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OADI presents #SunkenPlace Teach-In

With contributions from Dianne Lugo and Audrey Summers

Current Beloit College students – as well as prospective students and their families visiting for 2018’s first Accepted Students Open House – who dropped by Java Joint in Pearsons Hall on Mon, Feb. 19 for a quick coffee or bagel found themselves present at pop-up discussions among faculty and other students about the racism present in movements for LGBTQ+ rights, or about the psychology of oppressors, or the history of the construction of whiteness in the United States. Timothy Thumbi’19, who was in the audience that day, observed that some of these drop-ins seemed surprised at first, but that many decided to remain in Java Joint after recognizing the opportunity to be a part of the informal public discourse.

That wasprecisely the goal of these events, Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Dr. John McMahon explained to the Round Table this week. He said that the out-of-classroom student spaces were chosen to give faculty and students a chance to have conversations that the hierarchical classroom structure doesn’t always allow for. In locations like Java Joint or the campus bar and music venue C-Haus, where events were held later in the week, “we get to rethink how knowledge gets produced,” Dr. McMahon said. 

“When you think about disruption, space is really important,” added Beloit’s Senior Director of Academic Diversity and Inclusiveness Dr. Nicole Truesdell’03. “We wanted to come to you,” the students, she explained.

Dr. McMahon and Dr. Truesdell were both very active in the conception and planning of Monday’s all-day “teach-in” and the after-hours residencies that followed it throughout the week. Teach-ins are participatory and action-oriented forums held by college and university faculty outside of the classroom, in order to broaden the scope and time frame of important conversations with students.

The very first teach-in was held at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in March 1965 as an alternative to a walk-out strike by professors there who opposed the Vietnam War, and the conversations and lectures that were part of that event lasted throughout the night. During the following 50 years, the University of Michigan teach-in came to serve as a model for faculty on other campuses who wished to “do disruptive work that pushes the envelope for pressing social justice issues,” Dr. Treusdell said.

Beloit’s own teach-in had been in the works since the beginning of the 2017 Fall semester, following the violence that erupted at a white supremacist rally and counter protest in Charlottesville, Va. in August. The rally was held on the University of Virginia campus, which Dr. Treusdell said was a strategic move on the part of its far-right organizers to take advantage of many institutions’ loose definition of academic freedom and to open up a space for hate on their campuses.

“It is on college and university campuses, and within our classrooms and through our programming, where resistance to […] encroaching normalized white supremacist ideology must be challenged,” Dr. Truesdell wrote in an editorial for Inside Higher Ed in December. “Now is not the time to side with neutrality.” Echoing that sentiment, the American Anthropological Association put out a call to action with faculty at a number of schools following the attack in Charlottesville. In response, Beloit’s Office of Academic Diversity and Inclusiveness began work on what would become the #SunkenPlace Teach-In on Feb. 19, and evening residencies from Feb. 20 to 23. 

The teach-in’s organizers decided to hold the event at the beginning of Spring Semester 2018 in order to have time to plan it comprehensively, and they settled on President’s Day, in part to explore “how symbolic days might be used,” Dr. McMahon explained. It ended up being a good coincidence, he said, that the Teach-In also overlapped with the first Accepted Students Open House of the year, and he hoped that some prospective students were able to see Beloit College faculty taking initiative.

OADI dropped its announcement of the events right before they began just in case it was met with opposition from the administration. But, Dr. Truesdell pointed out, her office was doing its job by planning the teach-in; enacting the mission of the college by putting the liberal arts in practice. Neither she nor Dr. McMahon had heard reactions from administration as of Fri, the final day of residencies, but she had observed overwhelmingly positive reactions from students in attendance, particularly from queer students of color whose identities are too often decentralized in academic conversations.

The #SunkenPlace Teach-In was named in reference to the metaphorical location in director Jordan Peele’s Oscar-nominated 2017 social thriller “Get Out;” the term is used today in popular discourse to refer to an environment or institution in which marginalized voices are silenced.

The all-day teach-in on Monday consisted of various lectures and discussions led by professors, titled “Institutional Racism & Power Hierarchies,” “Is This Land Your Land?,” “White Supremacy & Politics,” “Racism in/of LGBTQ+ Communities,” “White By Law,” and “Ordinary People.” These six events kicked off the nightly residencies that were held in C-Haus throughout the rest of the week.

While all of these events were valuable and touched on topics not often highlighted on campus, some of the events were not open to the entire campus to welcome members of a particular community. Therefore, the Round Table staff has chosen to highlight two of the events that occurred throughout the week.

“Culture in White Spaces” Summary by Dianne Lugo

The first residency was the first-ever live show of “Blackademics: Black, Educated, and Petty” on Tuesday, Feb. 20. “Blackademics” is a weekly radio show where five students “discuss life as black folks and what that means to us,” explained Desireé Amboree’18, one of the Blackademics. The show was “born out of our frustrations with a class about race, the disrespect of black students on this campus, and our love for and need to celebrate our own culture,” she added. The live show, then, fit in perfectly with the series. Members of the Blackademics, Desireé Amboree, Courtney Bingham’19, Darryl Smith’18, Theodore Williams’18 and guest, Dr. Nicole Truesdell came together to a discussion called “Culture in White Spaces.”

The Blackademics discussed whether or not they thought it was possible for black culture to exist in an academic setting. Williams began by stating that at a predominately white institution (PWI), like Beloit College, black students do not see themselves, and without this ability to see yourself, “it’s hard for you to understand if that academic setting is accepting of your culture, or if your culture even has a place in that academic setting.”

For Amboree, blackness exists wherever black people are and wherever they are expressing themselves. Dr. Truesdell agreed with Amboree in that blackness is not only present at HBCUs. Instead, Dr. Truesdell went back to her own experience as a Beloit College student. For her, “there were ways in which being [at Beloit] highlighted for me more of my blackness.” At Beloit, and other spaces like the college, blackness becomes the first thing people see.

They all discussed who they think PWIs want them to be. For Smith, the answer came quickly and garnered laughter from the others on the stage and those in the audience. “W.E.B. Du Bois,” he said.

Dr. Truesdell also wanted to make sure people remembered that black people are multifaceted. “Not all black folk are from the hood, poor or from America,” she said.

For many of the students on the show, Beloit College was failing at making a space for them and was failing at accommodating black bodies. However, Truesdell once again pushed back on this to say that Beloit was doing exactly what it was mean to do: preserve the institution. So instead, she hoped that black students would begin shifting to think about how they make a space for themselves.

Smith noted that at parties, students wanted every song, dance move and piece of blackness they could get, but in academic settings, students are quick to silence black voices. Amboree agreed saying that whiteness is “suffocating and everywhere.”

“Campus is toxic and draining”, Williams added.

So, how are black people to survive at Beloit?

“Be unapologetically you. Be who you are…Don’t let nobody silence you,” replied Williams. Smith added that younger students should be comfortable reaching out to the older black members of the community and that black students needed to be comfortable in an uncomfortable space. “Make it yours,” he said.

Bingham agreed, “when you’re ready to use your voice, use it…Do what you want to do.” For most then, building a community and finding spaces to carve out somewhere to thrive, was vital.

“Demystifying the White Racist” Summary by Audrey Summers

Students and faculty headed to C-Haus later in the week on  Thursday, Feb. 22, to attend a residency by Dr. Lisa Anderson-Levy. The discussion, entitled “Demystifying the White Racist” was another addition to the OADI’s ongoing #SunkenPlace residency.

Dr. Anderson-Levy, a professor in the Anthropology Department started by addressing the crowd with a question. “What is race?” After a few moments, she explained that race is simply a way to classify people, and a social construct at that. Continuing her discussion by asking further asking questions race and white supremacy, Anderson-Levy asked, “So, why don’t white people like to talk about race?”

Answers began to flood in from all around the room. “Because it’s uncomfortable,” said one. “Because they’re afraid of being labeled as racist,” said another.

Anderson-Levy then explained the relationship between structural and individual racism. In essence, since white people can say that they are not individually racist, this prevents them from recognizing how structural racism benefits them. This rejection of individual racism often leads to a lack of discussion about race for some white people. “It’s a problem when white people can’t talk about race,” said Anderson-Levy.

The discussion then moved on to how whiteness was created in the United States. Students responded to questions that Anderson-Levy posed about different types of whiteness throughout the centuries, and the consolidation of whiteness after World War II.

She explained that since white people are born into a power structure that benefits them, they are taught to uphold this structure through different types of oppression, including racism, from the day they are born. “So, now what?” she asked.

Multiple students expressed that white people using their social capital to uplift others and inform other white people. Anderson-Levy added that students should also be making race “a lens you don’t take off.” She asked students to consider the last all-white space they were in.

As she concluded, Anderson-Levy urged white people to talk about race. “There is no boogeyman and being racist is not the worst thing to happen in your life,” she explained. “It’s not ‘but,’ it’s ‘yes, and’.”

The three other events hosted during the series were titled “Sacrificial Binaries & Modern European Race Discourse,” part two of “Racism in/of LGBTQ+ Communities,” and “Understanding Natural Disasters under Colonization in Puerto Rico.”

Avery Pike’20 told the Round Table on Monday that he was glad these conversations were being held in public spaces, but wondered whether the students who most needed to have them were going to stick around. He hoped that the college would be able to find a way to inspire more willingness to listen among those students who are less likely to attend a teach-in.

Dr. McMahon acknowledged that Beloit students who are already aware of social justice issues were the most likely students to be in attendance last week, but he hopes that the weeklong time frame and communal locations have simply set off some more critical thinking about race and identity issues within the student body as a whole.

Emily Kratz’21 enjoyed the events she attended because they gave her a new perspective on the roles of professors within the college’s community. She said she hopes the #SunkenPlace Teach-In and the residencies will “encourage people to be more thoughtful about their connections to these issues, and how they themselves affect it.”

Dr. McMahon will be joining the State University of New York at Plattsburgh in August as Assistant Professor of Political Science, and Dr. Truesdell will be leaving her position at Beloit this Thursday, March 1 for her new role as Assistant Vice President of Campus Life at Brown University. The teach-in is “a good way to go out,” Dr. Truesdell said, but added that students should know that OADI will remain committed to fulfilling the school’s promise to become an anti-racist institution.

Some of the residencies were live streamed from C-Haus, and they can be viewed on OADI’s Facebook page.

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