“I stood at the border, stood at the edge and claimed it as central.
l claimed it as central and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.”
― Toni Morrison
This week, the 35th Annual National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education is being held where I reside in New Orleans, Louisiana. Unfortunately, I am not able to attend this year’s proceedings; however, I wanted to prepare an imaginative discussion as if I were in attendance. After attending a number of other conferences and consulting with higher education institutions across the country, there is one commonality in our work to increase diversity, enhance equity, and do justice that I’ve noticed across institutions and ethnicities—the deep centering of whiteness, white feelings, white fragility, deliberate white ignorance, and the anticipation of the always already potential for white rage and retribution in our conference presentations and discussions. The moment one centers whiteness or coloniality in this work—we all lose, and chaos ensues.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives were created, “…in order to achieve Dr. King’s dream, the roots of which have always been about unraveling the anti-Black racism woven into the fabric of this country, writes Amira Barger (2023) in The Business Case for DEI Reinforces Anti-Black Sentiment. The intended outcome of this work is the balance of justice. While it begins with a historical analysis of what Barger calls the white architecture of Black disadvantage, that is, assisting whiteness in understanding the ways in which it has and continues to disadvantage groups of people based on an imaginary construct with very real lived consequences—it cannot get stuck there. The work, our work is about justice, collective liberation and flourishing for Black people, people of the global majority, and those who have been marginalized in a system of blatant oppression.
I fear we have indeed gotten stuck at this very point in the spectrum of global Black justice. We have become stuck on trying to convince whiteness of the value of Blackness and of people of the global majority. We have become distracted by appealing to a benevolence of a people so deeply indoctrinated in the ideology of whiteness where no humane goodness has appeared to exist for centuries. We have become stuck because we have failed to understand that those inculcated in whiteness have also been raced and are wading through generations of epigenetic trauma not born of oppression, but of the power of repression by violence, delusion, and insanity. We only have to look at the DSM to understand the deep psychosis of whiteness. We are approaching sickness as though it were well, and we are suffering for it—racism is a sickness.
Whiteness: A Corrupted Concept
Let me explain.
First, let me be crystal clear in saying this as explicitly as I can: whiteness is not reducible to white people.
Whiteness and race in general, as you know, is an ideological invention not a biological fact. History tells us we have the Enlightenment thinkers to blame for this invention of classification. Prior to the 18th century, humanity classified itself through clan or tribal affiliation, kingdom, geographic locale, religion or any infinite number of identities and affinities that they deemed important (See Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People).
Race is a monstrous invention that birthed white supremacist ideology, which scholar Charles Mills reminded us, is the unnamed political force that has shaped the globe through fear, genocide, control, barbaric violence, unabashed militarism, theft, and historical erasure.
In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Morrison writes:
It is as if I had been looking at a fishbowl — the glide and flick of the golden scales, the green tip, the bolt of white careening back from the gills; the castles at the bottom, surrounded by pebbles and tiny, intricate fronds of green; the barely disturbed water, the flecks of waste and food, the tranquil bubbles traveling to the surface — and suddenly I saw the bowl, the structure that transparently (and invisibly) permits the ordered life it contains to exist in the larger world.
In other words, I began to rely on my knowledge of how books got written, how language arrives; my sense of how and why writers abandon or take on certain aspects of their project.
I began to rely on my understanding of what the linguistic struggle requires of writers and what they make of the surprise that is the inevitable concomitant of the act of creation. (pp. 16-17)
Later, Morrison explains:
It is like the fishbowl that contains both fish and water. Whiteness, in other words, provides the very context for meaning-making. It supplies the norms and categories against which all groups are measured. But the categories of whiteness are invisible as a constraint because we keep focusing on what is inside them – the water and the fish, rather than the fishbowl itself.
Break the fishbowl!
Perhaps, this is what Mills meant when he wrote that white supremacy was the unnamed political force that has shaped the globe. It has manifested itself into a ubiquitous ideology that shapes the mind and the measuring stick through a type of psychosis by indoctrination. The moment one steps out of its delusion chaos ensues by force and murder—bodily or psychologically—is imminent. As a child, more than a few of my goldfish attained freedom by leaping out of the bowl.
However, Angela Davis reminded us that freedom was and is always stalked by death—physical and metaphorically. The Ancestors sang, during the Civil Rights Movement, that old hymn: Before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave. They knew what Davis knows—death is an ending of one life and birth into another. For those of us working for justice and toward equity within institutions of higher education, this metaphorical death could be the loss of our employment, denial of tenure, and exclusion from opportunities of advancement. For a many of us, it will mean physically and emotionally wearing ourselves ragged by beating our heads against the white walls of an ivory tower built for its own survival by any means necessary (see Christina Sharpe's Ordinary Notes, Note 215). For even more of us, it will mean assuming some a priori state of goodness among a people so deeply saturated in the concept and ingrained in the intergenerational trauma of their inhumanity that you walk away from them, and your institutions bereft of spirit—empty and doubting.
I refuse to meet death in these ways.
Multiple Edges, Intersecting Centers
What we are doing and have been doing within institutions is not working? In fact, in many instances our work has been recentering the experiences of the very people and concepts that are doing us harm. Why have we centered whiteness—white fragility, white privilege, and white rage—in our work to attain parity and justice for people of the global majority? Why have we earned these seats at the table if we are not willing to shake the very tables we are sitting at; if we are not willing to tell the unvarnished truth out of love; if we are not willing to claim necessary territory for current and future generations; if we are not willing to force the systems to transform as we are transforming?
It is beyond time to flip the script or write a new one.
Like Morrison, I want to stand at the edge; however, I want to claim multiple and intersecting centers from various edges and let the rest of the world move toward and between and through each of them. Whiteness as the invisible visible center no longer serves us; its ideology and language can no longer speak us. Those who benefit from its supremacy know this and it is why they are holding on so tightly; it is why they are banning books, criminalizing identities of difference, and falling deeper into their delusion. They know what people of the global majority have known even through our periods of suffering—our freedom means the death of whiteness as a dominate ideology and controlling force. Our freedom is stalking its death. The moment we decenter whiteness in our approaches to equity, justice, and inclusion—we are free. The moment we center collective liberation—we have all won. The moment we begin to transform and stand in the fullness of our humanity, power, and the truth—all systems must transform to fit to this new shape(lessness) or be destroyed.
As I have written previously, our work toward equity for justice is not and cannot be a journey. For people of the global majority, we are on an expedition. An expedition to explore these edges, to claim these new multiple and intersecting centers—to disrupt any systems or institution that will not meaningfully transform and eradicate any ideology that denies our full humanity and ecological kinship. This work is expedition work; it is the urgent work of enfleshing liberation in the here and the right now!
What physical and metaphorical ground must we claim within higher education institutions and within all systems? What are you willing to risk? How are you willing to be transformed in the service of the work? How will you (re)engage in the urgency of the movement and not the comfortable journey of the industry?
Centering Blackness and People of the Global Majority
One key to transforming higher education and systems, in general, is (re)engaging the social and political imagination to see what is not yet but must be through a lens focused on the Black and global majority experiences. More pointedly, I will speak here of centering Blackness with an ability for its properties to be distributed to people of the global majority in ways that are culturally relevant – these are the multiple and intersecting centers on the edges.
First, let me acknowledge that Blackness is not a monolith. I speak from my perspective as a Black man born, raised, and living in the American South.
Second, in agreement with Essayist and editor Sherronda J. Brown, “White supremacy deals exclusively in lies. It does so because the violence it perpetuates can be justified when white supremacy controls the narrative of pain.” This mandates that we tell the truth about our experiences within institutions and systems that have centered whiteness and white supremacy. I am reminded of a conversation with an elder, who helped me to remember after a rocky meeting that telling the truth does not have to be brutal or unkind, and that the truth itself was enough to knock the strongest person off their feet without ever having to throw one punch.
The truth, my truth is this: Whiteness has existed too long as an ideology of domination that has created lack for Black people and people of the global majority—lack of safety, lack of resources, lack of opportunity, confinement of movement, lack of imaginative possibilities, and lack of voice in the processes that impact us all. More importantly, the centering of whiteness has resulted in the lack of accountability for people who uphold this ideology of anti-blackness and white false supremacy.
Centering Blackness rehumanizes us all. This recentering necessarily moves us in a different direction away from oppressive forces that weigh down the mind, body, spirit, and imagination toward liberation.
Imagine liberation. Imagine collective liberation.
Imagining One Center at One Edge
Soaked with the spirit of Ubuntu, the benevolence of the Ancestors, and the anticipatory hope of thesouls waiting to be enfleshed in an absent present-future, we come to:
know Black freedom;
do Black thriving;
be Black joy;
enhance Black brilliance and genius;
restore our historical and contemporary contributions to the making of this world;
understand deeper our connection with all humanity and the more-than-human; and
work in the present for a future where a new world is allowed to breathe and new ways of being together are allowed to flourish, and new understandings of what it means to be a human transcend what the mind can comprehend.
To say it another way, on the screen of my imagination, I see this world and its systems echoing what Black people all over the world have always already been if not physically then always in spirit: free, interconnected, collectively powerful and abundant.
I see a world and systems that minimize harm, that is, they have reconfigured what it means to be, live, and move in environments that are safe for all and not just protect white interests; environments that are just—meaning they move away from tyranny toward liberation with no false sense of a formal goodness that never existed.
I see a world steeped in healing justice, where instead of mass incarceration we move toward process of restoration and reparation of harm without the need to do more harm or inflict more trauma. I see a world where we all understand race is a social construct and not a biological reality, which means that we are more alike than we are different. In a world that is growing increasingly more Black and Brown, I see the necessity of trust among and between these constructed classification groups. Our children will lead us there.
I see a world of collective movements and agenda setting. We know the strategy: anything or anyone you can divide; you are able to conquer. Unfortunately, because whiteness is not reducible to white people; it has caused us to become suspicious of one another. I imagine a future where we have rebuilt trust with one another and have created collective movements with shared agendas and outcomes with the primary outcome being justice for all marginalized peoples of the world. Justice—this move away from the tyrannical toward the liberatory—is the result of our work together.
I see a world built upon collective power. Achieving collective power calls us to understand the theories and practices of power at the center of systems of domination and marginalization. We must study and expose how systems of power work to keep us apart and build the necessary solidarities at the edge among the multiple and intersecting centers at the edges. We are each other’s harvest and bond.
I see a world deeply and fully human. Centering Blackness centers the experience of any marginalized person or identity, and strengthens the force, dignity, and wholeness of their humanity. This means Black people, people of the Global Majority, queer people, transgender people, unhoused people, people with disabilities are all seen in the fullness of their humanity without question. Humanity is always a quality that we owe to one another; like freedom, it is our collective birthright.
I see a world where a dying ideology and those who uphold it are begrudgingly breathing their last breath and fighting the inevitability of death. The old world is dying; in disbelief and unacceptance it breathes its last few raggedy breaths. We are experiencing it now—Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Washington, DC, state houses across the country are in the final surge before the death rattle begins. Banning books, banning people, denying rights, (re)codifying discriminatory practices, rebellion, unfettered gun control, stringent policies against truth, continued erasure of historical record, rampant anti-Blackness and xenophobic sentiment are indicators that the death of white domination is imminent.
Finally, I see a world where we have removed the distractions and where we use our labor to subversively do our Work. Our sister-mother-Ancestor Toni Morrison reminded us of the function of racism. She wrote:
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Decentering whiteness assists us in removing the distractions; in keeping our eye on the prize: justice and Black, human flourishing. It allows us to use our labor in service of our Work in ways that are big and small. It allows us to heal our individual and collective trauma without the need to tend the feelings, misunderstandings or the comfort of whiteness. Simply, it allows us to be—fully and wholly—with not a damn thing to prove.
Drawing from deep reservoirs of ancestral wisdom and even deeper rivers of strength, we are called to begin to work in ways both overt and subversive to decenter whiteness in your work of elevating Blackness and people of the global majority within systems and your respective institutions. Freedom, our dear sister reminds us again, was always stalked by death at the hands of white (out)rage; today, freedom the is doing the stalking.
Freedom requires us to build new narratives. Freedom requires us to create new multiple centers and new ways of being. Freedom requires us let go of the lies of the past. Freedom asks us to embrace a future at the edges with and among the multiple, intersecting centers. Liberation mandates that we work together to imagine and create new systems, and new worlds where we can all flourish with dignity.
Decentering whiteness and the white gaze in our work now is how we begin to expand our individual and collective social imaginations to transform the systems we find ourselves in today and make real the world we imagine for tomorrow. Very simply, it is also how we begin to find peace and healing in the difficulty of our daily work and lived experiences as Black people (and people of the global majority) in an anti-Black culture. This decentering allows us to define success for ourselves; it allows us to set the high bar of excellence according to your own cultural referents and needs—this is a subtle power; a joy that is not be made a crumb.
The system cannot save you, but you can transform it—together. This is our present work for now and future generations.
May you be healed.
May you be free and know it.
May you know liberation.
May you be transformed in service of the work.
David W. Robinson-Morris, Ph.D. is a reimaginelutionary.
Dr. Robinson-Morris is the Founder and Chief Reimaginelutionary of The REImaginelution, LLC, a strategic consulting firm working across industries at the intersections of imagination, policy, practice, and prophetic hope to radically reimagine diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) toward racial justice and systemic transformation by engendering freedom of the human spirit; and catalyzing the power of the imagination to reweave organizations, systems, and the world for collective healing and liberation.
David is also the Founder of The Center for the Human Spirit and Radical Reimagining, which engages the power of the collective social imagination, research and education, and activism to reweave the world for equity, justice, and flourishing of the human spirit through critical research and public engagement for all oppressed peoples; most especially, people of the global majority.
Previously, he served as the Executive Director of The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and as the Regional Director of Diversity and Inclusion of the Bayou Region for Ochsner Health. He is the Founding Director of The Center for Equity, Justice, and the Human Spirit at Xavier University of Louisiana, where he also served as an Assistant Professor in the Division of Education and Counseling, and as the university’s Assistant Vice President of Development.
Influenced by his understanding of Ubuntu—a South African philosophical notion of communalism and shared humanity—Dr. Robinson-Morris’ work promotes deep dialogical engagement as an approach to achieving racial, gender, and health equity when communities come to understand that our humanity is shared and is a quality we owe another. True equity and systemic transformation, in our communities and in our institutions, can only be realized when come to understand difference as generative and the collective mandates systems to align policy and practice toward inclusion, which leads to a sense of belonging and mattering for every individual. His understanding of Ubuntu coupled with that of Eastern (Buddhist) philosophy informs his ongoing understanding of our shared, collective humanity.
As a scholar, David’s primary research centers on a single question: What does it mean to be a human being? This question continuously informs his approaches to management, teaching, and community involvement.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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These thoughts are his own and do not represent any company or organization with which he or his organizations are currently engaged.