Higher Education’s Role in Promoting Racial Healing and the Power of Wonder

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

A Statement from David Everett, Tia Brown McNair, Lynn Pasquerella, and Jane Turk 

As protests erupt across the country and around the world demanding justice for George Floyd, a black man who was killed while in Minneapolis police custody, higher education must play a leadership role in addressing the issues at their center—racism and white supremacy. The devastating video that shows Mr. Floyd pleading for his life follows high-profile news reports of the killing of Breonna Taylor, a young black woman who was shot in bed by Louisville police engaged in a botched search for a drug suspect; the killing of African American Ahmaud Arbery, who was chased down while jogging and shot by two white men, while a third videotaped the scene in Georgia; and the case of birdwatcher Christian Cooper, who was told by a white woman in Central Park that she would call the police and tell them that an African American man was threatening her after he had asked her to comply with the law and leash her dog.

Each of these incidents unfolded against the backdrop of a nation reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. The disparate health and economic impacts of the virus on communities of color further signal the need to address persistent racial inequities. Yet, as Roxane Gay writes in a recent commentary for the New York Times about the public spectacle of black death and the weaponizing of whiteness: 

Eventually doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine, but black people will continue to wait, despite the futility of hope, for a cure for racism. We will live with the knowledge that a hashtag is not a cure for white supremacy…. The rest of the world yearns to get back to normal. For black people, normal is the very thing from which we yearn to be free.   

The question of how higher education can prevent a return to normal and destabilize structural racism has been at the center of AAC&U’s Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) initiative. Launched in 2016 in partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, TRHT seeks to heal our communities and jettison the belief in a hierarchy of human value.

Since the inception of the initiative, twenty-four colleges and universities have been selected to host campus centers aimed at developing and implementing visionary action plans to promote narrative change, racial healing, and relationship building by confronting the legacies of the past in promoting a more equitable future. Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, was one of TRHT’s ten inaugural sites, responding to AAC&U’s call to step up and lead for equity by creating a paradigm shift in how Americans think about race. The insights of TRHT campus leaders from Hamline are more critical than ever, for now is the time that all colleges and universities must stand together with the communities most directly affected by racial inequity. Redressing past and present injustices mandates aligning our expertise as teachers, scholars, researchers, and artists in order to ensure that we never get back to normal. 

Here is how two of our colleagues are looking to the future with these shared objectives in mind. 

What Do You See?
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. 
—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison’s stirring novel follows the coming of age journey of a young black man in search of personal power, reflecting on his position in society and wandering through moments of deliberation and development as he drifts from encounter to encounter—some intense, others comical, and a few somewhat sad. Again and again, we find this young man questioning his very existence based solely on how he is perceived, received, and deceived by the individuals and institutions he encounters while traveling from the segregated American South to Harlem, New York. Invisible Man took aim at the complex social, psychological, and political assumptions, beliefs, and practices of those in power to relegate America’s black population to an inferior category of citizenry through forces seen and unseen.

Fast forward to now. Amid the nationwide protests spurred by the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minnesota, Ellison’s portrayal resonates with me as a black man in Minnesota, in institutions, in society. I am invisible. Some may criticize the riots that are occurring, and rightfully so; I do not condone the actions and behaviors that have taken place during the evening hours across America. But I also get the fact that, all of a sudden, black people’s fight and plight have become visible.

Tell me, how should I feel when greeted upon entering a store while wearing a suit and tie, but followed when my fraternal brands and familial tattoos are visible? How should I feel when treated as a knowledgeable professional when my titles and credentials are known, but microassaulted/aggressed when they aren’t? How should black people feel when we’ve tried in every way—through nonviolence, marches, sit-ins, protests, petitions, workshops, trainings, courageous conversations, safe spaces, brave spaces, healing circles, restorative practices—to bring attention to the oppressive, stifling, and traumatic experiences we’re constantly subjected to, and NOTHING changes?!

I believe anger can be a moral and ethical response to injustice; however, it cannot and should not lead to further harm and injury. Instead of focusing on who or what we may deem to be right, I suggest a shift to recognizing what may in fact be righteous. Righteous indignation goes beyond racial lines and posits itself in the womb of humanity. For human beings, did not four little girls dying from a church bomb cause righteous indignation? Similarly, for a nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, should not men continuing to die at the hands and knees of police cause righteous indignation? 

Black America is angry, and we are TIRED. For those who harbor racist ideology, those who are complicit through silence, and those who choose to be blind or indifferent to the struggles, experiences, and hurt caused by individuals and institutions in this country, I leave you with these words from Ralph Ellison:

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a biochemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.

And I implore you, please start to see. 

Things Are Difficult, I’m Turning to Wonder
When things get difficult, turn to wonder. If you find yourself disagreeing with another, becoming judgmental, shutting down in defense, try turning to wonder: 

“I wonder what brought her to this place?” 
“I wonder what my reaction teaches me?” 
“I wonder what he’s feeling right now?”
—Estrus Tucker

I am a white woman. I have made my career by teaching and learning in various roles in higher education. I am a mother. I was born and raised in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, where George Floyd lived. I am now a St. Paulite. Today, I am worried about my community, my state, and our country. I am feeling a collision of deep sadness, anger, unreality, and déjà vu. Surprise is not on that list. Deadly force against black people, indigenous people, and people of color has been a brutal and constant current running through our country’s collective memory since its inception, too often pushed aside. 

Relationships move at the speed of trust, and trust requires empathy. We all must commit to seeing ourselves in one another, while centering the truth of the pervasive and deeply rooted inequities in our systems. The aspects of our identities that are visible to others, particularly the color of our skin, unequivocally shape our experiences in the world. White people must understand that our narratives about ourselves often work because we white out the experiences and humanity of people of color, particularly black people, rendering them automatically absent or aberrant if they do not conform to our understanding of “the way things should be.” I wonder how fatally the choice to minimize the loss of people of color time and time again has wounded our progress toward a better future.

My own memories carry traces of the violence against unarmed black men in places familiar to me. My husband and I were driving back to St. Paul from our three-month-old daughter’s very first visit with family in St. Louis on the night of the Ferguson uprising after police killed Michael Brown. Every Tuesday, I drive to get take-and-bake pizza for dinner and pass by the community-created memorial at the spot on Larpenteur Avenue where police killed Philando Castile. Now, I’ve seen the Twin Cities on fire on the national news and watched Jamar Clark’s father, standing in front of a burning building, asked to comment on another black man’s death from the experience of losing his own son at the hands of police. I’ve seen the unbelievable wreckage in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, two miles down University Avenue from my home, after police killed George Floyd. My apartment in St. Paul was quiet through the curfew nights, save for the occasional helicopter flying over. Streets elsewhere in Minneapolis and St. Paul were anything but quiet, teeming with fire, unrest, pain, and fear. 

I wonder how long I could bear it if, just one more time, a system that had harmed me and my family for centuries told me that the murder of a person I loved did not warrant immediate action. I wonder what I would do when the violent end to their life was broadcast publicly from multiple camera angles, and even then I was told that my loss could at best be seen by others as third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

I moved on from Hamline University in March to become director of member engagement at Iowa & Minnesota Campus Compact, supporting civic and community engagement at our member campuses across the two states. Building capacity for partnership and dialogue on and beyond campus is core to our mission. As I have learned from the wise mentors and generous colleagues I’ve met from across the nation through TRHT Campus Center work, turning to wonder can open up the kind of empathetic imagination necessary to build understanding of experiences different from your own. 

I saw a picture a few days ago of protesters on the Hiawatha Bridge in Minneapolis meeting National Guard members called in after several nights of blazing pain in the Twin Cities. I can imagine my former students on either side of the image: a dedicated activist serving their community by marching to help bend the long arc of history toward justice and a dedicated National Guard member serving their state by holding the line after two nights of mounting devastation. I felt a mixture of heartbreak and concern. I know what brought them to this place. I wonder what they might have said to each other during a table conversation in a class they took together or as they crossed paths with each other walking on campus. I wonder if any of it made a difference, and I wonder how anything else could. My reaction reminds me that we cannot go back to the way things were, and that we must confront past harm in the work that comes next. It has never been more urgent to wonder how I—how we all—can learn to do better.

A Time for Action 
Our individual and collective efforts as higher education leaders must include specific actions for eliminating racism. We have a responsibility to speak the truth that racism exists at our institutions and in our communities. We have a responsibility to listen to our students, our colleagues, and our community partners when they are ready to share their truth. We have a responsibility to act and to not stand silent. 

Preparation to address structural and systemic racism must be recognized as a core concern of a liberal education. We must seek to educate all our students about the historical, structural, and political contexts that have fueled systemic racism and created the environments in which these injustices can occur. As advocates for the contemporary liberal education “all students need for success in an uncertain future and for addressing the compelling issues we face as a democracy and as a global community,” we must ask where and how are we falling short.  

On June 1, Congresswoman Barbara Lee introduced legislation calling for the formation of a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission to address the legacy of slavery and racism in the United States. This is a necessary first step, along with many others, in our shared efforts for racial healing and transformation. As individuals with personal reasons for engaging in the work of TRHT, we collectively agree that change cannot occur until everyone engages in the process. In thinking about the power of wonder, how many of you reading this piece will stand with us and say, “Eliminating racism is our fight. It is time for change, and I won’t opt out.” We wonder.   

David Everett is Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence at Hamline University; Tia Brown McNair is Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Student Success and Executive Director for the TRHT Campus Centers at the Association of American Colleges and Universities; Lynn Pasquerella is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities; and Jane Turk is Director of Member Engagement and Minnesota Operations for Iowa & Minnesota Campus Compact.