Following the success of a community discussion about issues of race in Ferguson, Mo., our Office of Residential Education and Living (REAL) decided to continue the conversation, this time bringing the discussion closer to home. The event, titled, “How Not to Talk About Race at College,” included a panel led by professors Sunil Bhatia (human development), David Kim (religious studies), and Rosemarie Roberts (dance), as well as students Ramata Diallo '17 and Maurice Tiner '17. The discussion sought to answer a number of questions: Why do conversations on race become deadened in the classroom and amongst students? What is that block that’s created that prevents people from expressing their feelings? How do we generate a more open environment in which race can be talked about, not as an abstract concept but as a real, human experience that a lot of people have to deal with.
I don’t know if the panel completely answered all these questions, but the audience was spirited and engaged on that Wednesday evening. As 70 students and faculty members informally gathered in a circle, students shared personal stories about experiencing racial prejudice in their lives.
The event was illuminating on so many levels. After the event ended, I was approached by a professor I’d never met — she teaches French and Africana studies, departments I've never taken courses in. She stood next to my friend and I, put her hands on our shoulders and told us that although she had to run, she'd love to continue the conversation, passing along her name and email address. David Kim also made himself available after the panel so students who didn’t have a chance to speak would be able to in a more personal way.
Professor Audrey Zakriski from the Psychology Department had some choice words to say about approaching one’s own racial biases and confronting them, and Dean of the College Caroline Denard proposed a “color-brave” narrative performance piece, that would bring together art, dance, music and monologue to share stories about discrimination and acceptance. Another student proposed “issue-tables” in the dining halls where you could move to and from different topics of discussion. I suggested there be a disclaimer in every class' syllabus about any incident of prejudice a student might face and a third party to contact — just as the syllabus already has an addendum about sexual misconduct, resources available in the Office of Accessibility, and the drug and alcohol program.
On our campus, the difficult issues of sexual violence prevention, disability and personal health are already part of conversations we have openly and often. The leaders of offices that work with students on these topics are are incredibly engaged, and are often on a first-name basis with most of the campus, helping to create a lively, open and honest community. This event was an attempt to do the same with issues regarding race.