It’s almost Juneteenth, campuses are getting ready to send statements of solidarity to their communities. But will their messages be uplifting or another mechanism to harm their campus communities? Judge them based on authenticity and action.
After the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, college and university leaders across the nation released statements of solidarity to their respective campus communities. These statements were extended as heartfelt expressions of unity from senior leaders, heralding the institution’s awareness and commitment to diversity. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, campuses released messages highlighting their solidarity with the Black community (e.g., “We stand with the Black community),” noting the institution’s desire to hear from their Black and African American communities (e.g., “We want to listen,” “We are listening”); their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion; a hard stance rejecting anti-Black racism; and the institution’s commitment to fostering climates of belonging. When crafted with authentic intentions and strategic actions, these statements can be powerful affirmations of community. In contrast, inauthentic intentions and the absence of meaningful next steps are “racelighting statements.” These statements do just as much harm to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities as institutions who decide not to release statements.
For years, statements of solidarity have been promogulated by colleges and universities in the wake of national racial crises and unrest. For instance, similar statements were released in response to pervasive anti-Asian discrimination that spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic and saw elders within the Asian community being physically and brutally attacked. Sometimes, similar statements are released when local acts of explicit bias occur on a campus. These statements are often released in response to a range of incidents, such as racist graffiti, White supremacist fliers, vandalism of a cultural center, police brutality of students of color, and the like. Moreover, similar statements might also be disseminated to acknowledge heritage months (e.g., Black History Month, Hispanic History Month, Asian History Month, Native History Month), upcoming holidays that celebrate leaders of color (e.g., Cesar Chavez Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Juneteenth), or in response to receiving a new federal designation or national recognition (e.g., Hispanic Serving Institution, Predominantly Black Institution, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution). Regardless of the impetus, campuses routinely release statements.
In spite of the reasons why a campus decides to offer a statement of solidarity, they are often met with a range of responses from BIPOC. For some BIPOC, these statements serve as a source of hope and belief that the perils they have endured will finally be addressed. For these individuals, there is anticipation of action to come. For other BIPOC, these statements feel inauthentic or performative. They are motivated to control an evolving situation, to pretend there is a greater institutional commitment to diversity than what really exists, to appease a constituency, or simply to avoid condemnation for not releasing a statement. Yet, for others, these statements indicate a temporary focus on efforts in response to a crisis. There is an expectation that there may be some limited focus on a particular issue, and thus there is a need to maximize the moment before it passes. Regardless of the responses, more often than not, these statements rarely result in sustainable actions that bring substantive change in the experiences of BIPOC students and educators. This is racelighting.
Racelighting is what happens when gaslighting becomes racialized. Gaslighting is, a form of psychological manipulation that occurs when an individual or group seeks to distort your reality. As Wood and Harris III (2021) noted, racelighting is “the process whereby People of Color question their own thoughts and actions due to systematically delivered racialized messages that make the second guess their own lived experiences and realities with racism” (para. 4). Racelighting occurs when statements of solidarity are released without an authentic commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and/or planned action to improve the racial climate at an institution. There are several strategies that make a statement a racelighting statement. One strategy is for campuses to describe existing initiatives and efforts as being far more impactful than they are. For example, mentioning an underfunded Black student retention program only when it is convenient for illustrating an institution’s commitment or heralding an institution’s designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution yet having the evidence of this downplayed on the institution’s website, in marketing, and in the public image. Another strategy is for racelighting statements to unveil new initiatives that are not intended to do more than “check a box.” These initiatives will sound impactful but will come without the necessary mandates or strategic strategies needed to ensure their effectiveness. For instance, offering a professional development training on equity is critical. However, offering this as a lunch-time program with no incentives will certainly not lead to institutional transformation. Such training is beneficial to the 30 employees who attend but not much more than that. Similarly, some campuses establish a taskforce, annual events, townhalls, or climate students to foster organizational change. These efforts serve as precursors to positive action but are not actions in and of themselves.
Racelighting statements will lead BIPOC to question whether they are worthy of actions, have given the campus credit for their efforts, are disconnected from reality, are ignoring important progress, or are being overly sensitive. It will lead them to question their experiences with race and racism on campus. BIPOC may see messages that are not aligned with their previous experiences with the institution’s racial climate and may feel an overwhelming sense of doubt and disorientation. They might ask themselves, “Am I not giving them enough credit for my work? “Are my expectations unreasonable?” “Am I out of touch?” “Maybe I’m being too pessimistic.” or “Maybe I don’t belong here?” In sum, BIPOC can be left to assume they are the problem.
Combatting racelighting requires BIPOC and allies to hold institutions accountable for both authenticity and action. Here are some questions BIPOC can consider when determining an institution’s commitment to these ideals. First, they must question whether the statement was authentic and the extent to which the statement was genuine, truthful, and fully accurate. They might consider, “Does the statement resonate as honest?” “Does the statement accurately reflect the campus’s perceived commitment to diversity?” “Does this statement address needs and issues that have been raised by BIPOC over the past several years?” “Does the statement overstate past efforts and successes?” and “Does the statement come from individuals who are known for being resistant to diversity, equity, and inclusion ?” Second, they must question the integrity of the intended action. They must explore whether the proposed action steps will serve to transform the institution, maintain the status quo, or relegate progress to small incremental changes. BIPOC should consider whether the statement details new BIPOC-focused initiatives, the resources associated with any new effort, the seniority of the leader responsible for managing the new effort, whether these efforts will be impactful and meaningful, or whether the statement reports on progress on what actually has been done.
Dr. J. Luke Wood is vice president of student affairs & campus diversity and Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Education at San Diego State University.
Dr. Frank Harris III is a professor in the College of Education at San Diego State University.