by Brianna Orellana
It was a Monday morning, not even 8:30 a.m., but Shaka McGlotten walked busily around the room. They were giving students feedback on their papers before their class started.
It was cold outside and tall piles of snow could be seen from out the window of the classroom. The small room in the Humanities Building wasn’t cold, yet McGlotten was bundled up in a fluffy hat and striped scarf as they went from student to student, critiquing and workshopping. They wore thick-framed glasses that they pushed up occasionally as they addressed the class. Though it was an early class the students were engaged throughout.
“It’s a dialogue,” said McGlotten. “I’m proud of my teaching.”
Shaka McGlotten, an anthropology and media studies professor at SUNY Purchase, was named after the fierce warrior Shaka Zulu. “My dad was involved in the black power movement,” said McGlotten, “so he wanted to give me a strong, African-inspired name.” While, in Japanese Buddhism, some may refer to the Buddha as “Shaka,” McGlotten interprets their name as “warrior monk,” a perfect fit for them.
“I have the fierceness but also that kind of softness,” they said.
McGlotten in their office Photo//Brianna Orellana
Some of McGlotten’s students recognize this fierceness they describe. On the website, RateMyProfessors.com, more than one student described them as intimidating. McGlotten said, “I think 90% of it is that for some students, especially white students, to have an out person of color teaching their classes in a position of authority, who knows a bunch of shit, who knows more than them, that is intimidating.”
McGlotten speaks with confidence both in the classroom and individually. Not only are they a professor but they’re also an activist for the rights of women, people of color, and the queer community. McGlotten isn’t shy of speaking out on the injustice they see. “Everyone holds these biases,” they said. “Race, gender and class are obvious categories that organize our culture.”
McGlotten spoke about institutional racism at Purchase and countless other academic and professional institutions. “It exists everywhere,” said McGlotten. “We never stopped living in an era of white supremacy in the United States.”
“The only way institutions change is by leadership recognizing their institution is racist,” they added. McGlotten acknowledged that people tend to take it personally when institutional racism is brought up. People may that they are being called a racist. However, McGlotten explained the difference between overt racism and institutional racism. “Racism is a structure. It organizes our society. It organizes social relations. It is both personal and totally impersonal. Your racism isn’t just about you, it’s about how these ideas circulate, the way they were embedded since birth,” they said.
Some argue that SUNY Purchase is progressive and that institutional racism doesn’t exist here, but to McGlotten, this is blatantly false.
“All you have to do is look at the number of faculty of color, the experience of students of color, look at syllabi,” they said. McGlotten insists on being direct about addressing institutional racism and not sugar coating things. They’re learning how to work with leaders as best they can rather than directly confront them.
While fighting institutional racism is a big part of McGlotten’s life, they take education and their teaching very seriously. “The most important work I do is in the classroom,” said McGlotten, “that’s where I know I have a direct impact.”
Patricia Devarez, a philosophy major at Purchase, took McGlotten’s New Black Ethnographies course her junior year. She described the class as not being traditional and shaped to the students’ interest.
“I remember we would start class by going outside and using a smudge stick to sort of cleanse ourselves of any negative energy,” said Devarez, “and even if you aren’t personally into that kind of thing I think it was really refreshing and put everyone into this sort of calm mood.”
McGlotten described their openness regarding gender and racial identity as their “shtick.” They want their students to know that they’re coming from a queer, feminist, person of color, decolonizing perspective. “I want people of color to potentially see themselves in my position,” said McGlotten.
Editor’s note: Shaka McGlotten uses the pronouns they/them