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Colloquium on race a hit in first year

ATHENS, Ohio (May 9, 2006) -- "Race and the Spectrum of Critical Consciousness," a new interdepartmental colloquium, concluded April 28 with the third part of the series, "Diversity, Ethics, Appropriations and Opportunities."

Assistant Professor of Modern Languages Amanda Harris organized the event because she experienced racism at Ohio University, and after she discussed it with students and faculty members, she recognized the need for a way to discuss and debate the issue on campus.

Only in her first year at the university, she said, "The goal was a teaching kind of goal, an opening goal, a goal of letting in or making people privy to discourses and discussions that they normally wouldn't have access to, or be interested in, or even know about."

Other professors and panelists experience incidents similar to Harris's. "Do I ever think racism will end? No. As long as we don't talk about it, it won't end. Why is it that so many white people get upset if you say that they're racist?" asked Najee Muhammad, an associate professor in cultural studies.

During the discussion that followed the presentations, students in attendance asked what they could do to eliminate racism and also expressed their desire to understand other cultures on campus and in every day life.

"My parents always told me I was lucky to be alive and to have food. But they never told me I was lucky to be white," said Megan Flanagan, a senior accounting major, "I've lived a sheltered life."

Recognizing the effects of racism on campus, Dave Bartish, a junior organizational communication major, said he wanted to see change that could begin with such events as the colloquia.

"It's a big issue that no one talks about or knows about," Bartish said.

Three speakers presented, basing their presentations on their areas of expertise.

Associate Professor of English George Hartley, as the first panelist, discussed how institutions, such as colleges, manipulate the idea of essentialism to support the status quo rather than to challenge it in his presentation "Anti-essentialism as Institutional Racism or We're so Liberal We Hire White People."

Essentialism is a philosophical term used to describe the belief that things, or in this case, people, have an inherent set of characteristics that make them who they are. 

Hartley cited his own experience in the hiring of faculty to teach African-American studies. He assumed that hiring a person of African descent would be a priority, but he encountered challenges implying that doing so would be a racist act itself. He was asked, "What if you can't find a qualified person of color?" but never "What if you can't find a qualified white person?"

Mistaken identities constructed by society were the focus of "Racist Essentialism, Class Markers and Ethnic Choices" by Modern Languages assistant professor Amado Lascar, the second panelist of the evening.

He said the physical characteristics of a human being, which form identity, can't be changed; yet people who are part of dominated cultures are expected to change their social status merely through changing their behavior. The American ideal of hard work reflects that. Rarely is it recognized that the oppressive structure of American society doesn't allow dominated cultures to improve their social status through behavior alone.

Lascar and other panelists throughout the colloquium prefer to use the term "dominated cultures" rather than "minorities" because they believe it is more accurate. In the entire world, non-white people outnumber white people, and "dominated cultures" is more inclusive of other groups in society who are oppressed, such as women, homosexuals and lower-class individuals.

David Descutner, the third and final panelist of the evening, said, "Only by questioning can we challenge anything." As dean of University College, he recognized that "If we wait for collective action, nothing will get done."

In general, Ohio University's students lack "intercultural fluency," a skill necessary for success in the work world, Descutner said. The rhetoric of diversity and the reality of the social environment are not the same on campus.

"We cannot treat our students as kids, because as we do, we disservice them," Lascar said. "My students are not just a color. They are human beings. If they have a problem with my color, it's not their fault." He sees the prejudices students may have as a product of society and that all people, no matter their color, are victims of racism.

Panelists and participants recognized a need for change in the way society addresses racism. They hope the colloquium will alert others to the problem.

Harris hopes the colloquium becomes an annual event. "When I opened, I said 'There is so much to say.' There's so much racism, there's so much invisibility, and there's so much lack of recognition of humanity.

"My goal was to make sure people knew about things so they would have to take a position and not just float around in passivity," Harris said, "Neutrality itself is a way of supporting the status quo."

There is still so much to say.


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