They Schools: Educational Narratives, Resistance, and the Perpetual Distance Separating Equity From Equality

Mar 25, 2019
5:03 PM
Originally published at New Black Man in Exile

Editor’s Note: The author gave us permission to publish this piece. He has contributed to Latino Rebels in the past.

“American is woven of many strands… our fate is to become one, yet many.” These were the words spoken by Princeton president Chris Eisgruber in the recent keynote conversation had with Aspen Institute president and CEO Dan Porterfield.

In invoking that which was constructed as both haunting and beautiful, Eisgruber spoke to an audience convened on behalf of advocating, advancing, and sharing the experiences of first-generation, low-income students at some of our nation’s most selective institutions of higher education.

The words taken from Ralph Ellison’s seminal read Invisible Man were poignant and powerfully recited towards the end of the discussion, a clarion call to those present (both in person and via livestream) that a commitment to excellence, and educational excellence more specifically, rests at the nexus of the personal and political, where collaboration exceeds the boundaries of educational institutions, and political ideologies, to imagine a utopian space of learning, cross-cultural cultural exchange, and rigorous dialogue.

This is a site where unity and diversity become by-products of policies, practices, programs, initiatives, habits, and cultures that seek to transform institutions and shift conversations from equity to a focus on the nuances of equality. In keeping with one of the central themes of the conferences convened (at Princeton University) from February 15–19, this was to usher in not solely a moment, but a movement, an entrenched commitment on the part of administrators, students, and collaborators to gather as one, with the sole purpose of exacting the future they awaited (collective efforts to envision and enact) A Hope in the Unseen, to echo the educational narrative told by Ron Suskind.

Invoking Ellison

While a phenomenal dialogue filled with many gems, that invocation of Ellison’s work was equal parts eerie and rather necessary, for in the haunting and beauty of Ellison’s prose, the specter of Ellison’s democratic imaginings was very much present—a haunting of collective pasts and actions we have yet to reckon with. Thus, in thinking about our character, Invisible Man, our omniscient and nameless narrator (protagonist), there is an established reference point for thinking through the experiences of being othered in society, and what the implications might be, when those others enter institutions that were not built for them.

At one end of the spectrum, the marker of invisibility is a best case scenario. At worst, it is the feeling and internalized nature of feeling abject, addressing questions of institutional access without recognition or awareness of intersectionality, inclusion, or the set of experiences that make each and every student truly unique. A counter to such an argument exists as selling points that speak to the quality of life present on college campuses throughout the country. And yet beyond that one particular passage, Ellison’s Invisible Man resonates with such thunderous material reality as Porterfield highlights. In brilliantly interweaving anecdotes, policy stances, and programs with material effects and consequences, addressing areas of concern, and the students whose experiences, work ethic, and aspirations uphold a social contract of talent and merit, the invocation of Ellison sums up the hope and vision of that conversation, “The world is a possibility if only you’ll discover it.”

Therein lies a challenge that is to met: both on an individual and institutional scale. Ellison’s words speak to how individuals serve as an extension of the institution (its values, ideals, and commitments to diversity of thought, experience, and being). Furthermore they speak to how individuals are a buffer to achieving those very ideals. This is precisely what is at stake in the recent controversy surrounding NYU student Shahem Mclaurin, and the haunting narrative shared about the exclusionary habits and ideologies acted upon that make the classroom setting and pedagogical project, one of great turmoil and limitless boundaries of self-discovery.

Being Invisible

In short, McLaurin was told that classroom discussion was easier to facilitate without a “black presence” in the room. It is Ellison’s Invisible Man that reminds us all that, “Power doesn’t have to show off. Power is confident, self-assuring, self-starting and self-stopping, self-warming and self-justifying. When you have it, you know it.” Power and privilege transform from feelings and subtleties to material realities when we publicly acknowledge (after the fact) that there is a problem with “ongoing institutional racism,” particularly in the classroom setting. For far too many of us “others” within higher ed, these narratives of hurt, exclusion, and lip service paid to diversity and inclusion, are all too real—literal and symbolic forms of violence that substantiate and reinforce the feeling(s) that we’re just not valued on par with our privileged peers (however that is constructed and made the norm).

I myself, as a First-Generation, Low-Income disabled Latinx student, experienced these kinds of happenings, and the sense of helplessness one feels when told (by a faculty member and woman of color), “I don’t understand this thing of you being ambitious. Given your background and your health concerns, you should be incredibly grateful to God that you can even read, let alone went to college.”

While power dynamics are (often) constructed along lines of race, they do not preclude other power dynamics predicated upon different identities and hierarchies of difference. As such, people of color are not immune or beyond, exercising such privileges against disabled people of color. The trauma of these words are triggered when reading stories like those expressed by McLaurin. How exactly do we account for these narratives when power dynamics are involved? When is it safe to share and how do we share these experiences? With whom? How do we perform and highlight our “grit” when attempting to navigate and negotiate selective institutions with such hostile claims?

This is not just a student problem (be they undergraduate or graduate), ask any “other” on the faculty side of things how business is executed on the tenure track journey—a story recently shared by The New York Times in narrating the institutional struggles faced by black mathematicians within higher education. This is a particularly sensitive topic of discussion at our most selective institutions.

Yet at NYU’s School of Social Work, students not only felt empowered to own up to and admit their intentions, they did so with such ease and transparency, rationalizing their actions—articulating a fear of black folk, a perception of their threatening presence (and intellect apparently), and the fact that they had been cognizant of it and had been working on it for quite some time. Of course, said student needs even more time. Surprise, surprise! The sharing of this experience encompasses all the ways in which Ellison’s characterization of power functions as an ever-present privilege to be owned, acted upon, and rationalized, a discretionary spending account with seemingly limitless returns.

Pain Where It’s Least Expected

These pains are all too real, and we would think that the last two places to expect them would be in graduate schools of education or schools of social work.

Ellison tells us, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” And yet in the face such a difficult passage that evokes memories, feelings, and traumas, he shares, “Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.”

And still, McLaurin embodies the latter quote, seeking not to have students expelled or outed, stressing a need for learning opportunities and risks that only the classroom setting can provide. This too echoes sentiments expressed during the conversation between Eisgruber, Gonzalez, and Porterfield: that education as ongoing and never-ending work is the most human of personal and professional endeavors, namely that “we become more true to our values as we work together to provide opportunity, belonging, and rich student community, where each person can benefit from the others’ journey of discovery.”

“Play the game, but don’t believe in it–that much you owe yourself… Play the game, but raise the ante, my boy. Learn how it operates, learn how you operate.”

Ellison’s words appear implicitly in the op-ed contributions of former Dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, John L. Jackson, Jr., called “In Troubled World, Social Workers There to Help.”

Jackson goes on to outline the general ambivalence felt and articulated by those who see little reward in taking on the taxing grunt work (AND DEBT!) involved when all other well-intentioned agents of social change have done their job. In highlighting the critical contributions social workers make, Jackson points out the inverse relationship between increased economic inequality and the social buffers in place that afford many the protections and support against such push and pull forces (something Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Elizabeth Warren have all recently spoken to).

Therein Jackson plants his flag, imploring the reader to look beyond their preconceived notions to see the utility and humanity embodied by social workers, agents of change that exist when the agency to act and the agency of hope has been exhausted, depleted, or dissipated. A well-trained and well-informed social worker will “place individual incidents into larger contexts, trying to piece together the factors that conspire, purposefully or inadvertently, to impact the tiniest crevices of people’s worlds.” They undertake these actions while wearing multiple hats: serving as researchers, collaborators, lobbyists, community organizers, and leaders of campaigns to raise funds for efforts/initiatives. Social workers undertake these efforts irrespective of geographical distinctions, demographics, class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. It is perhaps with this in mind that Jackson later penned an article identifying social work as the “21st Century Law Degree.”

Holding Each Other Accountable

Given the parameters establishing all of the ways in which social work serves as a commitment to being an agent of social change, all around problem-solver, and advocate for those disenfranchised, neglected, beaten down, abject, and invisible, how do we hold one another accountable as individuals and institutions, in the process of training those very figures?

NYU clearly is not Trump University, they are a preeminent institution of higher learning that sees the value in making medical school accessible to all, assuming you make it that far. Where does that leave a conversation on diversity, inclusion, and access?

For whatever images McLaurin circulated in (through no fault of their own) or projected (consciously or subconsciously), the audacity to claim that his presence was disruptive and not necessary suggests a deeply problematic issue that demands a radical re-orientation of pedagogy (and of his peers), the kinds that James Baldwin famously called for in writing The Fire Next Time.

What brand of blackness did his classmates read, while in their presence? McLaurin, like his classmates, already had a B.A., he may have worked and had life experiences that informed the decision to go the social work route, and he knew consciously what he was getting himself into. It is highly unlikely that McLaurin operates and functions with a kind of nihilistic bravado that is off-putting to their peers. Even then how to we account for the xenophobia, racism, and classed “isms” being owned up to by his peers? Even if he wore urban fashions, mannerisms, and brought that into the classroom —remixed with a healthy intellectual curiosity and a willingness to serve on behalf of others— dialoguing, reading, and fully immersed in the school’s culture, where do we locate this menacing presence? Absurd doesn’t even begin to define just how off his classmates claim is.

Should we admit to ourselves that there was something fundamentally different about McLaurin vis-a-vis his peers, should not his experiences, passions, and commitment to public service quell those feelings of mistrust?

Experiences like these illuminate the road blocks towards the utopian cosmopolitanism articulated by both Eisgruber and Porterfield. Diversity, inclusion, access, and excellence are things we should all strive for, however if those factors fail to account for different ways of being and knowing, we have a long way to go —the ways in which bodies are inextricably tied and implicated to (and through) experience— the body as a site of being and knowing, and by extension, acting. This is precisely why conversations on intersectionality are of great importance: they seek to get at the interstitial of identity politics and concerns: all of the ways in which identities are performed, embodied, enacted, and modulated. Students of color know this all too well given how code-switching is second nature to us within and beyond schooling, be they elite institutions or not.

These experiences highlight a glaring misstep on the part of research, policy, and praxis. Namely, the question, how do we account for the social ontologies of young people coming from positions of precarity to navigate (and negotiate) cultures of elite schools? While the work of Alfred Lubrano, Shamus Khan, and Anthony Abrahams Jack offer portraits (sociologists Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman explore this topic from the lens of elite workplaces), there is a pressing need for increased access to these institutions as a locus of research questions and ethnographic query: those places that are the battlegrounds for diversity, inclusion, and access—spaces where affirmative action discourses are hotly contested and debated.

As such, given the dearth of literature that wrestles with elite cultures and elite institutions, it is about time that we focus our collective efforts to cultivate and further develop a research agenda inquiring into elite cultures at elite schools. As opposed to further reinforcing a research spectacle of the poor (and by extension those racialized as “other”), let us focus our efforts on how social reproduction exists not only for the poor, but for the elites whose exercising and advancement of privilege both enables and halts the prospects and possibilities that differentiate equity from equality.

Ellison righted noted that “Some things are just too unjust for words, and too ambiguous for either speech or ideas.” McLaurin’s experiences like those of so many others solidify this claim.

And yet we choose… we choose ourselves… we choose each other… speaking out and writing ourselves into existence sharing stories of (educational) battle scars and resilience (pushing back on the exotic, and for the scholarly community, erotic, nature inherent in the language of resilience, grit, determination, and overcoming) in part because to cater to the contrary would be a tuning out, an erasure, of those who preceded us, those who fought for open admissions at CUNY schools, programs in African-American, Puerto Rican, and Chicano Studies, those who decided that the founding of a Posse Scholars Foundation was essential… for in creating and cultivating community, we replicate self, owning diversity, yet expanding it beyond the boundaries of thought and language, a constant craving and recognition that in through experience and interaction with others. We journey far and wide… sometimes without even moving an inch. That is the radical possibility of the classroom and clarion calls for increased access, inclusion, and diversity.

With that being said, we march on. And in that search we push back against a history that says, “There Will Be No Miracles Here,” to echo the sentiments of Casey Gerald’s recent memoir.

¡Seguimos pa’lante, siempre Pa’lante!


Wilfredo A. Gomez is an independent scholar and researcher. He can be reached at He tweets from @BazookaGomez84.