Black DEI Director Fired for “Whitesplaining”
with Tabia Lee
The idea that black people are always late to appointments and unable to keep to a schedule is one of those racist myths that should have died a natural death a long time ago. And yet it’s still with us. Only now, the purveyors of this stereotype are not, in the main, white bigots. Rather, they’re self-styled social justice warriors who believe that when anybody—even an African American—expects a black person to conform to the most basic social norms, they’re revealing a deeply held racial bias. Being on time, they would have you believe, is a white thing, and to insist that black people conform to this white norm is to insist on the superiority of the white race.
It is a little crazy that I have to say this, but, no, being on time is not a “white thing.” Black people are fully capable of reading a clock. And no, when a white person shows up to a 10:00 a.m. meeting expecting to see his black colleagues, he is not trafficking in white supremacy. There is something deeply, deeply backward about the idea that black people cannot be expected to meet these social obligations. There is—I’ll say it— something deeply racist about it. And I suspect that if you told the average black person he shouldn’t worry about being on time, because that’s not something black people do, things would get uncomfortable quickly.
My guest this week, Tabia Lee, the former DEI director at De Anza Community College, ran afoul of this kind of progressive bigotry when she made the utterly ordinary suggestion to her colleagues that it might be helpful to set an agenda for the semester. For that infraction, she was accused of “whitespeaking, whitesplaining, and supporting white supremacy.” The fact that Tabia is African American herself seemed not to matter. It was only the first of a series of absurd run-ins with progressive racial ideology, which Tabia details here, that eventually led to her dismissal from her position. It’s unfortunate that someone as qualified as Tabia has been effectively ejected from academia for espousing what many people would consider common sense. But maybe Tabia’s former colleagues would consider common sense a “white thing,” too.
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TABIA LEE: I was hired on at De Anza [Community College] as a faculty director. Even during the interview process, I was warned that there were some difficulties and challenges that they were looking to fix and address. And of course, I looked to assure them that I was the right person for the job. So they talked about, for example, the office being a little too woke in its approach.
Whenever people use language and terms like that that are highly charged, I always like to know, what do they mean? And so I asked them, what do you mean by that? Give me some examples. They said, you know, the faculty, when they go to the office that you would potentially be working for, they feel uncomfortable. They feel like they're being accused of being a racist or called transphobic or told that they're not very good teachers. I said, well, by that definition I'm not woke. But I can work with woke people, and I have worked with people who are woke and brought them together to talk to others who are different from different perspectives.
I thought I would be in an environment where I would be supported to do my work. But as soon as I started to do it, like literally within the first couple weeks, there were signs that there were some deeply entrenched issues there at the campus around antisemitism, around authentic inclusion, around ...
GLENN LOURY: Excuse me for interrupting, but I want to just clarify. There's a staff to this office that's independent of the faculty, and they have a reputation among the faculty for being “woke.” And you're warned of this as you're coming in as a faculty member with responsibilities to direct this office, that the people you're going to be working with there have a particular outlook, but you feel that you can handle that.
Absolutely. Because, as an educator, I'm accustomed to working with people from different perspectives. That's part of my work as someone who's in the diversity and inclusion field. You know, how do we bring together diverse perspectives and help people identify common goals so that they can best serve their students and communities? That was something that I'd worked on for many, many years, becoming a trained dialogue facilitator. How do people navigate courageous or sticky conversations? How do we deal with complexity? Those are all things that I have a lot of background in doing and in guiding educators through.
So to me, that just seemed to be the basic field of education. You're always going to have these diverse perspectives and different opinions and viewpoints, but people still have to be able to work together to serve their students.
So how would you characterize the outlook of the staff that you inherited?
I did over 60 hours of needs assessment conversations, and some of the first ones that I did were with the staff members. I wanted to see, what were the challenges they saw? How did they see the campus? It's a small office: two staff members, myself, and a supervising dean of equity and engagement.
One of the people who I first interviewed told me that they were a finalist for the position that I was in. And they told me that they were a former student at De Anza College, and they just didn't understand why I, as an outsider, was selected. They had heard nothing about me. They didn't know what my commitment was to equity, and they basically told me at the end of the conversation that I would have a rough ride ahead of me and they felt entitled to my position. So that was an interesting thing to walk into and to have that interpersonal component initially.
But that quickly turned from just a one-to-one thing to a larger group dynamic during one of our first team meetings, which was shortly after that initial needs assessment conversation. And that same person accused me of whitespeaking, whitesplaining, and supporting white supremacy during a team meeting.
Whitesplaining, white supremacy ...
And whitespeaking. And I didn't know what they meant until many weeks later when I saw a slide that they were using, where it was called “White Supremacy Cultural Characteristics.” But during the context of the meeting, what was so jarring to me, I was explaining a Google Document. Perhaps we can put in events that are coming up. Since I'm so new, I don't know the flow of the year and so forth. Maybe you could tell me how you'd like for me to support various initiatives you're working on, and we can track what we're doing in our meetings and how we're spending our time and what our agendas are and begin to develop those.
And that's when I was told to stop what I was doing and that what I was doing was whitespeaking and whitesplaining by the individual who had previously told me I'd have a rough road. And I was so shocked to hear those words used against me, as a black woman, a racialized black woman. I had never in my teaching career heard other teachers talk to each other in such a way or say such words to each other.
I asked the person, I said, “You know, I haven't come in here calling anyone names or saying anything mean or rude to anyone. What you just said to me, it feels very hurtful and rude. I don't like that kind of engagement with each other. Let's not call each other names. Let's just keep things professional.”
And when I said that, I was viewed as offensive to the other individuals on the call. Why I say that is because all their faces changed, as though I was now injuring the person who had said those terrible words to me, just by saying, “Please don't say those things.”
From that moment onward, I started to notice other small and large things that cued me into the fact that when we were using these words—equity, diversity, inclusion—we were all meaning something different. Also, in my needs assessment conversations, folks that told me, we have this long history of activism and social justice, but we're all meaning different things, and that's why we're kind of flatlining right now. We're on different pages. We're not all on the same page.
Excuse me again. Did you say that there was a dean who had oversight responsibilities in this area? I'm just wondering where he or she weighed in on this process that you're describing.
Yes, there was a supervising dean. After this event happened where I was called a white supremacist and whitespeaking and whitesplaining, I went to the dean. Because normally, if there's a difficulty in communication on a team, I would be the person who would facilitate that, discussion, conversation, unpacking, if you will. But because I was the person being attacked, I didn't feel comfortable doing that.
So I went to the supervising dean, and I said, we need to get someone in. Not me, because I'm not properly positioned to talk about intercultural and inter-team communication. How do we do that in a professional way? And she said, “Oh, you know, I really don't think so. I don't think it was really meant that way. I'll ask the person to apologize to you.”
And I said, okay, well, if you're not willing to bring someone in, then I'm going to ask that you yourself come to the team meetings just to maintain civility and a civil discourse. Because, for me, I'm not comfortable. I'm talking to folks who have called me a white supremacist and other harmful and derogatory terms. The dean started to come to the meetings, Glenn, but they didn't maintain an environment of civil discourse. They actually became the ringleader of a harassing and bullying environment, and everyone else deferred to that person.
So it was like a gang-up each week. It became, fairly quickly, my supervising dean in agreement with these individuals. The person never apologized to me. In fact, they stopped communicating with me completely. And it was as though I was a non-person, and others were encouraged to do the same. It just unraveled due to the lack of leadership at the senior leadership level as well.
And later, as I began to understand their ideology that they were working from, I wanted to know, who am I surrounded by? What what are they meaning? What are they saying? That's when I started to unpack and look at what they were talking about when they were mentioning white supremacy culture. “They” meaning my dean and my staff members. I saw one of their slides, and it had these poison bottles on it, and it had things like “being on time,” “being objective,” and they kept putting it up in their meetings that they would host or with guests that they would invite to campus.
And you know, we're here in Zoom. This is all digital during the pandemic time. So one day, it had a citation and I went and looked up who that is. I found Tema Okun and [Kenneth] Jones’s work, and then I started to better understand what they were meaning when they were saying “white supremacist” and calling me that and accusing me of that. Because I was attempting to set an agenda in the meeting, that was considered to be offensive to their worldview.
But Glenn, I felt offended. Because it was as though they were telling me they had an expectation of me as a—they use this term—“BIPOC.” It's Black Indigenous Person of Color. They set the world up in a binary between BIPOC and white people. And so their expectation of BIPOC people is that we're not on time. We don't set agendas. We don't look at the written word. We should be doing everything actively against that. And to me, that's setting yourself and your students and your community up for failure. All the things I had taught my students about, how do you become young scholars? How do you contribute to your community and be involved civically? It involved the things that the characteristics that they're calling and labeling white supremacy culture and giving to white supremacy culture.
I find that deeply offensive, because that means they have low expectations of me. I'm supposed to be the opposite of that in this equity faculty director role. Just realizing their low expectations of me and their assumptions about me, just based purely on how I look from the outside, I found that to be very hypocritical of everything that they talk about when they say they want people to be their authentic selves and their whole selves. That's not what was happening there.