Thursday, January 8, 2015

Difficult times require difficult conversations

by Stephanie Waterman, Associate Professor at the University of Rochester

Don’t shoot

On my way to teach class on November 11, 2014, I passed a group of students protesting the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. I was concerned for the students’ safety on a wet, very dark, and cold evening. I went to class with worry.

Tuesday nights last fall semester I taught College Access and (In)equity for graduate students in our higher education program. This class was a mix of master’s and doctoral students, with one teaching and curriculum doctoral student. On this night, I devoted the entire class time to discuss “Ferguson.” I felt the class would need to process the grand jury’s decision and its implications. Students were troubled, the room somber. As we all work with college students, and higher education administration and staff, I felt it absolutely necessary to discuss what happened. We cannot ignore what’s happening outside the ivory tower. To do so ignores populations of students and communities that most of our institutions claim to support. Our higher education students work with the college population who were outside protesting. Their students will have questions; they may want to process with us. Their colleagues in offices such as residence life, Greek life, and in academic support may also want to process. I felt it would have been a disservice not to address the issues. If our mission is social justice, equality, and other high moral values, then we absolutely have to address issues of race and injustice.

Over the course of the semester in this class we discussed communities like Ferguson with regard to educational access, resources, and college attendance. We viewed a video produced by Rochester City School District students that depicts a community very similar to that described in And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City Students, a distressed community near Los Angeles. These very similar communities are thousands of miles apart, yet, one is in the neighborhood of our institution. What happened in Ferguson very much impacts college access.

I took the theory-as-tool approach as a framework for our discussion. To prepare for our discussion I constructed a PowerPoint to introduce Critical Race Theory (Tate, 1997), and the concepts of privilege and power by Allan Johnson (2005).  I also introduced the intentional stereotyping and image management of African Americans as noted in the film, Ethnic Notions. As conveyed in the film after emancipation when freed Blacks began to compete for jobs, Black Face, Vaudeville, and comics were ways to enforce stereotypes to prevent integration into communities and the economy. Shown as feeble or dangerous, these images infused stereotypes into the common knowledge of society. We then explored websites that provided background information. For example, the Mapping Decline website (, school district data, and social disparity maps (see Racial issues are complex; they do not happen overnight and are connected with troubling policies that encouraged White flight. In addition, I shared counterstories of Native American men who are no longer with us because they were “killed while brown.” I shared the Missing or Murdered Indigenous Women website ( These counterstories were not shared to compete for which group suffers the most, but to underscore the endemic racism in the United States that affects all of us.

In the 1990s there was a tense political situation in New York State over Native American land claims. A vigilante group had formed who expressed an intent to burn down the homes of Oneidas. If someone was going to join the vigilante group, they were unlikely to first ask which homes were Oneida homes. I have had many a Black male student (professional, graduate student, or both) tell me they were stopped “while driving Black” to and from my class. Or stopped in the library when they were not professionally dressed. Or both Black men and women asked for help in the cafeteria because non-Black students thought they were cafeteria workers and not students. When stereotypes frame action, credentials and details (like race) are ignored.

The conversation on November 11th was not easy; it should not have been—it was absolutely necessary and necessary to discuss for however long it took. The point was not to determine who was right or wrong, who-said-what-and-why, but to use information and tools to help us process, to use theory to help that process, and to model and practice discussing a timely and difficult topic. Students commented that we have issues because we do not talk about race, and that in a class earlier in the evening the jury’s decision was not discussed. They termed it the “elephant in the room.”

I can’t breathe

On December 3, 2014, a decision was made not to indict the officer who killed Eric Gardner.

We devote time and resources to issues that matter, to issues that we value. When these issues are not discussed in the classroom messages are conveyed that certain topics—and the people connected to those topics—are not valued. As a faculty of color it is not my sole responsibility to address issues of race. Did I do a good job with our discussion on November 11th? I don’t really know. All I know is that I had to, because it matters.

Black lives matter
Oppressed lives matter
All lives matter

Corwin, M.  (2001). And still we rise: The trials and triumphs of twelve gifted inner-city students.  New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Johnson, A. G. (2005). Privilege, power, and difference (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Riggs, M. (Director) (1987). Ethnic notions. Berkeley, CA: California Newsreel.

Tate IV, W. F. (1997).  Critical race theory and education: History, theory, and implications. Review of Research in Education, 22, 195-247.

1 comment:

  1. Professor Waterman, You are at the beginning of my research to understand how to broach the conversation of race in America and actions in New York and explore how it impacts students on my two-year community college campus. Thank you for sharing your experience. Not being a faculty of color, does not absolve me from NOT speaking about it. Because as you have stated, "all I know is I have to, because it matters".