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Staying in the Conversation: Race and Its Intersections

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artistic representation of racial dialogue
As part of the continuing workshop, "Staying in the Conversation: Race and Its Intersections," AU professors immersed themselves in readings and discussions around race, privilege, and identity. Plans are underway to offer the workshop again spring 2017.

As she tells it, Caleen Jennings took part in cross-racial understanding discussions before they were even a thing. About a half century later, she might feel frustrated by the glacial—sometimes circular—pace of change. Yet Jennings, an American University professor in the Department of Performing Arts, remains optimistic about what can be achieved through thoughtful dialogue.

“My kids’ lives are different from my life. We didn’t have a term for allies. We didn’t have the term white privilege,” she says. “In many ways, I think things are the same or worse. But the paradox is we have tools.”

Shortcut: below, in less than one minute, Jennings talks about her takeaways from the workshop.

Applying those tools in a constructive way was part of the rationale for intensive—nine hours over the course of three days—faculty sessions on “Staying in the Conversation: Race and Its Intersections.” Co-facilitated by AU Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Celine-Marie Pascale and Assistant Vice President of Campus Life Fanta Aw, 10 faculty members immersed themselves in readings and discussions around race, privilege, and negotiating issues of identity and difference. For those professors, the process included confronting their own racial identity and the larger foundations of structural racism.

“I wish we didn’t have to have these conversations in 2016,” says Aw, a sociologist by training and a senior professorial lecturer in the School of International Service. “But given that this is the world we live in, if we can’t find space for creating compassion for people in where they are, we’re never going to make progress.”

Pascale, also a professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, explains the need to expand the reach of these discussions. “Our students were already having these conversations. The nation was already having these conversations. And if we didn’t actively join those conversations with our faculty, we’d be all left behind,” she says.

Racial Competence

To start off, each professor was asked to write a racial autobiography.

“We wanted to get at what they learned about their own racial identity, and what they learned about other racial identities. And how they learned it, and how it was reinforced,” says Pascale.

Faculty members were given an extensive collection of readings. The professors admit that just like their students, they groaned, “Do we have to do all of that reading?

But the professors interviewed for this story praised the reading selections. From the texts he studied, School of Communication Associate Professor Larry Engel was struck by the systemic nature of the problem. “We have, in almost all of our structures, in government and policy and politics, white privilege,” he says. “So that structure of unacknowledged but real racism isn’t easily going to go away.”

Shortcut: below, in less than one minute, Engel talks about his takeaways from the workshop.

The workshop, Pascale says, was not intended to focus directly on the classroom, but on the faculty members themselves. If professors have concerns about what faux pas they might commit in front of students, Aw and Pascale emphasize that there is no simple check list to follow in a classroom setting.

“Too often people want what we would call a cookbook approach. They want the do’s and don’ts,” says Aw. “But you can never anticipate all of the scenarios that would come up.”

Instead, the workshop aimed to help professors develop “racial competence” and to become more self-aware. “Part of self-awareness requires doing the hard work of asking yourself fundamental questions of, ‘How did you learn about race? What did you learn about race?’” Aw notes. “To then say, ‘Ok, how does that translate into what I choose to have for readings to my students?’”

Everyone’s Story

A persistent complaint about these sorts of race-related workshops is that they don’t reach the right people. Anyone who commits to joining such a session is already “woke,” i.e. attuned to race matters and social justice.

Pascale says the professors were dispelled of that notion by the second session. “They dropped their jaws and went, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t know how much I needed to be here.’ The world isn’t divided between people who get it and people who don’t. It’s that continuum that we’re all on now,” she says. “So wherever you come into that workshop, we’re going to push you to the next place.”

And people of all races and ethnicities benefit from these conversations. “Race is everyone’s story. This is not just about people of color,” Aw explains.

Even for an African-American woman with a lifetime of experiences, Jennings still found value in grappling with these issues in the workshop. “In dealing with racism, you have to, for your survival, build a wall around your heart. But at the same time, if there aren’t chinks and cracks and doors in that wall, you are going to set yourself back psychologically and spiritually,” she says.

In addition, professors appreciated the intellectually welcoming environment that Aw and Pascale facilitated. “They were just amazing in providing a very open, honest conversation. And making everybody feel that they could say anything they wanted to say,” notes Nuria Vilanova, an assistant professor in the World Languages and Cultures Department.

From the Inside Out

The professors’ personal stories and lived experiences had an impact on how they contributed to, and interpreted, these sessions. In recent interviews, they all talked about their formative years.

Jennings was raised in a predominately black neighborhood in Queens. She eventually switched to a progressive, mostly Jewish school in Greenwich Village, and she’s still friends with some of those classmates today. Both of her parents were active on civil rights, and her father was friends with icon Malcolm X. His assassination left her dad shaken, and it helped spur his decision to move the family to Nigeria from 1965-1968.

Vilanova spent her childhood years near Barcelona, Spain, during the reign of dictator Francisco Franco. She witnessed the influence of culture and ethnicity at an early age. Vilanova was from a working class Catalan family, but when Spanish working class migrants moved in from southern Spain, they were seen as different.

“Those kids, in terms of economic background and class, were similar to me. And yet because I was Catalan, and I wasn’t a migrant,” she recalls, “I was closer to the kids of the Catalan industrial bourgeoisie of my town.”

Engel was one of the few Jews growing up in Bloomfield, Connecticut. He worked at a gas station during summers, and he became a first-generation college graduate. He went to Yale from 1967-1971—a critical time for the counterculture and anti-Vietnam War protests.

Associate Biology Professor Catherine Schaeff grew up in a small town in Ontario, Canada. Living in an all-white neighborhood, race wasn’t all that visible during her childhood years.

Now, having been at AU since 1993, she credits the recent sessions for helping her think more cogently about these issues.

Shortcut: below, in one minute, Schaeff talks about her takeaways from the workshop.

“[I’ve] tried to be thoughtful about race, especially since coming to the United States. But I’ve always thought of that as sort of me looking at someone else. Whereas this made it be me looking at myself, and coming at it from the inside out,” she says. “Looking at it from the perspective of privilege is really helpful because the idea of fairness has always been very important to me.”

Continuing the Conversation

When asked if they’d partake in future sessions similar to “Staying in the Conversation,” the professors interviewed didn’t hesitate. They’d all be open to doing this again. Plans are underway to hold the workshop again during the spring 2017 semester.

In addition, several professors note how they’re already trying new things in their own classrooms.

“I’m asking my students at the beginning of class to tell me their names. I don’t take attendance the old way, by looking at my roster and making assumptions about gender,” Engel says.

Around the time the sessions were taking place, student protests broke out over racially-charged incidents on campus. Though the classroom topic was slavery in Latin America, Vilanova invited her students to broaden the discussion to current university issues.

“I probably wouldn’t have been able to say, ‘Do you want to talk about this?’ Because I never, ever had done that before,” Vilanova says. “The conversation with the students was quite amazing. And I have to say that if it had not been for that seminar, I don’t think I could make that kind of connection between my class and what was happening during that week on campus.”

Shortcut: below, in one minute, Vilanova talks about her takeaways from the workshop.

Even if the “Staying in the Conversation” sessions were painful, some profs speak about developing a kinship with their fellow participants.

“You’re reminded how quickly and how erroneously you make assumptions about people,” says Jennings. “When you walk into the dark forest with people, side by side, you develop a tremendous affection, attachment, and bond with them. No matter how different they are from you.”