Teach-in focuses on historical misrepresentations in contemporary racism

Wednesday, February 21, 2018 - 9:54pm

Matthew Spooner provides insight about politics and the history of white supremacy at Disrupting White Supremacy Teach In at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre Wednesday.

Matthew Spooner provides insight about politics and the history of white supremacy at Disrupting White Supremacy Teach In at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre Wednesday. Buy this photo
Chun So/Daily

On Wednesday evening, the University of Michigan History Department held a teach-in surrounding “Disrupting White Supremacy: Global Histories and Local Struggles.” The talk included 12 speakers in an effort to reclaim and retell the history of race in the U.S. and globally. The speeches were followed by a student “talk back” panel, focusing on the historical injustices and their inaccurate recordings that have shaped our current political climate. 

Views could follow the talk on twitter and pose questions to the speakers using the #UMDisrupt.

Teach-ins have a long and storied history at the University. The nation’s first “teach-in” took place on campus in March of 1965 with 3,000 students gathering across rooms in Angell Hall to discuss and protest the war in Vietnam. 

Rackham student Tara Weinberg explained the urgency to come to events like this, especially with the controversy surrounding white supremacist Richard Spencer’s potential visit to campus next semester.

“I think it’s really important to counter him because if there is no counter, then it’s almost taken as a given that he’s been received with silence and with complicity,” Weinberg said.

Several professors and one graduate student spoke on how the current political climate has been shaped from an international, historical perspective. Katherine French, a J. Frederick Hoffman professor of history, accompanied by Rackham student Taylor Sims identified medieval fantastical symbols used by white supremacists in the Charlottesville protests, and how their modern use incorrectly represents the Crusades at large. This misrepresentation has given white supremacists an empty sense of security and support, and has misconstrued their presence to the public.  

“If you know your history, then people can’t give it back to you in the wrong form,” French said.

Lecturer Anne Berg explained how the Nazi party used fabricated scientific claims to promote and encourage racism in Germany and compared this to the current eugenics argument.  In this respect, she admitted society today is not too different from Nazi Germany.

This past fall, protests broke out across campus as students groups called on the University to change the name of C.C. Little building and bus stop, as their namesake was a former University president and President of the American Eugenics Society. 

“Nazis were lucky that they had so much of a rich history of scientific evidence and visual legacies to draw on to build a racial state that thankfully has not yet been paralleled,” Berg said.

Associate professor Rudolph “Butch” Ware highlighted the roots of racism from an Islamic perspective in 18th century Africa.  Despite the fact literacy rates were higher in regions of Africa than in any part of Europe, African people were nonetheless seen as slaves. Ware cited classical Islamic teachings that racism stems from pride, and urged the audience to set their pride aside and engage in dialogue to understand how white supremacy has occurred and what it has done.

Several speakers also focused on the historical inaccuracies from a national perspective.  

Assistant professor Matthew Spooner referenced the Haitian revolution and Rebecca J. Scott, a Charles Gibson Distinguished University professor of history, discussed the Reconstruction-era government of Louisiana to highlight the lack of historical knowledge many hold, and how this ignorance warps views of current social problems.

“If we can’t understand the past, we will be blind to the present,” Spooner said.

Associate professors Stephen A. Berrey and assistant professor Allan Lumba made clear how historical interpretations of racial minorities in the United States has contributed to their treatment today. Berrey focused on the interpretations of African Americans and Lumba on Asian Americans. Both Berrey and Lumba used narratives of racial hate crimes to showcase how easily the perpetrator can hide their motives, and how the real story can lie hidden for decades.  

“(This can be fixed) by telling our stories, challenging lies, hyperboles, half-truths, and fictions,” Barry said.

Geoff Eley, a Karl Pohrt Distinguished University professor of contemporary history, and Prof. Rita Chin examined the roots of xenophobia and its current presence both globally and nationally. Chin discredited the widespread belief that xenophobia toward Muslims in Europe dates to before 9/11, and Eley explained how globalization has created anxieties it originally aimed to abolish. Eley argued against the common positive interpretation of globalization, stating the combined effects of globalization lead to warfare-related destruction, encouraging the massive migration of peoples.

“(The) global creation of a borderless world drive people to want to create borders at home,” Eley said.

Prof. Alexandra Minna Stern, postdoctoral fellow Austin McCoy and Associate professor Matthew Countryman focused on what has contributed to the current structure of systematic racism, from social media, the Black Lives Matter movement and affirmative action. Countryman explained how historically, the University has institutionally excluded minority students, starting from its establishment and continuing to today.

Once the speakers concluded, a panel of students, including Vidhya Aravind, Maryam Aziz, Sargeant Donovan-Smith and Hoai An Pham, held a “talk-back” session to discuss the critiques and praises of the teach-in. The students criticized the lack of diversity among the speakers, the lack of trigger warnings and the lack of empathy when discussing topics as sensitive as slavery and violence.

“There is critique of these talks, but the fact that you can hear these critiques is incredible,” Aravind said.

The student panel concluded by urging those in attendance to educate themselves on the history and its inaccuracies that have contributed to our current climate, in order to be actively engaged in fixing it.