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Interview with Susana Muñoz, Ph.D. from Colorado State University on Latinx Critical Race Theory, Racial Rhetoric in Education, and Student Activism

About Susana Muñoz, Ph.D.: Susana Muñoz is Associate Professor of Education in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Colorado State University (CSU). Dr. Muñoz employs critical perspectives including Latinx critical race theory, Chicanx feminisms, and anti-colonial theories to critically explore the experiences of students with undocumented immigration status. Dr. Muñoz’s work has been recognized with accolades including the Mildred E. García Award for Exemplary Scholarship from the Council on Ethnic Participation of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, an Outstanding Faculty Award from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and the Hazaleus Award from the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research at CSU.

Dr. Muñoz’s most recent book is the collected volume Why They Hate Us: How Racist Rhetoric Impacts Education. She is also the author of Identity, Social Activism, and the Pursuit of Higher Education: The Journey Stories of Undocumented and Unafraid Community Activists, and has published articles in publications including Qualitative Inquiry, The Journal of Student Affairs, the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, and Equity & Excellence in Education.

Prior to joining the faculty at CSU, Dr. Muñoz was faculty in the Department of Administrative Leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She earned her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from Iowa State University, her M.S. in Student Affairs and Higher Education from Colorado State University, and her B.A. in Political Science and International Studies from Iowa State University.

Interview Questions

[] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in critical perspectives in higher education research and invested in advancing educational equity, particularly with respect to undocumented Latinx students?

[Dr. Susana Muñoz] I am originally from Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico. I came to the United States when I was six years old. I immigrated here in a very privileged way. We came on my mother’s fiancé’s visa, and were able to obtain citizenship shortly after our visas expired. I had a step-father who spoke the language and had a college degree, which allowed him to navigate the immigration system more easily. He was white, and so his white privilege benefited us. There was a lot of privilege associated with that era, too. In the 1970s immigration was not as tumultuous of an issue as it became over the following decades.

I grew up in different contexts when I was younger. Fairbanks, Alaska is another place I called home. It was not until I was an undergraduate at Iowa State University that I first got the question, “What are you?” I did not necessarily know how to answer that, but it was a repeated question throughout my educational experience. As a result, I became very interested in my history, and started taking ethnic studies, Chicano studies, and Latino studies courses. I began to feel empowered by this information, but I also was angry about the fact I had to go to college to acquire it. Why was this information not available to me in middle school or high school?

This fostered an activist consciousness in me, particularly with respect to being in a predominately white institution where I felt very much minimized in the classroom and other spaces where I did not see myself represented. My interest in educational equity, then, began because of my own lived experiences. I understood what it was like to be at a predominately white institution and not see anyone of your culture for a whole day or have no one in your classes who looks like you or speaks your native language.

This led me to get involved in student affairs. I had never interrogated my own immigration experience until I started my dissertation. At the time, I was working in Federal TRIO programs [originally three programs, now expanded to eight, that aim to increase college access for economically disadvantaged students]. I got a phone call from a friend who said they had a student who needed our services, but they were undocumented. For TRIO, you have to qualify to apply for federal financial aid to be eligible to use these services. So, even though this student was eligible with respect to the other program requirements — they were a first-generation, low income student — their documentation status kept them from accessing these academic services.

This made me think about where students who are undocumented access help on college campuses. I became interested in understanding how these students persist, with particular attention to Mexican women. They were in a situation where fear of exposing their undocumented status led them to avoid a lot of interaction with institutional agents. They did not want to enter a building to ask questions because they perceived that that would lead to questions about their documentation status. This discouraged them from accessing resources and services. For a first-generation college student, this can be very detrimental to college success.

At that time, I was one of a few scholars looking at this issue. There was not much literature about providing support and services to students who were undocumented. I found myself called to dedicate my work to serving these students. This gave me an opportunity to examine my own immigrant identity and what it means to enter into the country and get citizenship as I did, in a way that is unthinkable right now. Grappling with my own citizenship privileges opened up more questions and issues that I wanted to untangle. That ultimately led me to leave student affairs and focus my career on understanding how higher education can better meet the needs of these students.

[] Would you introduce us to how you define equity in your own research and practice? In particular, how does an anti-colonial perspective, like the kind you advocate for in your recent article “(Re)Imagining anti-Colonial Notions of Ethics in Research and Practice,” or Latinx critical race theory, which informs much of your research, valuably reframe how we think about educational equity?

[Dr. Susana Muñoz] Those two critical perspectives are foundational to helping us understand that, besides Indigenous people, the original settlers of this land were all colonizers. They allow us to think about our ethical relationship to the community, to the land, and to the people around us. Educational equity, for me, stems from humanizing relationships and from humanizing policies, classrooms, curriculum, and campus environments. It is about centering humanity in ways that honor and abide by the values that all of us bring. This is not about adopting one set of values or one perspective.

We need to be conscious about the original peoples of our country and draw from their wisdom, while also thinking about how our ethics and practices are sometimes antithetical to humanization of other cultures and the cultivation of relationships. I have had to take a deep dive into my own self and ask questions, for example, about how I am humanizing my syllabi and my classroom. It is about creating space and environments where people feel like they can be their authentic selves. Educational equity, for me, is the idea that you can bring your authenticity into a space and have it treated as an asset. People bring different kinds of knowledge that do not necessarily stem from books and degrees but from lived experiences and home knowledge.

[] Your most recent book, the edited volume, Why They Hate Us: How Racist Rhetoric Impacts Education, reflects an important theme in your research regarding the deleterious effects of racism and microaggressions on student experiences. Would you provide us with some background on this line of your scholarship, highlight some of its major findings, and discuss how you think about intervening to address this problem?

[Dr. Susana Muñoz] Dr. Lindsay Pérez Huber, a friend of mine who is a professor at California State University, Long Beach, has been a great thought partner in helping me think through how race and racism play such an integral role in our immigration system. We assembled this volume to highlight how the Trump administration emboldened racism by incorporating it into their platform and translating it into practice. We wanted to document this as it was happening with the understanding that this was not new. It is part of the fabric of the United States. We were founded based on racist policies like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which was the first legislation passed to explicitly exclude a minority group from immigrating.

When we think about our nation’s history we can see that, whether it is economic failures or climate change, immigrants are consistently made into scapegoats. This book highlights how teachers experienced more racist incidents during the Trump administration and saw racism emboldened on college campuses. At the same time, we have to understand this has always been there. It is just become more visible in ways that we have not seen before. It is the same playbook, though.

This was a hard book to conclude. We were submitting the manuscript when January 6th happened. We ended up writing a blog as a supplement to the book, discussing how the January 6th Insurrection was a true depiction of white supremacy and the cultural politics of whiteness. When you think about the people occupying that space, they were treated as non-threatening. In contrast, when Black Lives Matter activists gathered, the National Guard would be called in, the police would respond, and protestors would be subject to surveillance.

We also wrote this during the COVID-19 pandemic, so we were seeing the way racism manifested itself in that context as well. COVID illuminated the disparities between the haves and the have-nots. When the country shuts down, who has access to food and technology? Those disparities came out along the lines of the racist divide that exists in this country.

In the book, we wanted to unpack the complexities of how we behave and act, and how all of this is historically rooted in the foundations of who we are as a country. If we do not talk about that and put a mirror up to ourselves to understand what is happening, how in the world are we going to change? That book was a special project for me because it examined the historical underpinnings of racism in education while emphasizing how sophisticated, well-funded, and well-organized hate is. We wanted to add to the conversation by arguing that we need to think about our policies and practices and how to change our attitudes to become more race-conscious and equity-conscious when we lead as practitioners, faculty members, and administrators in the educational system.

[] This discussion connects to some of your most recent work, in which you have critically explored the role of whiteness on college campuses, as in your publication “The Influence of the Trump Era on Sustaining Whiteness through Imperialist Reclamation on College Campuses.” Would you introduce us to whiteness as a critical concept in your research on educational equity?

[Dr. Susana Muñoz] Whiteness is the underlying mechanism that maintains the racist system. Not acknowledging white supremacy contributes to the permeance of racism. If you think of racism as a disease, whiteness is the virus that causes that disease.

I should be very clear that whiteness doesn’t mean white people. Whiteness is an ideology that can be embodied by anybody. When we unpack the way we perpetuate practices and policies that sustain racism and inequities in our educational system, this points us back to whiteness. Once we understand what whiteness is and how it shows up in our syllabi, curricula, and practices, then we are able to have transformational change on our college campuses and in our educational system.

In my experience, we talk about equity very much in terms of compositional diversity and inclusion, often by arguing we need “more representation.” This is, of course, important. But if we are not talking about whiteness, we are not talking about equity. One of the mentors I look up to is Dr. Estela Bensimon, who was talking about equity ages ago. Today, it is this buzzword that often gets co-opted into a language of appeasement. DEI work is hollow unless it addresses whiteness. If whiteness is not part of this conversation, you are not doing equity any justice.

Especially as leaders and administrators, I think we have to understand how the way that we lead is often rooted in whiteness, and be reflexive about the ways we may be perpetuating racism and inequities. It takes a lot of critical reflection to have these conversations with yourself about how you can change as a leader and how you may have been complicit in sustaining inequity.

[] What are some of the unique ways the influence of whiteness is felt at Hispanic serving institutions like those you discuss in “How Whiteness Operates at a Hispanic Serving Institution: A Qualitative Case Study of Faculty, Staff, and Administrators”?

[Dr. Susana Muñoz] We have to understand that the majority of higher education institutions are predominantly white. The HSI [Hispanic Serving Institution] designation comes with enrollment. If your student body is 25 percent Latinx, you qualify for the title. That does not mean you stop being a predominately white institution in values. It is very important to acknowledge that receiving this designation does not come with a magical pill that automatically absolves you from racism and inequities that occur on campus.

In the publication you mention, we found that elements of whiteness continue to impact HSIs. Dr. Gina Ann Garcia, whose work has been the blueprint for our conversations around HSIs, has pointed out that institutions do not often take the time to consider what it means to be an HSI. They do not typically consider how it means they need to change, evolve, or interrogate whiteness. Many of these institutions had received these designations before we began having conversations about whiteness in education.

Today, we have many emerging HSIs, including my own institution, and I urge them to take the time and gather individuals on their campuses to make this designation meaningful. Whiteness is always going to be on college campuses. Our job, as HSIs or emerging HSIs, is to think about how we can shift our teaching, curriculum, and support for students so that we can graduate Latinx students.

Enrolling does not mean thriving. It does not mean graduating. It does not mean you do not come out of the system broken. It just means you have this composition of Latinx students. This article, which was led by one of my graduate students, Dr. Brandi Scott, does a great job arguing that the HSI title is just empty rhetoric unless students are at the center of the university. This does not mean the university only cares about Latinx students and excludes everyone else. It means being mindful about centering equity in these conversations.

[] Your first book is Identity, Social Activism, and the Pursuit of Higher Education: The Journey Stories of Undocumented and Unafraid Community Activists. Your work more broadly highlights strategies of activism, resistance, and persistence on behalf of undocumented Latinx college students. Would you identify some of the strategies you have uncovered through your engagements with student activists and how these may supplement or challenge how we typically think about struggles for educational equity?

[Dr. Susana Muñoz] Working with and for these undocumented community activists taught me that, while they are often perceived by educators as people to fix, save, or treat differently, they are not at all broken. They have so much agency. To declare yourself undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic in a very public, national form takes courage. It shows these activists have really grappled with fear.

In my dissertation study, fear was the main culprit for why undocumented students did not access services. These activists made meaning out of their fear. They had asked themselves, “Why am I holding onto this fear? What has it done for me? What has it prevented me from doing, and how is that impacting the way I live?” These were individuals who did sit-ins outside of John McCain’s office, these are individuals who shut down streets, and had been detained and arrested. To have that much faith in your allies and to put your faith in the hands of your community and fellow organizers is huge. It provides them with a sense of agency and consciousness where they can say, “I am not going to allow the immigration system to keep me in the shadows. I am not going to allow the immigration system to make me fearful. I am going to live my life and fight for my community.”

Through activism, they were able to gain so much knowledge about immigration and the immigration system that was of tremendous benefit, not only to themselves, but to their communities and families. I see practitioners, educators, and administrators infantilize undocumented students in their rhetoric, treating them as children. That is a narrative that these activists want to disrupt.

We should not be using this perfect DREAMER [undocumented students who qualify for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which allows them to receive Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protections] narrative, for example. Why is it only when you are a perfect superstar athlete or valedictorian that you should be eligible for college? They are tired of being poster children for higher education. They have developed what I call a “critical legal consciousness” of their own about how they want to fight this narrative that has been shaped by others.

These are some of the major lessons I have learned from this research, but they do not at all diminish the need for colleges and universities to offer space to students to talk about their immigration status. When we provide that space, we give them an opportunity to unpack their realities. Hearing the narratives of these activists shows how those spaces can lead to a sense of empowerment. I am a big fan of when college campuses and high schools have student groups to support undocumented students. I am an even bigger fan of when communities have agencies and organizations focused on educational equity. Scholarships A-Z in Tucson, Arizona is one of my favorites. They do a lot of work with undocumented youth around college access, but they are even more focused on providing community to help students foster a sense of agency.

[] Prior to joining the faculty at Colorado State University, you worked for several years in student affairs. How has this experience impacted your perspective on, or approach to, working toward education equity?

[Dr. Susana Muñoz] Having been a practitioner on a college campus has been a tremendous benefit in my work as a faculty member. I feel like I have never lost that lens. In terms of working with undocumented students, our conversations are largely focused on financial aid and mental health resources. Coming from a student affairs background, I know there is always a way, and we just need to get creative. We need to bring in people around us to help think through an issue. When a student gets a “no” right away, I always bring in more people and strategize.

People in student affairs want to help. Being in conversation with them is a highlight of my work because I used to be in that practitioner role. I understand what they are up against, and I understand that environments and budgets sometimes do not allow for things. But I also know the questions to ask. If something does not work in the budget, I know to ask if it is possible to use discretionary funds, for example.

I think it has been an asset for me to be a scholar and researcher with a student affairs background because ultimately, I want my research to have some meaning and relevance to practitioners. I write to make an impact. I want my work to speak to the folks on the front line — to say, “Here’s a piece you can take into your next meeting, or might impact the work you do in your units.”

[] You were recently Coordinator of the Higher Education Leadership doctoral specialization at Colorado State. Would you talk about your work in this role and how it was informed by your commitments to educational equity and activism?

[Dr. Susana Muñoz] I really appreciated my experience as Coordinator of the Higher Education Leadership program. I came into that role asking, “How do we center equity and justice as pillars of our program? How can we matriculate and orient our doctoral students into their program in ways that center these critical lenses?”

It was a treat for me to come in as a leader with my own critical lens and make changes to the program. We now begin the program with two foundational books: Critical Race Theory: An Introduction [by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic] and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom. We tell the students that this is how we want them to gaze at their experience and the materials they engage with in the program.

We also got rid of the GRE requirement for the program because we know that is a barrier for students of color. We updated our admissions process to be more holistic. Once we did that, our diversity numbers increased dramatically. We started to see more diversity in our applications and in our classrooms. I am really proud to say that as a result of being unapologetic about centering equity, justice, and transformational leadership in our program, and being intentional about our admission standards and offerings, the program has become a humanizing space. It is the doctoral program I wish I had.

We have cohorts that are majority students of color and majority trans students. The faculty representation at CSU has a lot to do with that, but I am really proud of the fact that we have been able to create a doctoral program centered on equity that creates an environment where students do not come out of this program broken. That has been very important to me.

[] Based on your research and practice, do you have advice you would give to scholars, practitioners, or administrators seeking to advance educational equity through their own work?

[Dr. Susana Muñoz] I think this work happens in multiple ways. It happens often on an individual level. As individuals, we need to make the space and time to understand our own role in reproducing whiteness and how we benefit from racist systems. Carving out time to understand yourself as a leader, faculty, or practitioner, and then bringing in others alongside you to have similar conversations is tremendously important.

At the same time, I always tell practitioners and scholars that, while conversations are great and necessary, they do not move the needle. That is the hard thing. We need to change the rhetoric that often feels very performative into real and substantial change. That takes time, but it means that folks need to make decisions that are rooted in racial consciousness. We need to continue to center racial consciousness in our decision making. Moving beyond this rhetoric means putting yourself out there, standing by your convictions, and leading with conviction. It also means being prepared for the resistance that comes from other voices that are adamantly not about equity whatsoever. We see this right now across our country. That is the key: you need to talk about it, act on it, and address the resistance.

As leaders, we need to make sure we are aligned with the mission and values of where we live. The way that we honor the land and the people who have cultivated the land is by making sure we are in the right relationship with those around us and that we are moving our institutions to center equity. It is not easy. I have been in conversations with other leaders about these challenges and written about them in my work. When we see cuts to departments and faculty it creates a climate of fear. We need to create a climate of trust and transparency to allow faculty and leaders to feel like they can be vulnerable in these conversations. When you have an institutional culture and climate rooted in equity, there is no fear.

Thank you, Dr. Muñoz, for sharing your work on Latinx Critical Race Theory, racist rhetoric in higher education, and more!