by Yulia Gilich, Cate Marvin, Elizabeth Severson-Irby, and Kara-Lynn Vaeni
In this conversational article, the authors, three white women and one white non-binary femme, academics of different ranks, from different disciplines, affiliated with different institutions across the US, trace the antiracist changes they implemented in their teaching, research, and lives after participating in Academics for Black Survival and Wellness (A4BL) in Summer 2020. A4BL is a week-long online training developed by a group of Black counseling psychologists. The A4BL curriculum included participation in an accountability group, where the authors of this piece met. After completing the formal A4BL training, the group continued meeting weekly. Besides offering brief individual accounts of profound personal and professional transformations, the authors reflect on the value of an accountability group in supporting non-Black academics practicing antiracism.
Yulia Gilich is a media artist, organizer, and PhD candidate at the University of California Santa Cruz.
Cate Marvin is a poet and professor at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York.
Elizabeth Severson-Irby is a PhD student at Virginia Commonwealth University and the literacy specialist at the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center.
Kara-Lynn Vaeni is a playwright, theater and opera director, and assistant professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
Impetus for Joining the Accountability Group
I am a doctoral student who works as a Teaching Assistant which means that oftentimes I don’t have control over the courses and curriculum I am assigned to teach. Yet, I have been fortunate to learn from and work with extraordinary faculty on courses that explicitly center race, such as Black Film, Feminism and Social Justice, and Critical Race Theory (CRT), among others.
When I joined A4BL, I wasn’t new to CRT; it is my academic subfield. I was familiar with the analysis of how power operates in systems across racial lines. I was already disabused of any notion that racism can be solved by changing hearts and minds of bigoted and/or clueless individuals. But I used what I perceived as theoretical sophistication as a shield against being held to account for how I personally enact, enable, and ignore instances of anti-Black racism.
It was painful to recognize that I had been in denial about my white-bodied privilege my whole life. While and after participating in the A4BL course work, I couldn’t look at anything in my white life without seeing it implicated in the lie of individualism. My house? I saw for the first time on one of the first days of the A4BL course that it wasn’t rightfully mine. No, this house I believed I bought with money I earned would not have come to me without my white body: the accumulated wealth that paid for my education. This money had been gained from real estate transactions my white parents took advantage of in the Reagan era.
I needed people to process this with. I was in a great deal of pain, not just for myself (given that I was so deeply ashamed), but for what I was now aware Black people throughout history went through.
This wasn’t even a tiny bit easy. It was awkward and painful. It meant recognizing and admitting to microaggressions I’d committed against people I cared about deeply. It meant recognizing my own profound hypocrisy. There was nothing heroic about it. Nothing exemplary. Which is the whole point. The folks in my accountability group helped me address this and figure out how to move forward.
I grew up in the south where, until very recently, monuments to Confederate generals were sprinkled throughout the city. As a kid, I took pride in being from a liberal family and was one of the only kids who voted for Democratic candidates in all our class mock elections. However, it was not until a heated discussion in one of my doctoral classes, following George Floyd’s murder, that I genuinely started to examine how my own colorblindness and white silence contributed to systemic racism and oppression. This turning-point conversation and my work with the accountability group helped unveil that voting for Democratic candidates and policies or calling oneself liberal does not necessarily correlate with antiracist and anti-oppression practices. Simply standing in silence or depending on others to do the work often does more harm than good and contributes to systemic inequities. In June 2020, I realized that I had a decision to make: be a silent contributor to racism or actively stand against it. I chose the latter.
I think 2020 is a key moment in American history. Like “1969” or “9/11.” It is one of those times that changed things, even if you weren’t yet alive when it happened. My Black and Brown students and colleagues were terrified, anguished, angry, exhausted. I was horrified, angry, and deeply sad. Although it shames me to admit it, this was the first time that I felt personally affected by racism in America. I had always seen racism as hurting Black friends, colleagues, and students through individual events similar to harassment events I experienced as a woman. It sucks, it hurts, it’s scary, but you walk it off and move on with your life. But this was different. There was nothing in my lived experience comparable to the continuing violent racism of 2020. This was attacking and hurting an entire cohort of Black students, who I taught, who I knew personally, and who I loved. It wasn’t fair that my Black 19-year-old students had to basically live in a trauma state every day, while my white students and I could choose to opt out if it got too hard.
I wanted to have my own skin in the game for my Black and brown colleagues and students, in addition to creating space to listen and affirm. I wanted to take action in a more institutionalized way, in a way that could last longer than the length of my class or office hours.
The Accountability Group’s Impact
There are three invaluable things that A4BL provided for me. First is a model of how to be in an academic and political community, while maintaining rigor and grace with each other. Second is the Assessment, Action, Accountability form, which asks one to critically evaluate one’s position, skills, networks, to identify one’s weaknesses and how to address them, and to set actionable goals that activate one’s strengths. Third and most important is the accountability group. This is the place where I can put the previous two elements into practice. Training provided by A4BL and the ongoing support of my accountability group has transformed how I teach, how I think, and how I act in the world. This is not to say that I am now a perfect individual, absolutely not, but I am more humble and more aware of my blind spots and cultural limitations as a white person.
I had to change my teaching from the bottom up. This meant that as a teacher of literature and creative writing I taught different texts. It also meant I taught the texts I was used to teaching differently. But I also had to teach differently, which meant being a different person in the classroom. This meant de-centering myself in the classroom, which was not easy for me, as I’d always flourished in the role of “expert.” Being in the accountability group helped me figure out how to present my materials. We shared syllabi and antiracist statements. But here’s the thing: as a white person, I am scared to death to talk about race and racism. So talking about how to do it, and seeing how my colleagues in the group did it, gave me practice, emboldened me, and reminded me that the need to do something perfectly (one of the many white supremacy cultural norms) too often prevents us from engaging in the work.
My work with the accountability group has helped me examine the voices and perspectives I include in my work and research, who is at the table in planning discussions, and how to model antiracist practices. I also advocate for fair compensation for any work my colleagues or I ask of anyone. When others bring my missteps to my attention, I try to listen graciously, keeping in mind that this is an ongoing process which requires constant diligence.
I ruthlessly interrogated my syllabus and teaching through the lens of antiracism. It was that simple and that difficult. Some immediate, practical, and easy changes I made were:
- Re-writing my syllabus to center the plays and acting theories of Black, brown and LGBTQ+ artists and scholars.
- Sending out my new syllabus to former BIPOC students, asking them to critique it and paying them for this labor.
- Discussing the historical and societal context of the acting theories and plays I use, rather than assigning readings simply because they were “canon.”
- Taking ten minutes of class time to create session agreements together, and five minutes once a week thereafter to check in and make sure they are still serving us, and we are following them.
- Holding students and myself accountable for the continual and conscious creation of our classroom as an antiracist, theater space, and putting that language into the syllabus.
- Stated expectations of inclusive and equitable classroom behavior, along with clear definitions and consequences for violating these expectations.
- How to “call me in” if/when I said or did something racist, sexist, xenophobic, LGBTQ+-phobic.
It was scary! And glorious! I think I did the best teaching of my life in 2020. It really flipped a switch for me.
While I was incredibly privileged to learn from A4BL and to continue learning from my accountability group, I still mess up, especially when it comes to teaching. I preemptively addressed possible pushback and resistance white students might exhibit when faced with a critique of whiteness and white supremacy; what I was not prepared for is pushback from conservative students of color who would insist that systemic racism does not exist and cite their lived experience as evidence. It was not uncommon for me to get flustered and fail to respond appropriately in the moment. Yet, weekly accountability group meetings taught me that messing up is not the end of the journey. It is a chance to pause, reevaluate, and try again. Just like I return to the group week after week, I return to my classroom week after week. And I get to revisit things that didn’t work, I get to reiterate points I didn’t make clear on the first attempt. I get to workshop with colleagues how to approach pushback that otherwise would have knocked me out. Instead, the group springs me back, and I try again.
One of the great benefits of the group is that its members are at different points in their academic careers, are engaged in different disciplines, and live in different parts of the country. These different perspectives are invaluable. Yet we are all meeting for the same reason: we recognize the need to be accountable. Early on in my first semester of teaching a class developed and structured along the principles of de-centering whiteness, I regressed and behaved in a manner that countered my claims and intentions. After entering into a contract grading agreement, I got angry that my students were not turning their cameras on in class, and I threatened to fail those who wouldn’t. This was my old self showing up again—apparently not very old, and not so easy to dismiss. I had gone into my default mode of bullying and controlling with grades. A Black student quite generously sent me a lengthy email explaining, in no uncertain terms, why my acts were anything but antiracist. She was right, and I was mortified.
I attribute this turning point in my teaching to my accountability group because they helped me figure out how to best address this situation. And to do so calmly. Prior to my work with the group, I suspect I would have responded defensively. In fact, I find that antiracist pedagogy, as I understand it, is about resisting being defensive and rather understanding that you, as a professor, are not the only authority in the classroom.
I used the email I’d written as a class text by which to explore white supremacy cultural norms, as my own behavior and language demonstrated how insidious and systemic these values and assumptions are. By making an example of my own actions, my students and I were able to engage in a more meaningful dialogue.
Again, the act of listening is central to de-centering whiteness in the classroom. And I think it’s important to de-center whiteness even if most or all the students are white. It’s better for everyone. White supremacy isn’t just toxic for Black people and people of color: it’s bad for everyone, even white folks.
The process of using the group as a public space to examine my identity helped me come to terms with many misconceptions I was holding as truths, both personally and systemically. Throughout the past two years, especially during those first few months, the group provided support, feedback, and a safe space to unpack how I move through the world based on my identity. In the beginning, I would come to meetings in disbelief, shock, and horror as I started to awaken to how my privilege and whiteness allowed me to move through life protected and unaware. In addition to working on moving through the world in a more antiracist manner and providing a space to course-correct when needed, working with the accountability group also provided a space to practice and rehearse racism interrupters, responses to microaggressions, and ways to combat other forms of overt and covert oppression that occur in my professional and personal life.
Being transparent with my students that this was a new way of teaching for me created an enormous amount of grace in the classroom that I had never experienced before. My BIPOC students seemed to feel supported and seen by my acknowledgement that while I work very hard to be antiracist, I am a human who is going to make mistakes, and here is how to bring them to my attention. I think this statement was especially impactful because I work at a PWI in the South. I observed that all my students felt freer to speak up because we had a framework for dealing with conflict that didn’t involve gossip or simmering resentment. We all agreed that we were actively working towards an antiracist, inclusive classroom, and that we were figuring out how to do that as we went along. This led to more clear speaking and less self-editing. Because one of our session agreements was, “when you speak from your lived experience, we will believe you,” students spoke more freely about their lived experiences, which made the acting work more truthful and richer. When problems would arise, one of the students would say, “let’s look at the session agreements,” which were prominently posted and gave us a structure for conflict resolution. Interestingly, this past Fall, I did NOT have us read the session agreements every week and resolving conflict in the class was much more difficult. I am going to return to reading them weekly in the Spring.
This process was not easy. We often felt like we went through the stages of grief as we started to shed our old colorblind and white silence tendencies and work towards embodying an antiracist frame. Participation in A4BL and the accountability group has impacted all aspects of our lives, including the ways we move through the world. This ongoing growth requires constant work and vigilance, which we could not have maintained by ourselves. This group, through its collective power, compassion, and actions, make us feel hopeful by reminding us that we are not “overthinking” things. The accountability group is a place where we feel seen, held, and felt. Every time we meet, we are reminded that we need to ask ourselves, “What am I doing right now to advance the cause of Black liberation?” The fact that we need to be reminded says everything about the dangerous obliviousness one is granted when living white. White supremacy culture WANTS us white folks to forget!
“What am I doing right now to advance the cause of Black liberation?”
Cate worked with a “Liberation Bootcamp” group in the second incarnation of A4BL in the summer of 2021; her group created an Antiracism Toolkit which is a guide for creating accountability groups. We want EVERYONE to have the support of an accountability group, so we provide this toolkit here.
Yulia Gilich is a Film & Digital Media PhD candidate at UC Santa Cruz. They are a media artist and community organizer who participated in the 2019–20 University of California graduate student workers’ wildcat strike. In their research and teaching, they focus on questions pertaining to the interplay of media, race, and empire.
Cate Marvin’s fourth book, Event Horizon, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon in Spring 2022. Her previous collections include Oracle (Norton, 2015), Fragment of the Head of a Queen (Sarabande, 2007) and World’s Tallest Disaster (2001). A former Guggenheim Fellow, Whiting Award recipient, and Kate Tufts Discovery Prize winner, she teaches creative writing at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York.
Elizabeth Severson-Irby is the literacy specialist at the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she provides leadership for instruction and program management in Virginia’s adult education and literacy programs. She is also a doctoral student whose work focuses on literacy as a social justice issue and providing teacher education in the areas of inclusion and culturally responsive practices.
Kara-Lynn Vaeni is an educator and theatre-maker with a personal mission to work in, and create anti-racist and anti-oppressive theatrical and educational spaces. She does this through continued engagement with anti-racist theatre education, and continuing education in theatrical intimacy choreography best practices. She teaches Acting and Directing at Southern Methodist University.