Race Matters tackles discrimination

Project increases dialogue surrounding tough issues

DANIEL BYNUM/MANITOU MESSENGER

Do those Race Matters posters outside Stav Hall make students uncomfortable? The ones featuring students’ faces with words spelling out “racism,” “prejudice” and “white guilt” across their faces?

The posters are meant to cause discomfort. At the very least, they are meant to increase awareness on campus, which is one of the initiatives of the Race Matters campaign. The campaign is spearheaded by the senior sociology/anthropology majors as part of their senior capstone project. When asked how they wanted to integrate their four years at St. Olaf into a project, the class of more than 30 students responded unanimously with the idea for a campaign surrounding racial issues on campus.

“The goal of this campaign is to initiate conversations about issues of race and racism,” Hilary Zander ’13 said. “In part, it’s related to recent campus events, as well as the lack of administrative initiative we have seen.”

The campaign took place in two parts. The first phase occurred on Thursday, April 11 in Buntrock Commons during community time. Members of the Race Matters campaign displayed their posters – with original stories photoshopped onto their faces – on the wall near the main stairwell in Buntrock.

During this time, some students, staff and faculty had “Race Matters” or “Hate Racism” written on their faces by campaign members. Others took photos while holding signs displaying the slogans or a similarly worded phrase. Members of the Race Matters campaign have displayed these photos – along with the official posters – in a collage on the second floor of Buntrock Commons and on Facebook.

The Race Matters campaign was inspired by the Un-Fair campaign in Duluth, Minn., an anti-racism effort focused on the role white people could play in addressing racial disparities in Duluth. The senior sociology/ anthropology majors decided to modify the Un-Fair campaign to fit the St. Olaf community.

“We didn’t want to focus just on white privilege or racism, as we found it isolated certain groups of people,” Justine Frederick ’13 said. “The idea was to make a project where everyone has something to say.”

The second phase of the Race Matters campaign was a discussion panel held on the evening of Monday, April 15. Students packed the Buntrock ballrooms to hear professors from many disciplines speak on racism. From Assistant Professor of Sociology Theodore Thornhill to Instructor in Education Sarah Swan McDonald, faculty and staff came together to illustrate the idea that race transcends curriculum.

The panel began with a clarification of certain terms decided upon by the sociology/anthropology majors, such as “colorblind racism,” “systematic and institutionalized racism” and “white privilege.” After professors described their backgrounds and personal investment in the ideas of the Race Matters campaign, moderator Shelby Ferreira ’13 alternated between prepared questions and those asked by audience members.

Topics traced the trends of racism through history at St. Olaf. Some panel members, including Assistant Professor of English Joan Hepburn, provided a long-term perspective on campus life.

“Enthusiasm for issues surrounding race and ethnic studies has waxed and waned over time,” Hepburn said.

Other questions made it clear that students are eager to be involved in this process of addressing issues of race on campus.

“What can I do?” came the echo from the student body.

Many professors reiterated the power of student voice in effecting change. Bruce King, assistant to the president for institutional diversity, said, “The college responds to student needs.”

Assistant Professor of English Jonathan Naito reminded students that they “have the power in a tuition-based institution.”

Naito also noted that students leave a legacy in their short time at St. Olaf. For better or worse, he said, we are marked by what happens at our college. Breakout session after the panel, primarily led by sociology/anthropology majors, discussed certain areas of racial inequality on campus.

“The point,” Zander said, “was to get deeper into conversation with what has been happening on campus.”

The faculty on the panel reiterated this idea, encouraging students to continue dialogues with one another.

As spring semester winds down, the honest dialogue concerning racism on the St. Olaf campus continues. The group will leave the posters up after the campaign has ended as a reminder that these issues affect everyone at St. Olaf.

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