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Interview with Veronica Jones Baldwin, Ph.D. from the University of North Texas on Critical Policy Analysis, Critical Race Theory, and Educational Activism

About Veronica Jones Baldwin, Ph.D.: Veronica Jones Baldwin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at the University of North Texas (UNT). Dr. Baldwin’s research applies perspectives in critical race theory and methods like critical discourse analysis to understanding institutional discourses on race and equity. Her work also engages with student activism and the educational experiences of men of color.

Dr. Baldwin, who still publishes under Veronica Jones, has had work appear in leading education journals such as the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, Teachers College Record, and Race, Ethnicity and Education, as well as interdisciplinary publications like The Western Journal of Black Studies. Her scholarship earned her the recognition of Outstanding Junior Faculty Researcher from the UNT College of Education. Dr. Baldwin, along with her Co-Primary Investigator, Dr. Kaleb Briscoe, recently received a Spencer Foundation grant in support of their project, “Resistance or Racism? Unpacking Critical Race Theory Bans in a Sociopolitical Era of Anti-Racism.”

Dr. Baldwin currently serves as Faculty Affiliate for Project M.A.L.E.S. (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success). Prior to joining the faculty at UNT, Dr. Baldwin was a postdoctoral research fellow at The University of Texas at Austin and worked with the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color. Dr. Baldwin received her Ph.D. from Texas A&M University, her Master’s degree from the University of Houston, and her undergraduate degree from Southern University and A&M College.

Interview Questions

[] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become invested in working for educational equity, especially as it pertains to men of color, and come to research both the way institutional discourses and policies sustain inequitable power relations in universities, and the activism that aims to change these structures?

[Dr. Veronica Jones Baldwin] My research agenda stems from my identity. I identify mainly as a Black woman and have a number of other pertinent identities. I think that is important because, as I tell my students, your positionality determines how you approach your research and the types of things you’re interested in.

When I entered higher education, I brought in my own experiences. I was a teacher for 10 years in K-12 education. I have a background as an English as a Second Language Learner teacher. Seeing some of the issues in our educational system informed my research trajectory. I was also a student leader and went to undergrad at an Historically Black University [Southern University and A&M College]. Since then, I have had experiences in a variety of different settings with different levels of diversity. I completed my Master’s at the University of Houston and my Ph.D. at Texas A&M University.

Those unique settings allowed me to think about how equity plays out based on the context. Institutional context is very important to my work on equity, because there are so many different types of higher education institutions. You have Research 1 (R1) universities, you have Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), you have Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), and more. Each comes with different narratives and expectations.

Understanding this led me to what I wanted to do in my own scholarship. My dissertation explored the experiences of Black student leaders at a PWI. That allowed me to think about where I wanted my research to go, and since then I have continued to explore student activism, as well as the other issues mentioned in your question.

[] Would you introduce us to how you define equity in your own research and practice? In particular, how do the frameworks of critical race theory and critical discourse analysis you apply in your research inform your understanding of educational equity?

[Dr. Veronica Jones Baldwin] In a training I conducted, I showed participants a picture that you may have seen, which I think is a good visual illustration of the difference between equality and equity. It has two images. The first depicts people lined up behind a fence who are of different heights. Equality is when there is no adjustment or consideration that some people are at an advantage and others cannot see. Everybody is where they are, and we are not assisting them with their differences.

With equity, you see a picture where stools and step ladders are given to the shorter people, which accounts for their differences so everyone can see over the fence. I think this is the perfect visual representation of why equity is important. When you talk about social identities like gender or race, a lot of people want to take a neutral approach and not acknowledge these inequities exist.

I think critical frameworks allow me to see the ways that inequities play out in higher education. I first learned about critical race theory (CRT) in my doctoral program. I was taking an epistemology course. I was blown away. It was the first time I was presented with a theory that gave language to the things I had experienced growing up in predominantly white settings. Similarly, in my project I am doing now [“Resistance or Racism? Unpacking Critical Race Theory Bans in a Sociopolitical Era of Anti-Racism,” discussed below in more detail], so many people tell me that this framework gave them the language to explain things that are happening in our institutions.

There is a tenet in CRT about counter-narratives. In higher education, we have what is considered a master narrative. We have a traditional view of what a college student or a student experience should look like. I challenge my students to think about how many of the theories of student development we have — the work of people like A.W. Astin [Student Involvement Theory] and Vincent Tinto [Student Departure Theory] — were developed in the 1960s and 1970s, when the students who were part of their samples were white men. When you talk about master narratives in higher education, our policies and practices are literally based on one dominant population [white men]. Counter-narratives allow us to acknowledge the experiential knowledge and values of people of color and understand that certain voices and narratives are left out of policy. That is why CRT is so central to what I do.

I also love the tenet of challenging ideologies like objectivity and race neutrality. CRT stemmed from legal studies, and I love higher education law. CRT maintains that the law is not neutral or objective. I enjoy the way that CRT allows us to critique these dominant ideologies. Then, because I started to think about these ideologies, I became invested in critiquing the language we use in higher education policies and how these rhetorics favor the dominant group. This brought me to critical discourse analysis [discussed in detail in the next question] because it allowed me to do that as well.

[] As we have mentioned, your work often applies critical discourse analysis to examining the important role that power and race play in shaping university policy. Could you explain how you use critical discourse analysis as a way to understand institutional equities?

[Dr. Veronica Jones Baldwin] When I was a postdoc at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), I heard that as a staff member I could audit classes for a very small amount of money. I found out there was a discourse analysis class, and it was absolutely amazing. It was a whole class about language and texts, and there was one specific section in the syllabus that focused on critical discourse analysis (CDA). I just fell in love with it.

Put into basic terms, CDA is a way to tie the language that we use with the intention of whoever is speaking. Its origins are in critical theory, which is meant to understand where oppression comes from in society and how to change it. It is not just about understanding language but about how we can change things. CDA attends to the way we use grammar and certain rhetorical techniques strategically. Think of the way we use pronouns, for example. We can use “us” to create a sense of group belonging, or “them” to distance ourselves from the group we are referring to. We can use active voice to take responsibility for the things we are doing, or we can try to distance ourselves by using passive voice. We can connect these grammatical features to larger ideologies like racism, whiteness, and color-evasiveness. The language we use has social consequences, and that can mean who has access to resources, who gets admitted into certain schools, and more.

My favorite piece using CDA that I have published is “Discourse Within University Presidents’ Responses to Racism: Revealing Patterns of Power and Privilege.” It stemmed from the context following Trayvon Martin’s killing and the surrounding calls for social change. This is the project I worked on while auditing that CDA class, which I later developed into a complete publication.

Even as a graduate student at Texas A&M, I started to recognize how my university president was responding to things. I remember being on the graduate student council when the student government drafted an anti-LGBTQ+ bill. They proposed that students could opt out of student service fees because it went to supporting the LGBT+ Pride Center. Many of us came out with resolutions from our organizations condemning the bill.

A great deal of emotion surrounded this issue, and our university president issued a statement that was incredibly bland and did not acknowledge the hurt and consequence of how the language and policies of these resolutions othered LGBTQ+ students by saying they were unworthy of financial support. The president just made a general statement, saying, “We’re all Aggies [the Texas A&M mascot] who need to be treated with respect,” rather than focusing on the student group being oppressed and supporting them through their language.

Another example I wrote about in the article was The University of Oklahoma. In 2015, one of their fraternities engaged in a racist chant. This was all over the national news. I took press conferences and speeches of university presidents and analyzed how they responded to this incident and others like it. Free speech allows people to say racist things, but we need to talk about how presidents respond to this speech when it occurs on their campuses.

There was a real missed opportunity by The University of Oklahoma president. He talks about these students as bad apples and threatens to kick them out, with appeals like “Sooners aren’t racist.” This completely misses the chance to address systemic racism and the culture that allows for these things. Instead, it represents the problem as one only a few individuals were responsible for. We need to hold administrators accountable for these types of responses, and ask how they can support students who are marginalized and victims of racism.

[] Could you expand on your work in this area, perhaps highlighting your recent articles, “Uncovering Whiteness as Discourse: A Critical Discourse Analysis of the In-State Resident Tuition Debate for Undocumented Students in Texas,” and “Unmasking Power in the Discourse of Four-Year Graduation Initiatives”?

[Dr. Veronica Jones Baldwin] With critical discourse analysis (CDA), as long as you have a text you can analyze anything. For “Uncovering Whiteness as a Discourse,” I collaborated with a doctoral student (now Dr. Nicholas Fuselier, an Assistant Professor at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs) who was working with undocumented students at the time and is first author on that publication. This was also a collaboration with Clifford P. Harbour, a Professor at UNT who is now retired. We talk about the debate in Texas over providing undocumented students in-state tuition. They have been trying to repeal this policy as long as it has existed. We talk about the language used on both sides of the debate. It sounds like a great thing if a politician says, “We should give in-state tuition to undocumented students because they’re contributing to the economy.” But this is a form of interest convergence in which you are using their bodies for economic gain. CDA allows us to look at the intent of the speakers and evaluate the implications this has for supporting different groups of students.

In “Unmasking Power in the Discourse of Four-Year Graduation Initiatives,” I collaborated with Dr. Ryan Miller, Associate Professor at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. We looked at the plans of institutions who were trying to ensure students graduated in four years and showed how they prioritized certain student realities over others. For example, a school might provide incentives to take summer classes as a way to graduate students more quickly, without acknowledging that nontraditional students sometimes have to work over the summers to take care of their families. Policies are not neutral, and our dominant narratives about things like retention, graduation, and student success often forget about our most marginalized students.

[] Another important concern of your work is resistance and activism, as in your publications, “Challenging Race Neutral Rhetoric: Black Student Leaders’ Counternarratives of Racial Salience in PWI Student Organizations,” “Disengaging Whiteness and Examining Power in Campus Activism: Reuniting Communities of Color Through a Critical Race Analysis of Tempered Radicalism,” and “The Heterogeneity of Resistance: How Black Students Utilize Engagement and Activism to Challenge PWI Inequalities.” Would you discuss some of the key strategies of resistance you have identified through your engagement with student activists over the course of your career?

[Dr. Veronica Jones Baldwin] “Challenging Race Neutral Rhetoric” developed from my dissertation research. Who we are as people and our social identities affect how we engage and resist inequity. I loved my dissertation process. I did a case study where I followed Black student leaders in one PWI [predominately white institution] setting. One of the main points that emerged was that resistance and activism do not look just one way. Students can be engaged in Black student organizations or in mainstream white organizations. They can take positions in student government. Certain organizations hold more power and privilege than others. Some students recognize that, while they need to connect with members of their group, it is also a strategy to get a seat at the table in these more privileged organizations in order to have their voices heard.

Our activism does not have to look the same, and we should not put constraints on it by defining it. I think we do student activism a disservice when we talk about collective action or student movements and we are so focused on what these movements ought to look like that we are distracted from helping them accomplish real change.

In my experience as a diversity trainer, we would lead trainings across the campus. My colleagues and I did a study on these trainings, published as “Educating Through Microaggressions: Self-care for Diversity Educators,” and took the findings of that study to administrators. They said they would assemble a diversity committee to find out how to make change on campus. One of the simplest questions we asked them was if they had any students on the committee, and they said they had not thought to. I thought, “You want to make policy for students who are being marginalized and asking for change, but you’re not even going to give them a seat at the table to help create the policy?” It is a powerful thing to give students a voice and a forum where they can be heard. That is an important thing to consider when we think about what activism means.

[] Throughout many of the articles we have been discussing, the influence of whiteness on the experiences and outcomes of students of color has been a persistent point of attention. This is also something you have turned to examine in the experiences of faculty and student affairs staff, for example, in “Educating Through Microaggressions: Self-care for Diversity Educators,” and “‘Whiteness Here, Whiteness Everywhere’: How Student Affairs Professionals Experience Whiteness at Predominantly White Institutions.” Would you explore the importance of critically interrogating whiteness, reflecting on how it shapes the experiences of students, faculty, and staff?

[Dr. Veronica Jones Baldwin] People often think about a racial identity when we talk about whiteness, but it is more of an ideology or a social construct. The basic premise is that whiteness allows some people to be disengaged or remain ignorant of the inequities around them.

In “Educating Through Microaggressions: Self-care for Diversity Educators,” we talk about our experiences as diversity educators. Certain things were common in the way people responded to us and the ideas we were presenting. For instance, if we went into a predominately white institution and said, “We would like you to think about your identities. What kind of dominant identities do you have and what kind of oppressed identities do you have, and how do they intersect and influence how you support students?,” there would always be someone who would get up from the table, or would not participate in the activity. They would say, “This doesn’t have anything to do with me,” as if they were not a human being with an identity who taught students with their own identities.

That is a part of the theory of critical whiteness, which discusses the epistemology of ignorance. Some people have the privilege of disengaging with what it means to be oppressed. They disengage with the fact that racism is prevalent in their institution. This has real implications for students. They are dealing with faculty who have identities that differ from their own and do not acknowledge their own advantage. This goes back to our discussion of equity. Some reject the idea that the playing field is inequitable in the first place.

In “Whiteness Here, Whiteness Everywhere,” we discuss how student affairs programs do not adequately prepare people for navigating racism and racialized incidents. If you are not preparing graduate students to handle issues of diversity, equity, race, and more, this makes it someone else’s job. Who is that left to? The student affairs practitioners of color. When we talk about whiteness as the ability to disengage, our studies show that white student affairs professionals felt as if equity issues were not necessarily their issues and would refer students to other offices for support. That puts a lot of stress on the student affairs professionals of color.

In higher education, we talk about racial battle fatigue. Racial battle fatigue is a consequence of whiteness. When there are some people who can disengage in understanding and addressing inequity, that causes some of our colleagues to have to be overworked and overly stressed because they are always the go-tos. Our students from marginalized communities need support, so they come to the people they know will advocate for them, understand them, and assist them. This causes faculty and administrators to experience burnout. It has huge implications. Whiteness as an ideology unfortunately causes more issues of inequity for the very people who are trying to address inequity.

[] You recently received a Spencer Foundation grant for your project “Resistance or Racism? Unpacking Critical Race Theory Bans in a Sociopolitical Era of Anti-Racism.” Would you provide us with some background on this project and how it grapples with current anti critical race theory initiatives?

[Dr. Veronica Jones Baldwin] A couple of years ago I started to see all these things in the news about critical race theory (CRT). Our previous presidential administration began saying federal funds would not be used for diversity initiatives. As a critical race scholar and someone who uses CRT in my publications, it was alarming to me. I asked my graduate assistant at the time to start saving these news articles because I knew this was going somewhere.

I have a research collaborator who has worked with me on some publications about men of color, Dr. Kaleb Briscoe. We had a working relationship and had talked about applying for a Spencer Foundation grant. Because I had been keeping an eye on what was happening in the news, I knew right away that this would be an important topic.

Returning to the idea of counter-narratives, I proposed that we do a study that would honor the voices of scholars who were actually doing this work. There is such a misrepresentation in today’s media of what CRT is. Those of us who use CRT value it so much because it gives us a language to understand the inequities faced by People of Color and other marginalized identities. I knew we needed to create a study that focused on getting their stories and understanding what it means to be a faculty member in this crazy sociopolitical era. We want to know how people are using CRT in their teaching and research and what backlash they have experienced for being a scholar who uses CRT in this time.

As I said, I love studying higher education law, and CRT emphasizes how law is neither neutral nor objective. As states created bills proposing banning CRT, I realized we needed to not only speak with faculty doing this work but also use critical discourse analysis (CDA) to analyze the language being used in the bills and critique the message they are using to misrepresent CRT as divisive. If you know CRT, you know it is far from divisive; it is actually about bringing people together by helping them understand how people are racialized and the inequities different groups experience.

Fortunately, the Spencer Foundation saw the value of this project. We have now been working on it for almost a year. We started interviews last summer and interviewed forty faculty across different states. We interviewed each faculty member twice, so we have eighty interviews. We have also started analyzing legislative bills. There are over 43 states that have some sort of CRT legislation. This does not necessarily mean that it passed — the legislation is at different stages — but we were interested in any document focused on banning CRT or race related discussions in general. There are over 70 documents across these states that we are analyzing right now.

Recently, at the American Education Research Association (AERA) conference, we presented our first piece of this work. We started with the southern states. We intend to do the whole country, but the context of the South is unique with what has been happening in Florida, including the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, attempts to repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students in Texas, and efforts to ban or defund diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives across the South. There is also a particular historical context for racism in the South.

In this paper we did for AERA, we used critical discourse analysis to focus on whiteness in this legislation. Whiteness as property is another tenet associated with CRT, and we discussed how the language that legislatures are using perpetuates whiteness. This language is very repetitive across the states we studied. It says things like, “CRT is divisive because you should not teach that one race is superior to another race.” Some of the arguments are very individualized. It makes it sound like I am going into classrooms and saying, “I’m superior because I’m oppressed.”

The aim of CRT is acknowledging social hierarchies. The fact is that people are racialized. We have social hierarchies based on the social construction of race. A lot of times people want us to teach about race as it should be — that everyone is equal — rather than how things are. The fact is that some groups are considered superior and advantaged because our society is inequitable, and they act as if acknowledging this in our curriculum means we are saying things should be this way.

Through these and other examples in our analysis we wanted to dive deeply into the social consequences of language and how the framing of CRT as divisive works to uphold dominant narratives. We are still completing data collection and working through the analysis phase. For me, hearing the narratives of other scholars is therapeutic because, as a CRT scholar, it means a lot to hear people’s passion and dedication to this material. At the same time, it is heartbreaking to hear about scholars getting harassed. A faculty member we interviewed discussed having to move their class online because they were afraid someone may come and try to harm them. Faculty members are getting threatening emails.

It is amazing what is happening in the current context. The solution is not just correcting outside media that are cultivating these misperceptions of CRT. It is also about administrative responses. How are presidents and administrators responding to what is going on? How are they going to support you through the backlash you might receive as a faculty member? There are so many stories, and we are so excited to get this work out because it is so important to understanding where we are as a society.

[] In working on this project on critical race theory in the type of climate you are describing, are you having to grapple with your own anxieties and obstacles?

[Dr. Veronica Jones Baldwin] It is such an interesting time. I started this project as an Assistant Professor without tenure. I was recently promoted to Associate Professor and granted tenure, so I can breathe a little sigh of relief. However, my research partner is not up for tenure yet. This puts us in something of a unique position. We frequently receive media requests to talk about our work, but I am very wary of speaking with reporters. It is hard to know how they will spin it depending on the source.

You have to think about risk and how you are positioned. I asked my own campus administrators about what support would be in place for me while doing this project. This is a scary time, and you have to think ahead. With new legislation being introduced all the time, you are always wondering where it could go. Could they begin auditing my syllabi? Could they start asking questions about my use of CRT? Academic freedom protects my own research, but teaching is another thing. I have to keep my eye on it at all times. One person I interviewed discussed how they record their lectures to ensure they are protected, and it made me wonder if I should do the same thing.

Still, we have to get this story out because this is such important work. Faculty members are talking about how they are affected in real time. We need to do this work. Regardless of how I feel, this research has to come out, and I am honored to be the person who gets to share these stories.

[] Prior to your time at UNT, you were a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin and worked with the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, and you are currently faculty affiliate for Project M.A.LE.S. (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success). Could you tell us a bit about your work with these initiatives, and your focus on promoting educational equity for men of color more broadly?

[Dr. Veronica Jones Baldwin] I got involved with the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color as a postdoc at The University of Texas at Austin. I worked with Victor Sáenz from UT Austin and Luis Ponjuan from Texas A&M, who are the cofounders of Project M.A.L.E.S. As a postdoc, my job was to collect data. We were looking across the state of Texas at public institutions, community colleges, and school districts to determine how they are engaged in supporting students of color who are men.

There was more data coming out about how educational disparities disproportionately affect men of color. Many schools were starting men of color programs and working to identify best practices. Our job was to speak with administrators, university presidents, and faculty. We did focus groups with Black and Latino men to hear their voices and understand their experiences.

We would debrief with administrators after we collected data about our major findings about their schools. We got varying responses. Students would describe feeling certain centers on campus were not supportive, and administrators would tell us these students must be mistaken or not understand. As administrators supporting students and in charge of distributing resources, you have to be open to criticism. You have to be willing to make the stories students are telling mean something. Other presidents were very responsive, invested in these reforms, and were interested in becoming part of the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color in order to support their students and connect with practitioners on other campuses.

This was a formative experience for me and became a central part of my research agenda. Project M.A.L.E.S. has become an amazing support system for scholars across the country working on equity issues. My work with them has led to many collaborations. This is how I met Dr. Kaleb Briscoe, whom I am doing the Spencer Foundation project with now [discussed above]. We also worked on another project together alongside Deryl K. Hatch-Tocaimaza & Eligio Martinez Jr. that produced the piece, “The Commodification of Men of Color Initiatives: Community Colleges Directors’ Experiences with Non-Performative Commitment,” which explores the commodification of men of color based on staff experiences with funding inequities. It discusses their efforts to secure funding for men of color programs and administrative responses that question why these programs are necessary and are not targeted at supporting all students. It has been amazing to be a part of a community that supports critical research like this.

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

[Dr. Veronica Jones Baldwin] One of the best things I can do as a faculty member teaching our future administrators and practitioners is to give them the tools. I can teach them the critical frameworks that will help them make a difference. I am very proactive in making sure I expose them to different types of readings. You may not learn how to apply critical discourse analysis as a method in my courses, but I am going to introduce it to you and help you understand the value of critically looking at our policies so that, whatever department you work in, you can feel empowered to go back to your office and ask questions.

Often, we think about change as a massive undertaking. It can be very simple. It can be one person saying, “Hey, I read that article, and the way we use this language is an issue,” or, “Hey, here’s a new approach I learned to support our students.” When we discuss critical discourse analysis and critical race theory, my goal is for students to take that back and use it in their everyday practice. I just taught a critical qualitative methods class, and we looked at everything from critical race theory to how ableism is embedded into our higher education practices.

At the end of the semester, my students were so empowered. The course spoke to them. You want theory to speak to you so that you can put it into practice. I try to tell my students that, no matter your position, you have the power to speak up and make a change.

Thank you, Dr. Jones Baldwin, for sharing your insight on critical discourse analysis, critical race theory, educational activism, educational policy, and more!