“What I’m Reading: Conversations about Antiracist Learning”

Nicole Yeager, News Editor

Amidst today’s charged climate surrounding political and social justice issues, the University has created a four-part book club and discussion series where members of the community can commit themselves to deepen antiracist learning and practices by reading and watching culturally significant works. This series is a collaborative project put together by Director of Religious & Spiritual Life Kurt Nelson, Director of the Women’s Resource Center Kelsey Hicks-Bunns and Director of International Student Services Jennifer Figueroa. Each will lead one of the four discussions. 

“Lots of folks did good reading and thinking this summer and this semester as we are collectively turning our attention to racial injustice and violence in our midst. And all of us, I think, are wondering ‘What now? We simply wanted to share that the act of reading, and discussing, and thinking with a group of friends or colleagues is valuable and meaningful — as well as accessible — as a next step,” Nelson said. 

According to Nelson, the purpose of this discussion series is to “continue to encourage our community of staff, faculty and students to be invested in learning as a practice of life; and to highlight the ways in which we can take small steps toward racial justice in this midst of this disruptive moment.” 

On Oct. 2, Figueroa, Nelson and Director of the Counseling & Student Development Center (CSDC) Kelly Kettlewell facilitated the first “conversation” on “How To Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. In this discussion, group members did close readings of three passages from Kendi’s book that delved into biological equality, the term “racist abuse” as opposed to “racist microaggression” and the deep-rooted issues of ignorance, hate and self-interest that keep racism alive. Nelson shared that the key takeaway of this first session was “to consider how we — as a learning community — might continue to clarify and strengthen our language, in order to be on the same page in doing the work.”

Figueroa said that “this discussion series offers an easy way to talk about meaningful books, by highlighting some excerpts from the noted book for that week.” She further shared that, at each session, “we spend some time as a group talking about how the book resonated with us and then open comments and discussion from others who have not yet read the book.” This allows for all to participate and engage in the discussion, ensuring that a range of perspectives is represented and shared. 

On Wednesday, Oct. 28, the second session of this series was held via Zoom. Director of the Office of LGBT Resources Bill McCoy and staff counselor Lee Bard III guided the discussion on “White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. The event was opened up with introductions from all who attended, including professors and faculty from a variety of departments and a handful of students. McCoy and Bard then defined “white fragility” as used in the book and highlighted a few quotes. The discussion primarily built upon the quotes, and participants were encouraged to share their thoughts throughout the talk. Some topics that were focused on were: how to properly define and view the heavy term “racism” in order to facilitate learning and growth, how each individual might interact with more covert racism-related issues in their daily lives and how to reflect on one’s personal behavior within the larger structure of society. 

“I think the biggest takeaway from this discussion is that we, as white people, need to actively try to realize how our whiteness affects our opinions and emotions every day,” Allison Gerhard ’23 said. She further noted that “it is hopeful to see students and faculty come together to actively educate ourselves on topics, such as white fragility, and become better allies. The University should feel like a safe space for all community members, and discussions like this make me optimistic that we are open to bettering ourselves towards this goal.”

Jenna Beucler ’23 echoed this sentiment. “Attending this event reminded me what an amazing community we have here. Everyone was so committed to the conversation and open to re-evaluating their own practices and biases in order to talk about how to move forward together,” she said. 

“I would encourage everyone to read more on antiracism. Explore! Ask us for suggestions! Read on your own time, as you are able. I also think it’s incredibly helpful to move through reading on these topics with a friend, or a small group. That way, you can have a safe space to share your thoughts and questions as you move through learning on these topics,” Figueroa said when asked about the importance of the “conversation” series. 

“It’s not everything, but it’s a good step. And it can be really helpful to pick a book with friends and talk it through together,” Nelson said.  

McCoy also provided a concluding comment: It is important to “think critically about how the reading applies directly to your patterns of thought and actions. We often default to thinking of examples that other people or institutions have perpetuated racism — but if everyone points fingers outside themselves no one will engage in change. It is harder to see when we have perpetuated racism — or we create excuses for our behavior to rationalize how it was something else – but this is the necessary work to interrupt cycles moving forward.”

For those who were not yet able to attend one of these discussions, there are two more coming up. On Wednesday, Nov. 4, Nelson and Associate Professor of English Kat Lecky will be talking about James Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” On Wednesday, Nov. 11, a conversation about Misha Green’s HBO show “Lovecraft Country will be led by Hicks-Bunns.

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