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Understanding race

By Carlina Duan, Community Culture Editor
Published February 7, 2013

“If we ignore it or deny it then how (are we supposed) to improve it?”

A legacy of understanding

“As students at this University who are going to be future leaders and citizens, (it’s important) to be able to leave here more in tune to how race manifests today. It might manifest differently,” Alsultany said. “Today, race doesn’t look like slavery. Race doesn’t look like segregation. Race changes over time.”

Alsultany is teaching two theme semester courses: AMCULT 218, “22 Ways to Think About Race,” and AMCULT 235: “From Harems to Terrorists: Representing the Middle East in Hollywood Cinema.”

At noon on Monday in her “22 Ways to Think About Race” class, 70 students packed into the Mason Hall room. Some chatted amiably; some yanked out sheets of notebook paper from bags; others nursed cans of fruit juice. Near the front of the room sat Anthropology Prof. Milford Wolpoff, the guest speaker for the day.

Wolpoff addressed the students with a fierce and raspy voice while presenting a PowerPoint on “The Science of Race & Racism.” He discussed how race is linked to the human evolution, showing slides detailing a history of race in scientific study. Peering at the class, he emphasized in a booming voice that human evolution and race are connected. Next, he detailed the importance of diversity in race.

“Race invariably also means racial prejudice. And we’re never going to get rid of prejudice … but we can and must learn how to celebrate our diversity,” he said. “As an evolutionist, I can say if we all became the same, evolutionists would have nothing to work with. What we need to be successful is variety.”

Part of the larger signature “22 Ways” courses that accompany each theme semester, “22 Ways to Think About Race” brings in guest speakers from various disciplines — including linguistics, communications and medicine — to highlight the ways in which race exists across a wide spectrum of fields. Alsultany hopes that through teaching theme semester courses, she can illuminate the pressing necessity of understanding race in our communities.

“I think it’s important to look at where we are and not deny the progress, but not assume that we are now an equal world,” she said.

For many, the ultimate goal of the theme semester is that its legacy will stretch beyond this semester.

“I really hope that we can take this model of how to talk about a very complicated subject of race, (and apply it to) how can we become less violent as a society; how we can talk about economic disparity; how we can talk about gender in an open way,” Provenzano said.

Harris agreed, noting the change already occurring on campus, including the University’s documentation of faculty research on race; the training sessions on race discussions for teachers and colleagues; and positive reactions to teacher facilitation in race dialogue.

“A stronger community of people committed to racial justice is already forming,” Harris said.