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Discussion on Racism and “White Fragility” Draws Diverse, Engaged Crowd

In light of recent racist incidents on the University of Oklahoma campus, the College of International Studies came together with the Office of University Community and the Department of Modern Languages, Literature, and Linguistics last Thursday to host an event titled “What Can I Do to Address Racism on Campus?”

The event, held in the late afternoon in Zarrow Hall’s JJ Rhyne room, centered on a moderated discussion of Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. In the book DiAngelo, a former Westfield State University professor with years of experience as an antiracist educator, analyses and breaks down the defensive reactions of white people who are called on their racist statements or actions, examining how this defensiveness resists teachable moments and allows racial inequality to persist. By digging deep into the often misguided ways white people tend to view the concepts of race, racism, and whiteness, she offers advice on how to become a committed antiracist and engage constructively on racial issues. The book was distributed for free to event attendees, and it served as an excellent starting point from which to approach a discussion of fighting racism at OU.

Moderator Dr. Mitchell P. Smith, IAS chair and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, began by referencing the recent blackface incident on campus and subsequent responses from OU student groups Unheard and the Black Student Association. “I don’t think it’s the job of these groups alone to address racism,” he stated, noting that the point of the event was to encourage others in the OU community to join the fight against racism on campus. The assembled crowd of students, faculty and staff were seated at round tables, each led by a discussion moderator. The moderators represented various departments across campus and included IAS Professor Emma Colven, African & African-American Studies Professor Jeanette Davidson, Honor College/American Studies Professor Julia Ehrhardt, Women’s and Gender Studies Professor Elyssa Faison, IAS Professor Miriam Gross, and Interim Associate VP for Community Jane Irungu, who also spoke at the event.

Over the course of the event, Smith announced questions for table discussions, after which the room would discuss as a whole. Topics began on a nationwide level, with a look at a recent exchange in the House of Representatives between Reps. Mark Meadows and Rashida Tlaib that seemed to perfectly illustrate DiAngelo’s central argument. But the discussion that followed turned more and more to racism at the university. In particular, group discussion focused on the concept of racism as a structure rather than a single event, noting DiAngelo’s point that we all hold racial prejudices and that racism is not exclusive to “bad” people. There was lively discussion among students and faculty alike about issues with the Greek system at OU and the importance of being allies, denouncing racism and speaking out to educate others.

Later in the event, the group took a break from discussion to hear comments from Interim Vice President for OU Community Dr. Jane Irungu, who spoke powerfully about the need for members of the OU community to speak up and take action against racism. “I look around, and this room is full,” she observed. “That tells me that we really want to do something for our university.” She spoke about her job in the Office of University Community, which involves confronting racism at OU “on a weekly basis,” and emphasized that the community’s silence and indifference perpetuates the problem. “Your university that you love needs you to dismantle the structure . . . that is supporting racist acts,” Irungu said. She closed by encouraging those gathered to seize upon teachable moments, and to not be afraid to hurt someone’s feelings. “Let them cry,” she said, noting that discomfort is a necessary byproduct of antiracist action.

As the conversation turned to what we can do to fight racism at OU, many suggestions were discussed. Most attendees seemed to agree that more thoughtful discussions, reading groups and events dealing with these issues should be held more frequently and widely advertised to engage students, faculty and staff. One attendee suggested a new, more intentional approach to diversity training, and ways to demonstrate alliance with and protect people of color on campus were also discussed. One participant added that the university shouldn’t try to paint a rosy picture, but rather be honest about racism on campus the challenges OU faces.

For students in attendance, the event was enlightening. Sarah Shwayyat, a junior Early Childhood Ed. major who attended for her Sociology course, got more out of the experience than she expected. “I think it was really eye-opening. And I think that the university should do a better job of addressing these issues. . . I’m glad I came,” she said, noting that more events like this would be a great way to address racism on campus regularly, not just when incidents happen.

Sophomore Meteorology major Jacob Genvise was also new to this type of event, which he was inspired to attend by discussions in his Sociology course, Racial and Ethnic Minorities. “It was just good to have a dialogue about it; I don’t think that happens on campus,” he said. “This is the first [event like this] I’ve participated in, and it was really good. It’s important to expand the discussion out, so more people are involved in it.”

Likewise Devin Hiett, a senior Journalism/International Studies major, felt the discussion was important even for those already well educated on these issues, noting that “a lot of times when I’m talking about these issues it’s with my friends that I’m very comfortable around, who come from similar backgrounds as I do.” Here, she said, “I get to be at a table with people aging from, like, 20 to 75, from all these different backgrounds and departments on campus.”

Hiett attended the event because she wanted to learn to become a better, more knowledgeable ally to people of color on campus. “Even if you are the sort of person who is invested in these issues and comes to these events, that doesn’t mean that you’ve reached this level of enlightenment where you . . . no longer need to be educated about racism and intersectionality,” she said. “It’s great to sit down with people you’ve never met before and have a genuine, transparent discussion of race and racism.”

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