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Origins of U.S. anti-Blackness linger

Members of the U community and administration were painted a picture of what it's like to be Black in higher education and society.

U.S. history is rife with examples of anti-Black laws and social mores. But anti-Blackness even predates the founding of the country, when the practice of enslaving Africans shaped notions of race, a guest lecturer told an opening session of the University of Utah’s Day of Collective Action.

With the institution of slavery, “we started on this progression towards the construction of Whiteness,” said Christopher Whitt, vice chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Denver.  “We had this way of upholding Whiteness while defining other characteristics as the opposite—Blackness.”

“There were different points in our history where we had opportunities to open doors, but at each one of those points, most of the time, we leaned toward constructing two-tiered systems,” he said.

Whitt was the keynote speaker and facilitator of a day-long session on anti-Black racism opened by President Taylor Randall at the Rice-Eccles Stadium Scholarship Room.

“We need to lead from places of discomfort. One of the ways you learn is by putting yourself into situations that you don’t understand,” Randall said. “Many of the people who work for us, many of the students who come here feel this discomfort every day. Hopefully, we’ll all be understanding and empathetic of each other and disrupt our thought processes a little bit.”

While noting the moments in U.S. history where Whiteness came to be defined as superior—from the Crown Act and Jim Crow laws, to the banking practice of “redlining” black neighborhoods to many states not requiring specialized training and licensing for barbers and stylists who cut the hair of people of color—Whitt encouraged attendees to lean into the uncomfortable process of dissecting racism.

“If we don’t talk about the ways in which our society, and particularly our government, have been so complicit, and sometimes the driving force, in building out White wealth and in building out White suburbs—in many cases to the detriment of Black folks and other people of color—then we start to build a narrative in the minds of the future generations that the White folks, their grandparents, great-grandparents, they were deserving,” Whitt said.

“The same types of stories play out in Black communities, in Native American communities, in LatinX communities, where people don’t talk about the ways that wealth was undergirded over on the White side of the tracks. Think about how that accumulates over the course of one’s life. Think about how that chips away at someone’s core, at their soul.”

One of the first things that can be done to begin to rectify such imbalances is to try to understand how cultural differences play out in various settings and how those might negatively impact people of color, Whitt added. We can’t begin to do that if we can’t be open and talk about these issues.

During the afternoon, the session broke into workshops where attendees were asked to consider and discuss a series of questions:

  • Where do anti-Blackness and systemic racism appear in your office or academic unit?
  • How might honestly identifying, unpacking and discussing White supremacy serve as much-needed first steps in working to dismantle anti-Blackness in your unit and across the university?
  • How might seriously considering justice be an invaluable undergirding for weaving diversity, equity and inclusion throughout the structure of the university with the intention to dismantle anti-Blackness while also looking to create a destination of choice for Black people?

Ideas for action from the workshops included:

  • Consider pedagogical development and training on EDI in classrooms.
  • Updating admissions practices across the university to consider new ways to evaluate applicants (“holistic admissions”).
  • Update hiring, on-boarding and HR practices to increase faculty and staff sense of belonging.

University leaders said this Inauguration Week and Day of Collective Action are the right time to pause and focus on rooting out racism and bias in social and physical spaces on campus, and in academic structures, policies and procedures.

“Our mission today is urgent: We are taking an active stance against bias, hate and discrimination,” said Lori McDonald, vice president for student affairs and co-chair of the Presidential Commission on Equity and Belonging. “Although it is one day, it is a day when we come together as a community to focus, engage in difficult conversations, listen to understand and plan for wise action.”

Added Randall, “This is why we are an institution of higher education because we have the ability to adjust, adapt and dream of a world that is a little bit better for all of us.”

The inaugural Day of Collective Action will not be the last, said Mary Ann Villarreal, vice president for Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion and co-chair of the presidential commission.

“My commitment to the University of Utah is that we will name anti-Black racism in all the spaces in which it exists, the ways it perpetuates those systemic inequities that we experience in different spaces across the university,” said Villarreal. “We will not let today be the last day that we have this conversation. We are not going anywhere and we are not stopping our work. Today is but a beginning.”