An Examination of White Supremacy in Student Conduct
By Dr. James Lorello
Recently our office at UNC Charlotte began exploring the ways in which our systems of Student Conduct uphold white supremacy. Through our investigation we identified a number of items to adjust and tweak within our realm of control to become a more inclusive and welcoming office. This includes creating an alternative resolution process and examining restorative justice as many conduct offices in the nation already do as well as challenging long held beliefs about sanctioning and safety on our campus.
Student Conduct is founded upon principles of equity and justice given the Dixon Vs Alabama decision which set in motion issues of due process in higher education. It is important to always keep this in mind when does Student Conduct work. Even with this, foundation, Student Conduct's role in rules, norms, and discipline means that it needs to be critically examined to unpack process and policies that may be seeped in white supremacy culture. Our close partnerships with police and enforcement of police's also need to be held in tension as we critically examine our work.
Often when introducing the world of Student Conduct to a new group of folks I usually tout that our profession is committed to and responsible for following strict codes of ethics. I usually share that Student Conduct at its very core is founded upon concepts of Social Justice. After all one law in particular stands out: the concept of due process. In February of 1960 nine Black students were expelled for engaging in a sit-in during the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, three of them filed suit, and the 5th Circuit Court ruled in Dixon v. Alabama (1961) that institutions of higher education could not take punitive action against students--including suspension or expulsion--without providing due process. This very case to me, and many others is the foundation of what we know today as Student Conduct.
Even with this foundation it is important that we reconcile the ways in which our world of Student Conduct upholds and maintains the status quo. Often we like to pretend we are outside of the status quo as we are expected to be fair and neutral. However, in my own training, there can be genuine attempts to remain neutral, but the reality is that all of our systems and processes are created within the cycle of socialization. I cannot remove my own identities as Cis-White Man and the lens through which I view the world as a result. We can not pretend that we operate outside of a system of white supremacy. Power and dominance still exist within our codes, processes and bureaucratic university structures. While we can attempt to remain neutral, see both sides, and care for all students (after all this is our duty) we must do the behind the scenes work of making our systems and processes more equitable, because they are rooted and created from within our own society and structures, a system that is inherently rooted in White Supremacy. We must still be able to support and educate all students, yet work to build systems that help to remove barriers and transform our communities for the better. I often imagine what might happen if a University responded to racism the same way our institutions have responded to COVID-19, what might we be able to do with those kinds of resources?
Below I hope to share and outline some steps conduct offices can take with their teams to begin to critique their processes and think outside the box about what it means to be change agents in student conduct.
Using the “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” from the Showing up for Racial Justice website, our team at UNC Charlotte recently read the article and engaged in some reflective exercises to create a list of Social Justice and Equity related initiatives in our office (I also need to give full credit here to our wonderful partners in Identity Equity and Engagement here at UNC Charlotte as this wouldn't not have occurred without their help in providing us resources!). This list includes anything from changing our letters to be more welcoming, removing lockers from our office lobby where we previously asked students to put their backpacks, to taking a hard look at our Code of Student Responsibility to no longer make excuses for why it still is impossible for students to read it. It also means we need to look at our data and think about how certain outcomes might affect different identities disproportionately. Do our sanctions (which by the way no one outside of Student Conduct understands what this word means) and expectations for cannabis use disproportionately affect certain identities? We categorized our goals (which is a living, breathing document) to identify our easier to achieve goals and our goals which will take partnership and perhaps years of strategic conversations and initiatives. The important thing about this exercise is that we need to think outside of the box of Student Conduct. Often we do conduct one way, because this is all we know, and we have never tried to push back against previous resistance or talk of “that's the way it is”. Our main questions are Why? Why? Do we do it this way? How might it be a barrier to others? And What can we do to challenge ourselves and others to push back against the status quo.
I believe after a quick review of the characteristics of White Supremacy Culture outlined in the attached article, you will quickly see the ways conduct participates in upholding and maintaining the status quo. It is important to both look at these characteristics on an individual and personal level as a team but also to look at it on a system level within your universities. I think that after review of just a few of the characteristics such as Perfectionism, Sense of Urgency, Defensiveness, Quantity over Quality, WORSHIP OF THE WRITTEN WORD (yes that one I am putting in all caps!), Only one Right Way, Paternalism, Either/Or Thinking, and Objectivity, you will quickly see the relation to your own conduct work. For the sake of brevity and not simply copying the article referenced I will leave to you to take a look for yourself and make your own reflections on what this means for yourself and your work. I know for our team we quickly realized the connections and felt driven to do something about it and stop making excuses for why we can't. I am not saying that any of this will happen overnight, but we owe it to our communities to think critically about our work and disrupt the status quo instead of making excuses for why we can't.
If anyone wants to engage in this work further and share what your own teams might be doing, please feel free to contact me firstname.lastname@example.org.