Angry but not Surprised

by Regina L. Garza Mitchell / Oct 15, 2020

I should be working on my promotion portfolio right now (it’s due in less than two weeks) or grading papers or finishing that research article or a million other things on my never-ending list of things to do.

Instead, the words keep going through my mind: angry but not surprised. The same words I saw repeated over and over with slight variations, like this headline from Diverse Issues in Higher Education: “Scholars Disappointed But Not Surprised by Grand Jury Decision in Breonna Taylor Case.” Disappointed but not surprised. Frustrated but not surprised. Sad but not surprised. Angry but not surprised.

We live in an age when a Black teenager can be killed without penalty for simply walking down the street, but a white teenager can murder people in public view, walk by police holding the big-ass gun he used, and get to go home to his mama. And the president tries to instill sympathy for the murderer. The country that boasts a statue that reads “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” also imprisons immigrants looking for better lives, separates children from parents, locks them in cages, and sterilizes women.

What year is this? What country is this?

That last line is said with a bit of irony. The U.S. has built itself on false history that prizes white history over all others. I grew up on the border of Texas and Mexico and wasn’t taught the truths about the people who originally settled the land, including my ancestors. Instead, I learned about the “great men” who “explored” and “founded” America. The texts glossed over the people who were terrorized, abused, and murdered, treating entire cultures that were destroyed as objects of curiosity. Those people were secondary to the “heroism” of the white men seeking their manifest destinies.

Slavery was another issue that was glossed over, treated as though it ended with the Civil War. Brown v. Board and the civil rights movement were presented as though they had cured the country of racism and ensured equal opportunities, educational or otherwise, for all. People pretended there were no racial problems. We were told to be “tolerant,” a term I always hated. Tolerance implies you are putting up with something (or someone) you don’t agree with. These days we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion. The words are presented in nice packages, tied up with bows, and placed in mission statements and strategic plans. Sometimes funding is provided so that we can make first-order changes with little, if any, lasting impact. If we are truly open to equity, diversity, and inclusion, why are there so few faculty of color, and why do those numbers get smaller as you move up the ranks to full professor? Why are there so few people of color in senior leadership positions? Why are women of all backgrounds still treated as “less than”?

Americans seem to think that equity is a zero-sum game. The concept of putting people on a level playing field is threatening. That line of thinking makes no sense to me. I went into education to make a difference, to help fill some of those gaps. What might we gain if more people had access to things like democratic educational opportunity, health care, and living wages? Think of how much we, as a people, would benefit if more people were considered fully human.

Disappointed but not surprised. Angry but not surprised.

I tell my students, and I honestly believe, that making mistakes is a part of the learning process. What has been learned from hundreds of years of colonization, racism, sexism, xenophobia? To look at the U.S. today, the lesson is that white is right. Don’t speak up, don’t speak out, do not protest injustice because if you do, the local police will be made federal deputies. They will be provided even more power to strike down people exercising their legal right to protest and their human right to be treated fairly. And the President of the United States will refuse to speak out against racism or racist groups while ordering trainings on Critical Race Theory and white privilege be stopped, touting them as “anti-American propaganda.” How dare taxpayer money be put to work to ensure all Americans be treated as Americans? Can you think of anything less equitable?

Angry again but not surprised.

I learned in school that the justice system was set up to protect people, that people are innocent until proven guilty, that trials are fair. In practice, I see the justice system set up to profile people and to mete out “justice” unfairly. It’s about gaming the system rather than right or wrong. There was no justice for Breonna Taylor or her family. Twelve million dollars and the promise of police reform does not make up for a woman murdered in her own home by the very public servants entrusted to protect her. I was taught that to call the police if I was in trouble—what do you do when they are the ones breaking into your home?

Angry but not surprised.

Two of the three officers who stormed Breonna Taylor’s home in plainclothes without knocking were not charged. The third was charged with “wanton endangerment”—but not for her death but for stray bullets that went into a neighbor’s wall, the bullets that missed Ms. Taylor. Today I found out that was the only charge the Kentucky attorney general brought to the jury. He never recommended homicide charges against the officers. Her life was worth that little to the state.

Angry but not surprised.

Breonna Taylor deserved better than this. So does every other Black person unjustly murdered by police officers who place so little value on Black and Brown lives. Raise your voice about it, and you might be fired. Raise your voice about it in protest, and you might be killed.

Angry but not surprised.

When people don’t like what you’re saying, they try to  shame you into silence by telling you that you are being too aggressive, too sensitive, or by simply talking over you. But if you continue to speak, even in a neutral tone of voice, you’re not polite and you’re not nice because you’re not in your place. You’re disruptive, you’re rude, you’re angry. That is when people—usually white men—get angry. They feel threatened when you step out of the box they have so neatly placed you into. When you place yourself on par with them.

I sometimes worry that speaking out might hinder my career or offend the different constituencies I represent through my service activities. Occasionally, I worry about being called a bitch (yet again). But, as none other than Ruth Bader Ginsberg said, better bitch than mouse.

There is no room to be quiet anymore. The country is at a tipping point, and that can be scary. But sometimes structures need to be dismantled in order to break the bonds that tie us to outdated modes of thinking. Gloria Anzaldúa reminds us that “To be healed we must be dismembered, torn apart.” [1] I believe we are at that point where we need to complete the process of dismantling the old, constraining structures that cradle racism and promote one way of thinking, one way of talking, one way of looking. If we don’t keep pushing for change, complacency will remove the strides that have been made toward equity.

The time for politeness has passed.

[1] Anzaldúa, G. (2015). Light in the dark/luz en lo oscuro: Rewriting identity, spirituality, reality. Duke University Press Books.

Regina L. Garza Mitchell is an associate professor of educational leadership in higher education at Western Michigan University and the president of The Council for the Study of Community Colleges, which is housed at the Office of Community College Research and Leadership.