Photo courtesy of Connor W. Davis

On Jan. 26, the Colorado Association of Blacks in Higher Education (CoBHE) hosted two panel discussions as an extension of DU’s 2018 Diversity Summit—which primarily focused on the intersections of social justice and sustainability. The morning panel was titled, “Radical Honesty, Resistance, and Self Care in TWIs: Navigating the intersections of Race, Identity, and Patriarchy in these Challenging Times” and was hosted by academics Dr. Debbie Mixon Mitchell (University of Denver), Dr. Raquel Wright-Mair (University of Northern Colorado), Ms. Quill Phillips (Community College of Aurora) and Dr. Dafina-Lazarus (D-L) Stewart. The panel, moderated by Dr. Bianca Williams (CUNY Graduate Center), focused on the individual stories each panelist had experienced in their time working at a traditionally white institution (TWI) and how they cope with the challenges at hand.

Before recalling these accounts, Williams kicked off the discussion by giving her personal definition for what it means to be radically honest. She framed the morning by listing radical honesty as truth telling, valuing narrative and personal experience and taking action.

First to share her experience was Mitchell who is DU’s Director of Diversity Recruiting. She recounts various moments of aggression from her white colleagues that had her feel hostile in the “sharp white background.” One coworker, Mitchell tells the audience, nonchalantly used the N-word in front of her with no regard over how it may affect her. It was the kind action of her Latina co-worker, who gifted her a succulent and sage to help get rid of the negative atmosphere around her office, that helped her feel better. She called that action “sister love” which, she says, is a form self-care as well.

Wright-Mair highlighted her time in which she has felt drained at work when she was overwhelmed with students who wanted advising from the only black faculty member. Feeling stretched too thin, her form of self-care comes in the form of remembering why she loves teaching. In rough times she looks back at a teacher evaluation from her early years where one student said, “Dr. Raquel is life.”

Phillips had a similar experience to Wright-Mair in which her workload and the pressure to work twice as hard as her white colleagues had pressured to constantly remind herself why and how she got in the position she is presently in. As her form of self-care, Phillips tells the audience that allying with white peers, questioning the systems around her and surrounding herself with community, spirituality and family are what keep her afloat in times when she doubts herself.

The final story came from Stewart who told the audience about the challenges of identity as a queer male born in a woman’s body. “I am not a black women,” he proudly declares at the beginning of his talk in hopes, he admits, that someday he no longer needs to give that disclaimer. Stewart discusses the difficulty of existing in a space that seems to not accept trans individuals. In his work life, he also recalls facing various white students with the sadomasochism of white guilt who visit him in hopes of relieving themselves of their guilt. Stewart’s most vulnerable revelation was how his pursuit of higher education and facing the obstacles that come with it have affected his relationship with his son. Having him during the first year of his doctoral program, Stewart believes his son has received “leftovers” from him and has consequently had to learn how to advocate for himself since Stewart could not always be there for him. Due to this, self-care has been hard for him to accomplish for he has in the past felt guilty for giving himself time to recollect. Now, he’s trying to give himself permission to take a break and, hopefully, try cross country skiing.

Each speaker answered questions afterwards and collectively spoke about what liberation looks like to them, how black cis-gendered straight men can help their cause and how to build a bridge between different individuals to keep them united and feel accepted.