The Americas, and much of the global economy, was built on the enslaved labor of African bodies, Black bodies. The history of slavery is told through a narrative of progress, change, and freedom. It presumes a past and a now. But freedom has never really been free. Slavery did not disappear; instead, as Saidiya Hartman reminds us, we live in the afterlife of slavery. Anti-Black racism made it so that even after the passage of the 13th and 15th Amendments, Black individuals and communities were not free from harm. At the turn of the 19th century, Black codes denied African Americans access to equal rights of citizenship, and throughout the century anti-Black racism seeped into everyday practices that have led to disparities and marked realities for Black individuals and communities.
We must address and commit to taking action again anti-Black racism if we are to truly center the work required to grow an equitable and inclusive university community. We know that no single solution is going to work for every community; but we also know that solving for anti-Black racism gives us the best chance at recreating our systems to ensure equity for all.
Mary Ann Villarreal: I don’t know about y’all, but I’m hungry and that smell of pizza somewhere, just made me hungrier. But I know you’re not here for the pizza, you’re here for an incredible discussion today. And so let me introduce myself for those who might not know me. My name is Mary Ann Villarreal. I am the vice president for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and it is my pleasure, as always, to invite you to Reframing the Conversation and to in advance to thank our guests today who have not only have shared their expertise. And I said to them, this is a hard conversation to have. And so I hope that all of you are here today recognize this is not a moment about just talking out. It is about talking together.
And so the Reframing the Conversation always gives us the opportunity to pause and to ask ourselves, You know what? What is it that we have to do in the collective to make our campus, to make our community a place that recognizes the ways that our privileges run into each other, collide with each other, sometimes run over each other, the ways in which they come cause harm. And so Reframing the Conversation is just an hour of our day. I wish we took an hour every day. If you come to dinner at our house and you’re always welcome, this is always our dinner conversation. And so those are the pieces that we hope that you take away and you share with your friends and your colleagues. And you don’t let the conversation end here. So Reframing the Conversation is made possible with an incredible partnership with the Hinckley Institute. And in this month, under the leadership of Director Garfield and the Black Cultural Center. And I want to thank both Director Garfield and our colleagues in the Hinckley Institute for Politics for making this space available to us.
Before we begin our discussion today, I almost said dissertation, but I don’t know. Before we discussed, I began our discussion today, I want us to take a moment to acknowledge that this land,
One has to note we have an incredible working relationship with the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, and I’m proud to announce ahead of time that the 16th annual Native American Summit, which is hosted by the government governor, will be hosted at the University of Utah. So we’re very excited that this year we will host that. And as well, I announced this before, but we’re firming up the details for the winter market in December, and that is to serve our Urban Indian communities who do not have to travel so they do not have to travel to their home reservations to find those items that they use every day. And I’m also proud to announce that we have an interim director, Samantha Eldridge, at the American Indian Resource Center. So if you know, Samantha, send her a note of congratulations. And if you don’t know Samantha, I encourage you to know Samantha with the AIRC and the work that they’ll do.
As I noted, Reframing the Conversation brings together experts from across campus and our community to spark important conversations around racism and othering. It is here that we address contemporary subjects affecting the campus and the community at large and in celebration of Black History Month. Today’s conversation on “Strange Fruit: Why We Must Address Anti-Black Racism” will amplify, as Dr. Saidiya Hartman reminds us, that we live in the “afterlife of slavery” and we must address and commit to taking action against anti-Black racism.
If we are to truly center the work required to grow in an equitable and inclusive university community, we know that no single solution is going to work for every community. But we also know and believe that solving for anti-Black racism or the well, I would say the jettisoning of anti-Black racism gives us the best chance of recreating our systems to ensure equity for all. So I’m going to introduce our moderator today who will introduce our panelists, and we’ll get going on this conversation. Let me just say that I have the privilege of calling Dr. Rachel Griffin my friend as well as colleague, and I was to moderate this session. And let me share with you the level of expertise and brilliance that I knew that it would take to moderate this session was not in my wheelhouse. So I immediately called Dr. Griffin after much contemplation and asked her if she would lead this most necessary discussion on our campus. So I want to express my gratitude for calling both on a friend and a colleague to do this work with us today.
Dr. Griffin’s research interests span critical race theory, Black feminist thought, sexual violence in the social and the social institutions of sports media, education and the U.S. presidency. In addition to being published in numerous academic journals, she is currently the editor elect of critical, excuse me, critical studies and Media Communication. The disciplines foremost journal for critical media scholarship, exceptionally committed to sustaining synergy between research and service. Dr. Griffin has delivered well over 100 anti-sexual violence and inclusive excellence presentations on campuses and at conferences nationally and internationally, and that’s only a tip of what I can share today.
And before I welcome Dr. Griffin to the podium, I want to thank Emily and Mindy, who are serving as our translators today for their ability and talent that they share with us and keeping up with our very fast moving conversation today. Thank you both. Mindy, Emily. Thank you, Dr. Griffin. Of course.
Rachel Griffin: All right. Good afternoon, everyone.
Audience: Good afternoon.
Rachel Griffin: Let’s try it again. I said, Good afternoon, everyone!
Audience: Good afternoon.
Rachel Griffin: All right. A little bit of call and response. We’re going to talk about Black people and Black culture and anti-Black racism. Let’s not be so White up in here, right? And I say that as a biracial, Black and White woman, my mother is White, as in SPF 80 White, and my father was incredibly dark skinned. And so around our tables, we have all kinds of conversations and sometimes the very first thing we say is, “let’s not be so White up in here, right?” So the very first thing I want to do is I want us to fill this room with applause. For every single person who set up a chair who coordinated the schedule, who’s doing the sign interpretation, who vacuums the carpet. Every single person who took part and engaged in very important labor to bring us together in this space deserves our applause, so please clap for them.
I also want you to know, and I mean this from the very inside of my heart, that it is nice to see you. And it is nice to be seen by you. And it is really nice to gather on a campus that was never intended for people who look like me. To talk about people who look like me. I want to thank everyone here in the room and over Zoom for joining us to do the hard work of intellectually and emotionally grappling with anti-Black racism and what Maya Angelou poetically termed “these yet-to-be United States,” right?
For those of us today who are new or newish to conversations like ours, I wanted to offer brief definitions, but I invite our panelists to expand upon as they generously share their thoughts with us. Generally speaking, the way that I define racism starting there for my undergrad and everyday people and family alike, I define racism as culturally sanctioned structures, systems, discourses and ideologies that regardless of intentions, sustain White supremacy to the socio-historical and economic and personal detriment of people of color.
Now, when we shift to talking about anti-Black racism in particular, that shift is essential because then we can talk about the specificity of racism directed at people and communities of African and Black descent. It is rooted in our unique colonial history of enslavement and global diaspora. To quote Mr. Garfield, the wise and excellent director of our Black Cultural Center in preparing for this event, he said the following:
“We are centering anti-Black racism because we believe that the systems that create, uphold and empower anti-Black racism are the same systems that harm other communities of color. Anti-Black racism alongside Indigenous Genocide are also the deepest roots in this country.”
And so now I’m going to ask each of our panelists. To introduce themselves with their names and their pronouns and whatever it is that we need to know about how you all came to be on this particular panel to have been very important discussion today.
Aja Washington: I guess I’ll start. My name is Aja Washington. I am a social worker, I’m a therapist and I’m a community member like all of you. I’ve had the honor of working with Director Garfield on some other projects, including a show on KRCL, and I currently serve as the host and lead programmer for “Black, Bold and Brilliant,” the show through the Utah Film Center. You can check us out there.
Tyler Clark: Hi, everyone. I’m Tyler. I’m a second-year graduate student in economics here at the University of Utah, and I complain a lot about capitalism, So that’s why I’m here.
Tamara Stevenson: Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Tamara Stevenson. I am the vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Chief Diversity Officer; and associate professor of communication at Westminster College. So we are your comprehensive university with the Liberal Arts Foundation just down the street from you. From the beginning of my undergraduate education in broadcast journalism and eventually into organizational communication. I was always asking, Where am I? Where else am I in this? I was always the only one, and I still am the only one of me at Westminster College. And so that’s what brings me here today.
Edmund Fong: Hi, everyone. Last and certainly least, I think among our distinguished panel, I’m Edmund Fong. I am an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and the Division of Ethnic Studies. I’m also serving as chair of the Division of Ethnic Studies as well. So I came here in 2008. I’ve been here at the University of Utah since then. I grew up in Oakland, California, and that’s where my education on anti-Blackness started. I did my graduate work in New York City. Another prominent sort of arena for understanding anti-Black racism. So a little bit about me.
Rachel Griffin: Thank you to each of you. Let’s also acknowledge that we have a panel full of people of color who are going to do the very personal and intimate work of sharing their insights as people of color on a topic that just hurts. And so let’s start with a round of applause for our panelists as well.
Two quick reminders before we begin with the questions for those of you here in the room in person during the question and answer time, please keep track of your questions as we go and then you all can approach the mic. For those of you live streaming, please add your questions to the box in the EDI livestream webpage, and that way we’ll make sure that we get a pool of everyone’s questions to attend to when the time comes.
Now something else that you all don’t know about me, but maybe you could have picked up by now is that people who love me and people who don’t wouldn’t describe me as an optimist. They just wouldn’t. I’m a realist right, and I mean, I won’t say more than that, but I’m a realist. That being said, I want you to know something that I am deeply optimistic about in my heart. As a biracial, Black and White person. I deeply believe that if most everyday people. If most everyday people, White people in particular, understood what racism feels like. What it felt like for me today to walk into this room to have a conversation about anti-Black racism with those particular images on the wall. Take a minute and think about what that might feel like for someone that looks like me. I am optimistic. I believe that if most everyday people, White people in particular, understood what racism and racially codified structural disenfranchisement felt like. That they would choose to care. And so I’m going to ask our panelists to start out by responding to this question. How does living in a society structured by anti-Black racism feel in your everyday life?
Aja Washington: I guess, there is a lot of things that come to mind for me. I think it feels very lonely, especially in Utah being like Tamara has expressed being the only one and a lot of spaces. I’m usually the only Black person or person of color and a lot of spaces I occupy. And so, you know, there’s this. Pressure that’s put upon you to speak for, you know, your race or for people of color, which is unfair, and also there’s a silencing that happens so often in these spaces. And it’s really disheartening and frankly, it takes a toll on your mental health, would you feel like you cannot express yourself without being shut down constantly.
Tamara Stevenson: So my roots are from Detroit, Michigan, which is upwards of 80% African-American. I’m a product of the Detroit Public School System. I received an affirmative action scholarship to Wayne State University to study journalism. I didn’t understand what all of that meant until I got to graduate school as a first-generation college student and first figured out what the significance of that experience. And when we talk about feelings. It’s a bit challenging to be able to articulate those feelings when you have the actual words. So when I happened upon critical race theory in graduate school. When I happened upon critical race theory in graduate school when I happened upon critical race theory in graduate school. That gave me the “aha” of, oh, this is personal, this is structural. All of this isn’t personal. This is systemic.
So the tenet that says racism is ordinarily embedded in the fabric of the policies and practices of this nation. Oh, that’s why I was the only one at almost every job I had, even after the master’s degree, after two job layoffs. And then to go back to school and go, “Oh, aha!” And then the second connection to that “aha” was learning about racial battle fatigue. My mentor, Dr. William Smith at the University of Utah professor here. Oh, now I understand the feelings, the psychological, physiological and behavioral effects of cumulative exposure to racial and gender combined microaggressions. The environmental microaggressions in this room and on this campus, on my campus, in this state, all the more. So feelings. Part of me is like, don’t worry about my feelings. I’ll handle that. Let’s deal with this unfair, hypocritical structures that exist, that perpetuate this hierarchy, that Black people from being able to access what they are, what is rightfully for them. But I’ll give you a taste. It is it can be lonely, it can be isolating, it can be suppressive, it can be oppressive, and it does take away from my energy to do my best work.
Tyler Clark: Ditto. Yeah, exactly, it feels…I just want to echo what each of them said, it’s isolating and it feels like freedom of movement. Uh, that’s I think the best way I can sum that out is that in a lot of spaces, you feel like you’re very lonely, you’re very restricted. So it just feels like freedom of movement and you have this looming sort of cloud of like imminent danger, but you can’t really identify where it’s coming from. So I think that that’s probably the best way I can describe that.
Edmund Fong: Well, I mean, I don’t obviously experience the direct hand of anti-Black racism, but as someone who has studied anti-Black racism throughout my life, even as a kid, you know, I think for me what it feels like is that, you know, almost everything in American society and culture is something that is shaped and threaded through anti-Black racism. And so that lens, for me, a kind of, you know, gravity, certain resonance, tragic residents, um, irony often into, you know, everything that we sort of cherish and hold dear. You know what we consider to be our best thing, if you will, I think is deeply sort of shaped by anti-Black racism across American history. Um, so yeah.
Rachel Griffin: The second question is, what is the one characteristic or consequence of anti-Black racism that you wish more people understood?
Tamara Stevenson: The hypocrisy. Just the sheer hypocrisy of it all. I mean, if…everything was equal had equal access and if meritocracy was a valid ideology, then why the need for the structural barriers? Why not everybody get a fair shot? But there are structures in place to maintain for certain groups to maintain power. And so and then conflate the systemic with the individual. Where your bootstraps? Why don’t you have them? Then you try hard enough? Why didn’t you know that? I walked around as a first generation college student, just meandering, and it wasn’t again, until graduate school where my professor said, “it’s not your fault you didn’t know.” Now, how did I not know because I didn’t look for the information, I didn’t know how to look for. Somebody withheld it. So that I could not make good choices about which courses to take, which school to go to. What program would be would be useful for me? Maybe as I am successful in spite of those barriers. It’s the hypocrisy.
Aja Washington: I think I want people to know that anti-Black racism is literally killing Black people. It’s killing us in every facet of our society. It’s killing us when we’re relaxing in our home like Amir Locke and someone can just burst into our home and shoot us dead for no reason. It shows up in the medical industry when they don’t take our concerns seriously, when mothers are saying that they need more when they’re giving birth. It shows up when we’re not putting on our turn signal on the streets. It shows up in the stress it takes to come into these spaces every single day and have these barriers up that we have to protect ourselves with. It takes a toll. It’s literally killing us. Not having access to food and resources that we need to survive on a daily basis is killing us. And all of these things are embedded in the structures that this country has created. It’s literally killing us. Everywhere we turn, it’s killing us. That’s what I want people to know.
Edmund Fong: I guess I’ll say a little something. I think what is at stake for me sort of in what I study is just how, you know so much of what I was saying earlier. We cherish and hold dear in this country and across U.S. History is often threaded through a history of anti-Black racism. And so if you sort of accept or see that, then there’s a kind of paralysis of imagination, a sort of blindness to your own self, understanding to again, what you hold dear. You know, if you fail to kind of confront with, you know, anti-Black racism. And so I really think it sort of really inhibits us. You know, in terms of what kind of future we could imagine. You know, I think Rachel said, you know that we are not yet a United States of America, right? I think, you know, the inability to deal with anti-Black racism and really sort of adopt it as our own. In some ways, right to bear that burden and not have it be borne by, you know, specific people is really sort of implicating and has really sort of deep stakes, you know, for all of us. And I think the history of, you know, writings by African-American thinkers, you know, in its literature and art, you know, reinforces this point, right? A certain kind of moral blindness. You know, from Dubois and his notion of the veil to James Baldwin and how he talked about, you know, a failure or a lack of our ability to love because of our denial of anti-Black racism motivated denial, even after the loss of our, you know, ability to be, you know, fully human. I think so.
Tyler Clark: I guess I’ll just say that if you don’t have the experience of navigating the world as a person of color, I understand that in addition to what these two, these three said, I understand that it’s working in the background to, it works. When you talk about different responses to medicine, it works in different ways that the tax code is structured, it works through housing, it works through an inclusive transit infrastructure. All of these things are sort of working in the background and sort of compile onto the effect of anti-Black policies. You don’t really see them every day unless you are experiencing them as a person of color or you just have experience with that. In particular, for whatever reason, but I guess I’ll just say that I wish what people knew is that it works in the background and it works in the light of all of those things are bolstered by economic policy, which is itself another way that anti-Blackness is strengthened through economics. As somebody who studies economics. It’s a very right-wing, very deeply misogynistic, a very deeply racist sort of science, and that is sort of how those in power can strengthen and maintain systems of anti-Blackness through economic policy. So even if you don’t have the experience of moving through the world as a person of color and feeling it in each space that you’re in, understand that it’s also working in the background and economic policy, which is also huge.
Rachel Griffin: As the critical race theorist and scholar-activist, part of my own pedagogical commitment is that I will never ask other people to take risks that I will not take alongside them. And so what I want everyone to know for myself is that anti-Black racism hurts. And it hurts every day, and it hurts. All the time. And I perpetually feel like I am in a state of never being able to do enough. I cannot teach him that. I cannot speak enough. I cannot write enough. I cannot advocate enough. I cannot cry enough. Imagine what it feels like if you don’t already know to exist in a perpetual state of never being able to do enough. And the one, the one aspect, if I could only choose one aspect of anti-Black racism that I want most people or more people to deeply understand. It is that wherever you are in, whatever space is your in, whatever community you’re in, whatever neighborhood you’re in, whatever home you’re in, whatever apartment you’re in, whatever street corner you are on. That that space is of the world that we live in. Which means that that space is deeply rooted in Indigenous genocide and anti-Black racism. You know, on the second day of our semester. We were profoundly reminded again. That this campus is of the world that we live in. Right? And in this moment, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me assure you. And I’m fairly certain that every person of color knows what I’m talking about. So if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need to have a moment and say, “why don’t I know what Dr. Griffin is talking about?”
Because I’m talking about the Black Cultural Center receiving a bomb threat. That is how Black people on this campus started this semester. Right, anti-Black racism and Indigenous genocide is right here. It always has been since the day of the U was founded on February 28, 1858. Ain’t that some irony? Black History Month founded before we had Black History Month. Who do you think built these buildings? Come on. Right? And when members of our senior leadership on campus and campus police convey that the you and the broader Salt Lake and Utah communities are not havens for quote, “hateful and biased thinking and attacks.” I beg your pardon, but I respectfully and unapologetically in a way, disagree. We are of the world that we live in and our world is brimming with racialised hatred, indifference and silencing. So where we. There was no place to go in this country. Around the world that has not been influenced by socially constructed hierarchies, the negative difference. Right, Isabel Wilkerson and “Caste.” It’s everywhere, I want you to know that it’s inescapable. And it hurts. And saying that we’re not a haven for it. Just isn’t true. And if we want to get to someplace different. Then we need to start with more versions of the truth.
Which brings us to the third question. What is at stake if we fail to name and challenge anti-Black racism? In essence, why should people of all colors and intersectional identities, especially those who identify as White, invest their time and energy in learning how to identify and challenge anti-Black racism? And I’m going to apologize to the panelists because I would bet this is the 197,000 time you’ve had to explain why White people should care. But I need you to do it. Again. If I can beg you.
Tyler Clark: I guess I’ll start. You shouldn’t. There’s nothing at stake for you as a White American, and there’s nothing that you would immediately see is at stake to lose by caring about anti-Black racism. But if you want to take it a step further, what is at stake for all of us as Americans is your democracy. That is what’s at stake for anti-Black racism as your democracy. The strength of an autonomous participatory representative government. You know, those kinds of things that we have to input our voice in the government and to make it work for us. Um, you know, those sorts of structures are at stake by not caring about racism. So I guess that’s the best way I can sum that up.
Tamara Stevenson: Thank you for saying that, because I’ve wrestled with this question greatly. Particularly with the use of the term “care.” Care is that feeling side, again. And I think that mutates or dilutes the very real material, structural…conditions that exist and that perpetuate anti-racism. If we just say, “I’m sorry, that’s enough.” That is not my language of apology. My language of apology is making restitution. What are we going to do so that we don’t? We’re not here again? I wrestled with this question also, because there’s a lot of talk in the air around empathy. And again, I just I just it just doesn’t resonate with me on that level. So I’ve been thinking about this in terms of a spectrum with empathy on the one side and compliance on the other. And so if you can’t tell, I really must land is over, it’s a compliance. Right? We’ll deal with your care part later. What are the laws in place that would prevent or reduce or mitigate discrimination?
And again, that’s what critical race theory, which I learned about in graduate school sought to expose and illuminate the erosion of laws that were put in place in the 1960s to correct that somehow counterbalance to just open the access to reduce discrimination. But yet those will also be rescinded or reduced, weakened in so many ways. And here we are again. So if care is your door is if care is your open door or your gateway into this conversation, I presume that that will be productive for you to think about humanity, to think about how you are privileged and how anti-Black racism works to your advantage. And if you’re okay with that, so be it. But if you are sincerely committed to justice and accountability, then can do your own work in reflecting on your biases, do your own work and reflecting on how the playing field isn’t level. And it’s not something you’ve got to be a martyr. It’s not saying you’ve got to put yourself up on the proverbial religious cross, but think about how power and privilege and access are unequal and what you can do in your circle of influence to mitigate that.
Aja Washington: I also struggled with this question, and I think and I guess thinking big picture, I think. Your humanity is at stake, because what does it say about you to sit here next to your Black classmates and allow them to be treated in such a way? What does it say about you to be a community member or be a part of this society and see these things happening and not do anything about it? If you are in a space to do something about it, I would simply just say, prove it. Lots of people talk and write Facebook posts. I want to see the action. And and I agree with that sentiment that we actually need to see things happening like we have these conversations, we’re going to have this conversation again next year during Black History Month, in the year, after that year after that. Until things really start to change, I don’t want to have to talk about this anymore, seriously. I don’t want to have to keep talking about this to the next generation of students and because their parents never teach them anything, because their parents aren’t aware or they are aware and they choose not to teach them anyway. I think. There’s a lot of labor on us, especially the Black panelists up here, to come up here and educate you year after year after year. Um, like she said, I think you can do your own work and if you’re really about it, I think you can prove it. Because I think the best apology is change behavior. And so let’s see the change behavior in our society.
Edmund Fong: Well, I mean, what I had said earlier in my last remarks also applies to this question. I mean, I don’t find it hard at all. But of course, I’m coming from a more privileged background. But you know, as I was saying, you know, what’s at stake really is the failure of imagination, our own. All of us, our sort of failure to, you know, kind of not empathize, right? But really just to kind of enliven our own humanity, our own sense of humanity because we don’t understand or, you know, sort of like, as I was saying, the things we sort of cherish our best thing as as I put it, right, we can’t understand our political identities. We can’t understand our spatial awareness. Urban, suburban, we can’t understand our sort of athletics around beauty and danger, right? Desire and safety, all of these things that you know, we often take for granted in American society. Again, as I said, we are threaded through a history of anti-Black racism. And so there’s really a kind of fundamental sort of rupture in our ability to just kind of understand ourselves unless we’re willing to sort of learn from, you know, our panelists here and the broader history of anti-Black racism in this country.
Rachel Griffin: I also want to underscore that those of you who identify as White, if you can imagine that being — I’m not saying that everyone agrees with this — if you could imagine that being White is a form of structural privilege in this country, then if you’re curious about learning about that form of structural privilege, that when you are listening and learning at events like this that is in service to yourself. That is not in service to deconstructing anti-Black racism that is not in service to rectify — That’s a strong word — to grappling with the history of Indigenous genocide that is not in service to addressing anti-Asian racism or Islamophobia.
One of the things that I’ve noticed in recent years is that many, many, many White people in positions of power all over this country, we’re talking everything from CEOs to university presidents to community leaders, many White people in positions of power when they are asked what do you do in your respective position of power to address forms of racism? They respond and say, “I am listening and I am learning.” And my immediate reaction is that you’re listening in, you’re learning, have nothing to do with people who look like me. When we listen and when we learn those our initial first steps that function in service to ourselves. To actually function as an anti-racist, you must take actions to the benefit of alleviating the structural forms of marginalization that have people trapped in them. How people can find a way to have people suffering and suffering and dying. So if the only thing perhaps that White people learned from this conversation today is please stop erecting listening-and-learning as an actual anti-racist action. That is a self-reflexive action that I encourage, that I applaud if my students are listening, I absolutely entice self-reflexivity. But that does nothing to change the structures of racism.
Shifting to our last question, is that okay? Yeah. Well, it’s 12:40. I’m going to go. All right.
How do we know if we lived in a society that was no longer structured by anti-Black racism? Help us vision what that might look like and feel like and sound like. How would we know if we lived in a society that was no longer structured by anti-Black racism? And you all can be grim and say, it’s not possible. It’s all right. We can hold it.
Tyler Clark: I guess I’ll start, um, you know, because it’ll…It’ll reflect in who your political leaders are. It’ll look more like this room than anything else that would be, I guess, the first sign of dismantling and knowing that we are moving towards a world of post-racism. I guess. We wouldn’t have to see any of the other sort of, um, structural things lurking in the background against us like you would not see. You wouldn’t see it in housing policy. You wouldn’t see it in tax the tax code, you wouldn’t see it in banking, you wouldn’t see it in finance, you would see it in all of these other areas. But I think that day to day, it would probably not, probably not be noticeable.
Edmund Fong: Um, I guess I’ll say something. Yeah, count me among the sort of pessimists. Not because it’s not something that we should strive for. Absolutely right. I mean, I think it’s what I’ve been saying is that that’s central to this. You know, what it means to be human is to strive and align ourselves with and understand and act against anti-Black racism. But you know, I think, you know, I wrote a book on American exceptionalism and the and the remains of race. And you know, one of the central arguments of that book was just how, you know, we’ve always in American history kind of entertained the sort of fantasy of perfection, right? Some sort of utopian state of affairs. And that is often sort of built against or through anti-Black racism, against Black people in a denial of things like slavery. And so I’m very wary of a utopian kind of ideals that we can sort of know what what it would be like to kind of have a truly equitable society. I think it’s an ongoing struggle, right? Never ending. We’re always sort of blind to who may be the next group of people who we are unaware of and don’t see, you know, sort of the situations and burdens that they face that we are blind to. And so the lesson I take from, you know, anti-Black racism is that this is a kind of spiritual journey that doesn’t sort of end right? And it’s central to who we are. And, you know, I’ve been trying and thinking about what I would say to that.
I’ve been trying to sort of channel Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” And so I’ll just sort of end with, you know, the epigraph for that book. “I will call them my people, which were not my people” “of her beloved, which was not beloved,” right? I think that is the kind of spiritual message kind of ongoing message, one that implicates all of us. It’s sort of a plug for, you know, our school, Transform. It’s, you know, kind of central or kind of humble message around intersectionality and critical race theory as well, Right. The idea that we always need to be aware and alive and act and build community with, you know, those things that, you know, lie just outside of our, you know, sort of hubris, our range of sort of what we understand ourselves to be right and that in order to sort of open ourselves up to that possibility, that is kind of how we grow. I imagine new forms of community.
Tamara Stevenson: I would say that. Repeat the question again, the last part about…
Rachel Griffin: How would we know if we lived in a society that was no longer structured by anti-Black racism?
Tamara Stevenson: My hair care products would not be in a locked on a shelf at Walgreens or wherever I’m getting it.
Rachel Griffin: Also, I could get a greeting card that looked like me. And also a Mother’s Day card to look my mother and I.
Tamara Stevenson: Mm hmm. So there’s that. That’s a very practical, it’s a very real example of, again, access. An example of fairness. An example of seeing yourself in your in in the cultural space and not having to…it being an uphill battle at times to just being able to breathe in a space. It’s clear that we live in a society, and again, I’m just thinking about the trajectory of the eye and how we went from this melting pot, and that was the metaphor that everybody loved. But what it didn’t? What was forgotten was everybody kind of loses their distinctiveness, their uniqueness, their specialness. And then we’re now moving to what’s the current…talk about a salad at some point, And it’s just all these all these different kind of metaphors that effort. But as we’re going forward, it is critical, it is necessary to be able to stand in your specialness while also being as what Dr. Fong has shared that we appreciate each other in the beautiful things that we bring to each other. But again, what does that look like in everyday practice when you are confronted with questioning your abilities or competencies?
I also teach a course on intercultural communication in 15 weeks. First week, I have to say, “this is mine…this is who I am. These are my credentials.” Week 15, “this is who I am. These are my credentials.” My White male counterparts don’t have to do that. They walk in the room and it is an immediate respect for what they bring to the room. So equity. I was waiting for Tyler to talk about the entire interwoven capitalistic aspects of anti-Black racism. Maybe you’ll write that.
Tyler Clark: That will take another two hours.
Tamara Stevenson: That’s your book. That’s your book. So…maybe I’d like to call it aspirational. So even when you mention about this place now, being a haven for racism…it’s aspirational, right? And on a good day, that’s aspirational. So it’s not you just pluck out anti-racism and the world is healed, but we still have to look at all of the structural components economic, educational, and all of those to really uproot it. And maybe we won’t uproot it, but we’ll definitely damage it so that it doesn’t do more harm to all of us.
Aja Washington: I’m going to be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted to say about this question because I honestly don’t know. As Edmund has said throughout the panel, I also believe in our imagination. I think if we can put people on the moon and do all this other stuff, we could figure out how to get through anti-Black racism. I think maybe what it would look like or feel like to me is that the person is no longer political, that my mere existence isn’t some political statement that my existence in these spaces doesn’t mean I’m the “first Black…” Or look, you see, she did it, so you can do it too. And it’s like, even this, these, I guess, these ideas of Black Excellence. And we’re excellent because we’re Black. It’s not because I have a degree. It’s not because I have all these things. It’s because we’re Black and we don’t need to put each other in a hierarchy. It looks like it’s not internalizing these White supremacist ideologies and viewing ourselves in this way that we’re less than. I think it does look like all these structural, oppressive systems that have kept us down have changed and that we do actually have a fair shot. That’s what I hope. That’s what I imagine this would look like. Whether or not we do the work to get there is going to be a totally different conversation. And I hope if we get to that place, that means we no longer have to be up here talking about this year after year after year because it still exists. That’s what I hope for the future.
Rachel Griffin: I’m going to share something very, very personal to my workplace hopes. I got my Ph.D. in 2008 from the University of Denver. And that means I’ve been faculty for 14 years. I have never had a Black faculty colleague, not in the eight years the Southern Illinois University and not in the six years since I’ve been here. So one way that I would know that we were at least approaching deconstructing anti-Black racism would be if I had a person who looked like me as faculty in my department, right? And I’m going to be clear, y’all, I’m the only Black faculty member. I am a biracial, Black and White woman who is light-skinned, who has features that look European and a mother who’s very White and a last name called Griffin, which means I benefit from colorism. I’m a palatable Black woman. Well, really until I open my mouth. But generally speaking, I’m a palateable Black woman. So one of the ways I know that we are confronting anti-Black racism is when we can literally see by way of who is among us that Blackness is not monolithic, right? Another way I love, you know, I’ve been here since 2016, and I’ve never had the opportunity to teach an African-American communication studies class in the communications department, sure would love to, sure haven’t had the opportunity to, right?
Something else that I would like, I would like White people in Utah to stop telling me, a Black person in Utah, that Black people aren’t here because it’s Utah. When White people do that, I’m like, “yup, I’m right here, I’m right here, I own a home.” People love — your shaking your head — People love — search committees, people visiting — it’s hard to get Black people in Utah. How do you tell a Black person in Utah I mean, it’s hard to get Black people to Utah. My therapy structures in place. And P.S., if people of color don’t want to come here, Look in the mirror, that’s about you, that’s about us, that’s about our vibe not being right, right? I mean, those are just like personal from Dr. Rachel Alicia Griffin’s requests. that I would love to see happen. So now, we’re going to transition. Do we have any questions from folks in the audience or electronically over Zoom?
[If you do have a question, come up here, and speak directly into the mic so our livestream can hear you.]
Audience Member: All right, so I have a question for you all. With other communities of color and other marginalized folks…Can I take off…?
Can you hear me? Clearly? OK. Sorry. All right.
With other communities of color and other marginalized communities, often the discourse is that anti-Blackness gets highlighted too much. What would you say to them and how do you enable cross-cultural collaboration and bringing in our other marginalized communities and people of color to understand anti-Black racism?
Edmund Fong: I guess, I can start us off with that one. Yes, obviously, I’m Asian-American. And you know, as I’ve been saying all along, I can’t understand myself as an Asian-American without understanding how that often gets triangulated through, you know, kind of White-Black binary right across American history. And so, yeah, so it is a really a sort of fundamental question of self-understanding, right? And so to kind of separate out and somehow think that, you know, kind of focusing on anti-Black racism is somehow a denial of my own self-understanding is it’s just a fallacy. Right? I mean, it’s it’s just kind of ignorance, unfortunately. And so that is threaded through a number of things, you know, affirmative action sort of, you know, cases like at Harvard or whatnot. And these are sometimes complicated. But the sort of perspective that, you know, somehow focusing on anti-Black racism hurts other sort of people of color, I think, is just kind of nonsensical.
Tamara Stevenson: If they want to play “Oppression Olympics,” they can play that by themselves. And then when they’re ready to have a productive, honest conversation, then that’s when we can do that. Again, anti-Black racism, many groups benefit from it, including some communities of color as well. And so to keep that, that angst and that tension going has a purpose in it. And instead of feeding into it, I would kindly advise to, you know, put it on pause, and when they’re ready to have a legitimate conversation about it, glad to engage.
Audience Member: First, I just want to thank you for your emotional labor today, and I just want to ask permission to kind of ask a question that might be a little bit more laborious as well. You know, Dr. Stevenson, you spoke a lot to kind of your first experience with critical race theory in grad school. For me, that was reading “Borderlands” by Anzaldúa for the first time. Feeling seen, and what we’re seeing in education is this culture, war and critical race theory. You know, there’s policies out there for eradicating anti-bias education. For you all what is at stake when that is happening as we see books by Toni Morrison getting burned, what what is really at stake?
Tyler Clark: I guess I’ll…I just want to maybe mention speech that Ta-Nahasi Coates gave about why racism is important to worry about it or not Ta-Nehisi Coates, sorry, it was…I can’t remember who it was, but they were talking about how not understanding pulling literature and limiting literature for everyone in general, it robs people of understanding. It robs especially Black kids, of their history, of understanding where they come from. That robs White kids the ability to empathize and connect with somebody and to understand that it’s okay to care about other communities that don’t look like you because we all are hurt by that.
And I just sort of want to echo what Dr. Fong said about how it’s not a zero-sum game, you know, caring about how other communities doesn’t necessarily minimize the damage done in terms of anti-Asian hate and things of that nature. So pulling critical race theory books is, you know, it’s outrageous. You wouldn’t you wouldn’t pull teaching the Declaration of Independence or anything like that. So yeah, you’re just robbed of a of a comprehensive history of the country and an honest stance on our situation,so…
Tamara Stevenson: I keep seeing this meme, a couple of memes, on the internet. one which says something like, “your children have access to the internet, so you’re burning this book/these books?” Banning these books is basically futile, right? They can Google, or whatever, anything to learn and see this is what was trying to be withheld from you. And that’s the other thing too, right? If you don’t want somebody to do something and learn something, tell them not to do it, and then they do the exact opposite. The other meme that I saw was referencing Ruby Bridges, and it was saying that today’s grandparents and parents don’t want their children to learn about Ruby Bridges because they’ll figure out what they did to her.
And again, it’s that idea of you can never fully suppress the truth. Schools are designed for what they are, but again, growing up in where I got to in Detroit, I was immersed in Black culture, things that I didn’t learn in school. I got to learn in all of these other cultural and social spaces that I had. And so I think that’s the same idea here. You’ll never be able to to suppress the truth that it will come forth. And I think with more mobilization in even our own pockets of spaces where it’s like, sneak and read this book right? Or why don’t you just think about this and that learning is going to grow? So what’s at stake? You know, this is going to be some energies that are misdirected, but you’ll never be able to completely squash it out.
Rachel Griffin: Okay, out of respect for everyone’s time. I need to invite our closing speaker up here, but I want you to wait after when we can chat. Okay? You don’t have to run away, do you? Do you have time to wait?
Audience Member: I can wait.
Rachel Griffin: Okay.
Mary Ann Villarreal: Oh, can we all take a breath? Share just that wherever you come from, whatever you do, the sort of that healing moment because it just was an emotional labor. Folks, this is all the pieces that folks will carry with them today and our panelists and where to put that. And I ask you, our panelists, to leave that here for us to ask for just for us ourselves what is at stake when we cannot hold the tensions, the realities of what today’s conversation put in front of us?
In 1929, El Paso Mexican-Americans fought for the right to be counted as White on the census. This is not new. We ask “what is the role,” right? In which ways are we complicit? In what ways did it matter how we are identified now because of who we thought we were? But because who we did not want to be aligned and assigned to? We can have this conversation again, I hope. And not just in Black History Month and not just about just not with panelists who have these experiences, but the ways in which we uproot. (Thank you, Dr. [Tamara].) The ways we uproot, the ways — and I’m going to leave you with the words of our panelists today — that we must be aware, alive. We must act. We must live in all the truths of who we are and what we represent and how we live in this in the everyday. I want us to note in closing, and I hate to tell you that I’m not going to close on that note, that gives us the hurrah out of here.
I want to come back very quickly to note what Dr. Griffin noted in the language of haven. And here, colleagues, friends, communities of the University of Utah. I need you to know that campuses everywhere, campuses of higher education, everywhere, every day, are recruiting grounds for White supremacists. And it’s coded. If you have seen signs that say, “It is Okay to be White.” That is the code to attract people who are unsure, who do not feel like they belong here, who are afraid to speak out, who are afraid to align with, who are afraid to be called and misaligned in some particular way. That is the code that says, “do not follow those people. Come to us.” It happens everywhere, every day on university and college campuses. We are not immune. So, no, we are not a haven. And this is what happens when your friends, right? You get called out by your own friends, right? We are not. We do not want to be that haven, but we are as susceptible. We are as open. We are a part of that national divide that calls on people to be a “them,” and a “us,” and a “they.” So we all have that responsibility.
We will continue on Reframing the Conversation. I invite you all who are here today to contact our office, to find ways in which we continue this work together, not in isolation, not alone.
Thank you all. I know there’s pizza somewhere out there. Take care.
With other communities of color and other marginalized communities, often the discourse is that anti-Blackness gets highlighted too much. What would you say to them, and how do you enable cross-cultural collaboration and bringing in our other marginalized communities and people of color to understand anti-Black racism?
Edmund Fong: Obviously, I’m Asian-American. And you know, as I’ve been saying all along, I can’t understand myself as an Asian-American without understanding how that often gets triangulated through, you know, kind of White-Black binary right across American history. And so, yeah, so it is a really a sort of fundamental question of self-understanding, right? And so to kind of separate out and somehow think that, you know, kind of focusing on anti-Black racism is somehow a denial of my own self-understanding is it’s just a fallacy. Right? I mean, it’s just kind of ignorance, unfortunately. And so that is threaded through a number of things, you know, Affirmative Action sort of, cases like at Harvard or whatnot. And these are sometimes complicated. But the sort of perspective that, you know, somehow focusing on anti-Black racism hurts other people of color, I think, is just kind of nonsensical.
Tamara Stevenson: If they want to play “Oppression Olympics,” they can play that by themselves. And then when they’re ready to have a productive, honest conversation, then that’s when we can do that. Again, anti-Black racism, many groups benefit from it, including some communities of color as well. And so to keep that, that angst and that tension going has a purpose in it. And instead of feeding into it, I would kindly advise to, you know, put it on pause and when they’re ready to have a legitimate conversation about it, glad to engage.
What we’re seeing in education is this culture war and critical race theory. For you all what is at stake when that is happening as we see books by Toni Morrison getting burned, what what is really at stake?
Tyler Clark: I just want to maybe mention a speech about why racism is important to worry about, sorry…I can’t remember who it was, but they were talking about how not understanding, pulling literature, and limiting literature for everyone in general, robs people of understanding. It robs, especially Black kids, of their history, of understanding where they come from. That robs White kids the ability to empathize and connect with somebody and to understand that it’s okay to care about other communities that don’t look like you because we all are hurt by that.
And I just sort of want to echo what Dr. Fong said about how it’s not a zero-sum game, you know, caring about how other communities doesn’t necessarily minimize the damage done in terms of anti-Asian hate and things of that nature. So pulling critical race theory books is, you know, it’s outrageous. You wouldn’t pull teaching the Declaration of Independence or anything like that. So yeah, you’re just robbed of a comprehensive history of the country and an honest stance on our situation.
Tamara Stevenson: I keep seeing this meme, a couple of memes, on the internet. one which says something like, “your children have access to the internet, so you’re burning this book/these books?” Banning these books is basically futile, right? They can Google, or whatever, anything to learn and see this is what was trying to be withheld from you. And that’s the other thing too, right? If you don’t want somebody to do something and learn something, tell them not to do it, and then they do the exact opposite. The other meme that I saw was referencing Ruby Bridges, and it was saying that today’s grandparents and parents don’t want their children to learn about Ruby Bridges because they’ll figure out what they did to her. And again, it’s that idea of you can never fully suppress the truth. Schools are designed for what they are, but again, growing up in where I got to in Detroit, I was immersed in Black culture, things that I didn’t learn in school. I got to learn in all of these other cultural and social spaces that I had. And so I think that’s the same idea here. You’ll never be able to suppress the truth. It will come forth. And I think with more mobilization in even our own pockets of spaces where it’s like, “sneak and read this book,” right? Or “why don’t you just think about this,” and that learning is going to grow. So what’s at stake? You know, this is going to be some energies that are misdirected, but you’ll never be able to completely squash it out.
Second-Year Master’s Student, Economics
2021-2022 Operation S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Fellow
University of Utah
Tyler is a second-year graduate student in the Department of Economics Master’s Program who is committed to social justice. In addition to working towards his degree, Tyler was selected as part of the inaugural cohort for the Black Cultural Center’s Operation S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Powered by the George Floyd Memorial Fund. In this program, Tyler has been applying his passion towards developing a research mechanism to countervail inequitable policies and institutions in higher education.
Chair, Division of Ethnic Studies
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science
Originally from Oakland, California and having lived in NYC for over a decade, Edmund Fong joined the University of Utah in 2008. He studies racial politics and American political culture, broadly speaking. He is the author of American Exceptionalism and the Remains of Race from Routledge Press and is currently working on a book examining how Americans have used race to “tell time” across US history.
Dr. Rachel Alicia Griffin, PhD
Associate Professor of Communication and Race, Department of Communication
Associate Chair, Department of Communication
Affiliate Faculty, Ethnic Studies
University of Utah
Rachel Alicia Griffin, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Race and Communication and Associate Chair in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. As a critical/cultural scholar who has earned several honors, her research interests span critical race theory, Black feminist thought, sexual violence, and the social institutions of sport, media, education, and the U.S. presidency. Dr. Griffin is currently the Editor-Elect of Critical Studies in Media Communication—the discipline’s foremost journal for critical media scholarship. She has published in journals including Women’s Studies in Communication, the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, The Howard Journal of Communications, the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, and Communication, Culture, & Critique in addition to being a co-editor of Adventures in Shondaland: Identity Politics and the Power of Representation (Rutgers University Press, 2018). Exceptionally committed to sustaining synergy between research and service, Dr. Griffin has delivered well over 100 anti-sexual violence and Inclusive Excellence presentations on campuses and at conferences nationally and internationally.
Tamara N. Stevenson, Ed.D.
Vice President; Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion
Chief Diversity Officer
Associate Professor, Communication
Tamara N. Stevenson, Ed.D. is Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her scholarship and practice explore the internal and external rhetorical activities of educational institutions as organizational sites of power through a critical race lens. A first-generation college student from Detroit, Michigan, Dr. Stevenson holds doctoral and specialist degrees in educational leadership, and a community college leadership certificate from Eastern Michigan University, a master’s degree in organizational communication, and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wayne State University. She worked in corporate communication in the metropolitan Detroit area for over a decade, including print and broadcast journalism, automotive, health care, and K-12/higher education. Dr. Stevenson is the first African American hired into Westminster’s communication program, the first to earn multi-year faculty contracts, and the first to advance in academic rank to associate professor.
Aja Washington, CSW
Aja Washington is a Black feminist social worker who grew up in Southern California. She has been a community co-host on KRCL’s RadioACTive and works on various activism projects in Salt Lake City. Aja holds a degree in Television, Film, and Media Studies focused on using media as a tool to liberate, explore, and critique our society.