Faculty and Graduate Students Attend Anti-Racism, Anti-Oppression Workshop

Submitted by Arts & Sciences Web Team on

This March, five women from the department — Professors Bettina Shell-Duncan and Donna Leonetti, Graduate Program Assistant Catherine Zeigler, and graduate students Sara Breslow and Michelle Kleisath — attended an Anti-Racism, Anti-Oppression Workshop. The event, which was organized by Partnership for Community and Diversity, a graduate student group at the Evans School of Public Affairs, was a first step towards bringing members of the department together to discuss institutionalized racism.

The goal of workshop leaders Mayet Dalila and Scott Winn was to bring participants “out of their comfort zone” in order to dislodge common-sense thinking about race and encourage discussion of subjects “taboo” to mainstream American culture. Participants also discussed historical approaches to “difference,” which includes genocide, slavery, assimilation and, more recently, diversity and colorblindness. An anti-racist approach differs from older approaches by focusing on institutional and systemic inequality, as well as the policies, practices and procedures that keep it in place. According to Zeigler, the organizers succeeded in presenting these issues in such a way that she “could see denial, guilt and minimizing [of racism] acted out every day.”

An innovative tactic employed at the workshop was to divide participants into racially defined groups, thereby foregrounding the persistence of race and allowing “white” and “people of color” attendees to caucus around issues that might remain unspoken in a mixed group. Through these discussions, participants realized the importance of identifying institutionalized racism – policies within institutions that can create disadvantages for under-represented minorities. The workshop also produced a concise definition of racism. “Racism is prejudice that occurs in the context of differential access to power” explained Shell-Duncan. For Breslow, this definition translated into an increased vigilance about the way racism “receives its backing in institutions [such as] in law and in health care” as well as in universities. Correlating racism with power and access to opportunity helped make visible how privilege works.

Further refining the development of anti-racist strategies, participants distinguished between equality and equity, illustrated by the following example. “There may be an equal number of women’s and men’s stalls in public restrooms,” explained Breslow, “but that distribution is equal without being equitable.” Legal equity, added Leonetti, “was the idea behind affirmative action.” Recently, a discourse of equality has moved attention away from reallocating resources and erased the history of what caused inequities. One task of anti-racist initiatives is to refocus on equity. Similarly, multiculturalism and anti-racism often had different objectives. As Kleisath explained, “multiculturalism is often designed to keep the power structure in place and have people stop complaining, while anti-racism anti-oppression work is designed to lay bare the power structure and rework it.”

The participants all saw promising links between what they learned in these workshops and their work as anthropologists. This ranged from complicating the picture of race in places that have had difficult colonial histories, to becoming more sensitive in their positions as fieldworkers. Equally important, it taught them skills for better addressing the issue of race and racism in the classroom and in allocating institutional resources. But perhaps the greatest lesson learned was how personal connections can help activate the desire to fight against oppression. Because all five women were encouraged to attend the training by others in the group, they all recognized the importance of friendship in making an institution a more equitable place to work.


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