Reflections on Classrooms as Counterspaces

Last week my latest publication, Classroom Counterspaces: Centering Brown and Black Students in Higher Education came out (50 free copies are available for download–if you want it and it’s not free anymore, let me know). In this article, I use the concepts of bridges and islands, which are drawn from Borderlands theory, to understand the fractures that exist in doctoral education for Brown and Black graduate students. Bridges and islands reflect the tension that exists in spaces where one feels like they are at home and also a stranger. Bridging, or creating bridges, servers to re-center the voices of Brown and Black students and to draw connections between their experiences and what occurs in the academy. Bridging is what allows change to occur. As you can imagine, bridging is not always welcomed. Fundamentally, bridging acknowledges the absence of Brown and Black perspectives, and forges a pathway for inclusion of those perspectives. Islands are the opposite– they are the metaphorical places that Brown and Black students inhabit, the places where they are disconnected from the practices of academia. Islands are places where Brown and Black students try to negotiate the importance of their work, while remaining on the margins. These are not static–Brown and Black students move along bridges to islands and back again–reacting to the contours of the academic landscape (e.g. coursework, peer and faculty interactions, research). But these reactions are ongoing and there is no reprieve.

The notions of bridges and islands are not new to Black and Brown graduate students. The talk amongst Brown and Black people on campuses often reflects how different classes, or faculty, or programs, offer more experience with one or the other. In response to the islands (and to build stronger bridges), Brown and Black students create counterspaces. Counterspaces are attempts to ensure that patterns of marginalization that exist in other contexts are not reproduced in these spaces (Case & Hunter, 2012; King & Pringle, 2019). Counterspaces also facilitate and promote the social and emotional well-being of Brown and Black students who experience marginalization and oppression (Case & Hunter, 2012). Counterspaces exist in multiple settings such as campus cultural organizations (Litzler, 2013; Museus, 2008) or academic support programs (Nuñez, 2011), but generally exist outside of central academic spaces such as classrooms (Ong et al., 2018).

In 2016, I started teaching a seminar on critical and Indigenous methodologies. During the initial class, I was struck by something I hadn’t experienced before–not only were there no white men, but almost everyone was Brown or Black. For the first time, I didn’t have to consider the white male response when discussing issues of race or gender or class, and how those relate to research methods. It was freeing for me as a professor–and it was freeing for the students in the class. Week after week, we circled our chairs and used the course concepts to interrogate our experiences as minoritized scholars in the academy. There was no dealing with white guilt. There was no justification of campus racism and sexism. For three hours every week, we pushed back against an organization that was never meant or designed for us. Class was compassionate, challenging, heartbreaking, wonderful, affirming–sometimes all within the same night. We celebrated the wins and comforted each other in the losses, and most importantly, grew together as researchers.

When I realized that the first seminar was not an anomaly, I began to view the course as a form of counterspace. Classroom counterspaces are rare–curriculum often reflects dominant narratives centered on whiteness, and interactions inside the class also reflect this. In fact, creating a course that centers the perspectives of Brown and Black students and that provides Brown and Black students with a place to share the range of their feelings and experiences, is fundamentally an act of resistance in academic organizations. Recognizing and identifying the need for classroom counterspaces acknowledges that the regular hegemonic university structure actually impoverishes the academic project–it withholds the rich, diverse, and important knowledge held by Brown and Black graduate students. And we are worse off because of that withholding. Creating a classroom counterspace is my attempt at building bridges.


Case, A. D. & Hunter, C. D. (2012). Counterspaces: A unit of analysis for understanding the role of settings in marginalized individuals’ adaptive responses to oppression. American Journal of Community Psychology, 50(1-2), 257-270.

King, N. S., & Pringle, R. M. (2019). Black girls speak STEM: Counterstories of informal and formal learning experiences. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 56, 539-569.

Litzler, E. (2013). How underrepresented minority engineering students derive a sense of belonging from engineering. Paper presented at the 2013 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition. Atlanta, GA: American Society for Engineering Education.

Museus, S. D. (2008). The role of ethnic student organizations in fostering African American and Asian American students’ cultural adjustment and membership at predominately White institutions. Journal of College Student Development, 49(6), 568-586.

Nuñez, A-M. (2011). Counterspaces and connections in college transitions: First-generation Latino students’ perspectives on Chicano studies. Journal of College Student Development, 52(6), 639-655.     

Ong, M., Smith, J. M., Ko, L. T. (2018). Counterspaces for women of color in STEM higher education: Marginal and central spaces for persistence and success. Journal of Research in Science and Teaching, 55(2), 206-245.   

This post was submitted to the Teaching in Higher Education blog, which features posts about published manuscripts.

What I Read — February 2021

This was a slow reading month–although I did revise and resubmit two manuscripts and read two dissertations!


Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault. Foucault’s work on discipline and surveillance is the center of one of my research projects.

Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins. Two of my projects draw from Black Feminist Thought but this is a re-read from graduate school.


No articles. Sigh.

Celebrating Survival of Indigenous Culture, Knowledge, and Values in Educational Spaces: Foregrounding the Voices of Indigenous Girls and Women

Call for Book Chapters

For a PDF version of the call, click here.

Historically, Indigenous women and girls, have not been positioned as creators or holders of knowledge within academic spaces. Scholars of critical race feminism have argued that racialized, gendered, classed, and otherwise marked histories, provide distinct and valuable sources of knowledge that are often rendered illegitimate (or invisible) in the context of white, middle class dominant spaces (Gonzales, 2018). Therefore, it is imperative that Indigenous women and girls have control over where and how they share their stories.

Indigenous girls and women everywhere are motivated to resist and protest, to teach and inspire, and to hold accountable both Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies to their responsibilities to protect the values and traditions that serve as the foundation for the survival of Indigenous peoples. This edited collection will draw on a critical race feminism framework to engage in the project of celebrating survival (Wing, 2003). Celebrating survival is a methodological approach that accentuates and amplifies “the degree to which indigenous peoples and communities have successfully retained cultural and spiritual values and authenticity” (Smith, 1999, p. 145). Gregory Cajete (1994) writes that celebration is “an individual and communal process that celebrates the mystery of life and the journey each of us takes. Celebration is a way of spreading the lights around” (p. 73). Authors should center Indigenous perspectives in ways that affirm the experiences of Indigenous women and girls in educational spaces and demonstrate how girls and women have overcome existing structures to ensure the survival of Indigenous knowledges, cultures, and authenticity. Indigenous girls and women need to create new modes of scholarship and thinking that exist outside of the academic system.     

As noted above, this edited book seeks submissions that exemplify and celebrate the role of Indigenous girls and women in educational spaces, which are broadly defined as an environment or setting where learning occurs.

Chapters can include empirical, theoretical, or creative approaches. Suggested below is a list of topics where the voices of Indigenous women and girls are needed. However, this list is not exhaustive. Authors are encouraged to think beyond this list.

  • Mothers, aunties, and grandmothers’ influence on education
  • Indigenous writing styles
  • Decolonizing professional spaces (e.g. dress)
  • Indigenous girls and women in digital and social media spaces
  • Relationships with nature and outdoor spaces
  • Religious and spiritual space involvement
  • Navigating quasi/academic spaces (e.g. study groups, student centers)
  • Indigenous leadership and political engagement
  • Colonized academic majors (e.g. archeology, anthropology)  

About the Process

Interested scholars should submit a 500 word abstract for a chapter of 5000-8000 words. The abstract should describe how the chapter will address the focus of the book. Please email your submission to by April 16, 2021. The book proposal will be submitted in early summer. Authors will be contacted about submitting full chapters once a decision has been made about the proposal.  


Cajete, G. (1994). Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education. Kivaki Press, Colorado.

Gonzales, L. (2018). Subverting and minding boundaries: The intellectual work of women. The Journal of Higher Education, 89(5), 677-701.

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Publishing: London.

Wing, A. K. (Ed.). (2003). Critical race feminism: A reader (2nd ed.). New York: New York University Press  

Please Engage With Your Whiteness

I am someone who spends a lot of time thinking and writing about race. I am also someone who finds themselves in conversations (in-person, virtually) with white people on race. And while these conversations can sometimes be intellectually engaging, they are often frustrating and unproductive. These types of questions (“why do I find something to be X?”) are some of my favorite and after giving it some thought, I figured it out: these conversations involve white people who refuse to engage with their whiteness.

The notion that whiteness is often treated as neutral is not new (critical whiteness studies addresses this concept much better than I could). But what’s fascinating to me is when white people, who are seemingly committed to understanding issues of race, default to this approach when confronted about their whiteness in conversations on race.

Despite all of the work society does to convince us that white people are neutral, they are not. They engage with the greater world as a white people. They might not think of themselves as white in the same way I think of myself as Native, but they are white. And because of this, whiteness informs all of their interactions with others. For example, in conversations on police in schools, white people often defer to the notion that police (or “good” police) can serve an important function in schools. But this perspective is informed by the relationship white people have with the police. Even when white people are vehemently against police brutality, they can remain silent on the dozens of other ways police enact white supremacy.

Because of this presumed neutrality, white people usually make comments that are centered in whiteness. Sometimes when I confront them on this, they reflect. But other times, they double down on their whiteness and will state something like, “I’m just making an observation,” or “I’m just playing devil’s advocate.” These comments are meant to distance themselves from their whiteness–when in reality, all of our observations or devil’s advocate stances we take are informed by our racial positioning. You aren’t just making an observation, you are making an observation as a white person. Therefore, before you comment on something as a white person, I think it’s helpful to ask yourself a few things…

  • Is this appropriate for me to comment on as a white person? I’ve been in classes where Brown and Black students share their experiences with race, and a white person will comment in ways that negate the person’s experience because “not everything is about race.” Perhaps it’s not for white people because whiteness is treated as the rule but it is for the people who are frequently racialized.
  • How does sharing my white person’s perspective add to the current conversation? I’m involved in a lot of conversations on Native mascots. White people love to comment on Native mascots. Unfortunately, their comments often reinforce whiteness or attempt to make the conversation about their feelings as white people. This is why it’s important to think about what you’re adding to the interaction. This is not to say that white people can’t have perspectives on Native mascots, but do those perspectives add, in any way, to the conversation taking place?
  • Should I, as a white person, do more research/reading/reflection on this topic before I comment? I realize that this could be a habit I developed as an academic, but before I comment on most anything, I check my facts, make sure I understand the topic, and ask if my voice adds to the conversation. I encourage white people to do the same, particularly when entering dialogue on race.

I realize that this post might create some defensiveness among my white readers. I hope that’s not the case, but if it is, I thank you in advance for sitting with your defensiveness. It’s not easy, but is necessary for those who want to dismantle white supremacy.

I also want to note that while these questions are probably worth asking in any type of commenting situation–this is not an observation that needs to be made. Making this type of observation (“but everyone should do this!”) is an attempt to de-center whiteness. Please don’t do that 🙂

Thank you for reading.

What I Read — January 2021

The the end of each month, I plan to post the things I read. If you’re interested in an article and it’s behind a paywall, let me know and I’ll get it for you. Happy reading!


How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi [completed as part of the The Literary Life 19 in 2021 reading challenge, the “Finish a book you started but didn’t finish category”] — I’m not the audience for this book, which is why I started it, but couldn’t finish. I think it’s an important book and one that everyone should read. But I disagree with certain premises based on my own research on race.

Mimi Gets a Clue by Jennifer J. Chow — This is what would be called a “cozy mystery,” a term I just learned about a few months ago. It’s very cute and completely not stressful to read.

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch — Another mystery, this time British and magical. Don’t want to give too much away but I’m excited to read the series.

Book of Delights by Ross Gay — This is lovely and sad and hopeful all at once. Ross Gay decided to write about something that delighted him every day for a year. He spoils it right away that he did not write every day, but what he shares is fantastic.


Academia Isn’t a Safe Haven for Conversations About Race and Racism — Harvard Business Review

Black Girls and Womyn Matter: Using Black Feminist Thought to Examine Violence and Erasure in Education

Black Feminist Thought and Qualitative Research in Education

A Theory of Racialized Organizations

All of these articles align with a couple of my current projects, but the last one, by Victor Ray, will likely change how to approach certain things. It’s that good!

What Tomorrow Brings

Today is the Inauguration. Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As a scholar of race and equity, I have complicated feelings about both, particularly around how people choose to recognize them. The mixture of capitalism and nationalism and calls to action feel out of touch with the lived experiences of so many people in the United States, but yet we continue to acknowledge these days for what they represent (or maybe, what we want them to represent).

Every MLK Day, I re-read Letter from Birmingham Jail. This is my favorite of his writings because it so closely aligns with my own views on justice-oriented work and the white moderate and how systemic inaction leads to inequity. He argues throughout the letter something I find fundamental to my own work: nothing changes without action. I would also add the caveat that nothing changes without substantial action. Fighting for racial justice is always easier when one isn’t personally at risk–but really it requires a critical mass of us committing to take whatever risk exists in this fight. King wrote:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

These words force me to think about all the coded language folks use in academia to police and dismiss the type of direct action necessary to improve the educational outcomes of underrepresented folks. They force me to think about risks I have and will take, even when there are white voices telling me to “work within the system” and “be patient.”

We have new president and with that, a new sense of hope. Or so folks tell me– I spent much of the day thinking about the hypocrisy of the great American experiment and that this new change won’t be the panacea folks want it to be. King wrote about this too, reminding us that we can never relent:

“Why didn’t you give the new administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this inquiry is that the new administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one before it acts.

But then as I was stewing about American exceptionalism and white liberalism, I read a comment on a news post that read, “It’s ok to be happy today. Even for the whole day.” And that made me laugh. Let tomorrow bring the hard work of confronting negative peace and lukewarm acceptance. Today we can allow ourselves some peace.

The Case for Rest

I had every intention of making this winter break restful–not checking email, not working, and reading a lot. Unfortunately, I had manuscript revisions to complete and given the state of the world, they took almost the entirety of break. So rather than rest, I worked.

I recognize that the idea of having rest is one of privilege–while academics are workers and are exploited in their own ways, the exploitation looks and feels very different than the way other laborers are exploited. This post is not intended to diminish their struggles; instead I want to draw attention to how academics participate in their own labor exploitation and why we shouldn’t.

Breaks from work are necessary. They help us re-charge, they allow us to think differently about our work, they give our bodies a chance to relax. All of these things are needed for our well-being. This is why I get frustrated when people expect/encourage academics to use semester break to catch-up. I give my research assistants that time off, telling them that I’m not going to look at their work during the break so they shouldn’t do it! For example, I had a student reach out to me three days before Christmas, because a potential academic employer wanted a recommendation letter….by January 3rd. This is unfair to everyone–the student who might not have letters in time because faculty aren’t checking email over winter break, the faculty member who needs to work during their time off. I did it because I didn’t want the student to be harmed, but I resented it.

And I do not want to hear “this is how it is” or “you are so lucky you even get a break.” Both of these are tools employed to prevent people from questioning workplace expectations and are meant to maintain the (unhealthy) status quo. I can acknowledge that my workplace offers more protection and security than others and also acknowledge that there are parts of academic work culture that are inherently problematic and need changing.

I do want to note that given the events of the last month (or really, since the election), it is hard to be restful in any capacity. So it is possible that even if I hadn’t worked all break, I’d still start this semester from a place of tired.

What I do know is that lack of rest in our workplaces should not be something we accept anymore and I’m going to think about ways to change that in my own corner of academia.

So Long, 2020!

I’ve only worked for colleges and universities in my adult life, so I am very attached to the academic calendar and how the ebbs and flows of the semester signpost the timing of my life. The actual year might have 16 days left (what?!) but after I submit grades in a few hours, my year is done. I’ll turn on my out-of-office, return all my library books, submit any final forms, and retreat to the stack of books awaiting me.

I thought this semester I’d write more about my research, but it turns out I needed more reflection! I appreciate you reading along as I worked through my thoughts on oppression and marginalization in academia, and especially for reading along when I wrote about hope. I’m looking forward to the future, even though I know the future will have challenges.

There were many great things that happened professionally — I connected with some amazing scholars through invited talks, I worked on some important grant projects, and I wrote more than I thought. Not as much as I wanted, but more than I thought. I might’ve spent the week of the election huddled under the covers of my bed, but I had planned ahead and cancelled class and meetings for that week. Thinking ahead in August for the win!

I’m taking the next four weeks off, so expect a post in mid-January. I plan to write about current research projects, some ideas I have in-progress, and whatever other things happen in the larger world that I want to bring into this world.

Speaking of….doctorates are earned, come with a title, and anyone with a title is free to use it however they want. And let me just say if you are a man, and you call me kiddo, you are going to wear whatever beverage I have in my hand.

See you in the new year!

The Penultimate Week of the Semester

We made it to week 15! The second-to-last week of the semester. Any expectations I had for this term went out the window in August but I’m happy to say that I think everyone did the best they could. I moved one of my classes from in-person to remote, because it made sense for the students (my other class is always remote, even pre-pandemic). I offered grace to students who needed extensions and more time; they offered grace to me when grading took a bit longer or I had trouble with technology. As an instructor, I take class community seriously and was happy to see the communities develop in both of my classes, despite the challenging circumstances.

But this week is particularly sad for me because this is the last week of classes (finals are next week). And in the last week, I typically host students for a potluck dinner (well, I provide the main meal and sides–people can bring something to share if they want, but it’s not required). It’s my way of saying thanks for their engagement but also allows us to share a bit of ourselves that we normally don’t share in class. I look forward to it all semester.

This is also the week where I’m wrapping up manuscripts, getting ready for final grading, and sitting in on proposal and dissertation defenses. I am looking forward to those returning to in-person as well.

I am ready for the semester to be over, in the way I am always ready for the semester to be over, but I’ve learned a lot the past four months. So next week I’ll offer some final reflections on the semester–what worked/didn’t work, what I will take with me for spring, what fears I had about the future of research on race and colonialism. Then I plan to take a break from posting until classes resume in January 2021. My Netflix queue is long 🙂


Many people reached out after reading my post on Thanksgiving and the comments mostly landed into two categories: those who appreciated the push to think more deeply about this tradition and those who shared that they didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving so much as they celebrated the harvest and being thankful. I could argue that our departure from an agrarian society limits our relationship to harvest and that one could be thankful any of time of the year, but I appreciated their points.

So in a desire to bring more good into the world, I want to express my gratitude for…

  • Colleagues who support and amplify my work regularly and consistently.
  • Graduate students (all of you!) who allow me to offer guidance and feedback throughout their doctoral journey.
  • Opportunities to speak at different campuses about the importance of challenging institutions and organizations to be better when it comes to supporting anti/de-colonial ideology.
  • Mentors in and outside of the College of Education who are shepherding me through the promotion and tenure process.
  • Indigenous people I am connected with (both at and outside of Purdue) for reminding me of the importance of our communities.
  • All of the abundance I have in my life with friends, family, health, fitness, work.

This year has challenged me in ways I didn’t think were possible and while I sometimes wish I had a daily gratitude practice, I do not. But I am practicing gratitude today and maybe that’s enough.

Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good. — Maya Angelou

Thank you for reading.