Rockin’ or Rowin’ the Boat: 10 Responses to Institutionalized Racism

Several years ago, Lamara Warren, diversity expert and inventor of the Game of Oppression, delivered a talk to a standing room only crowd. During that conversation she noted that if you are not rocking the boat, then you must be rowing the boat. Her comment was in reference to how people tend to respond to unpopular or sensitive topics.

I revisited her comment recently. I thought about it in terms of how people in organizations navigate structural and institutionalized racism ― specifically within educational organizations. I quickly jotted down my historical observations.

The responses that I have observed and heard included a broad list of general characteristics that I would wager many of us have witnessed or experienced as members of any organization, and of course, as members of a racist society.

It came as no surprise when there seemed to be two responses. And if placed on a continuum, they seemed to be diametrically opposed. Of course, each of the responses has something to do with one’s disposition, consciousness, authenticity and concern for communities of color more so than for the “individuals” own need to feel affirmed.

I also know that folks may rock and or row depending on the situation and environmental push (see Khaula Murthada and Chris Leland’s work about how an “environmental push” plays a critical role in how one might respond in organizational settings). Nevertheless, what seemed clear was that most folks may be more likely to row the boat and some folks forever rock the boat.

Playing the game (rowing)

1. You are always the one person of color chosen to sit on every committee, even the ones out of your area of expertise. Most people seem to be comfortable around you and say and share things with you. You may have heard that you are different and articulate. (Most folks of color have heard this. It is not a compliment. It means that whomever is relaying this information has decided that some folks cannot speak in a certain vernacular. So you are really being dissed. It also suggests that your entire community has been unable to speak in a “suitable” tongue that resonates with the interpreter.) Get your paddle and get to rowing. Your organization has placed you in the boat and donned you with oars.

2. You try hard not to appear angry. It is not the proper way to act. Ask yourself, why? Also ask why you might be so concerned about how you allow others to script you. You also try hard not to be associated with folks who are considered to be angry people of color. Start asking angry folks why they are angry and then ask yourself why those same things, which tend to be egregious and directed towards people of color, do not seem to upset you at all. I can name many a scholar and a president or two who have been and are still angry. I can also name several critical White scholars with whom I work who are angry. Anger does not thwarts one’s career ― complacency, complicity, a need for White affirmation and fear do.

3. You want your work to be taken “seriously.” I have never been able to figure out what that means. Other than it may tell us something about one’s own deep-seated insecurities, a need to feel accepted or affirmed and a message to others that work regarding people of color is not “serious” work. Just do the work that you love to do. If you feel good about it, then you are serious about your work.

4. You do not want to be viewed as that scholar of color who does work on issues of color. I have heard this one on more than one occasion, and I am pretty floored each time that I hear it. It implies some unspoken metanarrative that work about people of color has no value, no cultural capital (see Yosso’s work that speaks to the cultural capital of communities of color). Keep in mind that some of those scholars to whom you refer would include Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Derrick Bell, James Anderson and Charles Ogletree, all of whom are well respected for their work. Even in my discipline of higher education student affairs, the folks who students want to be most like do work on folks of color and are critical. They also seem to be widely requested as speakers, etc. Ask why this space has convinced you that doing that work might taint who you are what you do. More importantly, what do you do, and for whom?

5. You think that you have to play the game. The game can imply a number of so-called political moves. However, playing the game does not seem to resemble politics in the rich sense of the word. Most of the time, it seems that “playing the game,” tends to look more like self-preservation, self-affirmation, deep dependency on White affirmation and a staunch belief that assumes that when White folks are uncomfortable, your own positionality within the organization may be threatened.

Rocking the boat.

6. On the other end of the spectrum, you are never selected to serve on any committees. You are typically given a barrage of excuses for the exclusion. Many folks are uncomfortable when you are around. You are not privy to conversations in which the “usual” suspects are normally included. You are typically left out of the loop because you make folks feel uncomfortable about racism. The “usual suspects” allow folks to remain comfortable in racism. Keep rocking the boat.

7. You are always angry. Think about what it is that you are angry about. Inequity or do you want the same stuff for yourself ― only? For instance, there a number of accolades that one receives in these academic spaces. Do you speak up all of the time or only when it impacts your career? If you are angry because of a number of inequities and microaggressions are inflicted on people of color daily, and you are speaking up, then you may just be tipping the boat.

8. You submit your work to spaces that value scholarship that is critical and valued by critical scholars in general. You have been told that you might struggle getting tenure given the spaces in which you have chosen to submit. Consider the larger metanarrative that is being conveyed to you about entire groups of people and their work. Think about “good schools,” “good neighborhoods” and “good teachers.” Yikes! Don’t fall for it. Who do you write for? What do you read? There are spaces for everyone — be leery of any place that does not value academic spaces that value significant work penned by faculty of color about people of color.

9. You often wonder whether you are in the “right place” and seek spaces and other colleagues who are committed to communities of color and “doing” work outside of the “academy.” Community work and public scholarship have long been the tradition of communities and scholars of color who have been dedicated to supporting communities of color. Is your work making a difference to the larger community and the world? Key is being clear when you come in that you will be doing this work.

10. You often wonder whether you are mad because so many others don’t seem to be bothered or don’t see what you see. You sometimes feel like the character in The Sixth Sense. You see things that others don’t seem to see. You are not mad or angry. You are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

As I typed up my historical observations and thought deeply about my own experiences in racialized organizations, I reflected on my own students’ comments throughout my courses. When will racism end? Will racist ever no longer be in existence? Many students believe that we will see an end to racism and other isms in the near future. They theorize that racism will die off. However, if we, as older human beings, continue to expose young folks to racism, and train and reward folks to row the boat and disregard those who may rock, I am not sure that we will ever see an end to such a peculiar institution.

Dr. Robin L. Hughes is an associate professor in higher education student affairs in the School of Education at Indiana University. She focuses on issues of race and sports in education and in society. Follow her on Twitter @pfkarobin.