Unrecognized Labor

By VIGNESH RAMACHAMDRAN

So many of the people of color (POC) that I’ve talked to on this campus are exhausted. When I first started to tell my white friends that I can’t wait to get off this campus, they responded “Really?” Yes, really. And I think most students of color feel the same. A short documentary called, “Abroad at Home: Accounts of the Invisible,” looks into the lives of students of color at Middlebury as they tackle whiteness at the College. It examines professors and non-POC students constantly mistaking students of color for other POCs, the microaggressions, and the general discomfort of being black or brown on this campus. The very essence of this institution, from the financial aid office, to public safety and judicial affairs beats down POC students.

Universities as a whole, are essential in reproducing and institutionalizing the dominant social paradigms that we see elsewhere in the country. This means that Middlebury College reproduces the same systemic white supremacy that we see in the form of police brutality, housing discrimination, predatory lending, the school-to-prison pipeline, and more every day aspects of our lives.

But in the past two decades, there has been a push to include students of color in universities. Diversity has been lauded as an institutional goal for universities around the country, seemingly as a response to cultural activism in the 1980s and 1990s pushing for universities to diversify the curriculums and student bodies. This push for “multiculturalism” was a message that resonated with wealthy donors, leading universities to admit more students of color (students of color are included because they are valuable to the university).  The primary purpose of admitting higher numbers of students of color is to better the university. Educating POC students is just a side-effect of bringing them to campus.

Now, Middlebury College publishes statistics on how diverse the student body is, with numbers of students of color steadily increasing, to satisfy donors and publicists alike. And even though Middlebury’s Diversity and Inclusivity statement says, “We are deeply committed to creating a diverse, welcoming community with full and equal participation for all individuals and groups,” not everyone shares that labor equally.

The College has made some steps in the past few years. When I was a first-year, there was no Anderson Freeman Resource Center (AFC), any full-time qualified staff to support students of color and first generation students, and AAL (Asia-Africa-Latin America) was still a [orientalist/racist] distribution requirement (primarily based on the assumption that it doesn’t matter which black and brown people you study, because they’re all the same).  These weren’t moments of heightened cultural and social awareness for Middlebury College. Students of color and their allies have been fighting for these improvements for years, and they won.

But it’s still obvious that this campus wasn’t made for students of color. There is still no Africana/African-American Studies major. The racial diversity of faculty remains low. Ironically, in its attempts at diversifying the College, it has never looked whiter.

In her book, “On Being Included,” Sara Ahmed discusses the plight of universities in trying to institutionalize diversity, without actually making any institutional changes, but instead leaves diversity work to what she calls “diversity workers.” That could mean people in the administration like a Chief Diversity Officer, the position itself only making it more obvious that diversity is not naturally occuring on any campus. But the more visible and numerous diversity workers on this campus are students of color who in addition to pursuing their degrees, have to perform anti-racism (the process of resisting systemic white supremacy) daily, whether it means educating non-POCs on the cultural implications of touching their hair or simply ignoring microaggressions.

The daily labor of students of color goes unnoticed and uncompensated. They, as diversity workers, engage everyday in what political theorist Michael Hardt calls “affective labor,” or labor rooted in the production and reproduction of emotional sentiment. Being a student means doing schoolwork, maybe having an on-campus job, networking for future jobs, and other daily-performed work. Being a student of color means all this labor plus educating white students, navigating being marked different from the status quo, and having to perform whiteness to gain access to resources, relationships, and opportunities.

While some students of color are able to lighten the load of this labor by floating around campus trying to remain unseen, others are thrust in the midst of the College’s diversifying.

Middlebury College is more concerned with diversifying the college’s image than tackling the institutional whiteness that permeates the walls of Old Chapel. It only takes a quick look at College media and resources to see how the College uses pictures of black and brown bodies as an advertising strategy. It coerces black and brown voices in debates about free speech and inclusion, making marginalized populations do extra diversity labor in presenting the POC view. The College uses black and brown lives to continue to accumulate capital in the $1billion endowment.

Meanwhile, inside Old Chapel, thirteen out of seventeen members (76%) of the Senior Leadership Group are white, and twenty-six of the thirty-three trustees (78%) (who are visiting this week by the way) are white. Cultural competency training for faculty is still only optional. The College values “free speech” more than the mental health of students of color on this campus, while simultaneously ignoring the suggestions and demands of students of color. And dare I say racial profiling still remains a poorly addressed issue.

Middlebury College should pay students of color. While students of color on this campus languish and struggle, the College undoubtedly profits. Its half-hearted attempts at institutionalizing diversity lack meaning, when students of color are constantly having their labor exploited.

As I said above, students of color and their allies have had major success on this campus. But until now spaces, like DMC, WOC, and PALANA house, and diversity initiatives have largely been made successful through their hard work. If the College isn’t interested or invested in institutionalizing antiracism, the College should take responsibility for paying students of color for their daily diversity labor, I am not kidding.

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2 Comments

2 Responses to “Unrecognized Labor”

  1. Toni on January 25th, 2018 10:52 am

    Proud of you for writing this Viggy, but also sad that you had to take time away from your thesis and other work to write this. Hopefully, our peers and fellow “community” members will pitch in and help take some of the load off our shoulders…

  2. Charlie Mitchell on January 25th, 2018 12:03 pm

    Thank you for this opinion.

    As students of color perform the arduous labor of not only making Middlebury a more inclusive place, but also serving as the faces of the institution, trustees should compensate its “diversity workers” with the currency that it understands; money.

    The College pays students and staff to represent the institution in the Admissions and Communications departments. Students of color deserve a share of this budget. If wealth and its accumulation can be such a strong instrument of oppression, it should be a part of the work of undoing it.

    While we advocate for a truly diverse, welcoming and equitable institution, we can acknowledge the value that students of color bring to this campus in economic terms.




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Unrecognized Labor