By Nadira Wicaksana
The Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching, Scholarship, and Service (CELTSS) held a “community conversation” to kick off its “Anti-Racist Curriculum Series” on Tuesday, Feb. 19.
Three faculty members gave presentations relating to their respective fields for the audience. Presenters included Ishara Mills-Henry of the chemistry department, Stefan Papaioannou of the history department, and Zeynep Gönen of the sociology department.
Led by CELTSS directors Jon Huibregtse, history professor, and Lina Rincón, sociology professor, the talk was well-attended. The audience – comprised of faculty, students, and staff alike – filled up the entire Alumni Room. Extra chairs were brought in and many had to stand in the corners and the aisles.
The opening slide of the presentation read, “As faculty, we want to be proactive in our efforts to combat racism at FSU.”
The goals of CELTSS, Huibregtse and Rincón said, are to “lay the foundation of a conversation that ties the hate crimes to systemic racism in our country,” and “work together as a community to recognize and address racism through anti-racist actions in the classroom and in the University.”
Huibregtse and Rincón also pointed to the yellow pieces of poster paper that were pasted around the room and directed anyone who had questions or concerns to write them down.
Rincón said in an email they “encouraged attendees to write their thoughts and feelings on the yellow sheets, as well as on index cards. Our goal is to share this feedback with the school’s administrators in the next few weeks.”
Mills-Henry talked about how she experienced racism as a black graduate student at MIT.
“When I was accepted into MIT for graduate school, several of my black professors sat me down to have ‘the talk,’” Mills-Henry said. “They told me about how the environment was going to be different, likely not as supportive, and that I would sometimes question if I belonged in that environment.
“They told me that I would probably question my ability, but that it was not me, but the environment that I was in,” she said.
Gönen gave a presentation on the history of the prison industrial complex in the United States and the racial disparities in incarcerated populations. Her work focuses on law, crime, and punishment from a “global perspective.”
According to Gönen, not only is the United States a “carceral state,” black and Latino people are incarcerated at much higher rates relative to their white counterparts. They are also subjected to discriminatory practices, such as “Stop and Frisk,” and targeted by “federal biases,” such as the “War on Crime” and the “War on Drugs.”
After the presentation and other faculty comments, the floor was then opened to questions and comments from the general audience.
Multiple students expressed concern about the lack of diversity in school curricula, and how little has changed from their high school experiences going into college.
Sophomore Giovanni Nicholas said, “As a little black boy, growing up, I rarely got to encounter people who looked like me in what we studied in school. The only time black people really came up was during Black History Month or when we talked about slavery.”
Marc Cote, dean of Arts and Humanities, said his departments – mainly English and History – have introduced new courses such as “African American Women Writers,” as well as an African American literature and film concentration in the English major.
Post-baccalaureate student Caroline Lee said, “I don’t think the simple presence of courses that have do with African American literature and history will inherently engender systemic change, because it will lead to self-segregation. … Why are students going to pick a class if they don’t already have the exposure and interest in this?”
Margaret Carroll, dean of STEM, and Sue Dargan, dean of social and behavioral sciences and interim dean of business, voiced their support for faculty and students in wanting to diversify the University curricula.
Dargan said, “There are differences of opinion in how diversity training works. We can incentivize people, and we can continue to have a discussion about that. … This isn’t the first time it has been brought up, but we can’t force faculty into teaching it.”
However, Dargan said she recognizes the merit of anti-bias and diversity trainings and said conversations like these must continue to happen.
Carroll said, “This is something we are all taking very seriously.”
She added, “When these things happened last year and we went to the faculty, faculty were very hesitant to talk about it, because they were uncomfortable. One of the most important things, I think, for the faculty to hear from the students, is that the students want them to talk about it.”
Huibregtse echoed this sentiment. “Raise your hand in class tomorrow and say, ‘Hey, Dr. So-and-So, let’s talk about it.’”
Students said they wondered if faculty were just posturing and if these talks were just “smoke and mirrors.”
Vandana Singh, chair of the Physics department, said the community must continue to work together in “small steps.”
She added, “Culture change takes a long time, so we have to have some patience. But at the same time, there has to be some recourse for students of color, for faculty of color working at this campus and not feeling safe, day-after-day after day-after-day.
“I’m not interested in smoke and mirrors, either. But we have to think intelligently about why this happens and how we go about it,” Singh said. “What we need is some kind of collective action – maybe some kind of alliance between faculty and students and staff who are not connected to the administration.”
Other students expressed doubts about the actions of FSUPD following the hate crime on Feb.1.
Senior Bobby Brown said, “One thing that I always wonder about – and not speaking for any of the students here – is Campus Police. We never get any updates from them about any of the investigations that are going on. And that just worries me, because it’s like, ‘Are you doing your job?’
He added, “I asked a police officer a question here, and she said, ‘I don’t know – it’s my last day here.’ She just seemed like she didn’t care about it. Just knowing that – is Campus Police really behind us? Are they really doing their jobs?”
Sophomore Mackenzie Dwyer said, “The FBI and Campus Police have given us false hope that this is going to be solved and that the person is going to be reprimanded. Is this series of events [by CELTSS] – and I don’t mean to speak badly about CELTSS – also going to give us a sense of false hope or will it bring us together?”
[Editor’s Note: Caroline Lee is a member of The Gatepost staff.]