This Critical Moment:
Interdisciplinarity as Catalyst for Positive Change
James Welch IV
Association for Interdisciplinary Studies
Personal Remarks: In this essay, I approached the problem of systemic racism in the way I have been trained and have trained countless interdisciplinary students—as a complex real-world problem integrating insights from multiple perspectives and fields of expertise. Further, the essay is grounded in my personal experiences, growing up in segregated Tyler, Texas, a student at Robert E. Lee High School. The cultural environment there was literally saturated in racism. It is a subject I have studied and deeply contemplated for decades. Thus, this essay is coming as much from my heart as my intellect. As someone brought up surrounded by racism, the essay is both cathartic and redemptive.
Over 40 years ago, the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS) was founded in response to a crisis brought about by concentrations of power in higher education, privileging established disciplines and professional specializations that exerted monopolistic control over knowledge production and application. As part of a larger movement, interdisciplinary studies joined other innovative programs, like African American Studies, Women’s Studies and Environmental Studies, in challenging the norms of power and privilege, and creating a visible, vibrant space for voices that had long been suppressed or ignored. By seeking to revolutionize the prevailing structure of academia, AIS, at its inception, was fundamentally counter-cultural. Unlike other revolutionary efforts, interdisciplinary studies did not have a particular focus on specific marginalized groups or causes, but rather sought to re-vision higher education on a fundamental level, by reforming the very way knowledge is perceived. Nonetheless, it is now time for AIS to formally, actively and substantially address the complex real-world impacts that inequalities of power and privilege have on people and institutions, particularly in the form of systemic racism.
Like all major social issues, racism is complex, intersecting multiple knowledge domains and possessing a deep historical context. Gaining a comprehensive understanding of this complexity is necessary in order to create effective positive change. Racism, including its extreme expressions of slavery and genocide, has been an almost ubiquitous cultural constant throughout recorded history. It is a projection of territorial instincts that predate our development as a species, readily demonstrated in the behavior of most social animals. Racism is a form of xenophobia, a primitive vestige of our evolutionary ancestry, which originally functioned as a security mechanism. This instinct became projected into a fear of symbolic differences like language, beliefs, customs, skin color, et al. Thus, like many of our evolutionary instincts, what was long ago biologically adaptive has become culturally maladaptive–our more newly developed higher order thinking faculties are at odds with earlier instincts that are no longer pertinent, but nonetheless remain. As repugnant as these territorial instincts may be to our modern, enlightened sensibilities, we cannot ignore the impact they continue to have over contemporary behavior.
The more recent history of racism begins when slavery becomes systematized during the European colonizing period, utilizing advances in commerce and transportation through which European powers were able to exploit resources around the world. European attitudes toward all indigenous peoples, including Africans, became institutionalized as moral and intellectual superiority, reinforced by religious imperatives, and self-justified by their economic and military domination. As history repeatedly shows, power, once established, maintains itself through routine patterns of oppression. European colonial power would not be overthrown until well after it devastated itself during World War II.
For America, established in large part through slave labor, the exploitation of Africans stolen from their homelands was systematized on an industrial scale, and became a normative practice. It is impossible to use human beings as a resource without dehumanizing them, believing them to be animals, beasts of burden. Normalizing slavery created a cocoon of paternalistic rationalizations–justifying oppression as salvation, exploitation as education–so that many whites believed that enslaving blacks was an act of benevolence. When slavery became unsustainable in the 1800s, needing a bloody civil war to finally disrupt it in America, the normative traditions of dehumanization retained much of their potency. Racism became systematized into laws, social institutions, physical segregation, economic and political exclusion. Systemic racism was enforced through widespread terrorism, exemplified in the practice of lynchings, and the violent destruction of whole communities as with The Tulsa Race Massacre. Institutionalized racism was perhaps most starkly demonstrated in the so-called justice system, where law enforcement and the courts propagated violence and protected its perpetrators. It is impossible to underestimate, or even fully grasp, the level of abandonment felt by “emancipated” slaves and the generations that followed them.
The Black Lives Matter movement is but the latest attempt to try to correct a deep, ugly history of exploitation, violence, exclusion and denigration that has oppressed generations of African Americans. The ideals of equality and justice, at the core of the civil rights movement and other progressive efforts have long been recognized and established, but far from universally applied. And the problem of systemic racism is by no means exclusively an American problem. Cultures around the world are experiencing similar protests, and facing the necessity to reconcile their political ideas with their own realities of oppression. It must also be recognized that systemic racism is only one facet of wider patterns of oppression, including oppression of indigenous peoples, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and all varieties of religious persecution. Yet, what liberates one segment of society helps liberate all.
AIS is by no means detached from this context of systemic racism. Over the last several years, our organization has been adjusting to a changing interdisciplinary landscape. At the foundation of these changes has been a deeper understanding of diversity and pluralism more broadly construed. AIS has always advocated for disciplinary diversity and encouraged multiple perspectives in solving complex problems. This approach covers an expansive territory, yet ironically, it has excluded other types of diversity that are just as important. Awareness of this exclusion has led us to take substantial steps to seek more ethnic and international inclusion in our membership and leadership, to expand the scope of what interdisciplinary studies is and could be. Fortunately, our history of research and scholarship, along with our advocacy efforts, have had a profound impact on knowledge production and led to a widespread acceptance of interdisciplinary studies in a variety of contexts. These efforts can be brought to bear on the challenges of diversity facing communities across the globe.
Exclusion in Academia
Many of us indulge in the delusion that higher education exists in a post-racial world. Couched in the progressive Enlightenment principles of reason, equality and open-minded inquiry, we often are unconscious of the impact that systemic racism has on our students, faculty and curriculum. Despite countless committees and administrative departments dedicated to university inclusion, black students are underrepresented in enrollment, retention, persistence and graduation rates, and black professors are underrepresented in faculty and administration.
These facts are doubly disconcerting as it is well known that educational levels are highly correlated with quality of life and opportunities for self-fulfillment. Education, from the very earliest stages, presents powerful avenues for effectuating social change and correcting power imbalances within society. Education empowers individuals and communities, brings awareness to social problems, and provides resources and strategies for solving those problems. Regardless of our positions as professors, scholars, researchers or administrators, the members of AIS are educators all, and thus in a position to influence productive change in educational institutions, and empower transformations in our students.
Interdisciplinarity and Pluralism
The theory and practice of interdisciplinarity can help. The dynamics of racism involve familiar territory for interdisciplinarians–unequal distribution of power, incommensurability of perspectives, unquestioned or unacknowledged assumptions, and the absence of a common language or conceptual framework for goal setting and problem solving. Dealing productively with differences–bringing diverse perspectives together in order to solve complex problems–is the stock and trade of interdisciplinarity. Repko identifies “addressing pressing social needs” as one of the main justifications for taking an interdisciplinary approach (Repko, p.???). This means that interdisciplinarity is more than a theoretical shift in knowledge production, or a multi-faceted methodology for researching complex topics, but that interdisciplinarians have a clear responsibility to actively address critical social problems.
The dynamics of power. The unequal distribution of power is familiar to many of us who work in interdisciplinary studies. Our programs are often marginalized and underfunded, our scholarship dismissed, our faculty members denied tenure or a voice in university decision making. However, none of these obstacles can compare with the pervasive patterns of oppression experienced in communities of color.
Power–social, political and economic–is a stubborn thing. Once established, it cements itself in social institutions and, more deeply, in the collective cultural consciousness. Power is thus both internal and external at once, and the complex interplay between these two aspects must be understood in order to create effective change. Externally, power is projected from institutions into the fabric of society itself. For democratic institutions, the unequal distribution of power arises from lack of representation in the institutions whose policies and practices impact marginalized segments of the population. Blacks literally do not have a voice in the institutions that decide on a daily, granular level their conditions or their opportunities. This voicelessness can be easily seen in comparisons of household income, levels of education, rates of incarceration, business ownership, and even health outcomes. This list could be expanded ad nauseum.
Internally, unequal power configures the consciousness of both the oppressed and oppressor. The perceived inferiority of blacks, moral and intellectual, is debilitating to members of the black community. It perpetuates a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy that inhibits self-actualization, and thus deprives all of society from potential contributions of a significant portion of our common community. In democratic nations, founded on the principle that individual liberty creates collective value, this is not only a waste of human potential, but a hypocritical failure to live up to our most sacred cultural ideals.
There is a cost to systemic racism for the oppressors as well. Far too often the possession of power invites and enables abuse. Perhaps the gravest abuse of power is the act of dehumanization. With such an attitude, it is exceedingly easy to perceive difference as threat, and to justify the most vicious actions as rational steps to protect and secure one’s culture, traditions or territory. Lynchings, police brutality, and even genocide are couched in an elaborate labyrinth of rationalizations that enable ordinary human beings to descend into evil. Power, therefore, harms the oppressor, morally and spiritually, wasting their lives in obsessions with hatred and fear. Abuse of power is fostered and amplified externally. Institutions designed to protect power and privilege create a culture that ignores or even encourages attitudes of hatred and fear, protecting and promoting the acts of violence and oppression that all too naturally arise from them.
From the vantage point of interdisciplinarity, the unequal power relations intrinsic to systemic racism constitute a wicked problem in every sense of the phrase. It is complex and multi-dimensional, full of the interplay of contradictions. Yet, it is only from this complex understanding that sustainable solutions can truly be developed. Interdisciplinarity not only embraces pluralism as a fundamental principle, but it has also examined the dynamics of difference and developed methods for bringing disparate perspectives together into holistic understanding and problem solving potential.
Bringing bias to consciousness. Two of the most intractable aspects of systemic racism are the incommensurability of perspectives and unquestioned/unacknowledged assumptions. The unconscious nature of racism means the very discussion of the problem cannot even begin; it is hidden, deflected from full awareness. At one level, the alienation of race is socioeconomic and cultural: the segregation of spaces and norms prevent us from having a shared experience. We do not know what it is like to be one another, to live as an other. The incommensurability of our experiences seems an unbridgable gap; we too often are simply not exposed to each other in any deep, meaningful way.
But more deeply, and dangerously, we hide the very mechanisms of creating otherness from ourselves. Power and privilege are most often invisible to those that have it. This means that, in general, people cannot acknowledge their own racism. The problem is not merely unspoken, or consciously willed into oblivion, but rather unconsciously repressed beneath a maze of rationalizations that protect the privileged from realizing the ways they protect their own privilege. Unacknowledged assumptions cannot be questioned; they are impervious to examination.
Therefore, solutions to racism must begin with confrontation. The outpouring of protests now engaging Americans and other communities throughout the world function to penetrate the cocoons of the privileged and bring the unconscious into uncomfortable awareness. From this awareness, ideally there arises a moment of metacognitive reflection that develops into a new realization: that the prevailing patterns of power are unconscionable and unsustainable. Without this metacognitive realization, inequality of power becomes a dialectical tug of war, a cycle of action and reaction, of dominance and submission. In the short term, confrontation is unavoidable and productive–reaction is better than inaction after all–but racism in America and around the world has been repeating this cycle for centuries, and we are sick and tired. Long term solutions to systemic racism require a sustainable, if not permanent, shift in power relationships.
Developing “common ground.” The techniques of interdisciplinarity are geared specifically toward bridging gaps between incommensurate perspectives, bringing unconscious assumptions into awareness, and using advanced communication strategies to acknowledge differences and realize common ground. There could not be a problem more worthy of our efforts. First, there is a need here to dispel misconceptions about the concept of “common ground.” Common ground does not mean everyone involved in solving a complex problem achieves unanimity of vision or purpose. Differences do not go away, those with opposing viewpoints do not simply surrender to each other, nor are their ideas and goals subsumed into some grand overarching order. In discussions over racism, common ground is not an assimilation of blacks and whites into a neutral shade of beige. Rather, differences matter, not only because all individuals have the right to be heard and respected, but also because the interplay of differences in perspectives, ideas, expertise and experiences stimulate the generation of insights and enable a comprehensive understanding of complex issues. Interdisciplinary integration is not a collapse of differences, and can be arrived at in any number of ways, depending on the dynamic situational context of the problem at hand.
The problem with the exchange of differences is that it can become a cacophonic clash of ideas and opinions, each vying for dominance. Common ground, then, concerns finding a space where the interplay of differences can be calm, productive and progressive. This process begins simply with active listening. Far too often, when whites listen to the concerns of blacks, they project their own norms and experiences onto the conversation, interpret those concerns from their own perspective, and thus offer re-contextualized solutions that are either impertinent or come across as just plain condescending. Even with the best of intentions, these kinds of interactions nonetheless display unconscious ethnocentrism. True listening, active listening means “I hear you” fully and exhaustively, without interruption, judgment or preconception. Like much of the process of common ground, this does not come naturally; it is a skill that requires practice and forethought.
A formal setting with rules established in advance can foster this kind of dialogue. Such a forum must include a selection of relevant stakeholders and experts that fully represent all voices involved in the problem. Optimal group size must be balanced in a way that excludes no major contributors, while allowing for deep mutual understanding and dialogue that leads to effective action. All group discussions and deliberations are transparent and communicated effectively to the larger populations affected. The need for skilled facilitators in these discussions cannot be overstated. Representatives enter these forums each with their own agendas and needs, and it is incumbent upon a facilitator who has no vested interest in a preconceived solution to oversee the process. Similarly, problem-solving should occur in a place that is neutral, i.e. not associated with the “territory” of any of the stakeholders involved. The space should be arranged to optimize discussion and minimize distractions. Obviously, this is a very different forum than protests, demonstrations, or even “town hall meetings,” which are necessary in order to challenge power and bring awareness to injustices. However, the hard work of solving intractable problems requires a more formal set of procedures.
The strategies involved in establishing common ground and working toward sustainable solutions to complex problems highlight techniques that AIS and related scholarship have been developing for decades. The “integrative mindset” is a mental and emotional stance that allows an interdisciplinarian to make connections among conflicting ideas and goals, and see them as part of a greater whole. The technique of perspective taking provides a means for not simply understanding multiple viewpoints, but actually inhabiting them. Tolerance of ambiguity, another trait of interdisciplinarians, allows us to see that the contradictions involved in wicked problems like systemic racism do not fall neatly into a harmonious unity. Solutions may involve compromises, especially in the short term, that cannot satisfy the individual needs and goals of all stakeholders. Lastly, the interdisciplinary approach explicitly involves examination on one’s own biases and preconceptions. In conflict resolution scenarios, the role of facilitator best applies these interdisciplinary strategies. However, this is not to say that the interdisciplinary approach to systemic racism is detached or dispassionate. As interdisciplinarians, we must be deeply concerned about serious social problems, and actively committed to solving them.
Developing common ground in discussions of systemic racism is about finding common ground for humans–safe communities, access to education, financial security, access to adequate nutrition and healthcare, and foundational to all of this–deep, mutual respect. This represents a set of values shared by all stakeholders. Furthermore, these are not unattainable utopian ideals, but principles explicitly elucidated in civil and religious doctrines throughout every culture. The work of integrating the best ideas of experts and stakeholders then proceeds from this common sense of mutual respect and shared values. Policies, procedures, and the mechanisms of accountability that enforce them are developed locally, in regard to the needs and circumstances of each community, and over time–with evaluation and communication of results, more widespread best practices can arise.
Case Study: “Defund the Police!” Calls to defund police departments have become a common cry in protests against police brutality, providing a timely and relevant opportunity to illustrate how an interdisciplinarian would approach this kind of complex social problem. Like many wicked, interdisciplinary problems, defunding police departments is a simple, emotional, easily expressed and grasped expression that is nonetheless disguising the complex, contradictory and multifaceted issues involved. An interdisciplinary approach encompasses the internal mechanisms of the problem, the context of myriad connections that surround it, and then develops a comprehensive forum for finding solutions to the problem.
A decades-long political movement to be “hard on crime” has made it all but impossible for anyone to seek public office without uncompromising and unquestioning support for law enforcement. The results have been widespread and longstanding: increased economic resources for police departments and unprecedented incarceration rates in an ever-expanding prison system. Police departments have in some cases used these funds to purchase surplus military equipment, and this, along with the increased hiring of former members of the armed forces, has led to many police departments adopting a kind of wartime stance. The language and mission of “protect and serve” has been replaced with the “war on drugs,” the “war on gangs” and so on. Communities are treated as battlefields. It is true that there are few occupations more dangerous than that of a police officer, some of whom face violence on a daily basis. The ready supply of firearms into some neighborhoods has led to a kind of arms race between the police and the communities they serve. Nonetheless, self-fulfilling prophecy is at work here–treating citizens as wartime enemies is a sure recipe for mutual antagonism. An interdisciplinary approach must take into account all of these complex dynamics.
The rhetorical impact of “defund the police” is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it puts police departments on notice that they cannot go on expecting prioritized resources without accountability for their actions and results. It is a rallying cry against abuse of power by law enforcement. One the other hand, it is seen as an attack on law and order itself. One side wants a world without the terror caused by the police, and the other fears a world where terror is unleashed by the absence of police. One side sees the protests as rampant lawlessness, and the other side sees them as an emphatic response to the lawlessness of law enforcement itself. It is impossible for both these perspectives to be exclusively true or right, and it is impractical to expect one side to “win” and dominate the other indefinitely. Instead, as an interdisciplinarian can readily see, “truth” and “right” are complex and nuanced concepts bluntly wielded by opposing points of view.
Instead, efforts to expand the depth and breadth of what is meant by “defund the police” reflect an interdisciplinary approach to reform of law enforcement. The ideas concern not simply taking resources away from the police in order to make them ineffectual, but rather more broadly distribute resources to cover a wider array of functions and services. Police officers are quite often put in situations for which they have little formal training or disposition. Again, military attitudes and tactics often do not pertain to situations such as domestic disputes, vagrancy, low level drug abuse, juvenile delinquency, etc., and can unnecessarily escalate situations involving them. In fact, all manner of social services, including mental health, child care, nutrition, un/underemployment, have been drastically defunded for decades. Regardless of how it is perceived, the defunding movement is in actuality an attempt to rebalance resources to where they were before the “hard on crime” movement began.
A broader approach to serving and protecting communities that brings to bear the expertise of social workers, urban planners, economists, mental health professionals, and child development specialists, explicitly illustrates an interdisciplinary approach to complex problems. Using the skills and strategies of common ground outlined above, a process for reform can be initiated that could lead to lasting systemic change. Inclusion of relevant stakeholders, creating a forum where voices are heard, and a system where disparate ideas are integrated into practical solutions–this is the interdisciplinary approach. It is not easy, and often is not really emotionally or ideologically satisfying. However, it is the best chance to break the cycle of reaction, and create a positive sea change in the landscape of systemic racism.
Targeted Outreach Strategies
It is long past time that AIS applies its principles to itself, and takes a long soul-searching look at the ways that we as an organization perpetuate patterns of power and privilege. We must strive to reconcile our internal contradictions, and establish ourselves as a force for positive change. In this vein, we are taking the following steps and initiatives:
- Over the last few years, the AIS board of directors has been developing a statement on diversity that will be included in the preamble of our revised constitution, central to our mission statement.
- We will continue to actively seek ethnic, cultural and international diversity in our membership and in our board of directors.
- Understanding the importance of education in achieving racial justice, we will develop programs to attract more first-generation students, and highlight the efforts of our members and affiliated institutions to do so.
- We will foster efforts by interdisciplinary studies programs to reach out to underrepresented student populations and publicize the benefits of interdisciplinarity in comprehending the complexities of issues such as racial injustice, the dynamics of power and privilege, conflict resolution and other types of relevant problem solving.
- AIS will make efforts to encourage and support interdisciplinary studies programs to facilitate internships, and establish productive placement in the job market. Job placement after graduation all too often relies on connections which reflect existing patterns of power and privilege. Concerted effort must be made in order to compensate for these established networks and afford our students ample opportunities to compete in the job market.
- AIS will develop workshops that train members in techniques of collaboration, mediation and conflict resolution. AIS will encourage and support interdisciplinary studies programs in developing workshops and training in these areas, as well as professional skills that will translate into job security, social activism and civic responsibility.
- AIS will explicitly and actively support racial justice and equity in every possible way, and advocate for all of our members participating in these efforts.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all that we as an organization can and will do to create positive sustainable change in patterns of systemic racism. We welcome, and indeed require, the ideas of our members in this cause, along with information about ongoing or developing projects, initiatives of other organizations, and deeper understanding of personal and historical contexts regarding racial justice issues.
A Call to Activism
It is important to remember that AIS is an academic organization of voluntary members who receive no compensation and often little recognition for their service to the organization from their home universities. On top of the recent history of shrinking budgets, additional demands and responsibilities, downsizing of faculty and precarious job security, current university faculty are facing the disruption of a global viral pandemic. As individuals, and even as an organization, it is tempting to believe that the problem of systemic racism is so pervasive, so complex, so divisive, possessing such a long, imposing history that we are all but powerless to curtail it in any effective way.
Such misgivings have always been leveled against interdisciplinary endeavors. We embrace the complex, the wicked, the intractable problems. Disciplines were developed, in part, on the premise that complexity is impossible to approach holistically, and instead must be divided and reduced into manageable fragments. Such claims have been leveled against democracy as well–that it is impossible for peoples (i.e. races) to coexist in multicultural societies–differences in perspectives, experiences, beliefs and customs will inevitably lead to conflict, which can only be stabilized through cultural segregation, assimilation or domination of one culture over all contenders.
However, just as disciplinarity has failed to adequately address complex issues like climate change, cultural hegemony has failed humanity itself–directly causing widespread and longstanding suffering, oppression, violence, degradation, dehumanization and wasted spirits on all sides. Ideals embodied in the concept of universal human rights can only come to fruition in a globalized community of mutual respect. This ideal is bigger than any individual or organization; yet it is, in fact, an eventual inevitability. This ideal is expressed in the Theory of the Expanding Circle, which states, simply that all human beings possess just as much an instinct for compassion, empathy and acceptance as we have for hatred and xenophobia. Over the course of our history as a species, we have shown extraordinary abilities to care for those closest to us. As society has expanded and become more complex, we extend that care to larger and larger populations–community, city, state, nation. Now, perhaps, we are struggling to make our ability to care for one another truly global in scope.
In other words, we can choose which parts of our nature to empower—territorialism or altruism. Thus, it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to do whatever is in our power, large or small, to effect positive change in ourselves, our communities and our institutions. AIS has always been fundamentally and philosophically committed to this change, and now in this critical moment, we are ready to renew our efforts to speed progress towards true and lasting justice for all. We welcome you all to join us and help in this endeavor.