On Thursday afternoon, a group of about 100 students, faculty and Ann Arbor residents scattered around the University of Michigan Museum of Art for the first-ever “Reclaiming Our Campus” teach-in, which allowed participants to share knowledge, unpack experiences and grasp how to mobilize against hate speech on campus.
The event was organized by an informal network of students and faculty from a variety of academic backgrounds, as they tried to create a space where the audience members felt empowered to listen and participate equally. Unlike other events related to the discussion of diversity on campus, Thursday’s teach-in was the culmination of efforts from this group of undergraduates, professors, staff members and graduate students who meet once a week to discuss an interdisciplinary approach to anti-white supremacy activism. The teach-in was a part of a broader series of diversity events in the “2018 Speech and Inclusion: Recognize Conflict and Building Tools for Engagement” series.
To kick off the day’s activities, University alum Hardy Vieux, a first-generation Haitian immigrant and the legal director of Human Rights First, an independent advocacy organization that challenges the U.S. to live up to its ideals, gave a keynote speech about how his feelings of isolation as an undergraduate inspired him to organize with other minority students. As a student, he said he was assured refuge from hate in Black barber shops. He remained hopeful of the future of the campus.
“I am only an expert on my own unique life experiences,” Vieux said. “There is cause to celebrate the differences that inform the truths and commonalities that define our connections. I’m not here to tell you what to think, I’m simply asking you to think.”
After Vieux prepared the audience for the day’s goings-on, participants dispersed throughout the main and basement levels of the UMMA to begin the first hour of dialogues and discussions. In total, there were three hour-long themed blocks, each with five concurrent sessions in separate spaces. Some participants attended events out of curiosity, while others went to see specific speakers and professors.
During the first block, a dialogue sponsored by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching took place, titled, “Constructing Just Classrooms, Deconstructing Whiteness.” Facilitators drew attention to the unintended consequences of whiteness in the classroom that tend to go unnoticed. One of the leaders of the discussion, Assistant Director of CRLT Whitney Peoples, encouraged audience members to consider the direct and indirect relationships between whiteness and white supremacy. In asking the group about systematic and informal racism, she reminded those in attendance that white supremacy doesn’t always manifest acutely — it can be commonplace and casual.
“White supremacy is the everyday,” Peoples said. “It’s not the skinhead, the KKK member with the hood, or the Richard Spencer. Talking about whiteness is a way to see how we’re all implicated in this discussion. It’s a way to remind us that it’s involved in our everyday experiences, and everyday practices, even though we may not appreciate it as such.”
Rackham student Anat Belasen felt directly attaching labels to racist terms and ideas is helpful for people trying to dissect their origins and mitigate their triggers.
“The discussion helped me define whiteness and it helped me put a lot of these ideas into terminology and think about its role in the classroom I teach in as a GSI (graduate student instructor),” Belasen said. “There’s no right answer to every situation. You can’t really give someone a script for dealing with these kinds of situations — that would make it seem like it’s not coming across as genuine. Giving us vague tools to us develop our own strategy like these can be helpful.”
In the second hour-long block of the day’s events, a session titled, “Scholarship is Activism” looked at how academic engagement often exists in conflict with social activism. The event’s facilitator, Tabbye Chavous, the director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity, spoke personally about how stature as a scholar can work in direct opposition to one’s level of activist involvement.
“For some people, who you are and what you do in your field can represent a barrier,” Chavous said. “The object of the game is actually thinking about your special tools, interests, talents and skills, and considering the best ways to deploy them both inside the University and outside the University. Maybe people in academia should be pushed to be engaged in the work of activism more than they already are.”
There was overwhelming support for the notion that there should be a more considerable discourse on how to mesh academic and activist engagement, but participants worried the discussion wasn’t going to result in concrete changes. Nyeema Harris, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said while the discussions resonated with her on the challenges that she’s recently faced on campus, there was something missing. She expressed frustration that the hour-long discussion “barely scratched the surface” of how participants should move forward.
“What matters is how we continue the conversation,” Harris said. “That part wasn’t really defined. We have these people around the table, now what do we? Outlining what those next steps are is essential to actually have change and implementation. How do we implement the knowledge we just gained? They got us all jazzed, all ready to go, all ready to fight … Now what?”
Belasen similarly expressed the activities were flawed by design in that they both weren’t long enough for the topics and failed to designate enough time to talk about the next steps of anti-hate speech activism.
“I get a little bit frustrated during this kind of thing because I want there to be suggestions of how to deal with these topics, especially as an instructor,” Belasen said. “I think even though it’s something they laid out, like they told us to expect a lack of closure, I really feel that lack of closure. It’s getting at me.”