Section: News

ON THE RECORD

ON THE RECORD

Scholar, educator, author and race relations expert Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., visited Kenyon this week to lead two events for Black History Month: The first, on Feb. 22, was a cultural competence workshop for faculty and staff; the second, on Feb. 23, a talk titled “Can We Talk About Race?” in the Gund Gallery Community Foundation Theater. Tatum is the author of  Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race and Can We Talk about Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation.

What advice would you give to white students who wish to address issues of race at what some call Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) like Kenyon? What advice would you give to students of color who wish to address race issues at PWIs?

The college environment typically is more diverse than their home institutions were, so there’s an opportunity to engage with people whose perspectives and life experiences are different than their own.

However, white students are often nervous about these conversations, because they worry that they might say something offensive or something that might be perceived as racist. In order to avoid that happening, they stay silent. Unfortunately, that silence is not a good strategy. We have to be willing to risk some discomfort in order to make the collective progress that we need.

For students of color, it’s often the case that they want to have those conversations about race at college with their classmates, but are often looking for structured opportunities, where the conversation might lead to meaningful action. They don’t just want to talk for the sake of talking. I would say they, too, have to be willing to risk some discomfort to move the dialogue forward, but it helps when there are faculty and staff ready to support these conversations, for both white students and students of color.

How can Kenyon teachers create more inclusive dialogues in classroom settings?

All faculty members, regardless of their discipline, can think about how to create an inclusive learning environment where everyone feels welcomed and fully engaged. One way to do that is to look at the curriculum and to see who is reflected. If you teach literature or psychology or sociology or history, it’s easy to see how you might bring in the perspectives of people of color. Sometimes, when you teach biology or chemistry or physics, it might seem less obvious how you can bring in multiple perspectives. Even simple things, like showing the names of the authors who wrote the articles, makes people visible. For example, let’s imagine Beverly Tatum wrote an article in chemistry. If the article that’s cited says “B. Tatum,” you might assume that B. Tatum is a man, but if you write out Beverly Tatum, you can see it’s a woman, and you might even know it’s an African-American woman, who has contributed to the discipline.

The most important thing that I think any faculty member can do in thinking about making their class more inclusive, is to ask themselves, “Who’s missing from this picture?” If you imagine the class as a kind of photograph, you can ask yourself, “Who’s missing from the picture in my curriculum? Who’s missing from the picture in class discussions? Who’s missing from the picture in the group activities that we’re engaged in?”

How and why is racial identity formation relevant in a college setting?

In a race-conscious society, racial identity matters. It influences how people respond to you, it influences how you respond to other people. One thing we know about college students is that identity of all kinds becomes increasingly important. If you’re in that 18-22 category age, you’re in the defining who you want to be in the world. One of the dimensions of your identity that you may also be thinking about is your racial group membership, which is typically the case for students of color. If you’re a person of color, you’re thinking, “How does my identity shape who I am in the world, how I want to interact with others and how I want others to interact with me?”

This week, the Council for Diversity and Social Justice held a symposium, titled “The Coddling of the Kenyon Mind,” during which students debated the concept of political correctness. What are your thoughts on the debate over political correctness, and does it help or harm students?

That’s a good question in terms of what we mean by political correctness. Sometimes, people say very offensive things about people different from themselves, and say, “I don’t have to be politically correct.” To me, it just sounds like bigotry. Political correctness is being used in a lot of conversations like there’s something wrong with trying to be respectful of other people. We should all try to be respectful of other people’s identities and their experiences, and we can express our own opinions in ways that are honest, without being disrespectful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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