For many Americans who have continued to deny or ignore the existence of racism in America, the Charlottesville protests were an eye-opener. Two weeks ago, on Aug. 15, UNCG’s Office of Intercultural Affairs scheduled a CommUNITY Dialogue to discuss the events at Charlottesville, however, the dialogue was dismissed at the last minute to hold a vigil for those who lost their lives during the Charlottesville protests.
Since the protests, white supremacy and racism have become more frequent topics of discussion and have received more attention in the news. To be clear about these serious topics, it is best to provide clear definitions of the terms “racism” and “white supremacy.” As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, racism is, “A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Racism can also be applied to doctrines and political programs in order to oppress perceived “inferior” races.
White supremacy is singlehandedly the most effective political doctrine that has stemmed from the ideology of racism. White supremacy is defined as, “The belief that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races.”
It is most effective as a political doctrine because it has successfully affected countries all over the world and aided in propelling institutional racism through political systems, especially here in America.
If one is inclined to crack open a history book or search through historical documents, they will find that America and its elected officials, police force and education system have had a long history of keeping communities of color oppressed in a systemic manner that primarily benefits white people.
A few weeks after the vigil on Thursday, UNCG’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department held their own dialogue called “Challenging White Supremacy: A Discussion,” to tackle issues of white supremacy within the college education system as well as explain how teachers and staff can approach these issues with clarity.
The first person to speak was Associate Professor of Education Leadership and Cultural Foundations & Women’s and Gender Studies, Silvia Bettez, who had three main points to make on the topic of race relations.
Bettez’s’ points were as follows: “First there is no ‘safe space’ in racial dialogue… Secondly pedagogies that tackle racial power will be most uncomfortable those who benefit from that power…My third point is [that] those who are interested in engaging in racial pedagogy must be prepared to undo the violence of safe space dialogue in a creative and inclusive way.”
She argued that many race dialogues are made for white people and are meant to maintain white people’s comfort in these situations.
The second to speak was Head of the Digital Media Commons, Armondo Colins, who is also a graduate student in rhetoric with a focus on black nationalist rhetoric.
“What we are seeing now is what the black community has known for a while… it has been implicit in our lives that the people who are designed to protect our lives can kill us, and society–as a normative practice–will let it happen.”
Colins cited the Charlottesville protests as having brought more attention to white supremacy, because he believes white supremacy is now being considered an issue of human rights, in that all people are targeted by this modern version of white supremacy.
“We have to stop looking at this topic as moments in history; this is history,” said Colins.
As a teacher, Colins said he places an emphasis on teaching his students history in a way that is real to them. It is the teacher’s duty, Colins’ believes, to help students understand the negative effects of white supremacy and help rid our dialogue and system of racist rhetoric.
The third person to speak was Mark Elliott, Associate Professor of History at UNCG, who has studied the Civil War era extensively. Elliott said that the events in Charlottesville have brought white supremacists “out of their hiding places,” and noted that these groups are dangerous in the way they posture their white supremacist rhetoric to evoke sympathy and present themselves as no different from minority groups embracing their cultures.
“They win when they evoke moral outrage; it adds to their numbers and their false equivalence[s].”
Ana Paula Höfling, Assistant Professor of Dance, was fourth to speak. Höfling discussed how her teachings in class have helped students understand the concept of race in Brazil, and how that has been an eye-opener for those students.
She noted that the Dance Department has been working on undoing the problematic wording of a “traditional white canon” teaching of dance by changing the sequencing of how the dancers learn about the history of dance.
“Dance with no connotation is often ‘white’ dance, and those with connotations such as ‘world’ is denoting the dance of anonymous brown others. Many of the pioneering choreographers appropriated the dances of non-whites as an abuse of white privilege,” said Höfling.
The last person to speak was Assistant Professor of Art Education, Sunny Spillane, who recollected on a conversation that she and other white faculty members had with black students at a student art exhibit.
In this conversation, Spillane utilized a clever metaphor about blind men having a different perceived idea of what an “elephant” was based on the parts that each individual touched, as a means to discuss people’s perceptions of race and the dialogue that surrounds it, particularly in connection to white privilege.
She noted that in the tale about the blind men and the elephant, that the blind men fell into arguments and fighting because they could not collaborate to see what the elephant really was.
“Collaboration provides the social support necessary to mitigate risk and overcome individual fears,” said Spillane.
After Spillane finished speaking, the room was open for discussion, but there was not much time to fully delve into the crowd opinions on the topic or what was said by the panel of speakers.
Ultimately, this topic is not something that can boiled down into an hour long discussion because it must be addressed from a multitude of viewpoints that allow us to strategize a plan to overcome and combat the cultural and social fallout that racism and white supremacy have had on this country and in our community.