Question Authority: Recognize Race

For many of us the Thanksgiving break was marred by the news from Ferguson Missouri. In an extraordinary grand jury proceeding, atypical in so many ways, nine citizens decided not to bring charges against the police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown. I am not in a position (and neither are readers of this blog) to describe what really happened in Ferguson that day, but we can let this event shine a bright light on more systemic issues of how African Americans are treated by law enforcement. Of course, how one looks at these issues will be affected by one’s own experience or race and power. As sociologist Michael Eric Dyson recently wrote: “The instrument through which one perceives race — one’s culture, one’s experiences, one’s fears and fantasies — alters in crucial ways what it measures.”

When Wesleyan students protest the grand jury’s decision today and in the coming weeks, they will be protesting not just this event but the foundational injustice that results in mass incarceration, and radically different police tactics for blacks and whites in this country. Of course, there will be those who mock privileged college students protesting decisions made in very different communities far from the campus bubble. Why are students protesting events that they can’t affect? Are they just being politically correct?

No, students raise their voices in protest to express their desire for a different kind of world. They come together to march, shout and sing to rediscover feelings of solidarity in hopes that the world can be otherwise. Recognizing racism’s pernicious effects is part of imagining a different kind of world.

At Wesleyan we have a long history of supporting student engagement, recognizing racism and promoting equity and inclusion. But of course, things are far from perfect at alma mater. For me, this sometimes results in the paradoxical situation of being asked to support protests against the administration (and its president!). Be that as it may, we can be proud of students (and faculty and staff) expressing their concerns and advocating for change whether we agree with their specific goals or not.

Part of a liberal education is learning to become a full citizen, learning to participate in the public sphere. In order for this to really work, we need diversity — of identity, of interests, of points of view. Intellectual or political homogeneity is an enemy of education, as is blindness to how our own “instruments of perception” might be marinated in prejudice. This is yet another reason why recruiting students from diverse backgrounds is key to the learning environment we create. We don’t want political correctness, but we very much want insightful political engagement.

And we are fortunate to have that engagement at Wesleyan.


Shasha Seminar: Exploring Histories of Race

Each year Wesleyan hosts the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns, bringing together scholars, students, faculty and alumni in an intensive series of lectures and discussions. Past programs have focused on popular culture, on environmentalism, on ethics and on international problems of violence. I remember the series of talks on food, which really made me think more carefully about the intersection of politics and economics on my kitchen table. And Joss Whedon’s 2009 discussion of how film and TV projects get made was funny and insightful. This year’s Shasha program, which runs from April 8-10, will explore ideas of race and how they have evolved over time.

Ideas concerning race have a long history, and it’s a history that continues to have powerful reverberations on politics and culture today. The organizer of the program, Andrew Curran of Romance Languages at Wes, has written on the history of the idea of race in relation to concepts of human origins, with a particular emphasis on the age of Enlightenment. The keynote speaker, Nell Painter, Honorary ’96, who for many years was a distinguished member of the history department at Princeton, has written the influential The History of White People, which will be the basis for her remarks on Saturday night. A leading historian of the United States, Prof. Painter is also an accomplished artist. Other discussions will explore race and science, the vicissitudes of race-thinking in Latin America and in China, and the ways that the idea of race still affects our conception of the human.

The Shasha Seminar offers a distinctive way of diving deep into a timely subject area in the company of curious, thoughtful and engaged participants. Alumni and parents join with students and outside experts to create an exceptionally lively series of conversations. If you are interested in learning more about the program, or in signing up for it, you can find information here.