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Racism in Higher Education by Raven Rolle

The United States of America has been facing a new era of racial division for almost two years now. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the shooting of Jacob Blake, and countless other Black lives lost created an influx of Black Lives Matter protests across the world and quickly became the largest civil rights movement in American history.

Debates about race and white privilege have generated an un-comfortability that some want to embrace, but others have fought. Those conversations have seized normality in school board meetings across the country, but how is this affecting higher education learning spaces?

A mural in the Memorial Coliseum at the University of Kentucky has been a hot topic of contest for years. The mural depicts enslaved Black Americans and illustrates Indigenous peoples as savages.

A week after George Floyd was killed, UK President Eli Capilouto decided the mural would be taken down. This verdict came after years of protesting, community conversations, a lot of push-back, and recalling back to a time when a Black student said he felt “forced to reckon with the fact that his forbears were enslaved,” according to the LEX 18.

Others in the community feel that President Capilouto has made a terrible decision and is erasing U.S. history.

Dr. Derrick White, a Black UK professor of history and African American and Africana Studies, does not think the mural is the worst representation of Black Americans, but passionately believes that racism is present in higher education learning spaces.

“What we think of as knowledge was also steeped in anti-Black racism,” he said. “The normal working of what we think of as the Western curriculum, in many ways, is so rooted in anti-Blackness that it would be a misnomer to believe that higher education is not rife with particular kinds of forms of racism.”

Looking at the cities and learning environments where college students are coming from may explain the discourse, and sometimes dangerous conflicts that arise from talking about the institutionalized racism Dr. White mentioned.

K-12 across the country, and more specifically in southern states, is amid an educational transformation. Critical race theory, any learning material regarding race, gender, sexuality, etc., and topics such as slavery and Native American history are being banned in some schools.

Southlake, TX, a suburb of the Dallas Fort-Worth area is a focal point of this phenomenon. The Carroll Independent School District, Southlake’s school system, was recently under fire for telling their staff members to teach both perspectives when discussing the Holocaust. Caution tape covers bookshelves in CISD schools, keeping students from reading books deemed controversial by the administration.

Groups like the Southlake Anti Racism Coalition, an organization of current and former Carroll ISD students, have been at the forefront of this battle and demanding anti-racist change from the district for a year and a half.

Despite the efforts of groups like SARC to stop bans on critical race theory, the bans are taking a hold of their city. The effects have been apparent on college campuses.

Dr. Cheryl Matias, a Filipina UK Full Professor and Director of Secondary Education and Master's with Initial Certification Program, has participated in several national panels on the critical race theory ban and is currently writing for the National Journal about it. At times, she says it is noticeable when a student comes from a place like Southlake.

Another UK professor and elementary school guidance counselor who is white, Lori Lazzari, was horrified to learn about what is happening in many K-12 curriculums. “There are not two sides to the Holocaust!” she said. Lazzari believes that the book bans, the critical race theory controversy, and other learning censorship, would not be widely accepted in the Lexington-Louisville area, but fears it may be overtaking more rural areas.

Besides concerns over learning materials, faculty and students are experiencing racism themselves.

Dr. Matias spent 10 years at the University of Colorado and reflects on her experiences with racism there. Though she had many great students and colleagues, others were blatantly racist.

“I was the first faculty member of color to be in this urban education program. Students would do everything from behind-my-back petitions to get me fired because they did not want to learn about race, which is ridiculous. Second, they would write very inappropriate things on my student evaluations—and I am going to be very honest about what they said-- ‘I don’t give a f--- if this b---- has a PhD’,” she said.

While working at Dartmouth College, Dr. White received a unanimous vote of tenure, but when the decision got to the higher up’s table, he was denied. Although he could not physically prove the denial was a result of racial bias, White could not help but feel it was. “It speaks to the kind of institutional problems that we see in higher education all over,” he said.

He also said that sometimes students will leave poor evaluations of his class, unhappy with how much he talks about Black history. This left him confused because Black people are still a part of American history, he said, but he has learned how to deal with this by reminding them and himself that he is a professional and expert in his field.

A Black UK student, Skyy Walker-Davis, was recently racially harassed in the courtyard of her apartment, just outside of the school campus. While sitting by the courtyard fire, she heard a white student with three of his other white friends say, “f--- the ‘n-words’.” After realizing she was in the courtyard and could hear what they said, they quickly left for their room.

As soon as they locked the door behind them, which is located just a few feet from where Walker-Davis was sitting, they began to chant the racial slur. “They knew I could hear them. I had never been called that before in my life,” she said.

Walker-Davis explored every avenue to resolve the issue. She made reports with the UK and Lexington Police Departments, the complex property manager, the University, and took to social media to demand something be done. “I even tried to speak to the boys directly, but of course they were too scared to say anything to my face,” she said.

The next morning, Walker-Davis awoke to messages from the University on Instagram asking to meet to discuss the incident. It has now been a month and a half since the harassment took place and nothing has been done. Faculty from the UK Office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity has told her that it is “an ongoing investigation.”

Many UK faculty members want to stop things like this from happening by properly educating their students in the classroom. Jennifer Smith, a white UK journalism professor, feels uneasy about it at times but is still committed to having uncomfortable conversations.

One of the courses she teaches, Issues in 21st Century Sports Media, covers race and sports, delving into the life of Jesse Owens, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Muhammad Ali, etc. Often different words and symbols discussed bring about unpleasant situations.

“There was a student in the class who was clearly not in this environment for very long who raised their hand and said, ‘colored people’”, she said. “I had to jump in and say, ‘you mean people of color,’ but I could see people in the classroom cringing.”

It is important to note that it was difficult to find people of color that were willing to speak to me about this story. Some of those who did, like Dr. Matias shared their perspectives on why.

“The reason people don’t want to say anything is because white emotions can be weaponized against us,” she said. Dr. Matias has been the target of a stalker, extremely troubling hate mail, and threats to her and her children’s safety for speaking out against racism. “People who engage in these stories suffer severe consequences.”

Dr. Matias believes addressing institutionalized racism in higher education amounts to financial commitments designed to protect marginalized faculty members and students.

“They need to step up! My mama says, ‘it's all talk until they open up their pocketbooks.’ All those statements on racial justice mean nothing if there is no line-item budget that will support that statement,” she said.

For some people, like professor Lazzari, it comes down to being compassionate and listening to other’s needs. “We need to have more forums where people get to express their feelings. We need to listen,” Lazzari said. “Not only listen, but hear.”

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