University professors join nationwide #ScholarStrike

Sarah Baldwin and Jess Kaplan

This past week, universities across the nation participated in the #ScholarStrike, an opportunity for professors to pause their classes and use the time to engage in discussions about social justice issues such as police brutality and anti-Blackness. University professors from various departments participated in the Sept. 8 and 9 strike, while eight took part in a Sept. 10 webinar on racial injustice co-hosted by the Office of Equity and Inclusive Excellence and the Teaching and Learning Center. Moderated by Associate Provost for Equity and Inclusive Excellence Nikki Young, the webinar included five-minute lightning talks from Assistant Professor of English Chase Gregory, Assistant Professors of Africana Studies Jaye Austin Williams and Nicholas Brady, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Adam Burgos, Professor and Department Chair of Theatre and Dance Anjalee Hutchinson, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Chris Dancy, Associate Professor of Biology Mizuki Takahashi and Assistant Professor of Art & Art History Eddy Lopez.

The action was conceived just two weeks ago by Anthea D. Butler, a religious studies and Africana studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Kevin M. Gannon, a history professor at Grand View University in Iowa. Inspired by the professional athletes who refused to play last month after the Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake, the strike and participating professors encouraged students to engage with resources on the official website and to take part in political actions to combat racial injustice.

“#ScholarStrike can work symbolically and materially. On a symbolic level, I want my students and colleagues to know on no uncertain terms that we are and have been facing a crisis: the crisis of pervasive anti-Black violence,” Professor Chase Gregory said of the importance of the demonstration. “On a material level, this strike is about withholding the labor we would do during class time in order to funnel our energies into educational and political efforts that explicitly address the current moment. I think both those things are valuable.” 

Professor Adam Burgos said he participated in the strike as confronting inequality is essential to his discipline. “Those are the issues that I engage with in my discipline of philosophy, which connects to my other reason for participating: showcasing the disciplinary depth needed to fully understand issues like anti-Blackness and white supremacy, alongside some of the people across campus who are doing that work in different ways,” Burgos said. 

Other professors whose coursework primarily focuses on addressing anti-Blackness and racial violence, such as Professor Jaye Austin Williams, opted to still hold their classes. Williams explained that her courses “confront the intricacies of the African Diaspora and how those formations have been and continue to be impacted by global anti-Blackness and the various levels and contours through which it is perpetrated.” Nevertheless, Williams was excited to participate in the panel as it “[gave] voice to those [perspectives] that are harder to comprehend or to keep on the popular conceptual field.” 

Professor Nicholas Brady was just one of such perspectives; Brady opened the webinar by considering the current protests for racial justice and the ways in which the narrative has been consistently co-opted by the media and politicians, just as other rebellions throughout history were. Brady urged students to critically evaluate the mainstream narrative with knowledge of the political and historical motivations undergirding them. 

Next, Professor Chase Gregory explained how language and attention to words within a given text illuminate systematic racism, as our language is often complicit in structures of power and oppression. By critically examining language’s power, we can begin to expose the anti-Blackness and white supremacy that lies below the surface. Gregory also examined the idea of the exonerative tense, highlighting the way the media consistently uses the passive voice when discussing instances of police and state violence, further underscoring the biases that exist within language and the influences such biases have.

Afterward, Professor Mizuki Takahashi examined anti-Asian racism, citing his own experiences with discrimination. Although his research does not primarily focus on racism, Takahashi viewed this panel as an opportunity to expand his own knowledge and to address racism within the scientific community, a concern that is often overlooked. “If we can extend our care and thoughts to all the people who are struggling, including some of the Asian people on this campus, that would make our campus a better place,” Takahashi said. 

Professor Adam Burgos’ presentation stressed the ways in which making explicit a “historical reality and a present-day that are made up of relations of inequality, violence, and injustice, is the first step in thinking about normative issues like equality, justice, rights, critique, or contestation that shape how we should respond.” Through a renewed understanding of intersectional identity, we can understand how our identities were constructed by pre-existing conditions and account for the vast array of experiences across races. Such diagnoses allow one to understand the ramifications of forces such as colonialism, the afterlife of slavery and the link between policing and anti-Black violence; this operates in tandem with the normative issues, which “involve[] evaluation and justification, and talking about how we ‘ought’ to do things.”  

Following Burgos’ discussion, Professor Chris Dancy argued against solely focusing on the biases of computer systems or the lack of representation that exists within the computer science community. Instead, Dancy proposed a mode of thinking about computer systems that considers historical systems and the ways in which socio-cultural knowledge is reinforced through search engines. By doing this, he contended, it is possible to reimagine computer systems in a way that does not rely on hierarchical power structures. 

Professor Anjalee Hutchinson compiled experiences of those within the We See You White American Theatre movement, which exposes the ways racism and anti-Blackness manifest itself within the American theatre. Hutchinson’s presentation provided examples of the pay disparities between white actors and performers of color, the lack of proper representation on Broadway and the inability for works of art that critically examine racial injustice to find commercial success. She also invited students to watch Black theatre and film as an immediate way to expand their base of racial knowledge. 

Professor Eddy Lopez presented his research on the ways in which Spanish colonizers demolished sacraments of Mayan and Aztec culture, particularly the Amate paper. Though the Spaniards turned eight centuries of Mayan and Aztec literature into ash, Lopez argued that their “memory could not be burned.” Amate paper resumed production in Central America in the 20th century. 

To conclude the discussion portion of the webinar, Professor Jaye Austin Williams elucidated the ways in which language is a multifarious and nefarious tool that consistently fails. Students can begin to understand many of the deficiencies of language through performance, a heuristic which aids us in understanding deeper societal ills and discovering modes of active political thinking. Williams affirmed that “racism takes ongoing work and reflection on the ground and in the classroom.”

The session ended with a Q&A segment, where audience members asked questions on how to further the conversation of racial inequality on campus; how dialogues of antisemitism, islamophobia and homophobia can be incorporated into conversations of anti-racism; and how marginalized communities can make their voices heard. Brady emphasized how race frequently operates at the unconscious levels of how we identify people; taking classes that dive into issues of race and supporting Black grass-roots organizations is an entry point into unraveling our own biases. Gregory furthered reminded participants that college is the ideal setting to have these uncomfortable conversations and re-center our own thinking of race. Young concluded the evening by reiterating the University community’s collective responsibility to make space for marginalized communities and create an environment that takes into consideration the unique struggles of disparate groups. 

Students who attended felt the webinar was necessary given the renewed awareness of systems of racial inequality. “I attended the event because I feel it’s important to acknowledge the racial injustice within different fields/areas of study and address how we can improve and tackle the racial inequality that we may endure or witness in our future if we choose a certain career,” Isaiah Mays ’23 said. 

Carolina Reyes ’21 echoed Mays’ sentiment, citing the need for the University community to speak out against these inequities. “The webinar was very informative. Racial injustice is prevalent through all different areas of study and it is extremely important to discuss the way that it affects marginalized communities in different academic fields,” Reyes said. “The webinar is not just the end, but hopefully the beginning of more conversations on campus about racial injustice.”

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