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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Guest Column: And what of Black beekeepers, President Burwell?

The national attack on antiracist education and academic expression is here at AU

The following piece is an opinion and does not reflect the views of The Eagle and its staff. All opinions are edited for grammar, style and argument structure and fact-checked, but the opinions are the writer’s own.

It is a dire moment for an academic community when its leaders, and president in particular, enact directives around what student clubs can and cannot speak to and attempt to arbitrate how students understand and articulate their concerns. 

Under Burwell’s Jan. 25 directives on student conduct, which the vice president of student affairs, vice president of inclusive excellence and the director of athletics and recreation signed on to, student clubs have been told that they cannot speak to issues beyond their specific remit. So that, as President Burwell recently told student leaders, the Beekeeping Society cannot speak about Black Lives Matter.  

It would appear under these new directives that critical thinking is now a violation of the student code of conduct — the very nature of critical thought to draw the connections between seemingly distant issues has been prohibited. As decolonial feminist scholars, we are bewildered by Burwell’s imagined ‘beekeeper’ who must not speak beyond beekeeping matters. And we wonder, President Burwell, what of Black beekeepers?  

Our students understand that they hold different positionalities at once. They know because they live within the sharp edges of those connections and their interlocking systems of oppression. They know that the anti-Black logics of policing are the same as those operating in war-making, global security measures, anti-immigrant policies and the normalized demonization of Muslim and Arab Americans. Indeed, as evidenced by the unprecedented coalition forged among over 25 AU student organizations supporting Palestine, our students courageously demonstrate the intersectional nature of their struggles. 

What, then, would prompt an academic institution to attempt to ban the intersectional expression of student life? 

At the heart of the new directives is a political objective to ban cross-solidarity work concerning the issue of Palestine. As the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said once remarked, daring to uphold a Palestinian humanity remains the last taboo. However, the well-worn tactics of exceptionalizing Palestinian activism and slandering those who affirm Palestinian rights as antisemitic will not work against an entire, intersectional coalition. Trying to suppress the intersectional nature of our students’ lives, therefore, becomes a necessary casualty of new and increasingly more ludicrous attempts to repress Palestinian solidarity among a wide spectrum of student organizations.

As an AU community, we have been primed for this lowering of the bar in freedom of expression and critical inquiry. It occurs in an academic climate where anti-Palestinian bigotry is the status quo and is reinforced in different ways. Knowledge production, course offerings, resources and events disproportionately and routinely privilege Zionist narratives. Faculty and/or student-led efforts to amplify Palestinian experiences are not only vulnerable, but met with extraordinary hostility, intimidation and blockages, including sustained smearing campaigns. 

In recent months, Burwell’s public messaging has consistently demonstrated that there is only one community at AU that our leadership is concerned about, overlapping with the interests of AU’s most substantial donors, including certain board members. This has intensified a climate of impunity for anti-Palestinian bigotry, as students, faculty and staff are facing more insidious forms of surveillance and criminalization, all of which have enduring material consequences on their livelihoods and health.

It is through the normalization of devaluing Palestinian life that repressive academic policies pass through. And while repressive policy moves through Palestine, it would be unwise to think it stops there, as the wider national political climate against antiracist education shows us. As educators, we have an imperative to remain alert to and stand against any policies that seek to limit students’ ability to think critically.

This most recent strike against academic expression emerges as the diverse, multi-affiliation student coalition rallies behind Palestinians. It occurs as global voices grow stronger against the Zionist weaponization of antisemitism that would have us believe that to stand against apartheid, colonialism and genocide is something we should be ashamed of or even be afraid to do. Indeed, because we have been primed to devalue Palestinian life, the AU community is expected to understand that the very issue at the doorstep of the highest world court is not to be uttered. To do so anyway invokes allegations of antisemitism, supporting terrorism or the liberal counterpart of bias, that colonial indictment routinely applied to the analyses and experiences of devalued communities. 

Changemakers except for Palestine, President Burwell? We do not have to imagine this as an exception because the highest levels of our administration tell us daily what falls under the protection of academic expression: war criminals and those supporting the US-financed devastation of Gaza are invited to speak, are introduced by university leadership, are cut checks from deep university pockets and protected by AUPD at the same time as dissenting students are criminalized.  

Criminalization has now also been extended to an iconic feature of student life across university campuses: posters. As AU’s new policy demands all posters “promote inclusivity” students are left to wonder — what is inclusivity, if not intersectionality? In being the arbitrators of what is deemed “unwelcoming,” this policy opens new avenues for university administrators to discriminate against students, and through the same opaque decision-making processes in which the Jan. 25 directives emerged.

As student clubs are policed for expressing their intersectional concerns on campus and global issues, we must ask you, President Burwell: who is welcome here? 

In a national context where policing is imbedded in anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, anti-trans, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian structures of oppression, what will the enforcement of these vague and repressive directives mean for the most vulnerable members of our community? 

What does it mean for those Black beekeepers, whose existence Burwell has not imagined and thus disallowed, and who subsequently cannot speak about their lives?

No doubt, we are coerced into collective inaction. This occurs through the University’s bureaucratic architecture that prevents us from protesting in various ways, through the bullying of donors and special interests who operate in the administrative shadows, or through defamation lawfare that is meant to actively suppress, distract and dissuade us from critical thought. And while we decide whether or not to act anyway, the broader national attack on antiracist education and academic expression is here at AU. Anti-intellectual currents are actively shaping the management of university campuses and the character of academia, packaged through the language of inclusivity and anti-hate measures.  

AU’s leadership has failed to demonstrate the necessary fortitude and clarity required to protect the imperative of higher education for all of our students: academic expression, rigorous debate and critical thought. We ask our colleagues to stand firm to these commitments and demonstrate a collective refusal of this path to which university leadership has capitulated. Even within the imposed constraints, we must ask, what are we collectively willing to accept?

The AU Decolonial Feminist Collective is an interdisciplinary faculty group of scholars and educators whose political and professional work adopts a decolonial feminist lens in addressing the intersections of racial capitalism and colonial power. We share a dedication to emancipatory scholarship, activism and community building. 

This piece was edited by Alana Parker, Jelinda Montes and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing by Luna Jinks and Charlie Mennuti.

opinion@theeagleonline.com


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