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Arts Students Take on Anti-Racism

Beloit College proudly touts anti-racism as one of its central virtues, but what does this mean and what does it look like in practice? Beloit’s art professors have endeavored to pursue these questions in their classes with campus-wide arts and antiracism projects called “Reimaginings.” The professors of InterArts Ensemble, Directing Fiction Film, Voice for Stage and Screen, and Introduction to New Media asked their students to interrogate a racist legacy within their artistic medium and then create a new work that highlights, challenges, recontextualizes, or cuts against the racist tendencies in these original works.

Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to be an Anti-Racist” provides the definitions that much of Beloit’s faculty and staff have been using to understand what ‘anti-racism’ means. As such, Prof. Yvonne Wu asked her InterArts students to use Kendi’s definitions as a starting point for their discussion of racism and antiracism. Kendi describes an antiracist as someone who is “supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” Conversely, he describes a racist as “someone who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” After unpacking these common definitions as a class, Prof. Wu organized the group into teams, asking each team to choose an example of a piece of art in any field that perpetuates racist ideas. From here, students were asked to brainstorm what it might mean to reimagine that work to promote antiracist ideas instead of racist ones. In asking students to reimagine the work, Prof. Wu notes that the projects’ transdisciplinarity nature is central to transforming the original into an antiracist piece. These final products can take the form of performances, material pieces, installations, and digital media. 

Professor Joe Bookman’s Directing Fiction Film class takes a less expansive scope, zooming into ‘reimagining’ from a film perspective. He asks students to produce a shot-for-shot anti-racist remake of a brief scene from a well-known film that has some sort of racist dimension to it, challenging students to be “creative and transformative” with the scene’s content in order to critique its original iteration. Both Wu and Bookman present ambitious assignments that are sure to prompt provocative student works. 

Professor Amy Sarno asks her students to interrogate implicit dialectical biases towards whiteness in her project. By this, we mean that in many cases, things that are considered “neutral” or “normal” actually describe some aspect of whiteness; centering whiteness and constructing it as the norm. Sarno challenges students to disrupt this legacy by asking them to learn “Elevated Standard,” “General American,” and “Received Pronunciation” which are all ways of speaking that are considered ‘standard’ American speech. These standardized speech patterns are used in overhead announcements, by news anchors, and by virtual assistants like Siri. Why’s the standard always gotta be white though? Sarno asks her students to team up and record peers who speak English, asking them to observe the differences in speech patterning in order to disrupt the implicit assumption that Elevated Standard is how ‘most’ Americans speak. Sarno asks students to create a “Revised Elevated Standard” that reflects the American ‘global majority.’ What are the implications of creating a new standard? Can many standards exist at one time? These questions and more sit at the root of our ongoing anti-racist disruption of standardization and binary construction. 

Similar to Professor Sarno, Professor George Williams asks students to develop an understanding of whiteness as a system, assigning AnnLouise Keating’s “Interrogating ‘Whiteness,’ (De)Constructing ‘Race’” as the center point for class discussion. Prof. Williams asks students to understand whiteness as a societal phenomenon that colors the way we all move through the world. In understanding this on a structural level, Prof. Williams encourages students to move away from demonizing individuals and toward developing an ongoing curiosity about how to continually disrupt the assumption that whiteness is ‘normal’ or ‘the standard.’

In the coming weeks, we will be interviewing students in each of these classes about their experiences creating these reimagining projects. Follow this series to hear more about how Beloit students are interrogating and disrupting white supremacy in the arts!

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