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Symposium examines race, educational inequality

Speakers present on colorblindness, schools as common settings for racial struggles

“What is to be done to slay the dragon of modern racism?” asked Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, professor of sociology at Duke University and one of the many academics who spoke Friday at “Race Today: A Symposium on Race in America.”

The event, organized by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, aimed to “deepen our understanding of this question of race on Brown’s campus by inviting some of the best scholars of the country to discuss it openly,” said Anthony Bogues, director of the CSSJ.

Seven speakers presented their work on a variety of topics, including whiteness, educational inequality and intersectionality.

When planning the event, “We said to ourselves, ‘If we want to think about contemporary racial discrimination and inequality … who would we want to hear from?’” said Tricia Rose, director of the CSREA. The event gradually took the form of a day-long symposium “as a way of talking about (these issues) from a variety of different disciplines,” she added.

Bonilla-Silva addressed the concept of colorblindness — defined as the indifference to race when selecting participants for activities or positions — with regard to race relations in the United States.

“The new order, I believe, is blurring racial lines, empowering ordinary whites as agents of racial discipline,” he said, adding that even white individuals not in positions of power can perpetuate racial divides by “patrolling their neighborhoods and streets to make sure they are mostly white … by profiling black and brown people in stores, on the streets … and finally, but not exclusively, by police brutality.”

“Colorblindness helps us define racial equality as symmetrical treatment,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, who spoke about intersectional issues of race in her lecture entitled “Race, Gender, Inequality and Intersectionality.”

“To be colorblind as a response to race and racism, you have to boil down racism to decisions on the basis of race … you have to have a static definition of race, framed as skin color,” she added.

Crenshaw said color-blindness has historically been used in the context of law to denounce policies such as affirmative action as preferential treatment. She added that the idea behind affirmative action directly contrasts the idea behind color-blindness.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir, associate professor of African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, drew connections between affirmative action and racial divides in her talk entitled “The Culture of Educational Equality.”

“Schools are longstanding sites of racial struggle,” as they “both reproduce inequality and also disrupt it,” Nasir said. She added that she primarily researches how culture, stratification and identity play into students’ learning and educational outcomes.

A growing emphasis on the three interrelated phenomenons of neo-liberalism and marketization, color-blindness and meritocracy has led to greater segregation and inequality in an increasingly diverse world, Nasir said. “These three trends deeply inform one another,” she added. “They open up certain learning pathways to students and close others.”

Rose said she was thrilled with both the volume and diversity of the audience. She added that she and Bogues were very pleased with the speaker selection, describing the group as a “dream team” of academics from across the country.

“These are scholars who are doing some of the best work in race studies today,” said Leila Blatt ’15, an Africana studies concentrator, adding that she was really impressed with the number of attendees.

“I’m not surprised about the turnout,” Bogues said. “There’s something in the air. … People want to grapple with and have conversations about” race, he added.

“I’ve been interested in learning about how discrimination exists at Brown and (the Rhode Island School of Design) today for a while now,” said Soo Joo, a sophomore at RISD. Joo said classes she has taken at Brown and the symposium made her “think about how even in such elite and liberal and multicultural institutes of higher education, discrimination still exists in the form of sexism, racism” and judgments based on sexual orientation.

“I hope that this momentum that’s happening right now where students are thinking about race and racial issues kind of builds and provides a greater platform for the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and for the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice,” Blatt said.

Blatt added that she wishes events similar to the symposium happened more frequently. “Often issues of racial formation in the 21st century are set aside to the margins of academia … and I think there’s still a significant portion of Brown (students) who think that conversations like this aren’t relevant to them,” she said.

For Joo, the next step is to consider how she can act on what she learned at the symposium. “If we focus on not just talking about it, but also finding ways to address these issues in our own communities, I think that would be an ideal goal.”


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