A Cold Place: Notes on Antiblackness and the Neoliberal University

Kidiocus King-Carroll

In the beginning, I was certain that I was imagining the alienation that I felt as I began my first year of graduate school. The racial violence that I encountered was tangible—I could hear and see it—but the advent of winter concurrently masked and heightened the sense of dread I felt that first year. I began my Ph.D. program in the fall of 2016 when the presidential election began to foment all kinds of conspicuous antiblackness. I could account for the slurs that were thrown my way as I went about daily life, but it was the other feeling that I expected but could not altogether account for—a feeling that lived in conjunction with the white men who screamed at me from the windows of moving vehicles. I imagine that other graduate students of color experience this when they begin graduate school—a feeling for some that might arrive at the nexus of below zero temperatures, the daily life of the neoliberal university, and the experience of the persistent and often violent whiteness of inhospitable places. For me, that arrival culminated in an atmosphere of dread. This atmospheric-psychosocial-racial-geographic conundrum is the thrust of this meditation. How can Black people live within and resist the neoliberal University and its hostile environs? In ways this is a question of space: living in the environs of the neoliberal university in Southern California or New York may be a different experience than living in Iowa or Minnesota, but I would venture to argue that the fact of the neoliberal University and its inability to protect the Black people that live within its world are much the same. What follows are a set of notes or jottings that are autobiographical, analytical, historical, and deliberately incomplete, but labor to articulate my understanding of the University and the world that surrounds it as an antiblack, neoliberal space that Black graduate students must exist in a fugitive relationship to.

A Sweet Song

1. In the spring of 2016, I drove the 350 miles from my home in Milwaukee to Minneapolis to attend a recruitment visit for a Ph.D. program. The department was my first choice, but I was increasingly anxious about committing myself to five or more years of perpetual winter. I’d spent most of my life in the Upper Midwest, but I was weary of academia and ached for the heat. Yet, there I was driving through the insistent whiteness of rural central Wisconsin—entertained by a preponderance of dead deer on the side of the roadway, Shockwave Adult Superstore billboards, and homemade “Vote Trump” signs that were sometimes the height of small houses. In Minneapolis I attended the requisite recruitment events, but a highlight of the visit was a catch-up with a college friend. We met for lunch at an outdoor patio on the West Bank of the Mississippi and as we ate, drank, and reminisced, a truck full of young, white, college boys sped past and screamed in our direction. We had a moment of hesitation. Were they referring to us? Of course, they were referring to us—we were the only niggers there. The white people on the patio turned to stare at us and we laughed. Later, my friend wrote a post on social media describing their words as a serenade—I’d been officially welcomed to Minnesota by “the dulcet tones of a group of white boys in a pick-up truck.” It did sound something like a song—a joyful reminder that they found the idea of us ridiculous.

2. That fall I made the journey to Minneapolis again, this time in a U-Haul, similarly entertained by rural paraphernalia, as my parents followed behind. They helped me move into my apartment in South Minneapolis, and after a weekend trip up North to the iron range, I returned to Minneapolis to begin my first year as a graduate student. I’d imagined an easy transition—Minneapolis was not far from Milwaukee, and I was still ensconced in the Upper Midwest; yet, somehow, Minneapolis felt like a different world. The geographical distance is relatively small but the cultural and racial differences were distinct. The truth is that Minneapolis doesn’t have the same history of deindustrialization and hyper-segregation as Milwaukee. Then there is the fact of Blackness itself—70% of Wisconsin’s Black population lives in Milwaukee and nearby cities in the southeastern part of the state. In other words, Milwaukee feels like a Black city whereas whiteness is seemingly omnipresent in Minneapolis despite the presence of native peoples and a relatively large East African and Latinx immigrant population. This is not to say that whiteness is not de-rigueur in Milwaukee, but the fact of whiteness and the presence of Blackness felt different in Minneapolis.

3. Minneapolis is different. Deindustrialization doesn’t blanket the city’s landscape. The segregation exists but it doesn’t seem as pronounced as the segregation at home; a type of segregation that is so marked that you never see white people in parts of the city. In Minneapolis, I was surrounded by bikes and grocery co-ops and seemingly well-meaning, smiling white people in Patagonia jackets who sometimes called me a nigger as I went about daily life. That might be the privilege of living in a Black city—there are all kinds of structural and economic disparities and violences that Black folks encounter, but the fact that I’d never been called a racial slur in Milwaukee made sense in a macabre sort of way. Regardless, the word was a reminder that I should remember who and where I was and that they felt I was not welcome despite the fact that this was occupied Dakota lands. The word was a reminder that I may have managed to infiltrate their carefully crafted space of whiteness but that they would not go down without a fight.

4. And the word seemed to exist even in those unsaid moments of racial aggression that I encountered. There are those moments of racial hostility that bubble beneath the surface, they are not as blatant as being called a nigger, but the word existed every time some white man refused to cede space on the sidewalk. And the word was there when the white man at Cub Foods screamed at me because my groceries were too close to his on the conveyor belt. The word was also there that time a woman ran me off the road in a fit of rage. A former friend and I named her White Supremacy Nancy and, in the mythology, that the two of us created, White Supremacy Nancy was a strong white woman of Scandinavian stock who drove around with a tater tot hotdish in her backseat, dispensing justice and vengeance against every nigger that dared to exist, every dark-skinned person who dared to penetrate her world. Ultimately, Nancy became a stand in for every act of antiblackness that I experienced. Verbal or otherwise, there seemed to be a million little terrors that threatened to gnaw me to the bone.

5. I subconsciously allowed myself to believe that my proximity to the University was a protection from racial hostility and a cold climate. The ivory tower looms large, but its reach does not mitigate the fact that the University can’t protect Black people. How do you express the suffocation that you feel as you trudge through several feet of snow while white men verbally assault you from their car window before speeding onto Minnesota 55? It was a recurring scene of terror that I was unable to elaborate upon in the classroom or  adequately explain to my peers. I situate the personal as a means of illustrating the quotidian ways in which the world of the neoliberal University enacts violence. It is quotidian because my experience of white racist aggression is not unique. Black people inside and outside of the academy experience such interpersonal violence on a daily basis, but what does it feel like to learn, create, and teach knowledge in an institution that was not built for you while experiencing a world that is hostile to you on both the interpersonal and structural levels? Moreover, what can the University do about the hostility that exists beyond its physical walls? Beyond the neoliberal idea that student’s lives become separated from their bodies once they enter a classroom, the reality is that the University is not invested in the health or protection of Black people, whether they be in the classroom or living in the shadows. There are no distinct borders between the University and its environs, their borders are not coterminous—one does not end and the other begins. What does this mean for Black people within the University who must simultaneously navigate the daily violence of University and the world?

In the Heart of Whiteness

1. I would argue that navigating the daily violence of the University is a matter of the atmosphere—there is the neoliberal atmosphere of the University and there is the atmosphere of the world that is beyond it but is also of it, and both are hostile to Black life. I imagine that it is particularly a matter of the atmosphere when one is navigating the whiteness of the University in a place like Minnesota where temperatures can drop significantly below zero. What I am describing is a feeling—the feeling of studying and teaching in the neoliberal University whilst also experiencing the hostility of the world outside of the University—the literal atmosphere, the configuration of space, and presence of whiteness. I am describing an environment that June Jordan calls “The Abominable Atmosphere” in her essay “Beyond Apocalypse Now.” Jordan recalls her experience as a Visiting Poet at a small liberal arts college in Saint Paul in the early 1980s and the feeling of experiencing the cold in combination with the hostility of whiteness while living in the shadow of an academic institution that would not and could not protect her.

You could say that Minnesota represents the heart of whiteness for this visitor, this Black woman who grew up inside the center city neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn. You could say that, for me, 45 degrees below zero plus blizzard snows blowing about my face and feet, you could say that the melodramatic severity of this place signifies apocalypse.

What should I do? You think I should organize a search-and-destroy series of missions out on the slippery streets? You think I should colonize every available Scandinavian and conscript him or her into carrying my groceries as well as my other personal supplies? You think I should drill through the ice, for oil? You think I should let myself go bananas and then blame it on the snow? You think I could get away with a claim of Overwhelming Evil Environment that will excuse me if I kill a score or two of whitefolks? What should I do?[1]June Jordan, Civil Wars, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 171.

For Jordan, the whiteness and the environment coalesce to form an “apocalypse” that feels violent to her presence in the space. The snow only seems to heighten the sense of anxiety she feels as she is surrounded by a whiteness that is a continuous assault on her identity. The assault is such that she ponders the ways in which she might go about combatting it. She could let herself go mentally or she could kill a bunch of white people. Then there is the college that she is in residence at—a 99.6 percent white institution—which is also complicit in the assault, and she wonders what sort of violence she might enact in retaliation. For Jordan, the answer is not clear.

In this heart of whiteness where I see separate runners and separate couples and separate houses and one person in a car that seats five and ice and so much snow and ice and where I shake myself from the cold air stinging me to tears and where I brace myself to manage so much ice so much zero inhospitality to the concept of a warm and beating human heart, the heart of the social animals we have been rumored to be, what should I do?[2]Ibid.

Jordan describes a feeling of being left out in the cold—a world away from her homeplace in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It is a cold alienation in which separateness and the cold exist at the expense of warmth and sociality. She consistently returns to the question of what should I do?

2. Marlon James also describes this feeling of living in and experiencing Minnesota as a professor at a small liberal arts college in his essay “Smaller, and Smaller, and Smaller.” He articulates it as an experience of “Get big but don’t get close.”[3]Marlon James, “Smaller, and Smaller, and Smaller,” June 18, 2017. James maintains that white folks in the North can tolerate the idea of you as long as you are far away, separate, an abstraction. But the tolerable becomes intolerable when you are up close and personal—it manifests in a myriad of ways, one of which is overt racial antagonism. So, what do you do? You could retaliate as Jordan suggests or you “small yourself up.”[4]Ibid. You curl up (sometimes physically) and you make yourself small so that you no longer take up so much space. Maybe they won’t recognize you, maybe you will make yourself more palatable. James writes that:

Get big but don’t get close means that I’m more famous than most people of colour in Minnesota, and yet in ten years I have only four close friends who were born here. In ten years, I have only seen the homes of five people. And I like to think that I’m insulated by academic privilege, but Skip Gates was fucked with in the North as was every person Claudia Rankine writes about in Citizen. I would bike to work in full academic regalia if not for police assuming that I probably stole it anyway, and of course, shooting me.[5]Ibid.

James reminds us that despite our positions in the ivory tower, academic privilege cannot protect us from an unwelcoming and hostile environment. Moreover, the University that is built on the back of indigenous dispossession and Black chattel slavery and that profits from that legacy can never be a place of refuge for Black people.

3. Craig Steven Wilder articulates this history in Ebony & Ivory. European powers founded colleges in the New World as a means of regulating colonialism—African enslavement was used to fund European colonialist endeavors in which the destruction of Indigenous lands and people was a guiding principle. The relationship between the University and the proliferation of African chattel slavery was symbiotic and parasitic; slave traders and slave owners founded colonial colleges and were the trustees of those institutions.[6]Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and The Troubled History if Americas Universities (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014), 10. The University was economically dependent on the proliferation and continuation of African slavery and continues to benefit from that legacy. We must remember that an institution built and sustained by Black bondage cannot protect Black graduate students or be a place of refuge—particularly with the ongoing investment in neoliberalism which emphasizes the dominance of capital over the wellbeing of people and is a racist project at its core.

4. Jordan and James direct our sights to an important point: How do you make life in a cold place built upon separation and your ontological demise? The question recurs: What should I do? What is there to do? In the first 18 months of my Ph.D. program, I imagined that making myself small would be my course of action—I could waste away ontologically and physically, and maybe the continuous assault would abate. Yet, smallness and silence are not sustainable practices and may be at odds with what it means to live Blackly. You can’t resist the neoliberal University and its environs by acquiescing to the silence and the smallness that it demands. I want to seize upon several modes of being that are fundamental to existing, to living Blackly in the University—Black fugitivity as delineated by Moten and Harney in The Undercommons and the Black feminist practices of breaking silence and coming to voice.

Fugitivity: Breaking Silence and Coming to Voice

1. In The Undercommons, Harney and Moten theorize the University as neoliberal “writ large” and contend that it is a place in which white supremacist logics govern all (settler colonialism, liberal democracy, and racial capitalism).[7]Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013), 26. Thus, Black people can only ever exist in a fugitive relation to the University. To exist in a fugitive relationship to the University is to steal from it. To exist in a fugitive relationship with the University is “to abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refuge colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not” of the University.[8] Ibid., 26. Harney and Moten contend that:

Students must come to see themselves as the problem, which, counter to the complaints of restorationist critics of the university, is precisely what it means to be a customer, to take on the burden of realization and always necessarily be inadequate to it. Later, these students will be able to see themselves properly as obstacles to society, or perhaps, with lifelong learning, students will return having successfully diagnosed themselves as the problem.[9] Ibid., 29.

To be the problem, to exist in a fugitive relationship with the University is a subversive act that has always been key to the Black Radical Tradition because “…blackness operates as the modality of life’s constant escape and takes the form, the held and errant pattern, of flight.”[10] Ibid., 51. Naturally, that fugitivity and flight extends beyond the physical walls of the University to its environs. I imagine that fugitivity as taking form in realizing that one is the problem and being comfortable with being the problem. To be more succinct, it might just take form in being comfortable with being a nigger because just being is an act of fugitivity within itself. Beyond the act of being, I’d argue that this fugitivity also rests in resisting the call to silence that the neoliberal University calls for.

2. In her 1977 speech, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Audre Lorde argues that the above titled “transformation” is an “act of self-revelation… that always seems fraught with danger.”[11]Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2012), 42. Lorde maintains that silence is immobilizing, and that we must question and seek truth by breaking the silence. Lorde asserts that:

For those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it. For others, it is to share and spread also those words that are meaningful to us. But primarily for us all, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.[12]Ibid., 43.

I’d argue that for Black graduate students who make life within the parameters of the neoliberal University, it is critical to not only speak truth to power about the antiblack violence of the University and its environs, but to also examine the way in which we speak that truth to power. As Lorde reminds us, it is the only way that we can survive and grow. Coming to voice is the natural continuation of breaking silence. Indeed, I’d maintain that this is what Lorde means when she contends that we must not only scrutinize the truth, but also “the truth of that language by which we speak it.”[13] Ibid., 43. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks argues that when marginalized bodies within the academy share our voices, “we subvert the tendency to focus only on the thoughts, attitudes, and experiences of those who are materially privileged.”[14]bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (Routledge, 2014), 189. hooks contends that by coming to voice, we challenge the constructions (race, sex, and class) that privilege and grant “authority” to certain voices. hooks illustrates the fact that coming to voice is not merely an act of breaking silence; “Coming to voice is not just the act of telling one’s experience. It is using that telling strategically—to come to voice so that you can also speak freely about other subjects.”[15] Ibid., 148. Breaking silence and coming to voice are not simple acts—they are strategic acts of Black feminist practice that provide the groundwork for existing in a fugitive relationship to the neoliberal University and the world that it governs.

Suggested Citation:

King-Carroll, K. 2024. “A Cold Place: Notes on Antiblackness and the Neoliberal University.” In eds. José Manuel Santillana Blanco, Kidiocus King-Carroll, Naimah Zulmadelle Pétigny, and Kong Pheng Pha in collaboration with AGITATE! Editorial Collective. Seditious Acts: AGITATE! Special Volume with CRES: https://agitatejournal.org/article/a-cold-place-notes-on-antiblackness-and-the-neoliberal-university/


1 June Jordan, Civil Wars, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 171.
2 Ibid.
3 Marlon James, “Smaller, and Smaller, and Smaller,” June 18, 2017.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and The Troubled History if Americas Universities (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014), 10.
7 Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013), 26.
8 Ibid., 26.
9  Ibid., 29.
10  Ibid., 51.
11 Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2012), 42.
12 Ibid., 43.
13  Ibid., 43.
14 bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (Routledge, 2014), 189.
15  Ibid., 148.

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