Students and faculty gathered to discuss the implications of and ways to challenge white supremacy at a teach-in in Wilson Hall on Monday. Some people had to be turned away after all the seats were filled up, despite the last minute addition of an extra row of chairs.
The discussion featured professors Tara Affolter, Kemi Fuentes-George, Rachael Joo, Sujata Moorti and Joyce Mao, of the education studies, political science, American studies, gender studies and history departments, respectively. It was moderated by Linus Owens, professor of sociology and anthropology.
In their opening remarks, all five of the participants said, in various ways, that white supremacy is not just present in radical fringe groups, but is pervasive throughout American society.
Affolter spoke first, saying that white supremacy was part of the founding of the United States, noting that it only took 12 years after the founding of Jamestown for the first slaves to be brought to the United States
“This is white supremacy,” Affolter said. “Space is taken up by white folks.”
“There is a concerted effort to normalize white supremacy,” Joo added.
Fuentes-George spoke of how white supremacy is about “norms and practices, not people.” He acknowledged that white people can be kind to people of color on an individual basis while still supporting the institutions that are part of white supremacy.
Mao made the point that white supremacy is not limited to people who are conservative.
Moorti talked about the phrase “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” which she read from bell hooks, and how they were all interlocking structures.
Fuentes-George responded that students of color at Middlebury “have been made very conscious of their minority status,” creating a “system of alienation.” He also said that we must call attention to problematic behavior, even though doing so may be awkward, so that people of color do not have to deal with all the discomfort.
The panelists then spoke on more conservative views on white supremacy. Mao made the point that white conservatives on college campuses perceive themselves as minorities because of the idea that college campuses are part of the liberal establishment and that they don’t feel comfortable voicing their opinions.
“This is not a radical space,” Owens added, noting that conservatives’ practice of framing it as such was a sort of “magic trick.”
On the subject of how to challenge white supremacy, Affolter said that white people should stand up to problematic behavior to avoid placing the burden on people of color.
“What voices are lifted up?” she asked, as she also questioned the types of scholarship professors use in class.
Inevitably, the subject of Charles Murray’s visit to the college came up.
Joo discussed Stanford’s response to Murray’s visit, which was to hold an alternative event focused on building up communities of color.
“There was no way of engaging with Charles Murray in a way that would have been satisfactory,” Fuentes-George said. He brought up the idea of “challenging white supremacy by choosing our own forums.”
These ideas were challenged in the question and answer section by Madeleine Bazemore ’19, who said protesting was about the “evil man” and that she didn’t care that they were playing into the hands of conservatives.
“Student activists can’t win,” Owens said. “Respectability politics is just a way to keep you quiet.”
Fuentes-George said that though he did not believe the protests against Charles Murray’s visit were wrong, he knew how it would be spun by the media.
Esteban Arenas-Pino ’18 asked the panel what their thoughts were on teaching the work of white supremacists, such as Garrett Hardin, author of “The Tragedy of the Commons.”
“I teach about dead white dudes all the time,” Mao said in response, drawing some laughs from the crowd. Arenas-Pino’s question sparked a discussion on how to include minority voices in syllabi.
Mao and Fuentes-George both said that including white people who were involved in white supremacy is inevitable. But Mao said that she tries to highlight minority viewpoints as well, and Fuentes-George said that he has his students consider the beliefs and biases of authors. Joo noted that using racist sources in class can make students of color uncomfortable.
Fuentes-George said that he did not feel like he could make recommendations about syllabus changes to senior professors as an untenured junior professor.
Shatavia Knight ’20 asked about how to make sure that the entire Middlebury community, and not just those in attendance, learn about the issues discussed at the talk. Knight also inquired about how to spur change as a result of talks such as this one.
Fuentes-George said that “the changing balance of power of these institutions” is key to bringing in people who might reexamine their assumptions after listening to the ideas raised at the discussion.