No Study Without Struggle is a Love Letter

With deep inspiration from Sara Ahmed’s profound words that a book can be a thank you note, I share below the love and gratitude letter I wrote and shared as part of the Leading with Justice series. The session was organized around my recent book from Beacon Press, No Study Without Struggle: Confronting Settler Colonialism in Higher Education, and was a multi-vocal conversation among four women working in but not of the academy. I didn’t know I needed to write this love and gratitude letter, to lift up the ways that the book is a love and gratitude letter until I read Sara Ahmed’s words. Expressing the love and gratitude that this book is sourced from had been rankling inside me, particularly when people impatiently ask, but what solution do you have for higher education? Simple, not to be confused with easy: study groups and loving learning more than property. Interestingly, no one ever asks me what the ‘solution’ is to settler colonialism. In the book itself, I thank a number of people and collectives in the book, but this letter of love and gratitude is something different. It pulls back the cover of the work lovingly told in the book, work that cannot be contained within any single text, moment, or movement. So, instead of my typical image-only ppt slides, I read portions of this love and gratitude letter.

As always, thank you for reading and engaging.

How can a love and gratitude letter include the words, ‘confronting’ ‘study’ and ‘struggle’? Aren’t these hard words, words of discord, words of strain? Are these, perhaps, words to warn us that a “a difficult conversation” may be coming? Yes and no. They are words of striving, of dreaming, of collective, of refusal, of release. I must thank these words specifically and marshal them for the larger love of learning, a collective love for learning that is so big that we have to talk about settler colonialism and its many related forms of violence. I have to describe the structure of settler colonialism not as an event but as ongoing set of actions and relationships to tell you how much bigger learning is. Is this difficult? Maybe for some, but it is a common, all too comfortable distraction to so many as well. Thank you to every sociolinguist who reminds us that no word or phrase is inherently difficult. We make it difficult through our evasions of how we got to this place of an empire eating itself.  

This is a love and gratitude letter for every native person who is asked, after they teach uninvited guests about the relationship to land that preceded them and give them temporary welcome. After doing that, they are often then asked, as Eve Tuck has written, for ’honey-do lists’ for what white and arrivant settlers can do to not feel so badly about settling on native lands, stretching and ripping the deep relations among living beings. Feel badly about it, dear loved guilty one, but don’t build a house and live in that guilt. Learn more, read more, with others, and act from knowledge and humility. Act collectively for rematriation and reparations. Don’t know what rematriation is? Great, this love and gratitude letter pre-emptively thanks you for finding some friends, some texts and studying together what rematriation is and what it requires. It will be a struggle as you move into action, and that is beautiful.

Because I love learning and collective learning especially, I must thank that grounding from which I must indict settler colonialism as a structure, an ongoing set of violent relations, set into motion when people arrive to a homeland that is not theirs and they stay and that means reconfiguring relationships. Violently. Relationships to land, that are, in fact, not about land from the view of settler colonlialism, but rather inert property. Surfaces and depths from which resources should be extracted…and sold to some for the profit of a few.  

In formal education, settler colonialism thrives though its many sins. It fools us into thinking that knowledge is actually property, and that wellness is predicated upon following a fictive set of rules. I’d like to express love and gratitude for every person and collective fighting for and documenting, in detailed fashion, how the insurance industry waits for people to die rather than pay for them to live or simply collapse itself as an unnecessary profiter that mediates who has access to healthcare. This, too, is settler colonialism in our lives.

I want to thank every collective fighting the active destruction of voter rights laws. I want to thank them for knowing that justice is not a single issue. Thank you for knowing that the repeal of voter rights laws, using the law to the tell people again, that their bodies can only be one of two categories, and school policies that mandate teachers become surveillance agents are not single issues. I want to thank them for knowing that these laws and bills banning kindergarteners from reading critical race theory and discarding anyone with a uterus to make sovereign decisions about their bodies are all connected. Thank you for not falling for the hustle of arguing endlessly on some “news” channel about what CRT is. Amber Ruffin did that for us. Stop allowing CRT to be a lightning rod and indict falsehood borne of desperate white nationalism. If you do not know that history of life and relations began long before 1776 or even 1619, I thank you in advance for your study group that might read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ work.

Although this book and others bear my name as the author, nothing I have ever done or written or will do or write is a lone adventure, borne solely from me. This is the façade that damages not only the truth and necessity of collective but also uplifts the malignant fictions of individualism, meritocracy, and achievement measured through property, salary, and branding.

It is both predictable and gruesome that in a pandemic whose clear singular lesson is that we are all connected, facts and accurate history have become hijacked because white supremacy is on its back heels, reeling from the election of a moderate biracial president and the increasing proportion of people who are not white in the nation. My love letter extends to every Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, and mixed race person who is grappling, right now, with the fact that race is a social construct created to deliver racism. And people have made homes within those categories through found and created kinship, through ceremony that transcends coloniality’s desperate need for categories and ranking, and for love, enough love to continue unlearning in order to learn.

What is education in relation to settler colonialism? It is, still, property and profit. Our intervention is remembering that the lies we’ve been told about education were purposeful distrations. This nation continually lies to us and tells us that education either is or can be the great equalizer. We are also apparently a melting pot, one built by immigrants. These lies gloss over the fact that this nation built its wealth and its status as a violent empire through stolen labor on stolen land. So if you didn’t learn that from school, school has been complicit in lying to you. I want to thank every K-12 teacher who has punctured these lies, trusted their students, yes, even kindergarteners, to be able to know that theft of any kind is wrong.

What is higher education in a nation whose DNA is settler colonialism? As usual, somebody else that I was able to work with for awhile said it well. They would come around to my campus office, on the days they knew I would be there, sit down and say “Patel” and start shaking their head. On that chilly January day, they came into my office, said “Patel,” rolled their eyes and provided a word that I would hear and now you can too: “There is one week. One week when we are supposed to read a few articles written by black scholars. This course starts with John Dewey. That tells me that this course doesn’t know who I am, doesn’t want to know, and is satisfied with starting educational research with one white man and inserting its one week of diversity.”

Knowledge is behind paywalls, and even more offensively, it is then listed in what order to be read by a largely white and male professoriate. Property, property property. How could it be otherwise? Higher education first came into existence for wealthy land-owning men. That wealth and these elite institutions were all built through stolen labor and stolen land. The Declaration of Independence, the Morrill Acts for land grant institutions, all of these edicts were written by slave owners and those laws reflect their property interests. The contradictions are sewn into the formation of the nation and its extention through formal education. I want to thank and express love to every person who has raised a complaint within schooling, and as Sara Ahmed teaches us so well, then is yoked into becoming a diversity worker, so that the institution can say: ‘look, see? We are paying attention to that complaint. Please email or fill out this form to lodge your [perception] of bias.’

The last part of my love letter is to learning itself. Lucille Clifton asks us ‘won’t you come celebrate with me’ in her prophetic poem that “everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.” For centuries, settler colonialism has been trying to kill native peoples and their relations, and it has failed. For centuries, anti-Black racism has been trying to create structures to collapse Blackness into fungible chattel, And it has failed. For centuries, heteropatriarchy, crucial to settler colonialism (read Kim Tallbear’s work) has tried to convince us that that there are but two genders and two sexualities, determined by biology, and it has failed. It has tried to tell brown people that they are coolie labor that should strive for management over others, and it has failed. Has it taken lives? Yes. Have some people fallen for these hustles? Yes. But the project has failed. It has failed because of one major entity: study groups and learning.

Study groups come together, not because they get to wave a credential or diploma around afterwards, but because they have reached a point where revolution is impossible to ignore. The come into formation because they know that to act without having studying and practicing constantly, as Mao Tse Tung wrote about it, is to, simply put, act recklessly, without study or practice.

My signature of this love and gratitude is from the last page in the book. It is the opposite of a spoiler, as it is the theme and reason for the book’s existence:

In light of my critiques of formal education, including higher education, I am sometimes asked why I work within them. The answer is a simple one: I love learning. I love that it is hard, it is destabilizing, and in its most transformative ways, it demands us to literally be different. Less individualistic, competitive, and punitive with ourselves and each other. Most fundamentally, I refuse to concede the catalytic power of study and learning to settler colonialism.

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