A recent tweet sent out by the UC Santa Barbara Department of Geography that was co-authored by department Chair Stuart Sweeney stated, “If there is anything we can do, please let us know.”
Yes, Sweeney, there is plenty you can do. First of all, we need you to shut up and listen.
You are the 12th white male to serve as chair of the UCSB geography department in a long history of white males. There has never been a person of color leading this department, and there has never been a woman in the space of that chair.
And it shows. It shows in the patriarchal culture the department embodies and perpetuates. It shows in the bankrupt values and ideologies the department institutionalizes and advocates. It shows in the department’s silencing and absencing of anything and anyone who questions or challenges its faulty and racist foundations and structure. It shows in the department’s legacy and habit of narrow white ways of knowing, thinking, acting and being. This is so apparent to us, because we have lived it. We have been laughed at for raising questions of difference. We have been told by you we do not belong.
It thus is not so surprising to us that your hollow letter of concern to the geography community glosses over the death of George Floyd in such passing as to be completely tone deaf, at best, and purposely dog-whistling at worst. Floyd’s murder is not even the intention or attention of your sentence or concern. You say, “We realize these are indeed troubling times on many fronts,” and you associate what is troubling with the events that followed his killing.
It would be amusing to note, if not for the direness of this reality you contribute to, that your reference to the vile and unjust public execution of Floyd is myopically entangled within your seemingly indelible white privilege: how faculty must “grapple” with having to work from home. Is that really the reach of your concern? Is that really the best that you can do?
Apparently, it is.
The event of Floyd’s murder deserves explicit recognition, direct condemnation and corrective actions. As do the murders of Breonna Taylor, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, Stephon Clark and so many other Black people at the hands of those who are supposedly there to serve and protect. Does this trouble you? Or, do the “many fronts” of concern you mention express the vocal and visible challenges now being presented to the white hegemony the department has for so long promulgated and promoted?
You and every UCSB chair of geography before you have led a department that has policed the gates of opportunity and kept them away from Black, Brown and Indigenous scholars. You and every chair of the department before you have, on several occasions, presided over a faculty that has turned down exceptional Black and Brown hires, including an African-American woman, a woman of African origin and a Nepalese woman, only to hire more white faculty. You and every chair before you have embodied a department that has done nothing to level the playing field with your privilege. The word “diversity” is spoken at faculty meetings as a token nod to progressive values, but you do nothing to make the department more welcoming to and inclusive of non-white students and potential Black, Brown and Indigenous faculty.
You know what we DON’T need: more diversity seminars, webinars, colloquiums and forums that you can check off your to-do list. We DON’T need Black and Brown students and faculty to shoulder the burden of changing a system that claims “freedom of thought” but ends up keeping that platform for white voices, values and modes of geographical thought, methodologies, scholarship and activism.
You and every UCSB chair of geography before you have led a department that has policed the gates of opportunity and kept them away from Black, Brown and Indigenous scholars.
For a discipline that literally has the world as its focus, your myopic views and behaviors are an embarrassment and a failure. You uphold the racist and colonial legacy of geography by not confronting this very real history of the discipline, and you advocate and perpetuate these racist and colonial tendencies today.
If this truly brings you discomfort, if there is a modicum of sincerity in your message, you may then be asking: what CAN I do? The answer is: begin to change the entire structure of your department from within to work for corrective justice inside and outside your halls of privilege.
Start teaching about the racist and colonial history of the very discipline you purport to represent. Step outside your comfort zones of white privilege and incorporate into all classes geographical issues of race and racism, privilege and marginalization, gender and identity, and resource destruction and exploitation. Actively recruit Black scholars and other scholars of color. Actively work with, take direction from, and cite and publish with Black, Brown and Indigenous scholars. Actively examine the biases in your own work, in your own choices, and in your own institutions and power structures. And explicitly recognize and vocalize that electing a faculty of color as chair is far overdue. Actively work to change and correct this. And for the sake of all and any gods, educate yourself.
All of this is what you can do. And if there is any grain of sincerity in the department’s message, all of these steps must begin to be taken NOW. Recalling the words of Dr. King:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”
So, yes, these are indeed troubling times. Especially when your thoughts, given in abstract sympathy and for dubious ends, only serve to re-traumatize and build dams against a student body that has faced discrimination from your department since day one.
When your brief, ambiguous message presents and represents the full extent that this department is willing to go to in order to acknowledge what is happening outside the ivory tower, and we mean ivory, the only purpose it serves is to give comfort and satisfaction to those already enjoying the white privilege and power that tower provides.
Whatever your next actions are as a chair and as a department — and make no mistake, silence and upholding the white status quo is action — will be revealing of the sincerity or insincerity of your message to us, marginalized members of the UCSB geography community.
Graduates of the UCSB geography community
This article was published anonymously at the request of the authors due to fear of retaliation.