net benefit of Evergreen’s students of color, in the present, or in the future. Whatever type of vehicle it is, I hope we can find a way to discuss this proposal on its merits, before it moves farther down the line. I am concerned that we are becoming a college where such things can neither be said, nor heard, and I know that I am not alone in this sentiment.”

In a separate email, Weinstein compares the idea of the equity council and in effect POC at Evergreen demanding equity to silencing and intimidation.

“The thing about campaigns of intimidation is that they function best when retribution is tailored to an individual’s values and vulnerabilities. People’s fears will therefore vary across a wide range.

If I was not yet converted, or worse, were I still a visitor, speaking as I am now doing would be a threat to my ability to stay on at the college.”

Weinstein took particular issue with one policy, put in place to encourage equity at Evergreen “faculty voted to require official, yearly reflections on our individual progress relative to racial diversity.” He appears to conflate this attempt to mend historical inequality and combat racism at Evergreen, with discrimination against white people, writing, “It is hard to imagine a person of color being flagged by a conversion panel, or as an internal hiring candidate, due to their yearly reflections revealing cryptic bias, or insufficient progress with respect to race. But it is all too easy to imagine a white person (whatever that is taken to mean) being challenged on this basis.” He continues that as a result of these and other diversity policies, “We have now imposed on ourselves a de facto hierarchy based on skin color, and hooked it directly to mechanisms of hiring, promotion and dismissal–empowering some, and disempowering others.”

Beyond the material effects of resistance to even small measures to foster diversity, this discourse is worrisome to many students of color who are forced to work with professors who do not wish to be held accountable for educating themselves on the issues being perpetrated by white supremacy and therefore by white professors themselves.

When the equity council, advising on behalf of the POC community at Evergreen, are telling professors and staff that we need mandatory training and accountability and the response is complaints that it is unfair to white people at the school this showcases exactly why this type of training is needed. This blatant ignorance of white privilege, show of white fragility and refusal to acknowledge how white supremacy affects people of color at Evergreen is white privilege in action. The white fragility illustrated by Weinstein and the other faculty and staff he claims support him are a way of derailing progress toward equity.

As a student of color, professors who cannot support mandatory diversity training or even “official reflections on development and learning relative to race (and other types of diversity)” are not professors I feel comfortable learning from. The opinions expressed in these messages make this learning environment hostile to me and other students of color. In a just world this silent majority of professors would come out and show their distaste for equity if only to allow students of color to not be subjected to their oppressive ideals.

In fact, if there is any interest in coming out and opposing equity I personally invite staff faculty and admin to email the POC Talk email address as it is valuable information for students of color and I value freedom of speech as well as my and other student of color’s safety and education

Worries about hostile learning environment are shared by Mike Penhallegon a TRiO outreach and Retention intern who responded to Weinstein by saying  “As a sciences student, you and your racist colleagues are the reason I won’t recruit future students.”

When asked to clarify his position Weinstein speculated on retaliation because of his opinions that seem to run against equity, essentially saying that because he opposed the equity council’s plans his classes are being unfairly presented as unsuited for “diverse” students.

“The vote on that resolution was nearly unanimous. If you doubt fear played a role in that decision, consider this: following the vote, several converted faculty members told me in confidence that although they agreed with my objections, they could not bring themselves to vote accordingly. Several others told me that they had avoided the meeting altogether because, though they were strongly opposed to the measure, they did not feel they could afford to vote that way in public.”

“Numerous staff members have told me they have experienced retribution for expressing opinions at odds with the conventional wisdom, and that they fear for their jobs.”

“I fear two things. The first is interference with my ability to teach diverse populations of students, making use of the unrivaled academic freedom that is at the heart of what makes Evergreen special. The second thing I fear is a work environment so hostile to me that I will be left with no choice but to walk away.”

“People are afraid of attacks on their reputations, their opportunities at Evergreen, and their ability to function in the wider world. These fears are about real and important harms, and the fact that these fears are widespread strongly suggests that our college’s culture of open, collaborative inquiry is in danger of being lost.”

Weinstein is not alone in claiming attacks on his freedom of speech. He is supported by Alan Nasser, a retired professor of political economy and philosophy.

Nasser concludes that worries that Weinstein’s “concern for [his] status and autonomy appear more important to [him] than the success of his students.” is a, “text book example of a non-sequitur and a confirmation of Mr. Weinstein’s concerns about suppression of freedom of speech.”

Adding that “talk of ‘whiteness’ is ill-conceived” as it is not “in common usage.” And proposing that “A small number of faculty and staff here have embarked upon a campaign and a series of posts that would look ludicrous and quasi-pathological to most decent readers outside of this campus. And the real “white fragility” here is to be found among the white folks dripping with guilt and liable to intimidation.”

It is not my goal here to attack Weinstein personally, or intimidate anyone into agreeing, but to allow his words and those of other faculty to speak for themselves allowing for something he himself deems to be under attack, freedom of speech, and to hold the entire faculty, staff and admin accountable in how they respond to calls for more diversity and equity at Evergreen.

I ponder on why the hostility being shown toward equity is devalued compared to hostility shown to those who devalue it, as was expressed by Naima Lowe who said, “I believe that it would be useful to consider why and how the accusation of racism is considered to be on par (or indeed, at times worse!) to the ears of some of our white colleagues than the racism that we’re speaking about in the first place. This strikes me as a false equivalency. Being called racist won’t cost you your life, health, livelihood, sanity, freedom. Being faced with un-checked racism can and does all of those things.” Why is warning students about how these ideals might make them a target in classrooms at Evergreen attempting to be devalued compared to faculty’s freedoms to hold misguided and racist views that will undoubtedly affect students, and why has upholding unpopular [read: racist] views been presented as just an unpopular opinion?

If what is being discussed is not something you are willing to have your face and career attached to do not hold discussions in a public forum. If you hold ideas that you only feel comfortable expressing in back alleyways because students of color may (rightfully) be made uncomfortable by them then maybe it’s time to abandon your white fragility and outdated views or be willing to be called out at a school that is struggling but over all trying to support equity and what is just for its oppressed student population. It saddens me that in this day and age and under this presidency using people’s own quoted words or actions could be seen as intimidation even at our own institution.

I leave you with the words of faculty member Lisa Sweet who has this to say; “I don’t expect you to change your mind, take responsibility for your sweeping generalizations, or your inappropriate use of e-mail to impact the community. I am far more concerned with folks like myself who have learned oppressive habits, and wish to unlearn them in order to serve all our students equitably.”

POC Talk is a space to focus on the unique experiences people of color face at Evergreen and in Olympia. It is written anonymously by an Evergreen Student of Color in an effort to specifically discuss POC issues. We want to center and boost POC voices so if you have something to add you can submit your questions, comments, concerns, or ideas for what you would like POC Talk to cover to