Breaking the Silence: The Paradox and Agony of Education

Nathan Jones, Associate Professor of English, Skyline College

Education is a revolutionary act of consciousness and is presumed to be the great equalizer in a civilized world. Unfortunately, most California community colleges are in a state of paralysis when it comes to confronting the issue of systemic racism. Most historically and predominately white institutions are not truly committed to the efforts of combating institutionalized racism, structural racism, anti-blackness, or establishing culturally relevant pedagogy and a student-ready college. If California community colleges were completely invested in serving their Black student population, and dismantling racial inequalities and inequities, there would be “a draining of the swamp”; a conscious rooting out of corrupted gatekeepers who influence policies, practices and procedures, whilst continuing the perpetuation of an antiquated system of oppression co-opting politically correct academic jargon like diversity, equity and inclusion to pacify its conservative constituency, all the awhile hiding behind the veil of white fragility. James Baldwin prophetically affirmed, “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity” (Baldwin, 1963). That danger is the fear of a transformed educational system that will deliberately and intentionally implement equitable and inclusionary policies and practices focusing on the needs of its disproportionately impacted students of color. Whenever an opportunity at transforming a system of oppressive education is challenged, it is met with surreptitious codified linguistic volleying push back and backlash. This is “the trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement. It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem; rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations” (Anderson, 2016, p. 3).

Too often Black instructors and administrators have to straddle the fence to placate their colleagues and to neutralize their natural essence and “asili” to fit into a structure of an institution that was not originally design, created, or established with them in mind. Many Black faculty members are isolated and feared, and their level of education, experience and professional abilities are questioned by less qualified white colleagues because their approach to educating students, namely students of color, are uniquely different than their white colleagues. Their insight, understanding, and lived experiences bring an idiosyncratic perspective and stratagem to lesson planning, curriculum development, and culturally relevant pedagogy that might just qualify as being student-ready and progressive in some cases. In doing so, isolating spaces are contrived to allow the blackbird to fly and the caged bird to sing.

Many in these institutions quietly know “white racism is a system of everyday practices that are motivated, buttressed, and rationalized by white notions of the inferiority of the culture, personality and morality of African Americans” (Feagan, Nikitah, and Hernan, 1996, p. 90). Diversity organizations often operate as specialized programs, like Learning Communities having mediocre funding streams and budgets with no real access to resources, power, or privilege, which in turn do not serve the academic and economic needs of their students, unless a benevolent administer has a special interest in said organizations. California community colleges “education cannot and never will move beyond these crossroads, because it cannot transcend the social, political, and economic constraints that govern it” (Portes, 2005, p. 6).

What have the California community colleges done to move the needle to hire, promote, or nurture its Black faculty and students? Once a Black instructor is hired into an institution where he or she is the minority, that individual usually becomes the token or an anomaly to satisfy some diversity, inclusion, or equity initiative. California community colleges are just as culpable as any of the four-year colleges and universities, where racist policies and practices are embedded in the institutions fabric, unconsciously promoting anti-blackness, institutionalized racism and structural racism, and lurking surreptitious beneath the surface, microaggressing the very people the institution claims it needs to eradicate its racial inequalities and insensitive practices toward. Diversity does not change the complexion of colorblind institutions, nor does it attempt to. What changes an institution is its willingness to be an equity-minded, transformative, and a student-ready oriented community, practicing culturally relevant pedagogy, having courageous conversations, building curriculum and lesson planning with Black and Brown individuals being at the center of change.

What does a student-ready college look like? A student-ready institution must possess a certain set of characteristics to qualify. “A student-ready college is one that strategically and holistically advances student success and works tirelessly to educate all students for civic and economic participation in a global and interconnected society" (Albertine, Susan., Cooper, Michelle A., Major, Thomas Jr., McDonald, Nicole., & McNair, Tia B., 2016, p. 5). More importantly, a “study-ready” campus at minimum should qualify as ensuring “all services and activities-from admissions, to the business office, to the classroom and even campus security--are intentionally designed to facilitate students' progressive advancement toward college completion and positive post-college outcomes . . . Student ready colleges offer a holistic approach to leadership that empowers all members of the campus to serve as leaders and educators" (Albertine, Susan., Cooper, Michelle A., Major, Thomas Jr., McDonald, Nicole., & McNair, Tia B., 2015, p. 6). In some ways, college campuses function like ecosystems with various integral components. Learning Communities, ethnic training series, community of practice, meta majors, Guided Pathways, and Promise Scholar Programs are examples of the elements that could qualify as such entities. Additionally, a college that is equity-minded actively seeks to rid itself of organizations, curriculum, and learning environments that traditionally practice all forms of racism and sexism. Equity-Mindedness is the mode of thinking that is exhibited by practitioners who call attention to patterns of inequity in student outcomes. These practitioners possess agency, are willing to take personal and institutional responsibility for the success of their students, and will critically reassess their own bias practices. This requires “that practitioners are race-conscious and aware of the social and historical context of exclusionary practices in American Higher Education” (Equity Institute 2019, Skyline College).

In order to be a transformative institution, the college should address historical and sociopolitical causes of inequalities identified in education, and engage in data informing efforts to repair and reconstitute the educational system. A successful transformative educational framework questions the system, the tools, and the strategies of a traditional approach and creates innovative student-centered, anti-racist, anti-sexist practices, and strategies to confront anti-blackness that systemically paves the road for student success. The last component to creating a transformative California community college is actively hiring and training instructors to engage in culturally relevant pedagogical methods, ultimately displaying cultural competencies, and cultural teachings demonstrating a propensity to teach cross culturally to multi-racial and multi-ethnic students in a safe and holistic environment that acknowledges the students by using literature and texts in the curriculum that reflects their cultural background, concerns, and information that relates specifically to them and that acknowledges their lived experiences. This should be practiced across an entire campus and embraced in all disciplines; however, this is not the case as folks struggle with the thought of transforming old habits.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated that the “function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education.” Unfortunately, many of our colleagues still remain in a world of colorblindness and aversive racism finding “it difficult for us [them] to address these unconscious beliefs” (Diangelo, 2018, p. 42).

California community colleges are in the business of educating populations of people of all walks of life, but the challenge is to educate a people who just might think and challenge the context in which they exist at an institution, and this is precisely the dilemma. “The paradox of education is precisely this--that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated” (Baldwin, 1963). The agony and paradox of education that is experienced by Black educators is that we are feared, because we hold up the mirror to our institutions, encouraging them to make real on the rhetorical promises and policies that are often found in mission statements representing the values of the college(s) which employ us. When this happens, Black educators (with a purpose) are usually dismissed, discredited, demonized, and destroyed for having values and integrity and a true belief that a system will uphold its principles of change and inclusion. This is the “American Dilemma” that Gunnar Myrdal writes about.  So, the real question is, can one dismantle the house that the master built by using the master’s tools?


Albertine, Susan., Cooper, Michelle A., Major, Thomas Jr., McDonald, Nicole., & McNair, Tia B. (2016). Becoming A Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership For Student Success. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Books. pp. 5-6.

Anderson, Carol. (2016). White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial  Divide. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Baldwin, James. (1963). The Fire Next. New York: Random House. pp. 9-10.

DiAngelo, R. (2018). White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Boston: Beacon Press.

Equity Institute, Skyline College (2020 June 17).

Feagin, Joe R., Imani, Nikitah., & Vera, Hernan. (1996). The Agony of Education: Black Students at White Colleges and Universities. New York: Routledge Publishing.

Lorde, Audre. (1984). The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. pp. 110- 114.

Portes, Pedro. (2005). Dismantling Educational Inequality: A Cultural Historical Approach to Closing the Achievement Gap. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. pp.5-6.

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