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"Unbinding Bryn Mawr: Where the Personal Meets the Political"

As we have been attempting to “Unbind Bryn Mawr” through our independent study, but also in Critical Feminist Studies, I have been struggling to let this plan come to fruition.  I use the word “let” consciously because I want to hold myself accountable for my lack of communication and/or words that I have yet to contribute to this conversation.  In order for this paper to make ANY grammatical sense, I want to first give a quick synopsis of my racial autobiography in the context of my time at Bryn Mawr.  Although this may seem redundant—as we have discussed many of my past experiences in person—I think that my experiences not only parallel those of Ann Berlak’s and Sekayni Moyenda’s racially autobiographical narratives, but I also feel that I must “unbind” myself too—to immerse myself in “unlearning oppressive pedagogy”.  For the sake of time and space, I am going to use last week’s town hall on race as a micro-level example of my orientation towards the college and race.  This epistemic resource will then be elaborated on within macro-level frameworks of pedagogy and hegemonic forces presented by Ann Berlak, in relation to my experience with professors.  Berlak’s framework also illuminates a racially adaptive unconscious, in which I will define and apply within the context of Bryn Mawr’s community.  I am not sure if I will be able to provide solutions, except to possibly use this framework within the classroom?  In conclusion I am proposing that we implement this pedagogy in the classroom next fall as a way to expand on intersectional and difference feminist discourse. 

I want to start of my narrative by first stating that I did not attend the town hall and I do not intend to assert opinions of the voices/stories shared by students, administrators, and faculty/staff.  This account is only representative of ME, as I do not speak for any other students, specifically ones of color. 

It was difficult to be excited about the town hall meeting last week…

I was apprehensive to the format of the town hall, in addition to the voices (loudest) heard in the forum that have traditionally been overwhelming white.  Initially I thought that this meeting was going to be a traditional town hall format enabling for a more widespread communal discussion, however in class prior to the forum I was told that discussions would mainly take place in small group discussions.  Although many of my classmates (predominately white cis-gendered females) found this format problematic as many of them found this as an act of the administration placating the community.  However I felt that maybe this is where more minority voices could be heard—acknowledged?  I knew that for my white friends that their longing to “expose” Bryn Mawr were acting in ally-ship, but I wondered at what expense would this act cost—more importantly whose?  Who was this going to be more taxing for?  How do these stories, re-telling of lived experience trigger us?  Who has the right to tell these stories? 

Although skeptical, I was excited that the administration was taking the steps necessary to facilitate long overdue conversations about race at Bryn Mawr.  I say this because in my time here there have been many “racial incidents” such as Perry House, an unconceivable amount of racial micro-aggressions, “rumored” mishandling of club-funding, limited faculty of color, and the catalyst for the town hall: defamation of a professor of color.  I could sit an explain each of these incidents however I don’t know if the actual “facts” or “rationale” behind these incidents even matter at this point.  Of course it is important to hear an accurate backstory, as many of these points of conflict prove to be a lack of- or misunderstanding in- communication, however the feelings and opinions that emerge in these times illuminate a fragmented vision of inclusivity and community that is often racialized.  I would also argue that these themes seem to sustain and embed themselves as institutionalized racism, in which repeated incidents marginalized students feel silenced and disenfranchised.  Many times in these cases we turn to quick fix solutions, resulting in some form of compromise—often times financial.  However these incidents manifest in debates and discourse, embedded in self-affirmed identities—which I believe to be inherently personal, emotional even.  I want to make clear that this racial climate impacts OUR entire community—including those existing outside the “Bryn Mawr Bubble”.  However I would argue that the emotional and mental toll experienced by students of color is more significant, as this is where we can locate the epicenter of tension that is often invisible to the larger college population. 

As a Black-American woman—student—it is often times difficult for me to articulate the amount of energy my body exerts in discussions about race, academic and socially, given that I am aware how powerful my voice is as a Black-American woman in many of these spaces.  I must admit that speaking in these spaces, specifically academic, because many times I am able to substantiate my argument with evidence that is able to transcend racial barriers as we consider it to be “vetted” or “fact”.  However this academic year I have been pushed beyond these borders, enabled to build a relationship between my own lived experience/identity (micro-level) and social theory that both perpetuates and attempts to dismantle society’s hegemonic forces (macro level).  I guess I have always done this, but to speak about this experience authentically has been draining—emotionally and mentally.  I am in space that is uncomfortable—and I am unable to find the words to articulate it.  It is ironic how I am so comfortable with Anne, as I would be lying if I said I do not spend much of my day biting my tongue at my white “feminist” friends.  It is not that I do not appreciate their input and passion, but there comes a time when privileged voices must make room for the marginal—if they CHOOSE to speak.  Maybe it is specific to me, but sometimes I get frustrated at the lack of consideration for how these discussions linger with me—they become a part of me, not just something we talked about in class.

I would say that this praxis enables a vulnerable learning space, in which we are most often fearful to confront and forced to hold one another accountable.  It is not the micro-level discussions, classroom debate, communal (undergraduate) discourse surrounding race that worry me, but how we are able to bring them into a tangible macro-level ideals.  How can we still remain within the bounds of academia without undermining the power of lived experience as it relates to the way we learn?  In response to this question I have chosen to unpack Ann Berlak’s expansion on the racially adaptive unconscious in her essay, Challenging the Hegemony of Whiteness: Undoing Whiteness in the Classroom.  It seems as if these ideas have acted as a catalyst in my thinking about our independent study—and our ambitious task of “unbinding Bryn Mawr”.  Albeit exciting, this notion felt overwhelming due to time constraints, but also because we only be able to tap into small facet of our community.  As I began to read about Berlak’s claims for the racially adaptive unconscious as an overlooked site in our understanding of difference, privilege, and power—I felt as if I was finally given the language to express what I was looking for!  I believe that Berlak’s use of the adaptive unconscious in relation to her commitment of “unlearning oppressive pedagogy” has illuminated the simultaneous and layered processes in which we think and retain new information. 

After reading Berlak I began to think that it seems that many of our attempts to dismantle privilege, specifically through academic discourse, reinforce hegemony itself.    It is frustrating to feel as if I have to validate my own feelings as a Black-American woman I must reference the perspective of the white male patriarchy—albeit in academia.  This is not to say that there are not numerous scholars of color that are also available for me to reference, however in relation to the my experience with the some of the social sciences adherence to their respective “academic cannon’s” discussions can remain to be embedded in a very privileged in perspective.  I am also questioning the way I have been taught—even who I have been taught by?  I have always been the minority in school, which I believe impacted my identity to be more defined as a Black-American woman—always being placed/playing that role.  However it is interesting to me that I have had only 5 teachers/professors of color since I was in ninth grade that I believe inhibits my learning experience, but the two most important teachers in my academic career, have been white women—both named Anne—J!  My eleventh grade English teacher Annie Thrower-Patterson and my Critical Feminist Studies Professor Anne Dalke have expanded my perspectives on race the most out of any people that I have met, but most of all there was a trust built—an ally-ship.  I feel accepted by both of these people, who have proved their trust to me by also being authentic in their experience.  I would argue that this is because my experiences in their respective classrooms were arguably one’s of “unlearning oppressive pedagogy”. 

Similar to my teacher and professor, I felt that Ann Berlak’s words indicated an authenticity about her experience as she chooses to only speak for herself (47).  In addition to this, her tone throughout the piece was never absolute—leading me to believe she was also open to introspect and actually listening, as an act of building ally-ship in the journey towards racial equality.  Although these characteristics of Berlak’s narrative are not necessarily based on content (her actual experience), but instead her word choice and diction I believe that they are equivocally relevant because they are indicators of self-awareness and accountability—which are vital to her role as an ally and actor in “unlearning oppressive pedagogy”.  Berlak’s ability to hold herself accountable, without excuses of innocence due to ignorance, reinforces her self-awareness about her social status and power as a white woman in the fight to dismantle racial hegemony.  Berlak’s reformed pedagogy is intended to enable marginalized/once silenced voices emerge in the classroom environment, possibly even in the sphere of educational academia itself (47). 

I believe that Berlak’s model uses tactics to build alliances across difference, enabling people of differing backgrounds to create coalitions to fight social injustice on both micro- and macro-level systems/structure.  I believe that this ideal is AMAZING, but I know that many teachers/professors do feel as if they practice this in their own classroom and teaching, when they in fact do not.  Specifically from my own personal experience, I have had very few professors that honor, celebrate, or acknowledge perspectives from racialized lenses as valid claims.  Of course this would be without the supplementary evidence to prove how these immeasurable emotions and opinions (journeys?) that are considered to be valid by proven [traditional] method depending on the academic discipline.  It is interesting to study yourself—to really see how society, history, and academia have told your story—how they have misappropriated my identity.  Although many of these social theories are in fact attempts to dismantle and unpack stereotypical black identity, however is our act of generalizing and limited variance in identity oppressive within itself?  I question whether we can ever unlearn these early embedded societal hegemonic ideals because of socialization.  However if allies in all context are able to acknowledge this actual “ACT” of unlearning, would this provide accountability for allies which is necessary to build coalitions in our community? 

In my exploration of these works I believe that this lack of emphasis on the significance of the racially adaptive unconscious in relation to understanding the social psyche of race for the individual, but also the macro-level racially adaptive unconscious of our greater society—and groups (canopies?) existing within it.  The racial adaptive conscious is unable to negate racist tendencies to given its categorical and sophisticated nature, regardless of how we undo them.  She says:

“The central theory is that we have two non-redundant information-processing systems that are relatively independent of one another.  These two systems have evolved in different ways and serve different functions.  One of these, the adaptive unconscious, operates almost entirely out of conscious view.  The adaptive unconscious is far more sophisticated, efficient, and adult-like than the unconscious portrayed by psychoanalytic theory.  It can set goals, interpret and evaluate evidence, and influence judgments, conscious feelings, and behavior.  People can think in quite sophisticated ways and yet be thinking ‘non-consciously’.  In fact the mind relegates a good deal of high-level thinking to the adaptive unconscious.  Wilson calls in adaptive unconscious because it has evolved to enable human survival.  It permits us to notice danger and respond to it quickly (Berlak 50)”.

I believe that this concept is also applicable to macro-level structures, such as academic institutions like Bryn Mawr.  It seems as if this lens would illuminate Bryn Mawr’s racially adaptive unconscious, possibly illuminating where these institutional issues lie.  As an attempt to “unbind” Bryn Mawr, I believe that using Berlak’s praxis of the racially adaptive unconscious and “unlearning oppressive hegemony” will tactfully begin to mediate this discourse through dialogue and acceptance of difference.   

As many institutions similar to Bryn Mawr attempt to unlearn/undo injustice (in both micro- and macro-level senses), maybe our inherent structure of learning at an elite college/university will never be able to truly be inclusive to students of color.  I truly believe that the administration of Bryn Mawr is trying to dismantle these structures, but it is almost as if these problems are so systemic that are questions are inept to solve the problems at hand?   I believe that we must try to illuminate truth through historical narrative and sociological legacies, in order to supplement our “unlearning of oppressive pedagogy”.  In critical feminist studies our discussion of Bryn Mawr’s first-wave feminist past, illuminated an allegiance to an essentialist ideal of women—that was not created for women of color, let alone people of color.  Granted these issues were reflective of the racial climate of the time period as they are now, but if we are not willingly to problematize these racial hegemonic forces then we are not committed to diversity and equality of difference.  As stated many of these tensions are due to misrepresentation of identity and marginalization of voice which remain to be intergenerational, as these were grievances expressed in the first- and second-wave movements of feminism.  Bryn Mawr is a micro- level example of society that is in fact idealized and remains relatively within our bubble, however I believe that Berlak’s pedagogy would unbind Bryn Mawr by tapping into our racial unconscious. 

I hope to provide a greater understanding, perhaps insight into the ways in which the adaptive unconsciousness influences the ways in which we are unable to completely “unlearn” racial hegemony—as it has been so deeply engrained into the fabric of every social institution and practices that define it.  However I hope to argue that this awareness of the adaptive unconsciousness will allow dismantle the notion that these disparities can truly be “fixed”, given that we have yet to problematize the how/why the most progressive/”aware” institutions and individuals are still able to perpetuate hegemony without accountability.  I am weary as to who I can trust in this fight—Recently, I came across some words from Suey Park in an article for www.Salon.com, she says : “…I don’t want any ally who is going to use my emotional labor with no guarantee of aiding my liberation.”  The consideration to not misappropriate or speak on behalf of others—as generalizing is a common tendency in these conversations as we have grown lazy in our ability to articulate nuance and variance across seemingly racially distinct “monolithic” identities—or maybe this is just our adherence for homogeny, community. Ally-ship is found on trust, a mutual commitment to authenticity and vulnerability, especially in the context of race.   I say this because I do believe that allies are often stereotyped, misunderstood in their intentions in ally-ship—however I believe that this is also a cost of marginalized voices feelings used as tools in their labor. 

In conclusion, I believe that this these bound of ally-ship in correlation with Berlak’s practice of “unlearning oppressive pedagogy” and adaptive racial unconscious would be executed fairly well in Critical Feminist Studies.  I believe that the class within itself questions traditional ideals of feminism and the ways in which gender and sexuality intersect with multiple identities.  As I believe that this class operates within frameworks of intersectional feminism and politics of difference, maybe our class can operate as an example—possibly idealized—microcosm of Bryn Mawr.  I believe that this pedagogy will enable participants to hold themselves accountable for their role within these power structures, allowing for a more honest dialogue for participants.  I believe that putting these ideas at the forefront of the discussion will enable a cohesive, fluid, and intimate dialogue at a quicker pace, as we will hopefully bypass/touch on typical surface level discussions about race.  If allies in academia, like Ann Berlak, are able to acknowledge our learning as an initial act of undoing oppressive learning, as she prone to mistake and constantly holding herself accountable—I believe that this will result in actual social change.  I hope that this will begin to the status quo that has been perpetuated, in which many professors/academics are already aware of racial injustice but remain complacent in their own pedagogy of tradition and historically “valued” voices of our academic sphere.  More importantly I hope that this “experiment” will be shared amongst our community—especially faculty/staff—as I believe that this will begin to build relationships for a cohesive community, thus truly embracing diversity if identity and perspective.   

 

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