By Shane Donglasan
How does the language of racism and intolerance function in America’s current social and political climate? That’s the question a panel of speakers attempted to address Feb. 21 during a Black History Month event at New College of Florida. The Boxser Diversity Initiative, a Sarasota-based nonprofit that encourages a better understanding of diverse groups related to race, religion and gender identity, presented the sold-out event at the Mildred Sainer Auditorium.
Charles E. Williams, chief judge of the 12th Circuit Court encompassing DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties, moderated the panel, which brought three notable speakers — Ladee Hubbard, Timothy Patrick McCarthy and Michael P. Jeffries — together from around the country to discuss the topic.
Hubbard is a novelist who lectures at Tulane University. Her debut book, “The Talented Ribkins” received the 2018 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. McCarthy is core faculty and director of the Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. He also served as a founding member of former President Barack Obama’s National LGBT Leadership Council. Jeffries teaches courses on American popular culture and the politics of race and ethnicity at Wellesley College, and his writings have appeared in both academic and popular outlets including The Atlantic and The Guardian.
The panelists touched on numerous issues such as subtle and overt racist language, gender pronouns, protesting controversial speakers on college campuses and recent issues surrounding blackface by sharing their academic expertise as well as personal anecdotes.
One question from an audience member explored some of issues that come up when discussing race and the concern of being called a racist.
“I think we are constantly figuring out how to have conversations about racism despite the discomfort and trepidation of saying something wrong,” Jeffries said. “The way I teach it is you can’t possibly understand what racism is if you’re going to reduce it to an individual act. Racism is embedded in our institutions. We have laws that discriminate and violate certain groups of people, so the individualism of racism is something that we need to address when it comes up but move toward a more collective and institutional conversation about it.”
Another question from a Booker High School teacher addressed how she can fight for justice for her students while avoid being political in the classroom.
“As a historian, I look to history to do the political work, and have my students investigate what has actually happened in the past,” McCarthy said. “History gets to the root of things. Also, to perform neutrality and to pretend you have no politics is a politics of its own. That has gotten us into a lot of trouble. As educators, we should be able to articulate our value systems. The goal of teaching is to open minds and part of that is to be open and transparent.”
Before “The Language of Racism and Tolerance” panel discussion began, guests enjoyed a reception featuring food trucks and music from the New College New Cats jazz band and Booker High School’s Jet Stream choir.
New College’s Black History Month programming on conversations about race continues with the Black Literature Read-In featuring Wes Bellamy on Feb. 28. Get more information here.
— Shane Donglasan is the marketing writer/project coordinator at New College of Florida.