Brandeisians come together to face systemic racism

A woman holds up a Black Lives Matter sign at the foot of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial statue in Washington.PHOTO/OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

Demonstrators raise signs as they gather at The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to protest the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis, in Washington, DC, on June 4, 2020.

More than 700 members of the Brandeis community came together virtually on June 2 for a Zoom conversation about facing systemic racism.

The event enabled Brandeisians “to connect, reflect and challenge ourselves to directly engage the topic of systemic racism to ensure that the lived experience of Brandeis University reflects our deepest values of diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Mark Brimhall-Vargas, Brandeis’ Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, who moderated the discussion, in an earlier email to the community following the killing of George Floyd.

After an 8 minute, 46-second moment of silence in memory of Mr. Floyd, Brimhall-Vargas, President Ron Liebowitz, Rabbi Seth Winberg and Dean of Students Jamele Adams made opening remarks. Participants — including Brandeis students, faculty, staff and alumni — then shared their perspectives, feelings and resources for change.

Several Black students and staff members described how exhausted they feel because of the burden of racism, and that they must compartmentalize their feelings to get through the day as they try to study and work. Another Black student shared that she hadn’t felt so deeply affected by racism until the latest incidents, which have left her feeling drained and fearful for her safety.

Two international students from different African nations shared their perspectives, including one student who hadn’t understood the extent of racism in America until now, and expressed feeling unsafe given his limited understanding of the U.S. criminal justice system and his lack of rights as a non-U.S. citizen.

Multiple students called attention to the vague language being used around the Movement for Black Lives, and a refusal to name actions as racist, and more specifically, anti-Black. A white student pointed out that being on the call is not enough to combat white silence, and that white people need to be active allies in combating racism and white supremacy. Theater Professor Jen Cleary recommended white members of the community read the book, “White Fragility.”

Several commenters addressed the need for action more than words, and pointed to more widespread education as the foundation for meaningful change.

Many Black students said Brandeis needs to do more to make them feel included and welcome on campus, and that they feel held to different behavioral standards than white students. While witnessing the recent protests across the country, some students were critical of Brandeis’ protest policies, and pointed out a related lack of support for black student organizations. Kwesi Jones, co-president of the Brandeis Black Students Organization, stressed the importance of more broadly sharing Brandeis’ history of Black student protests, including the occupations of Ford Hall in 1969 and 2015, and suggested Orientation as a potential venue for doing so.

Another student suggested that there be a more uniform platform for the Brandeis community to share resources, such as jobs and funding sources, to ensure equitable access to opportunities for students of all backgrounds. She noted that white privilege can extend to networking when people of color do not have access to the same networks to learn about jobs and other employment opportunities.

Maria Madison, associate dean for equity, inclusion and diversity at the Heller School, noting the large number of Brandeis community members on the call, also challenged attendees to take action. “Think of one action you can do as an individual to help make Brandeis an anti-racist institution. How can we create educational moments? Who can we reach out to?” she asked.

Categories: Alumni, Humanities and Social Sciences, Student Life

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