Reflections on race 1/3: “Race, Class, and Gender” panel

16 Apr

Last weekend I went to Durham for the first time and visited Duke for my spouse’s 15th college reunion.  We were expecting to go on little tours and read some propagandist hyperbolic literature about how great Duke is and relax and catch up with old friends.  Instead, surprise! We spent much of the weekend thinking about and talking about race in America (one of my favorite topics).

I hadn’t heard of the Silent Vigil at Duke fifty years ago, when students held a vigil after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and combined that with demands for the university to recognize the union of black workers and pay them a fair wage.  Something like 2000 mostly white students sat on the lawn in front of the chapel for a week until the union of black workers was recognized.  [Great photos here.] For the reunion, a bunch of alumni put together a series of programming with conversations on equity, student activism, race, history, immigration, politics, and labor relations.  We got there too late for the kickoff panel on activism and equity, but we did go to two events as part of the Vigil Commemoration: a panel on Race, Class, and Gender, and a workshop/discussion group on how racial identity became entrenched in America.  Spurred by those we ended up in an hour and a half long discussion of race and policing and protesters over breakfast at our B&B with the innkeepers and another guest, who had led her own event on student activism.  These three posts are for me to work through everything that happened.  I wasn’t prepared and didn’t take notes, so this will be a reckoning of memory as well.

I felt hopeless and drained with the answer to the first question, when the moderator asked Bertie Howard, one of the main Vigil organizers, what she was thinking when she motivated the student participants in 1968 with a fierce speech about how they needed to stay quiet and peaceful and not riot.  Bertie responded that she hadn’t set out to inspire the masses with her leadership, as she did, but was just looking to survive.  She knew that if the students were rowdy and police were called, as one of the few black students she would be targeted.  And it was so exhausting and demoralizing when she talked about how she still feels out of place and targeted and questioned even with her fancy degrees.  It felt like we hadn’t made any progress in 50 years, and black women like her (or pregnant black women) (or black men waiting for a friend at Starbucks) are suffering the consequences of that daily insidious racism on which our country is based.  I mean, if felt exhausted just hearing her talk about her experience, that’s nothing compared to how she feels living it.

I had a funny conversation at the class party the next night with an Indian-Canadian about how, when we compare our Asian-American women experiences with black women, we’re totally fine and hunky-dory and have nothing to complain about.  But then we compare to white women and say hey, something’s not fair here and say white women have nothing to complain about.  But of course they do too!  This is the problem of oppression olympics.  It’s important to acknowledge that all marginalized people have different struggles, and solutions for one might not be for all, but we should still work on solutions.  Reparations for slavery may not directly benefit me, a Vietnamese-American women married to a white man, but when they happen they will lift up everyone in society.  Anything we can do to help one group will eventually help us all.  (Related: the concept of intersectionality.)

Speaking of white women, in the 1960s Duke had a separate women’s campus, now called East Campus, about a mile from the main campus/classrooms.  And there, the women had to sign in and out, and were locked in at 9 p.m., and didn’t get the housekeeping that the boys got.  Sara Evans spoke about the shock of finding a telegraph between the dean and her parents giving her, a grown woman, permission to go to Selma (Birmingham?) as an activist.   But she also talked about something that I run into regularly today.  The benefit of being in a women-only space is that all the leaders are women, so there are many leadership roles available for women.  I’ve run into this in my role as a woman in mathematics.  It’s sometimes easier as a woman to be a leader in a group of women than in a mixed gender group, because I don’t have any men to convince that they should listen to me.  And this is also true for any minority group.  I have yet to read “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”  but I refer to the title often, because self-segregation leads to a safer, more comfortable space.  But being segregated by out-groups is isolating and disenfranchising.

It’s not surprising that I didn’t know about the vigil or the women’s campus, since I had no ties to Duke before my spouse, but I was surprised by how surprised he was when learning this relevant history of his alma mater.  Peter Wood talked about the critical importance of studying history and disseminating this information.  For instance, some claim that we’re in a post-racial society and lots and lots of time has passed since the end of slavery.  Peter pointed out that Michelle’s great-great-grandfather was a slave, so that’s four generations ago.  But slavery lasted for eight generations before that.  So we spent eight generations digging a giant pit (of institutionalized racism), and then four generations pretending that it’s not there, and now we’re trying to fill it.  But we need to look back in history to even understand what it looks like and what we’re trying to fight.  He’s a historian with a focus on South Carolina, and shared a fun fact: of the thirteen colonies, South Carolina was the richest at the time of the Declaration of Independence.  Because of slaves and slave labor.  He’s now working with white kids in Colorado to get them to understand the history of the American South and the history of blackness in Americans.  Pretty cool.

I sometimes wonder what these white male scholars are thinking about their own identities when they study marginalized groups.  My adviser for my Mellon Mays Undergraduate fellowship is a white anthropology professor specializing in Vietnam and southeast Asian studies.  He was an excellent adviser and met with me in Vietnam for my ethnographic research project in 2008, and no surprise, his Vietnamese is better than mine (I know no academic terms in Vietnamese except “university”).  Peter said no one was studying South Carolina or the history of African-Americans when he was in graduate school, and the established departments discouraged him from studying this.  So when the doors of academia were closed to people of color, he set the groundwork for studying the history of those people.  By the time black scholars could come around, there was already some infrastructure for their research.  It must be weird to be an expert on another group’s lived experience when you’re in the majority group.  I  think that being a good ally means amplifying the voices of those you’re allied with, but if you have a strong voice yourself, you should use that too.  This echoes Viet Thanh Nguyen’s recent op-ed, in which he wrote:

The situation, now and in the past, is that the minority and marginalized communities of this or any other country are often not voiceless. They’re simply not heard.

The moderator for the panel did an excellent job with focused, thoughtful questions driving the dialogue forward.  I wish I remembered more of the panel, though I did see someone video recording so hopefully that becomes available somewhere.  The final panelist, Bob Creamer, gave a rousing political speech about how he really believes in MLK’s words that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  He said in his many years of political organizing, he has never seen the base as energized and engaged as it is today, and that even when we are unsure and unconfident, we must have faith that we will win.  I got a big kick out of his comically partisan rhetoric (which I agree with, to be fair).

So that was the first panel.  Stay tuned for further posts about the workshop (how racial identity became entrenched in America) and the casual discussion (race, police, and protesters today, with non-academics).

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3 Responses to “Reflections on race 1/3: “Race, Class, and Gender” panel”

  1. Margaret Small April 18, 2018 at 6:41 am #

    I am one of the Vigil alumni from class of 68. Like your post. The energy and insight of today’s students was also great. Wonderful to connect over the years. I also used to study and teach math. Got my degree in math education instead of mathematics. But when in math grad school gave a presentation to the department on Sophia Kovaleskia. They knew nothing about women in math.Keep strong!

  2. Robin Tiberius Kirk (@RobinKirk) April 20, 2018 at 11:03 am #

    It’s true that Duke doesn’t do a great job of telling its history, especially when it comes to black and brown people, women, LGBTQIA+, the disabled — well golly, the majority for the folks on campus! That’s part of the reason students and I spent 18 months on this report: http://www.activatinghistoryatduke.com/. We’re hoping people who care about these issues contact the president and provost and urge them to take on our recommendations…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Reflections on race 2/3: “How Racial Identity Became Entrenched in America” workshop | Baking and Math - April 19, 2018

    […] is a continuation of a series started in this post, based on the Duke Vigil Commemoration events at Alumni weekend.  MUCH of our historical […]

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