By Dr. Tabia Lee
Dr. Lee is a life long educator and serve on the Board of Directors for Free Black Thought. “My commitment to teacher education, social justice and holistic pedagogical design is grounded in experience as a National Board Certified English, Civics, and National Board Certified Social Studies teacher in urban American public middle schools and in my consultancy work with higher education faculties and learning communities around technology integration, pedagogical transformation, diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
This article was originally published on www.compactmag.com on March 31, 2023.
This month, I was fired from my position as faculty director for the Office of Equity, Social Justice, and Multicultural Education at De Anza Community College in Cupertino, Calif.—a position I had held for two years. This wasn’t an unexpected development. From the beginning, my colleagues and supervisors had made clear their opposition to the approach I brought to the job. Although I was able to advance some positive initiatives, I did so in the face of constant obstruction.
What made me persona non grata? On paper, I was a good fit for the job. I am a black woman with decades of experience teaching in public schools and leading workshops on diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism. At the Los Angeles Unified School District, I established a network to help minority teachers attain National Board Certification. I designed and facilitated numerous teacher trainings and developed a civic-education program that garnered accolades from the LAUSD Board of Education.
My crime at De Anza was running afoul of the tenets of critical social justice, a worldview that understands knowledge as relative and tied to unequal identity-based power dynamics that must be exposed and dismantled. This, I came to recognize, was the unofficial but strictly enforced ideological orthodoxy of De Anza—as it is at many other educational institutions. When I interviewed for the job in August 2021, there was no indication that I would be required to adhere to this particular vision of social justice. On the contrary, I was informed during the interview process that the office I would be working in had been alienating some faculty with a “too-woke” approach that involved “calling people out.” (After I was hired, this sentiment was echoed by many faculty, staff, and administrators I spoke to.) I told the hiring committee that I valued open dialogue and viewpoint diversity. Given their decision to hire me, I imagined I would find broad support for the vision I had promised to bring to my new role. I was wrong.
Even before any substantive conflicts came to a head, warning lights started flashing. Within my first two weeks on the job, a staff member in my office revealed he had also been a finalist for my position and objected to the fact that I had been chosen over someone who had been there for years “doing the work.” I would have a rough ride ahead, this person told me—and, indeed, I would. It also soon became clear that my supervising dean and her aligned colleagues were attempting to prevent me from performing my duties.
From the beginning, efforts to obstruct my work were framed in terms that might seem bizarre to those outside certain academic spaces. For instance, simply attempting to set an agenda for meetings caused my colleagues to accuse me of “whitespeaking,” “whitesplaining,” and reinforcing “white supremacy”—accusations I had never faced before. I was initially baffled, but as I attended workshops led by my officemates and promoted by my supervising dean, I repeatedly encountered a presentation slide titled “Characteristics of White-Supremacy Culture” that denounced qualities like “sense of urgency” and “worship of the written word.” Written meeting agendas apparently checked both boxes.
You may have encountered this graphic or similar ones before. Derived from Kenneth Jones’s and Tema Okun’s 2001 book, Dismantling Racism, it has appeared in different forms on many institutional websites, sometimes provoking controversy. After all, doesn’t the statement that “objectivity” and “perfectionism” are “white” qualities seem kind of, well, racist? On these grounds, the National Museum of African American History eventually saw fit to remove a “White-Supremacy Culture” page from its site in 2020. But if you are wondering whether this document is still circulating and being cited inside publicly funded educational institutions, the unfortunate answer is yes.
As I attended more events and spoke with more people, I realized that the institutional redefinition of familiar terms wasn’t limited to “white supremacy.” Race, racism, equality, and equity, I discovered, meant different things to my coworkers and supervising dean than they did to me. One of my officemates displayed a graphic of apples dropping to the ground from a tree, with the explanation that “equity means everybody gets some of the apples”; my officemates and supervising dean praised him for this “accurate definition.” When I pointed out that this definition seemed to focus solely on equality of outcomes, without any attention to equality of opportunity or power, it was made clear this perspective wasn’t welcome. “Equity” and “equality,” for my colleagues, were separate and even opposed concepts, and as one of them told me, the aspiration to equality was “a thing of the past.”
Having recognized these differences, I attempted to use them as starting points for dialogue. In the workshops I led, I sought to make space for people to share their own definitions of various concepts and then to identify common points of reference that we could rally around, even as we acknowledged and accepted differences of perspective.
In one workshop, for instance, I presented a chart summarizing two different racial-justice outlooks. The first was what I have called the neo-reconstructionist perspective popularized by Ibram X. Kendi’s bestseller How to Be an Antiracist, which presents an individual’s destiny as determined by social identity and holds that present racial discrimination can be an appropriate remedy for past racial discrimination and that ultimate emancipation from racism isn’t possible. I juxtaposed these views with those promoted by the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, which takes a more open-ended view of oppression and privilege, wherein human destiny is determined by human choices, racial discrimination in all forms is rejected, and emancipation from racism is seen as possible and desirable. Without editorializing, I gave participants time to notice the differences between the perspectives. We then came together and shared things that these two seemingly divergent philosophies had in common. The aim was to enable a conversation between two perspectives that I already saw at play in divisions on campus about how to approach issues of race.
When I was evaluated as part of the tenure process, some of my evaluators objected to such efforts to identify points of commonality between divergent viewpoints. They also objected to such views being presented at all. One evaluator, who described herself as a “third-wave antiracist,” aligning her with Kendi’s philosophy, made clear that the way I had presented her worldview was deeply offensive. Another evaluator objected to my presentation of “dangerous ideas” drawn from the scholarship of Sheena Mason, whose theory of “racelessness” presents race as something that can be overcome. This evaluator told me that it was disrespectful of me to set Kendi’s and Mason’s views side-by-side or to treat them as at all comparable.
A dogmatic understanding of social justice shaped organizational and hiring practices. One of the faculty seated on my tenure-review committee invited me to join a socialist network she was a member of. I declined, confessing that I don’t identify with that (or any other) political label. She later observed one of my workshops and wrote up an evaluation before meeting with me to have a conversation about the workshop. I had been told that the post-observation conversation was an important part of the evaluation process. When we finally spoke, after she had already drafted her evaluation, she was dismissive and quickly terminated the conversation, stating we had nothing more to talk about. She proceeded to file her evaluation as it was written prior to our meeting.
This evaluator later gave me a “needs-improvement” rating on the rubric for the “accepts-criticism” criterion. Her aligned colleagues repeatedly assigned me the same rating. It was clear that this rating was rooted in ideological concerns, rather than any substantive objections to my performance. Anything short of lockstep adherence to critical social justice was impermissible. “Criticism” was only supposed to go in one direction. Contextualizing my colleagues’ views and comparing them to other approaches to the same issues, much less criticizing them, was “dangerous”; my supposed failure to “accept criticism” was, simply put, a refusal to accept without question the dogmas these colleagues saw as beyond criticism.
The conflicts were not limited to my tenure-review process. At every turn, I experienced strident opposition when I deviated from the accepted line. When I brought Jewish speakers to campus to address anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, some of my critics branded me a “dirty Zionist” and a “right-wing extremist.” When I formed the Heritage Month Workgroup, bringing together community members to create a multifaith holiday and heritage month calendar, the De Anza student government voted to support this effort. However, my officemates and dean explained to me that such a project was unacceptable, because it didn’t focus on “decentering whiteness.”
When I later sought the support of our academic senate for the Heritage Month project, one opponent asked me if it was “about all the Jewish-inclusion stuff you have been pushing here,” and argued that the senate shouldn’t support the Heritage Month Workgroup efforts, because I was attempting to “turn our school into a religious school.” The senate president deferred to this claim, and the workgroup was denied support.
Just hours after this senate meeting, a group of colleagues attended the Foothill-De Anza Board of Trustees meeting and called for my immediate termination. (A public video of this meeting is available.) These individuals claimed to represent campus racial-affinity groups, but they hadn’t polled their group members or gotten consensus on the statements they issued. This sort of dynamic, where single individuals present themselves as speaking for entire groups, is part and parcel of the critical-social-justice approach. It allows individuals to present their ideological viewpoints as unassailable, since they supposedly represent the experience of the entire identity group to which they belong. Hence, any criticism can be framed as an attack on the group.
The majority of the people employed at De Anza College aren’t ideological extremists. During my time there, people who had previously opted not to engage with my office started to attend my workshops and told me how refreshing my approach was. When under review, I presented letters from collaborators who worked with me on each workshop I facilitated, participant evaluations, and a great deal of other material attesting to the positive impact of my work. None of these things mattered to the board of trustees, the chancellor, or the president. Only the narratives that were put forth by the ideologically biased evaluators mattered. I was fired, in other words, for delivering exactly what I had promised to in my job interview. For those who sought my termination, the same approach that appealed to faculty previously alienated by my office’s divisive callout culture was a threat to the college’s “equity progress.”
For those within the critical-social-justice-ideological complex, asking questions, encouraging other people to ask questions, and considering multiple perspectives—all of these things, which should be central to academic work, are an existential danger. The advocates of critical social justice emphasize oppression and tribalistic identity, and believe that a just society must ensure equality of outcomes; this is in contrast to a classical social-justice approach, which focuses on freedom and individuality, understands knowledge as objective and tied to agency and free will, and believes that a just society emphasizes equality of opportunity. The monoculture of critical social justice needs to suppress this alternative worldview and insulate itself from criticism so its advocates can maintain their dominant position. Protection of orthodoxy supersedes all else: collegiality, professionalism, the truth.
My case, sadly, isn’t unique. At colleges across the country, critical-social-justice adherents are inserting their ideological stances as the supreme determinants of whether candidates advance in the tenure-review process. Faculty are under pressure to profess their allegiance to this particular set of dogmas and to embed a certain way of talking and thinking about race into their course curriculum. They are being encouraged to categorize every student as a victim or an oppressor, and to devote their classes to indoctrination.
If certain ideologues have their way, compelled speech will become an even more common aspect of university life. Faculty and staff will be obligated to declare their gender pronouns and to use gender-neutral terms like “Latinx” and “Filipinx,” even as many members of the groups in question view these terms as expressions of cultural and linguistic imperialism. Soon enough, we may also be formally required to start all classes and meetings with land acknowledgments, regardless of how empty a gesture this may seem to living members of tribal nations.
All of these things are on the horizon, because faculty members are afraid to resist. They know that anyone who questions these practices will be accused of racism and other grave sins. Because critical-social-justice advocates often present themselves as representatives of their identity groups, any criticisms of them can be treated as an attack on the groups they claim to stand for. By this and other means, they ensure their worldview is unassailable. Although I knew I had colleagues who supported my approach, most had been pressured into silence.
As my experience shows, questioning the reigning orthodoxies does carry many risks. But the alternative is worse. Authoritarian ideologies advance through a reliance on intimidation and the compliance of the majority, which cowers in silence—instead of speaking up. Engaging in civil discourse and ensuring that multiple perspectives are presented are crucial, if we want to preserve the components of education that ideologues are seeking to destroy.
There is some reason to hope. Since my firing, I have been contacted by scores of people who have said that they are attempting to resist similar pressures. As bleak as things may seem, there are many who still believe in academia as a space where divergent viewpoints can and must be explored.