Ear Contact: The Use and Misuse of Race Based Story Telling and Story Sharing in Classrooms and Beyond

Stacey Gibson, Educator/Independent Consultant

“So, what’s your story?”

These four words were triumphantly hurled to an auditorium of 1,100 high school students on a crisp, shimmery, spring day after a two-hour anti-bullying assembly led by a well known national organization.  I watched with curiosity as students (most of whom were students of color) in various forms of emotional tumult waited in long lines to speak into one of three microphones for a well monitored two minutes. Student responses ranged from apologies to other students for enacting oppressive behaviors, crushing and choked admissions of being viciously victimized in shocking ways, laser like observations of administrators, teachers, and staff members who openly mistreated students because of racial or socioeconomic identities, and many more. The tears were many and the trauma was individual, institutional, abstract ,and concrete all at once.

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A'Keitha Carey, Texas Woman's University

I engage with autoethnography as a methodology to retell my story. This consists of creative writing that expounds on my wisdom, background, and observations often creating non-fiction short stories or poems. Employing autoethnography afforded me the opportunity in which I could address particular themes (racism, sexism, and various oppressions) discussing my personal narrative, interjecting elements of race and body politics. I utilize personal narrative to illustrate the culture in which I am immersed—academe. It is my hope that sharing my personal experiences in a reflexive manner will encourage the reader to survey, investigate, and analyze the culture from an interpretive and investigative lens, surveying the multiple layers of consciousness and realities that exist. From an activistic lens, I am interested in exploring strategies that will encourage and support junior faculty of color helping those who may be experiencing racism and other forms of oppression find voice. 

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(Un)bordered Emancipation of the Activist/Academic “divide”: A Different Type of Discipline

Part 2 of 4 in our series on "Academia/Activism and other (unnecessary) binaries"

To read Part 1, click here

Allison Guess, CUNY Graduate Center

Allison Guess is entering into her second year as a PhD student in the program of Earth and Environmental Sciences (Geography) at the Graduate Center at CUNY. Her research focuses on Black land, Black people's relationships to land/place specifically as they relate to (voluntary reverse) migration, capitalist structures, anti-blackness, Black optimism and (Black) collective liberation. Allison calls herself a truth-telling messenger and  geotheorist , a term she coined in 2014. You can follow Allison on Twitter at  @AllisonGuess1

Allison Guess is entering into her second year as a PhD student in the program of Earth and Environmental Sciences (Geography) at the Graduate Center at CUNY. Her research focuses on Black land, Black people's relationships to land/place specifically as they relate to (voluntary reverse) migration, capitalist structures, anti-blackness, Black optimism and (Black) collective liberation. Allison calls herself a truth-telling messenger and geotheorist, a term she coined in 2014. You can follow Allison on Twitter at @AllisonGuess1

Before going back to college, I knew I didn’t want to be an intellectual, spending my life in books and libraries without knowing what the hell is going on in the streets. Theory without practice is just as incomplete as practice without theory. The two have to go together.  Assata Shakur (1999),  Assata Shakur: an Autobiography.

While some epistemological traditions approach dualities as reciprocal, balancing and thus necessary (Ohsawa 1931; Wilson 2009), others constitute them as binaries that are conflicting, competing, production-driven or abrasive. The latter type of binarism acts as a place-making technology, predicated on the creation, mapping, and regeneration of opposites. This plays out in numerous sites that are actually interdependent and complex. Such complex sites include but are not limited to human subjectivity as well as the human’s role in capitalism. Specifically the activist/academic “divide” smudges and destroys relationships that should be understood as complementary, relational, reciprocal, and transformative.

Many of us feel effects of artificial binaries. They create limitations that ignore the benefits of uniting dissimilar energies that could otherwise bring forth collective balance, powerful completion and shared abundance. Particularly, the line drawn between academia and activism remains clearly marked by architecture, accessibility, exposure, exclusivity, resources and other demarcations that impede democratization or the mutual exchange of knowledge and action. It is this very imbalance that leads some of us to uncritically accept artificial divisions, instead of using our different aptitudes to construct contingent, co-conspired and complementary communities. While many people have created situations that foster activist/academic unity, in some spheres the tendency of brutal and marginalizing binarism persists. Unless we challenge and change the forces that keep us apart, we will stagnate.

Typically colonial, certain understandings of duality partition the world into simple oppositions. Unfortunately, this mode of thinking keeps too many of us chained, isolated and incomplete. Activists and academics, while they can be one-in-the-same, and often are, ideally should build and appreciate each other’s crafts and talents by being relational and complementary, engaging in radical change. The act of doing critical and revolutionary scholarship should enhance the work that is already being done on the ground and contrarily, what is happening on the ground must fuel libratory scholarship. That said, the two crafts should mirror each other’s spirit. The rigor, robustness and nuance of our scholarship are necessary for our activism and the fearless, confrontational creativity of our activism must also come forth in our academic work. Each facet of the work, directly relates to the abolition of oppression. Together, we are to be the complete one-two-punch.

Consider the quote from Assata Shakur above. Shakur teaches us that in skillfully combining our duality we can realize an (un)limited, (un)boxed human complexity and capacity to get free. Unfortunately, before making this truthful assertion, Shakur explains that she did not want to become a particular type of intellectual, specifically the type of intellectual that is stereotypically situated in a library, out of touch -- one who might commonly be referred to as an inactive “armchair academic.” Consequently, by conjuring up this unbalanced and un(der)contextualized image of the intellectual, Shakur puts forward an anti-intellectual sentiment that neglects recognition that there is intellectual, creative work abounding across the so-called academic/activist “divide.”

While I am critical of Shakur’s contention, as any critical thinker should be, I raise this concern because of my deep admiration of Shakur’s life, work, love and sacrifice. In other words, I embrace Shakur’s reflection that collective completion results from merging energetic focuses. Shakur is helpful in making us see the negative effect of being static, (un)fluid and divided on the basis of our official roles. For Shakur an action-oriented process of “selection” and “re-selection,” of ancestors, (as well as skills and traits) (Williams 1977; Gilmore 2015) configure a sort of unity between the two crafts in order to bring forth strength and liberation for all.

Similarly, Joy James theorizing the spirits (or the feelings) of love and rage explains,

Love and rage initially seem paradoxical, coupled as oddities. They are assumed by some to appear in exclusive sites, as distinct and unrelated experiences and feelings. But they coexist, with a dynamic ability to metamorphose or shape shift, one into the other. Love and rage are the impetus for much reflection, agonizing, action, and risk taking… Much as love and rage can balance and converge, so, too, can academia and activism.  (Joy James (2003), Academia, Activism, and Imprisoned Intellectuals) 

Here we see another application of dichotomy that maps out the strength of merging activism and academia, rather than, the unnecessary opposition housed in simplistic binary formulations. Ruth Wilson Gilmore also has some words to offer on the in-betweenness of academia and activism. Noting the difference between a scholar activist whose scholarship is based on urgency Gilmore leaves us with some thoughts on the real existence of being both activist and scholar. She explains,

Activist scholarship attempts to intervene in a particular historical-geographical moment by changing not only what people do but also how all of us think about ourselves and our time and place, by opening the world we make. (Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2008), Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning).

Likewise, in an interview, Jasbir Puar says,

The binary or the finite distinctions between academic work and activist analysis is an impossible one for me to inhabit. Like many in my position, I could not tell you where my activist analysis ends and my academic work begins, or vice versa (Naomi Greyser (2012), Academic and Activist Assemblages: An Interview with Jasbir Puar)

Puar goes on to describe theory, commonly associated with the academy, and praxis, frequently linked to activism, as a “species divide” noting that it “push[es] the metaphor of the shelf-life of an idea or term or how language and discourse is a field of forces and creation of nonlinear, destabilizing unpredictability” (2012).

James Baldwin argued, “The impossible is the least that one can demand” (Baldwin, 1963). Failing to demand the elimination of partitions keeps us from understanding our prismatic human faculty and intricacy. Understanding and navigating both capacity and complexity are necessary skills in resisting, and winning against, complex and adaptive structures of oppression. So while the forces of global (racial) capitalism, patriarchy and revamped race ideologies and their tools of tyranny (i.e.: borders, walls, police) are continually inventive, as active resisters of these schemes, regardless of our day-job, we must supersede the violence by being wide, unlimited, unpredictable, adaptive and complete. The unpredictability and possibility inherent in deconstructing unnecessary binaries through abolition is what precisely allows for new forms of organizing to unfold. It’s a different kind of discipline.  

I will end my thoughts as someone very new to the academy. As a young twenty-something year-old dauntless proletariat Black woman, in PhD student garb whom co-fills activist, academic and many other spaces, I maintain that by not actively troubling hierarchies and the unserviceably narrow practices in academic/activist geographic practice, we contribute to the continual chafing in our quest for liberation. I am actively stretching what it is to be young, Black, woman and a scholar under capitalism. In both praxis and theory, there is power in numbers, authority in complexity and solidarity. Unbalanced seclusion and two-fold hierarchies keep us stationary and contained.  Boundary crossing and rejecting casted limits are our collective responsibility, our promise, and our tools.


Baldwin, J. (1963). The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage International.

James, J. (2003). Academia, Activism, and Imprisoned Intellectuals. Social Justice, 30(2),             pp.3-7.

Ohsawa, G. (1973). The unique principle: the philosophy of macrobiotics. Chico, CA:        George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation.

Puar, J. (2012). Academic and Activist Assemblages: An Interview with Jasbir Puar.

Shakur, A. (1987). Assata. Chicago, Ill.: L. Hill.

Williams, R. (1977). Structures of Feeling. In: Marxism and Literature, 1st ed. Oxford University Press, pp.129-135.

Wilson Gilmore, R. (2008). Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning. In: C. Hale, ed., Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship, 1st ed. London: University of California Press, Ltd., pp.31-61.

Wilson Gilmore, R. (2015). Extraction: Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence.

Wilson, A. (1996). How We Find Ourselves: Identity Development and Two Spirit People. Harvard Educational Review, 66(2), pp.303-318.

Because nothing is sufficient, we must use everything.

Part 1 of 4 in our series on "Academia/Activism and other (unnecessary) binaries"

Danica Savonick, CUNY Graduate Center

Danica Savonick is a doctoral student in English and Research Fellow with the Futures Initiative at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is also a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Queens College and a HASTAC Scholar. She is writing a dissertation on pedagogy and social justice

Danica Savonick is a doctoral student in English and Research Fellow with the Futures Initiative at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is also a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Queens College and a HASTAC Scholar. She is writing a dissertation on pedagogy and social justice

“Because nothing is sufficient, we must use everything,” Rebecca Fullan recently remarked, which is how I’ve come to understand the relationship between academia and activism. Since beginning my Ph.D. program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, I’ve struggled with the relationship between academic institutions and the grassroots, community-based, activist work that takes place on the streets (and other spaces). Instead of allowing a feminist interpretation of a text to substitute for, rather than inspire, political action, I want to ask how activism and academia can mutually inform one another without collapsing the meaningful differences between the two. How, for instance, is a class on African-American literature different from the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and how might the two work in tandem to take down the capitalist, white supremacist heteropatriarchy? In addition to troubling the activism/academia binary, I also want to emphasize that talking about feminism, antiracism, and material conditions of inequality from within a classroom will never be enough. I honestly hope that when students leave my class they feel uncomfortable and upset about our present, but also eager, desirous, and capable of changing it.

Here are several ways we can complicate the activism/academia binary.

First, by remembering that opportunities for women and people of color to receive an education are themselves the products of activism. Recently, I had the opportunity to teach City University of New York (CUNY) students about the history of black and Latino student activism on their campuses:

At this hour-long workshop we discussed the 1969 student strike in which black and Latino students and their allies shut down the South campus of City College for two weeks, and set up Harlem University in its place. Their demands included student governance, changes to the Anglo-American, Eurocentric, white supremacist curriculum, and changes to admissions procedures so that “that the racial composition of all entering classes should reflect the Black, Puerto Rican, and Asian population of the New York City high schools” (Tomás-Reed 49). “What do you demand from your education?” I asked groups of students who attend various campuses throughout the CUNY system.

I can’t be sure whether students left that workshop eager to organize a campus shut-down, or feeling empowered to improve their modest facilities. However, these histories show students that things like free public education, affirmative action, and in the case of CUNY the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) program, are both desirable—many students have been taught to think otherwise—and the hard-won victories of community organizing and political struggle.

Second, inspired by Barbara Christian’s “The Race for Theory,” I want to suggest that there is work to be done within academia to help bring about a more just, equitable, and pleasurable future. Christian’s essay taught me that while the discipline of English privileges a narrow canon of white, male literary theorists, people of color have always theorized, though it hasn’t gotten to count as theory. This idea, compounded with the social, grassroots historical narratives I was exposed to in graduate school, but that had been entirely absent from my earlier education (from the Haitian Revolution to the Watts rebellion) convinced me that people of color have always been integral to the historical production of our present, though their participation is often erased, and particularly through education. This knowledge of education’s complicity in producing a racist, sexist status quo now informs everything I do in my teaching and research.

The third way we can trouble the activism/academia binary is by looking to both for spaces in which minoritarian (queer, feminist, antiracist, decolonial, etc.) knowledge production can flourish. Towards the activist end of the spectrum we find examples like the Free University of NYC and on the academic end, organizations like Mentoring Future Faculty of Color (MFFC), started by Dr. Kandice Chuh, which seeks to address conditions of institutional racism and sexism and to support diversity as an epistemological, methodological, and pedagogical project. Two others that I’ve recently become involved with are HASTAC (the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) and the Futures Initiative, both of which create spaces for challenging the structures of power that have produced the injustices and inequalities of our present. HASTAC and the Futures Initiative operate according to the principle of “collaboration by difference,” which I understand to mean that any task, project, or conversation will be drastically more complex, nuanced, and robust (i.e. better) if we seek, from the very beginning, to include multiple, diverse perspectives, and especially those that are most silenced by the status quo. This means people of color, women, people who identify as queer, transgender, or gender non-conforming, people who may be differently abled, and in the context of classrooms, it can also mean students.

Recently, I was invited to kick off The University Worth Fighting For, a year-long series of workshops that tie student-centered pedagogical practices to institutional change, race, equality, and social justice. As a way of continuing this conversation about activism and academia, I invite the readers of critical ethnic studies to contribute to our forum, Towards a Pedagogy of Equality, which explores what a classroom informed by activist principles of participatory governance, intentional space-making, and inclusivity might look like.

Works Cited

Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Cultural Critique 6 (1987): 51–63. Web.

Tomás Reed, Conor. “‘Treasures That Prevail’: Adrienne Rich, The SEEK Program, and Social Movements at the City College of New York, 1968-1972.” ‘What We Are Part Of’ Teaching at CUNY: 1968-1974. 2 vols., edited by Iemanja Brown et al. New York: The

Adrienne Rich Literary Estate, 2013. 36-65. Print.