The work of racial justice cannot wait and must be relentless. Wheaton College Provost Renée T. White made that point in her keynote address during the virtual Opening Convocation ceremony at the start of the fall semester, setting the tone for the academic year and beyond. A version of her speech was recently published in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.
White poignantly opened the piece, which was published September 24, with the personal story of her mother’s first encounter with racism in the United States for simply trying to wash her hands in the “wrong” bathroom during Jim Crow times. Even with such a jolting introduction, White’s mother went on to become a U.S. citizen, follow her passion, and help and advocate for others.
“I am the daughter of an immigrant from Latin America and of a man who was the first generation in his family born in the U.S. and who was the first to go to college,” White wrote. “I am the product of a family that like so many others actively resisted racism merely by living.”
A scholar on race, gender and social inequality, White has been inspired by those who came before her in a world that is so different so many years later and, yet, so similar in the struggle for basic humanity for all.
“We are in a moment where everyone should know the very real and tangible costs of the daily corrosiveness of anti-Black racism and structural inequality. So, what shall we do?” White asked.
“Consider this: anti-racism is a verb. It requires continuous action. It is the antithesis of complacency. It is more than diversity and inclusion. Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom argues that diversity and inclusion are strategies. They are necessary, but not sufficient for real change.
“Today, we have the opportunity and the duty to publicly and vociferously commit to being anti-racist. Doing so is about being on the right side of history.
“Each of us must name, feel and hear the truth of each other’s experiences. We need to grapple with the ambiguity of truth, and validate the lenses through which we each see the world in order to see each other in all our humanity. We need to model anti-racism and be the culture we want to see.
“We have to ask hard questions of ourselves individually and collectively—and we have to act and make change. This work requires that we look at how we are organized, which voices are amplified and when, who is called to labor on these issues and why others aren’t.
“It’s time to look at all of it.”