‘You are our stepping stones!’

As the Blackout protest in February showed, students of color on the Fisher campus often feel discrimination. Several professors have ideas for how to improve the campus climate. (File photo by Will Maskrey)

Fisher Faculty Stake Out Role in Promoting an Anti-Racist Campus

This essay was signed by five Fisher faculty members: Jill Swiencicki, English; Ginny Maier, Biology; Lisa Cunningham, Women and Gender Studies; Linda Edwards, Women and Gender Studies; and Barbara Lowe, Philosophy.

The snow was falling steadily on Jan. 18 when student leaders from the Black Student Union called the campus to a town hall meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to hear and respond to students of color talking about what it feels like to be back on campus after two highly-publicized, racially-charged events featuring white Fisher students.

The college president was seated to the side, near the wall; the provost stood in the back, and staff and faculty threaded themselves in and among students. Every chair in Wilson Formal was filled, so more were brought in. Still, an overflow of faculty, staff and students were left to stand and fill in the back and sides of the room. The room was buzzing with tension: how do we interpret the racially-charged incidents that happened in December and January? How do they reflect or indicate racism on campus? How can we listen without shutting down or getting trapped in our defenses? How can we move forward in anti-racist values and practices? What should our new roles be?

One after another, students took the microphone and talked not so much about the off-campus incidents that made the news, but more about the every-day subtle–and not-so-subtle–experiences of racism that structured their lives on campus. Students talked about their peers making racist assumptions about where they come from, their skills, talents, social class, and abilities.

As faculty, what hit us hardest was the repeated claim by students of color that faculty did not have their backs. That faculty don’t address issues of race from their disciplinary vantage point, don’t challenge or even recognize racist assertions made within their classrooms, and sometimes single out students of color to bear the burden of addressing these issues, as if it were even possible for them to represent the beliefs of people of color. “You are our stepping stones,” one student said, her voice resounding throughout a room that, despite being packed with people, was rapt and silent. “We are counting on you to be there for us!”

Stepping stones carve out a path to make a journey clearer. They point to a destination. They are smooth and worn. They make an otherwise confusing or chaotic space clearer. When students say faculty are their anti-racist stepping stones, they are saying: listen to what we need, use your institutional authority to carve out a response, and guide us through our journey to be our fullest selves as individuals and as a community of travelers. How do we truly hear them? How do we live into the role they have asked of us?

This article for the Cardinal Courier is a challenge to faculty to become much more active in the work of building anti-racist pedagogy and classrooms at Fisher. It points no fingers, but invites faculty to take up the pain of the moment and transform it into relevant teaching and inspiring individual relations with students. It is this combination of increased self-reflection and humility, curricular and pedagogic reform, and the development of individual relationships that may create more dignity and respect in the lives of all Fisher students, especially students of color.

Here are some practices that students of color identified during the Town Hall that they felt would help advance an environment that promotes social justice and racial equity:

  1. Listen to and learn from people of color on our campus.
  2. Empower students by validating and acknowledging their everyday experiences.
  3. Understand the structural aspects of racism in our community and the nation, be able to relate local and national incidents of racism to this structure, and use these incidents in our teaching and class plans.
  4. Cite authors of color in our lectures, and assign authors of color in our required readings.
  5. Develop knowledge of our own privilege and unconscious biases.
  6. Support the development of a system to report and record incidents of bias that holds individuals accountable.
  7. Engage in opportunities to learn. Some great starting points in reading include: The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson), The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander), Stamped from the Beginning (Ibram X. Kendi), Fatal Invention (Dorothy Roberts), “The Case for Reparations” (Ta Nehisi Coates), Racism without Racists (Eduardo Bonilla-Silva).

We commit, as imperfect as we are, to address issues of race and inequality in our classrooms and in our personal and professional interactions.  We invite students and colleagues to join us on this journey as we learn together how to become a better, more inclusive and self-aware community.

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