My Own PWI

A thing happened today and I am still processing. Let me tell you about it.

It’s the beginning of a new school year and we start off with an all-staff meeting led by our director. It’s nice to be back and I feel content sitting between dear colleagues. The meeting includes several announcements, acknowledgements and introductions. A familiar routine to remind us of how we belong together and what we are here for.

Fairly early in the meeting there’s talk of mission and vision and that’s where it happened. Our director spoke about our school being a PWI (predominantly white institution) and considering what implications that may have for our programs and community. He suggested that we will need to look at our curricula and offerings and investigate where we might do more to consider marginalized perspectives. (I’m paraphrasing. I was so bowled over by what I was hearing I was struggling to keep from bawling.)

So yeah, I was shook. I didn’t see that coming and in all my 23+ years at the school nothing like that had ever happened. The director of the school (who is white) openly acknowledged that ours is a predominantly white institution and I have no idea how many people really got that, really understood what he was saying, but I sure did. I know that most of the people that I work with are white; that the vast majority of our student body is white. Yes, we are an international school and we are an American school and even if Europeans among us (Austrians, Germans, Swedes, Dutch, Danes, Hungarians, Swiss, etc.) believe that they hold different understanding of race and racial identity, whiteness carries the day in our school. Without question.

You may know, as I do, that white people generally do not relish being called “white.” It can be uncomfortable for a number of reasons, not the least of which involves acknowledging that there are black and brown folks (among other people of color) whose lives are rarely valued to the same degree as whites in Western societies.

There’s a passage in Between The World and Me in which Ta-Nehisi Coates describes his wife’s upbringing in suburban white America (a major component of what he terms “The Dream”).  He writes:

Perhaps it was because she was raised within the physical borders of such a place, because she lived in proximity with the Dreamers. Perhaps it was because the people who thought they were white told her she was smart and followed this up by telling her she was not really black, meaning it as a compliment. p. 116

Welcome to my life in predominantly white institutions! One of the unspoken agreements of being one of few Blacks on a very white faculty is that I will do nothing to unsettle our relationship by acknowledging any potential gap in our experiences due to race or race coupled with being female. Instead I will behave in accordance with norms I have internalized over a lifetime that qualify me to be a great fit in any PWI. I am going to go out on a limb here but in the eyes of many colleagues it could be that I am black without really being Black (like “Wakanda Forever” Black).

I’m curious what happens when people who might prefer to resist identifying as white are told that they are in fact white and that the institution we inhabit is a very white one. How will that change the daydream of colorblindness many have learned to embrace? One promise I have already made to myself is that I need not become a default spokesperson or trainer in racial awareness and anti-bias strategies. I am thrilled to be able to point to resources and invite people to pick up some great books, listen to some outstanding podcasts, talk to their fellow white folks.

I’m not into foisting guilt onto anyone. I like my life. I appreciate the work I am privileged to do and where I get to do it. I believe that I am good for my institution and that my institution is also good for me. And it looks like this year we may get some deep nudges to grow our understanding of how race and racism work within our walls and without. For that I will be immensely grateful.

4 thoughts on “My Own PWI

  1. Sherri: Your Director’s multicultural epiphany seems all the more puzzling in the apparent omission of actions and new narratives to reflect his new awareness of what it means to be a PWI in Vienna. Could this be some summer workshop message that got his attention, but not his full understanding? Do let us know how this answer is revealed as this new academic year unfolds.

    As always, thanks for sharing.
    Uncle Thad

    1. Thank you, Uncle Thad for weighing in. I’m curious to see what will emerge. It’s not clear to me what sort of impact his words on the topic had on others besides me. If I have any optimism, it remains guarded. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

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