Talking about race

“Come and challenge what you think you know about race.”

That invitation filled Cole Memorial Chapel with students, faculty and staff on Sept. 18, 2017, for a teach-in titled “Understanding Race After Charlottesville.” The purpose of the gathering: “to emphasize the importance of evidence-driven discussions on race as our over-reliance on opinion, divorced from knowledge of a topic, has put us, as a society, in peril,” said Associate Professor of Anthropology M. Gabriela Torres, who proposed the idea for the event that was organized by a small group of faculty.

“I was compelled to work on this initiative because I believe that understanding the social science of race and leveraging that into informed discussion on this difficult topic is critical work for national reconciliation,” Torres said.

The Wheaton professors who organized the event also drew inspiration from their professional associations—the American Anthropological Association, the American Historical Association, and the American Sociological Association—which called for faculty across the country to spur constructive conversations on college campuses. Wheaton’s gathering began with brief remarks from several faculty members (three of the essays featured here come from the event), followed by small group discussions facilitated by faculty and staff. Those more personal discussions about race—what it is, individual experiences of its impact—were not easy.

“Everyone who might enter into such a conversation has to calculate the potential risk involved and then decide how to proceed,” said Associate Professor of History John Bezis-Selfa. “Those risks may differ considerably from individual to individual and according to whether one is ‘white’ or a ‘person of color.’

“The vast majority of people in our nation, Wheaton faculty and staff included, face and share many of the same challenges,” Bezis-Selfa said. “There is just an awkwardness to such conversations that is virtually impossible to avoid and that should be expected. The more polarized this nation and the world become, the more awkward these conversations will likely be, but the more valuable they’ll become.”

The Wheaton community had many opportunities for these difficult discussions during the fall semester. Provost Renée T. White sponsored new installments of an ongoing series of community conversations on race, gender, ethnicity and other areas of bias that began in 2016. The Psychology Department also convened a symposium on the subject. The fourth essay featured here—on the formation of self and group identities—was delivered at that gathering in October.

Such events are critical. Despite the seemingly idyllic nature of Wheaton and other colleges and universities, campuses often serve as a battleground for debating the issues that divide society.

“The Wheaton bubble, our bubble, is a microcosm of the world in which we live,” Associate Professor of History Dolita Cathcart said, in opening the college’s second teach-in on November 2. “Racism, sexism, misogyny, prejudice against LGBTQ people, nationalism—all of these issues and more find their way onto our campus.”

We can fear these difficult issues, she said, or learn from them. “Conversations like these are hard, but that’s OK.”

Cathcart offered those thoughts at the teach-in held in November, in the wake of a controversy that erupted at Wheaton over a white student who wore blackface as part of a Halloween costume. That teach-in filled the chapel, too, and faculty members once again called for the community to work together toward understanding racial bias, cultural appropriation, prejudices inspired by difference and other challenges to creating an inclusive community.

“Today will be a success if we apply the skills of critical thinking,” Cathcart said. “I’m sure you hear faculty members talk about critical thinking in class all the time. It’s not only important in the classroom; it’s even more important outside of the classroom.”