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Students pack UMass teach-in on racism

  • Britt Rusert, center right, speaks as other panelists Biko Caruthers, from left, Kiara Hill and Svati Shah listen during a panel discussion on racism and racial profiling, Tuesday, at the University of Massachusetts Student Union. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • With the Cape Cod Lounge at the University of Massachusetts Student Union filled to capacity, students listen from a hallway during a panel discussion on racism and racial profiling, Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Toussaint Losier, left, speaks as other panelists Bob Williams, from left, Olivia Ekeh, Lana Dever and Amilcar Shabazz listen during a panel discussion on racism and racial profiling, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018 at the University of Massachusetts Student Union. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A standing room only crowd packs the Cape Cod Room at the University of Massachusetts Student Union during a panel discussion on racism and racial profiling, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amilcar Shabazz, professor of history and Africana studies at the University of Massachusetts, speaks during a panel discussion on racism and racial profiling, Tuesday, at the Student Union. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Biko Caruthers, left, speaks as other panelists Kiara Hill, from left, Svati Shah and Britt Rusert listen during a panel discussion on racism and racial profiling, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018 at the University of Massachusetts Student Union. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • With the Cape Cod Lounge at the University of Massachusetts Student Union filled to capacity, students listen from a hallway during a panel discussion on racism and racial profiling, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Monday, October 08, 2018

AMHERST — Racist incidents have rattled the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus in recent weeks, resulting in a large campus protest and ongoing discussions about the legacy of bigotry on campus.

That momentum carried forward into Tuesday evening, when despite the relentless rain, people overflowed from a room in the Student Union, looking to take part in a teach-in about racism and racial profiling at the university.

“Come forward, don’t be scared,” Whitney Battle-Baptiste, the director of the W.E.B Du Bois Center, told the crowd packed into the Cape Cod Lounge — and those watching a stream of the event in an overflow room. “Because we’re going to get into it.”

Tuesday’s discussion came after several recent incidents have highlighted ongoing problems with racism on campus. Late last month, someone wrote a racist threat in the lobby bathroom of the freshman dorm Melville Hall. That was a little more than a week after somebody called the police on a black employee walking to work in the morning. In the wake of the most recent episode at Melville Hall, the university held a community forum and students rallied at the administration building last week.

“It is a long-standing problem,” Amilcar Shabazz, professor of history and Africana studies, said of racism at UMass Amherst and other college campuses. Shabazz remembered his own experiences at the University of Texas, where he and others protested fraternities who held mock slave auctions at their houses. “To be here now, 30-odd years later… I empathize.”

Shabazz also drew attention to two moments in relatively recent UMass Amherst history: the case of Jason Vassell, a student who was arrested after he said he defended himself from two white men racially abusing and violently assaulting him; and when, in 2007, a black graduate student showed up at a Halloween party to see someone dressed in blackface tell her, “I’m here as you.”

“It’s only through persistent, continuous struggle” that racism can be combated, Shabazz said. That means challenging racism when you see it, and finding ways to bring people together, he added. “We all have to be all-in on this.”

Shabazz was joined on stage by several other colleagues from the department of Afro-American studies. Olivia Ekeh, a doctoral candidate, spoke about her own research, which includes looking into mid-20th century black art like soul music.

“Everything doesn’t have to be Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’” Ekeh said in reference to the musician’s politically charged album. Art, in other words, can be a way of reaffirming black lives, or of reflecting everyday life. Going forward, Ekeh said, people should consider what quiet kinds of resistance and reaffirmation happen on campus.

Others on stage were louder in their calls to action, such as doctoral candidate Robert Williams, who drew attention to the fact that black and Latino students are underrepresented on the UMass Amherst campus.

“These are systemic problems,” he said, imploring students to lead administrators in the right direction toward systemic changes like free tuition on campus. “Go big or go home. Let’s get serious about this.”

As a beginning to that serious organizing work, professor Toussaint Losier made sure a sign-in sheet was circulating the room. He urged students to write down their contact information, so that they could know when the next meeting or event would take place.

“This is not a one-event type of thing, or even a one-year process,” Losier said.

After the first panel, the floor was opened up to questions. Several audience members questioned what could be done to change how the administration handles racist incidents on campus. Others, including a student from Melville Hall, expressed frustration with what the administration had done thus far.

Responding to someone asking how the fraternity and sorority community could take part in making change, Shabazz suggested ways to show solidarity with black students: wearing black at homecoming, for example, or taking a knee during the national anthem at the football game.

“Show that solidarity,” he said. “Show and prove that you want to be a community of dignity and mutual respect.”

In the night’s next panel, Svati Shah — a professor in the women, gender and sexuality studies department — said she hoped people of color looked back on this time in their lives and remembered the solidarity and organizing that came after the Melville incident.

“And not the pain of this attack,” Shah said. The night was about building that solidarity, and talking about theory as well as tactics, Shah added.

Britt Rusert, a professor in the Afro-American studies department, spoke about the normalization of increased police presence on campus. She asked how people on campus might push back against calls for more surveillance and policing, and encouraged people to think about what they’re doing if they’re calling the cops.

“Stop, pause, breathe and think about it for a minute,” she said. “Think about how will this call affect the person or parties that I’m calling about.”

Doctoral candidate Kiara Hill talked how, during this time, she has been thinking about her own students who are women of color.

“They still show up,” she said of those women, who are often find themselves scared and frustrated with racism on campus. “And not only do they show up, but they kick ass.”

Events like Tuesday’s teach-in are an “exercise in the endurance of the spirit,” doctoral candidate Biko Caruthers said in his talk about “Afro-pessimism.”

Several speakers spoke of the necessity of challenging racism when you see it, and of building a community to forge an anti-racist movement — “an orchestrated effort, an ongoing effort, to change the institution,” as professor Agustin Lao-Montes put it.

There was a sense of urgency and frustration when one student in the audience challenged an earlier comment that a panelist made about organizing a movement that goes beyond seeing your relationship with the university as just a customer.

The student said she is from out-of-state, and that her parents are working six days a week to pay for her schooling. She said she is scared, and deserves to question whether the university is providing adequate resources.

“Where is this administration?” she asked. “What are you going to do for me?”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.