“Where are you from?”
It’s a question all of us have asked a million times. It seems simple, straightforward and polite. But often that’s not what everyone hears, especially people of color.
“When people meet you, they say, ‘Where are you from,’ which is an immediate means of saying, ‘You don’t belong here,’” said Byron Russell, co-chair of Utah’s Multicultural Commission.
That reinforces—and can enhance—generations of stereotypes, assumptions and expectations that are not only false, but divide society along racial lines both in our communities and on our college campuses, Russell said.
Breaking those patterns was a theme at the heart of the “Reframing the Conversation: Expanding the Portrayal of Black Men” panel discussion held Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library.
Organized as part of the U’s recognition of Black History Month, the forum was the first in a series of panels that aim to spark a campus-wide conversation about racism, othering and safety.
The panel included PBS Utah journalist Liz Adeola; Meligha Garfield, director of the U’s Black Cultural Center; Marlon Lynch, the U’s chief safety officer; Byron Russell, co-chair of the Utah Multicultural Commission; and Sarah Projanksy, associate vice president for faculty and a professor of gender studies, film and media in the College of Fine Arts.
Barriers and opportunities
Meaningful change, the panelists agreed, takes a combination of solutions, including: Understanding how the historical treatment of black men fuels current attitudes; working to create programs and opportunities for greater inclusion; and recognizing the implicit biases in systems and people that create obstacles to change.
Among the most significant broad barriers to new narratives for black men are the ways media shapes our perceptions, panelists said. As a television journalist, Adeola said the racial imbalances in storytelling were glaring.
White perpetrators of mass shootings, for example, are often portrayed as mentally ill or having come from challenging backgrounds, but no similar narratives seem to exist around black men, she said.
“Their humanity is stripped away and there’s no deeper look,” Adeola said, adding that shrinking newsrooms and disinterest in new approaches drove her out of daily news.
Social media platforms that allow for “viral” sharing of a single viewpoint and the trend toward agenda-driven web sources that ignore credible, balanced reporting exacerbate the problem.
“There is a great danger in how we are not in control of our media,” Russell said. “That desire to frighten people to create fear is done by individuals who have no filter, who have no editors and who have no sense of moral compass.”
How campuses shape perspectives
A university campus can play a central role in creating an environment that helps re-set public attitudes and expectations, the experiences shared by panelists show.
It happens through programming, policies and academic experiences that create pathways to opportunity and growth. One place to start, Projansky said, is in the classroom.
As a professor, Projansky said she thinks a lot about which texts and other sources she relies on for learning. Much of the academic canon represents white voices and perspectives, leaving others on the sidelines, she said. So instead of stopping there, Projansky works to include books and other materials that challenge those narratives and cut against perpetuating racism.
“If that’s not happening in your classes, you can ask your teachers about that,” she said.
The U’s Black Cultural Center offers the campus community a visible representation of the change goal. The center works to thwart racism and promote equity through advocacy and support of black students and faculty.
The KINGS—Knowledgeable, Intuitive, Noble, Gentlemen—initiative, which helps men finish college and go on to successful professional lives, is working to chip away at the generalized negative perception of black men.
“We’re going to fight that,” said Meligha Garfield, center director, whose off-campus life includes sitting on the board of a nonprofit promoting the empowerment of black girls. “Pushing those narratives forward can counteract a lot of things.”
One of the most important ways to effect change lies in the greater representation of people from marginalized communities in positions of leadership both on campus and in the community, panelists agreed. That helps expand the view and opinions others have of black men—to see them as more than predators, Utah Jazz players or anomalies, as some have perceived President Barack Obama.
“What we need to do is shape and form leadership,” said Lynch, the new chief safety officer. “I would love to see this university groom people to get involved, to get engaged and to make sure the resources are there for people who have the aptitude, passion and desire. Because if you don’t … there’s a gap.”
Closing that gap is inextricably tied to combating the inherent and implicit biases we all carry, no matter how we try, Lynch added. “Implicit bias plays into how we engage and interact,” he said. “What people are thinking of me is sometimes a very important aspect of how communication actually starts.”
In the public safety and policing arena, addressing implicit bias is an increasingly important dialogue that is leading to improvements in officer training. The goal, Lynch said, is to recognize race-driven responses to crime.
It’s also among initiatives Lynch is planning to add to the U’s police department training as part of an overhaul of campus public safety policies. A new public safety advisory board is also in the works that will help shape policies based on real community needs.
Lynch said he was heartened by the standing-room-only crowd, including U President Ruth Watkins, that turned up for Monday’s discussion. Community narratives, he said, don’t grow in a vacuum, and perceptions are fed from people on both sides.
To change them, he added, “really takes all of us.”