“Why is this happening?” was the question my 11-year-old daughter posed as she and I watched the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. My response to her was difficult to produce, and even more painful to consider. The majority of individuals who call this country home have been left in a state of disbelief, fear, anger, confusion and sadness due to the violence in Washington, D.C. Two weeks removed from that tragic day, many in our communities remain in a state of uncertainty and heightened alert around if it might happen again or how this violence will manifest in their state capitals, courthouses and town halls.
Yet, while still pained, many in our nation are not surprised by what they saw unfold on their screens and social media feeds that day. The encouragement of mob violence and the allowances afforded rioters to desecrate our symbols of democracy are experiences familiar — although not equal — to what marginalized and minoritized groups have borne witness to for generations. Those who have been intentionally prevented from accessing the full scope of freedoms and opportunities this country has to offer understand all too well how the events of Jan. 6 could come to pass. Unfortunately and unfairly, this unwanted burden of understanding why and how will yet again labor students, administrators and faculty members who identify as Black, brown, Indigenous, immigrant, Muslim, Jewish, first-generation, LGBTQ+, female, disabled and any other group that has been repeatedly taxed to help others make sense of the “unthinkable.”
The unintentional laboring of students and colleagues, as well as friends and loved ones, from underrepresented groups in times like these often comes from people’s genuine desire to learn and understand. Many of us want to help make sense of such acts of violence by learning more and working to rectify the systems that led to them. That learning often takes the form of reading books, downloading podcasts, reaching out to community organizations and exposing ourselves to different sources of information. Many times, however, that learning also entails asking others what to read, where to go and what to do. When that happens — particularly when we ask those who have experienced racism, religious persecution, sexism, homophobia and countless forms of discrimination and oppression — our learning becomes their labor, a labor that comes at a time when they themselves are particularly vulnerable and unsafe.
In thinking back to the last decade on college campuses, it is unfortunately too easy to recount so much grief, loss, confusion and anger. Those of us who work, learn and live on college campuses have struggled to make sense of unconscionable tragedy and violence: the murders of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, the Emanuel 9 and so many other Black women and men; legislation that prevented same-sex marriages; sustained efforts to suppress voting; unending health disparities (before and after the pandemic) ravaging Black, brown and Indigenous communities; undocumented immigrants living in secret and fear; the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fla.; the seizing of Charlottesville, Va., by white supremacists; the killings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. And as our campuses and communities have become more demographically diverse, it has become more common to engage others in conversations and dialogues to help explain the unexplainable. This attempt to seek out wisdom and truth, perhaps even in the name of elevating voices and validating experiences, is not inherently wrong or short-sighted. But all of us — including me, someone who is a Latino, first-gen student born to immigrants from Colombia and Cuba, yet who benefits from the privilege granted by a Ph.D., a full professorship and a position on a senior cabinet — should at least recognize that one person’s genuine desire to want to make sense of issues and events by asking others about them can burden those being tasked with the explaining and teaching.
As we prepare in classrooms and lecture halls, performance spaces and laboratories, residence halls and social spaces, and online and in virtual environments to unpack and process the events at the Capitol, let us take the following three considerations to heart. First, if you are in a position of power or privilege, ask yourself why it is important and necessary for you to understand what has transpired before engaging with students, staff and faculty with less recognized (though no less valuable) social capital. Then, once you’ve determined the answer to that question, do your own research. Or as my much smarter and wiser colleagues have rightfully reminded me in the past, “So, José, there’s this thing called Google.”
Engaging in these simple yet important acts to educate ourselves will demonstrate a commitment to equity, inclusion, belonging and care. And if we eventually reach out to others to fill in blanks or to explore additional points of view, we will be better informed and make better use of the conversation, while sending the message to our students and colleagues that they don’t have to do any work that we’re not prepared to do ourselves.
Second, conversations and actions related to understanding tragic and violent events meant to intimidate others should occur through intentional and deliberate means. Specifically, preparation should go into having dialogues around these topics and experiences, which should include establishing ground rules for active listening and properly organizing the layout of rooms or preparing virtual breakout rooms. That preparation also should include a recognition of the power dynamics in the room and understanding that sometimes the questions and requests that a supervisor or instructor raises may unintentionally resonate as critiques and demands on a supervisee or student. The layered, complex and nuanced — as well as painful, scary and trauma-inducing — nature of these discussions must compel us to put careful effort into asking questions that we may not be prepared to answer and others may not be ready or willing to address.
Finally, and specifically if you find yourself in a position of status or privilege related to gender, race, educational attainment, administrative position or tenure status, educate those with whom you share that power and privilege. Too often in our society and on our campuses, it has fallen to those with less agency to educate those with more — only to find themselves exhausted and with even less bandwidth to care for themselves and their loved ones. The most important lesson I’ve learned from my colleagues is that I will become a better ally not necessarily by providing more space or support for them, but by sharing my knowledge and experiences with my university colleagues, friends and family. Ultimately, educating others around you may eventually lead to less labor for those who already have given more than their fair share to our academic institutions and campus communities.