Q: How did the Faculty and Staff Peer Equity Workgroup get started?
JEREMIAH: We started the working group a few years back. The original charge was to create a committee for the faculty around equity and inclusion, however if you look at the definition of committee, this is service work and service leadership that is beyond the work expectation. The resources we had did not necessarily bolster a committee, but we were able to create a work group that could meet during Common Classroom. One of things I asked at the time was what faculty wanted to do for faculty, by faculty. They chose to start by reading and discussing a book together.
Q: What was the goal of the Workgroup?
TANIA: Several of us had done Shane Safir’s Brave Spaces professional development and had learned that we needed to create more opportunities for conversations on E&I and social justice for faculty, whether it was about curriculum, or talking about what we were reading, or talking about what was happening in the world. The goal was so we could be better teachers of course, and be better mentors, but also to show in our practice as teachers what this kind of work looks like because we were doing it ourselves as adults.
Q: Tell us about the first book you chose to discuss, White Fragility.
JEREMIAH: David Kojan, Assistant Head/Academic Dean, recommended that we first read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. I think it is a great tool, especially for people who are at the very beginning of their journey around social justice, racial reckoning, and understanding who they are and their place in this world. I think it can be a great tool for people racialized as white who have a desire and a genuine interest in antiracist work. The reason I say that is because for people of color, we often have literature, or things that challenge us, to think about our place in the hierarchy of race relations and the world, we have a more clear understanding of structural racism. However, because of the privilege and the purpose of white supremacy, many people racialized as white do not. Robin DiAngelo is someone who is insightful and direct, and comes from a very personal and authentic standpoint that resonates with some people, and can be helpful for them to view themselves as racialized people who are white. This racial consciousness is necessary to view and manipulate structural racism. A classic article that speaks to this phenomenon is Peggy McIntoch’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of Privilege.
TANIA: The DiAngelo book feels, in retrospect, like a very controversial choice because there’s just been a lot written about that book and her, and the political economy behind the white fragility industry. So I recognize that, but the things I take from it are exactly why I think it was a good choice. The logic behind beginning with the DiAngelo book was that, since we are a majority white and historically white institution, it would help us get through some of those discourses, narratives, ideas, and responses that people have that aren’t productive that don’t actually lead to more dialogue or to building better relationships. They also don’t create an environment of inclusion and equity at work. I recognize the narratives she describes in the book that shoot conversations down, or create moments of unnecessary and unproductive tension. It was great to have people read them understand why these narratives are either incorrect, are not addressing the issue, or are simply hurtful.
Q: How do you feel about the second book the group chose, How to Be an Antiracist?
TANIA: With the Kendi book, I also recognize it as a controversial choice. Jeremiah made sure we bought it directly from the author’s website so I’m glad we could support the author in that way. Two things that I appreciate about his book are the autobiographical story, and how he describes “being an antiracist” as actually understanding how to practice antiracism. He takes antiracism out of the realm of identity. Racism or antiracism is not about who you are, it's about what you do. And so it doesn’t matter what your background is, you can be antiracist. That’s one of the huge takeaways from this book. He also braids the narrative of his story with different moments of coming to consciousness or finding insight in his life about race, racism, and antiracism. He intertwines that with history and policy and the way that racism is structural. He talks about the way there are policies that expand equity and those that don’t. I really appreciate his framework in that way.
JEREMIAH: Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist, is also a good entree to the idea of being an antiracist. Kendi’s experiences really resonate with my own experience, in a way that is comforting and disturbing. I do think it’s a great way for folks to create some shared language through evocative imagery and personal allegory.
Q: Can you share any memorable moments from the discussions this past year?
TANIA: One of the most productive, relationship building and emotionally moving moments that we had in those discussions was based on one of Kendi’s anecdotes about his moment of realizing that racism existed. That moment he realized he went from being a child who could play with everybody, to suddenly in other people’s eyes, becoming an adult, or just something else that wasn’t a child, and who people were afraid of.
Based off of that story, someone in our group shared about their moment when they also had that moment of coming to realize what racism is and feeling it for the first time in their life. We began to share our own stories of racial adolescence. It was very powerful, and we learned so much from it. One of the insights that was mentioned by the participants was that you can really see how racism impacts everyone, including white people, and that we all had these stories of racism in our lives with the impact and the harm. Another trend that we noticed in the conversation and in the sharing, was that for many people of color, especially Black people, that moment came very young. And for a lot of white people, that moment didn’t come until later.