“Community Conversation” discusses role of colleges in racial crisis

A panel of faculty members and Wheaton staff hosted the first of several “Community Conversations” on Sept. 27 in Mary Lyon. The panel discussion, “The Role of Colleges in Times of National Racial Crisis”, was created as a reaction to some of the racially charged national incidents covered by the media recently.

The panelists included Associate Provost and Associate Professor of English and African, African American & Diaspora Studies Shawn Christian, Chair and Associate Professor of Psychology and African, African American, & Diaspora Studies Peony Fhagen, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Kate Kenny, William and Elise Prentice Professor of Biology Bob Morris, and Provost Renee White.

The goal of the gathering was to engage with and respond to racially divisive issues that have occurred in the country lately. “Being here tonight isn’t going to stop this, but it can empower us to push back and resist,” said Professor Christian.

The panelists started by defining several terms used frequently in the national dialogue about these issues, as they believe that words and how we use them is important. They involved the audience in creating a common understanding involving words such as implicit bias, protest, civil disobedience, racial profiling, community policing and others.

The discussion then moved toward a conversation on how what occurs at Wheaton reflects the issues presented by wider society. Students across the country at colleges have been protesting issues such as a lack of student and faculty diversity, lack of a welcoming campus culture, the need for teaching cultural competency to faculty and little commitment to graduating minority students. The panelists discussed how different institutions have attempted to respond to these issues, pointing out some of the successes and failures attempted by other colleges.

Wheaton has experienced several challenges related to racial diversity. One of those challenges has been the vandalism that occurred last year in the Meadows dorm and a few years ago at Jewish Life House. It was also mentioned that students experience both implicit bias on campus, and explicit bias in the town of Norton. Lastly, the panelists said that Wheaton has previously emphasized a colorblind approach to issues of racial diversity, which can sometimes exacerbate these issues rather than help solve them.

The panel then opened up the discussion to attendees, asking them what they think diversity looks like or should look like, specifically in a Wheaton context. They questioned if diversity in a college context could simply be based on race, or if it should have a broader definition. The panelists mentioned that diversity can begin in small ways, such as talking with new students and reaching out to people who are not like yourself.

Professor Morris stated that is has often been helpful to him as a white male professor when students speak up and direct him towards how to be more inclusive and open in the classroom. However, several students in the audience pointed out that this can be a difficult thing to do. Telling a professor who holds your grade in his hand that something he has done could be considered racist or sexist is incredibly intimidating, as several audience members pointed out.

The panelists emphasized that the healing process begins with students, faculty, and staff, and can begin even with a conversation such as the one held in Mary Lyon. Professor Morris stated, “If you don’t raise issues of race, you are also doing harm.” Dean Kate Kenny emphasized that silence is not the answer, and that those with power have an obligation to those without power. She said, “We hear you, and we want to hear from you.”