On Being Better

A Q&A with Joanna Thompson, director of the Office of Multicultural Learning, on working our way from performative to effective allyship, and the stumbles we’ll surely take on the path between the two.

Joanna Thompson portrait
Transforming institutions of higher learning—not to mention changing as individuals—is meant to be uncomfortable, says Joanna Thompson, but it is possible. / Illustration by Kyle Hilton.

The first step, they say, is admitting you have a problem. It’s a mantra for anyone in recovery but today especially pertains to the necessary steps toward dismantling racism in our greater social contract.

Non-Black individuals, and the institutions they run, are being called on—to reckon with their problematic pasts, and their complicity and silence in allowing those problems to persist, to implement real change that shifts systems. Rather than writing empty memos and umpteen diversity decrees expressing solidarity, they’re being told to actually do.

In a high-profile example of this, Georgetown University students voted to increase tuition to create a reparations fund to benefit descendants of the 272 slaves sold by Jesuit leaders in 1838 to pay for the school’s debts. “The actions of Georgetown students have placed all of us on a journey together toward honoring our enslaved ancestors by working toward healing and reconciliation,” said Karran Harper Royal, one of the descendants.

What could be more Jesuit than to accompany one another on our collective journey to a better, more just world? As the Jesuit Pope Francis said in the wake of protests that erupted following the Memorial Day 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of police, “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”

To be sure, effective allyship is an imperfect, complicated dance. Some steps will be seen as too little, too late. Others will be too symbolic, not going enough to root out and eradicate racist, unjust systems. Individuals and institutions, no matter how earnest they are in improving, will absolutely make mistakes.

It’s only natural to be anxious of making missteps, but you must try, says Joanna Thompson, the director of Santa Clara University’s Office for Multicultural Learning (OML). She holds a doctorate in Criminology, Law, and Justice.  She also has mixed-race (half-Black/half-Latina) and queer identities that inform her work. Her current mission is to transform places of higher learning—and the people within them—into more welcoming, diverse, multicultural and multiracial bastions of social justice.

“It’s meant to be uncomfortable,” she says. But if we stay the course, guided by our Jesuit values of social justice and shaping ourselves into agents of change, moving forward is possible. “In order to make tangible, meaningful change, you got to first admit the problem. Just say it, and then move on.”

Santa Clara Magazine spoke with Thompson about imperfect allyship and how to do better.

Santa Clara Magazine: Black Lives Matter began in earnest in 2013, organized in the wake of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, and the subsequent acquittal of the shooter. In the seven years since, BLM protests have waxed—sparking in response to yet another person of color losing their life—yet inevitably waned. But something seems different in 2020, with protests in all 50 states and more than 60 other countries. Does it feel different to you?

Joanna Thompson: It does. I grew up with a lot of folks who were a part of the Civil Rights Movement. I heard the stories of moments like this, where there were riots and protests. And I think the biggest difference—and this is a conversation that I’ve had with my dad who is a Black man born and raised in Washington, D.C., and remembers a lot of the ’60s and ’70s—is the [range of] communities that are involved.

I mean, there’s always been a multiracial, multicultural connection in previous movements, but I think in the past it has been very much Black and white, and those are the two groups. But now you have Latinx folks, you have Asian folks, you have LGBTQ folks, anyone who lives in the margins, we’re all coming together to truly stand in solidarity with one another.

SCM: Does today feel different, too, because more white people are acknowledging their privilege and reckoning with the advantages they’re afforded because of their color?

Thompson: I think, on the one hand, white fragility and white guilt has really caught up with a lot of folks. And there’s this sense of, “Well I have to do something because if I don’t, then people are gonna think I’m racist.” That’s a real fear for white folks trying to be an ally, or even just saying that they’re an ally, though really not. But on the other hand, the tides are really turning demographically. White folks are still in the positions of power and making a lot of the decisions. But when we look at the numbers and the shifts in politics and culture, the minority is slowly becoming the majority. And that’s a scary thing for white folks to acknowledge, the shifts in dynamics. So I think those two things have come to a head, and that’s more apparent than in previous movements and generations.

SCM: The onslaught of conflicting information online about how best to support the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement can feel overwhelming. We’re told to post a black square on Instagram for #BlackOutTuesday, then scramble to delete when it turns out that hurts the effort; we’re told, “Check in on your Black friends,” then hear that’s pandering. How do you encourage someone who feels frozen in wanting to do the right thing but is terrified of doing it wrong?

Thompson: That’s something that we all have to grapple with. I was even misled by the whole black square thing—I posted it and then I had to take it down. And, you know, there are days when I’m like, “Yeah, ask me how I’m feeling!” And then other days, I don’t want to hear that question ever again. So much changes every day, because we as a people change all the time. The biggest part, I think, is to be open to education. With the individual and within institutions, you have to be aware and you have to read and talk and take in as much information as you can. There really is no right answer. And we’re all going to make mistakes. The Black folks are going to make mistakes, and non-Black folks are going make mistakes. But we have to keep pushing forward; as long as you’re genuine in your allyship and your advocacy, as long as you’re taking the time to acknowledge and say, wait a minute, this isn’t right. And you have to do it in a way that’s best for you—if you have to take a step back today and say, “You know what, I need to completely disconnect and recharge,” that’s fine. Just pick it back up tomorrow.

SCM: On social media, at least, there are a lot of white people posting about their intent to take a step back to educate themselves about the racist systems they’ve benefited from. Is all this “learning and listening” really enough?

Thompson: The biggest thing that needs to be sacrificed is comfort. A lot of the conversations we’re having right now, a lot of the experiences are uncomfortable. But white folks have the privilege to be able to turn [the discomfort] off. Whereas for people of color… I say this all the time: I don’t get that privilege because no matter what I do, where I go, the color of my skin determines my experience, whether I like it or not. And so I think for white folks to be able to just acknowledge that and really sit with the discomfort, I think that that’s the biggest sacrifice to understand that it’s never going to be easy and it’s never going to feel good to talk about racism or sexism or homophobia. You have to be willing to get uncomfortable.

“It’s hard to stand up and say this whole country is built on a lot of icky things. But we have to acknowledge it…then ask, how do we change it?.” 

SCM: In addition to discomfort, there’s probably a lot of fear, too? White people are hearing that it’s on them to “fix” racism, that we cannot rely on oppressed people to tell us how to stop oppressing them. That could feel scary but also really necessary. How can they find balance? How can they live in that necessary discomfort and fear?

Thompson: What we [OML] tell people in marginalized communities, the same goes for white folks. If you’re going to talk to a racist grandma or a homophobic aunt, it’s important to have people around you to be able to support you in case things go wrong. But saying something is better than saying nothing because this notion of silent consent does a lot of damage. You’re not going to change everybody’s mind, but the least you can do is start a conversation. And, like you said, not rely on people who are oppressed to do that because a lot of times our voices aren’t being heard at all. If they were, then we wouldn’t be in this scenario. You have to say it with all the power and privilege that you all have as white folks.

I get it. It’s hard to stand up and say this whole country is built on a lot of icky things. But we have to acknowledge it and then educate and then ask, how we do change it?

SCM: Allyship has not been perfected. Some recent attempts seem misguided at best, performative at worst, such as white people sending Black acquaintances arbitrary amount of cash online. Like, “I’m sorry that you’ve experienced racism, here’s $5 for coffee.” It’s really cringey. Are you exhausted of telling white people how to be better at this?

Thompson: Yes. We [OML staff] were in a webinar a couple of weeks ago and this term “performative allyship” popped up and it’s been a conversation between us at OML about what that looks like, especially with a lot of virtue signaling [publicly expressing opinions to demonstrate one’s moral character] going on in the virtual setting. But when we do go back to being in person, what will this all look like when we’re all together again? I think part of it is, again, going back to this fear of admitting there’s a problem and using symbols or small actions to justify yourself, or this notion of, “I’m not racist, I’m a good person.” It’s just another way, whether people mean to or not, to just sweep it under the rug.

Recently I think it was John Legend who tweeted about a group of Texas realtors vowing to no longer use the term “master bedroom,” because it supposedly denotes the notion of a master and a slave. But that’s not the problem. The problem, which Legend said, is that when Black people go to look at apartments or homes, they’re not shown the really nice homes. They’re shown the bad ones in the bad neighborhoods because they’re black. That’s the problem.

SCM: It’s these symbolic moves that do nothing to actually address the true, underlying issues.

Thompson: Yes. It’s just a way for folks to feel good and feel that they are doing something. But they’re avoiding that this is much bigger than a free cup of coffee or a master bedroom. It’s systemic and it’s historical and institutional.

SCM: What about those individuals who are unable to meet the current societal moment of protest—say they or a loved one is in a high-risk group for contracting COVID-19—but don’t want history to pass them by?

Thompson: Sometimes you don’t have to join in ways that people can always see you joining in. A lot of us are doing the work behind the scenes in terms of having conversations, educating people, checking in on people, supporting our friends or family. They may not—I may not—be posting everything on social media. I may not be going out to protest, but I’m still doing the work. Especially now, because of social media, there’s this notion of, “If I don’t see it, then it means you’re not doing anything.” But that’s not the case. We all have our own roles, we have different entry points. As long as we’re all working towards the same goal: equity, inclusion, racial justice, and social justice.

SCM: Our cultural reliance on social media to document our lives certainly contributes to this idea of performing—that we must somehow prove we’re practicing what we’re preaching. Especially now, quarantined in a pandemic, it’s how we communicate with those beyond our immediate circles. We can say, “Oh, well, I may not be at a protest right now, but here’s all of the things I’ve been reading.”

“It’s hard to stand up and say this whole country is built on a lot of icky things. But we have to acknowledge it…then ask, how do we change it?.” 

Thompson: We grappled with that in OML at the beginning of this movement when a lot of folks on campus were sending out statements of solidarity, whether it was in email or newsletters. We debated sending out a formal statement. We didn’t want it to feel like we were doing it just because everyone else is doing it. But we also realized that we don’t have to say it because we are doing it. And our actions will speak much louder.

SCM: A lot of predominantly white institutions tend to fall into the trap of thinking of racism with a capital R, so they ignore the more prevalent, insidious proliferation of things like microaggressions and implicit bias. Many are surprised when Black students say they don’t always feel comfortable on their campuses. How do we stop perpetuating inequity and injustice through this lowercase racism?

Thompson: I think a big part of it is, again, education. This is something OML, our ODI [the Office for Diversity and Inclusion] and the Office of Student Life are working on: racial justice training so that everyone knows how to identify implicit bias. Or microaggressions. This is what it looks like. This is what it feels like. Because unfortunately I think a lot of folks just don’t know, it’s not their lived experience.

On a bigger level, we’ve been talking a lot recently about recruitment and retention of Black staff, students, and faculty. Because, again, if you don’t see somebody who looks like you, you won’t feel totally comfortable. It feels like you’re wearing a uniform instead of your own clothes, like you’re the only one. Even for me as a biracial, queer staff member, it’s been eye-opening. I’ve been at predominantly white institutions before, but this is a completely different level. It’s a little uncomfortable sometimes and I don’t always know what to do. So of course our students feel that.

SCM: How can we as an institution ensure that students feel empowered and safe in speaking out against racism and other injustices?

Thompson: It starts with being honest about what’s really going on at Santa Clara. The image that’s portrayed out in the world is very much sugarcoated. But we’ve come to a point where we need to admit that that’s not really the case.

I think that needs to first come from the administration and be communicated clearer. I mean, there are already policies in place—the Expressive Activity [and Free Speech] Policy comes to mind, protecting things like protests. But I’ve had conversations that that policy can be interpreted in so many different ways by different people. The administration needs to make it clear that we are a social justice university and this is what social justice looks like. It looks like activism. It looks like allyship. This is what Broncos do—they go out into the world and change it to make it better. So if you want to speak your mind, if you want to engage in these activities, there isn’t going to be any retribution taken against you.

SCM: That gets to the Jesuit-heart of the matter. That, to paraphrase Pope Francis, we cannot turn a blind eye to racism while at the same time claim to value the sacredness of human life. What does that look like in practice? How do we, as you say, “go out in the world and change it to make it better?”

Thompson: One of the Jesuit values we talk about the most in the Office for Multicultural Learning is cura personalis—“care for the entire person.” Jesuit institutions like us can do a better job of incorporating this value into our practice in a way that is more intentional. Care for the entire person is not surface level. It means to acknowledge, uplift, and affirm multiple and intersecting identities of an individual, which takes internal and external work from us all. In doing this, we will be better able to understand the diversity of the lived experiences in our communities. And by viewing cura personalis from this perspective, it will then enable us to tackle social justice issues in a holistic and authentic way that does not feel like performative allyship, but rather advocacy and support that will help enact solid, long-lasting change.

SCM: It’s clear that we need more diverse representation on our staff and faculty rosters in order to recruit a more diverse student body. How can we make that happen?

Thompson: One thing the University Relations team has recently done is set up a scholarship for Black students [the Black Excellence Scholarship Fund with an initial investment of $100,000] to be able to give financial resources to Black students so that they are able to come to Santa Clara. Helping folks out financially is one of the first steps to be able to get more diverse students in.

Also, we need to reach out our recruiting tentacles wider when it comes to bolstering a more diverse staff and faculty list. There are a lot of Black scholars out there who are doing really awesome things—great research—you just have to look in different places. We need to invite them to campus, host events, and bring in speakers of color so we’re having that type of representation.

SCM: Do you have any examples of other institutions that are fostering diversity well and/or contending with problematic history?

Thompson: Sure. Colorado College adopted an anti-racism framework for the entire university. Through their Office of Diversity and Inclusion equivalent, there’s a group that meets regularly that created a list of guiding principles following anti-racist practices, anti-racist policies. It’s not just coming from one office, but it’s the college as a whole saying, “We are anti-racist, we will take a stand.”

Boston University recently announced in June they will be creating a new Center for Antiracist Research, to be led by Ibram X. Kendi, a leading scholar on racism and author of How To Be An Antiracist. The mission of the center will focus on fostering research on racial justice, policy innovation, educational and advocacy campaigns, and narrative-changing initiatives.

Additionally, fellow Jesuit institution Loyola University Chicago has a Center for Experiential Learning where they have a Commitment to Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, Anti-Racism, and Anti-Oppression Statement. I think these are great examples Santa Clara can follow to help incorporate more anti-racist frameworks into our policies and procedures.

SCM: What’s happening at Santa Clara as a result of this movement that makes you hopeful?

Thompson: We have a community here of folks who really want to see change happen and want to be in solidarity, who want to turn the tide. I am hopeful Santa Clara will use that momentum to really push things forward. All of these messages of support from around campus saying they stand in solidarity… well, what does that look like? Show me what your solidarity looks like, take action, make changes, really start to shift the culture. Once we do bring in new people and hire new staff, the burden won’t be solely on marginalized groups because the work has already begun.

I am also excited to have been elected as the new president-elect for Staff Senate next year. Part of my role is to oversee working groups. We have created an anti-racism working group that will be open to all staff on campus, no matter your department, no matter your unit, as long as you are passionate about combating oppression and about trying to find ways to help, your voice and advocacy is appreciated.

[The biggest thing] is we can’t go back. Don’t be afraid. Change is meant to be uncomfortable. I believe Santa Clara University really wants to do good. I don’t think our institution wants to see the community continue to suffer in this way. But in order to really make tangible, meaningful change, you have to admit there’s a problem. Let’s say it, then move forward.

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