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Rackham Graduate School’s Leading Equity and Diversity Initiatives and the School of Engineering both hosted virtual events last week discussing diversity and whiteness in academia. These events were part of the schools’ ongoing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives, which promise to emphasize their commitment to anti-racism.  

Manu Platt, associate professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, led “Gaslighting in the Academy: Will Black Lives Continue to Matter?” to promote anti-racist practices. Platt outlined the various injustices Black Americans face explicitly and implicitly, drawing on recent police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests to emphasize what can be done in academia to effect change.

Platt said making students and faculty members feel as though they have opportunity to advance is as important as making them feel welcome and valued.

As chair of admissions and recruiting for the Biomedical Engineering doctoral program at Georgia Tech, Platt recalled the amount of work that had to be done in reshaping the department faculty’s perception of a diverse class of students.

“There were several things that we had to overcome from training our admissions committee as well as having a faculty that was in support of recruiting these students and not looking at it as ‘we’re going to ruin our department by doing this,’” Platt said. 

To combat the racism within departments or entire schools, Platt said all members of academia, regardless of position, need to pursue anti-racist measures individually while putting pressure on the leadership. 

“Don’t take the pressure off the senior people, but I think everyone needs to think about what their own role is,” Platt said. 

To better engage with Black students on incidents of blatant and systemic racism, Platt said faculty and staff should not try to challenge the experiences of students who feel comfortable enough to talk with them about discriminatory interactions with certain professors. 

Platt said it’s important for administrators to use their power to get racist incidents addressed while asking targeted students if they are comfortable with the course of action. 

Another key point of Platt’s lecture was a discussion of how academia could modify behavior. 

“We all have our own biases,” Platt said. “And it hit me that I need to change my frame of view.”

Rackham L.E.A.D. hosted a virtual panel called “Decentering Whiteness in Academia” on Friday night about how higher education institutions can create a sense of belonging for all.

Elizabeth Cole, professor of psychology, women’s and gender studies and Afroamerican and African studies at the University of Michigan, said she believes decentering whiteness doesn’t mean moving another group out of the center, but rather requires academia to widen its view of success and scholarship. 

“Decentering means being open to a broader view of what it means to be a scholar, what it means to do academic work, what learning looks like, what success looks like,” Cole said. 

Stephanie Rowley, provost, dean and vice president for Academic Affairs of Columbia Teachers College, pointed to subtle ways white supremacy culture pervades academia. She explained how academia’s use of journal articles as the gold standard of success and scholarship ignores other important work scholars of color often engage in. 

“What about other sorts of work that may be just as important, work in the community, white papers, collaborative papers that are written with community partners?” Rowley said. “Oftentimes, what happens is we say, ‘This is the only standard we have, and if we don’t use the standard we have, we don’t have standards?’” 

At an individual level, Rowley said students and staff with privilege can disrupt conversations with a technique called narrating the room, in which a person draws attention to who is and is not speaking in a conversation and creating space for groups who may be afraid to speak up. 

“I have a colleague who just regularly raises her hand and says, ‘Excuse me, the men are speaking, what do the women think here?’” Rowley said.  

Rowley and Cole agreed that decentering whiteness requires more than the occasional DEI session. They argued that white supremacy subtly pervades academia, and true inclusion requires changing practices at all levels of academia.

“One of the things that I see a lot in institutions is a focus on superficial levels of DE&I,” Rowley said. “I do think that sometimes we do the feel good things, we do the community conversations or a book club … without really digging into how we’re doing the work, who’s at the table for the work, how our practices include or exclude people and how we actually do have the power to set new standards that are excellent and more inclusive.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Julia Rubin can be reached at julrubin@umich.edu. Daily Contributor James Gerard can be reached at jtgerard@umich.edu. 

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