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‘These conversations are not comfortable’ — How colleges can address racial inequality

Months after Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, became the center of a national debate on race, education and free speech, one woman is working to build a more inclusive culture there.

In the spring of 2017, the small liberal arts school was hosting its annual “Day of Absence” event, which encourages students and faculty of color to voluntarily leave campus and engage in conversations about racial justice and inequality. But organizers changed the event to encourage white people to leave campus, while staff and students and color would remain behind. Their idea turned a tradition that usually involved about 200 people into a nationwide flashpoint of the country’s civil and political divides.

Professor Bret Weinstein, a white man, was an outspoken critic of the change, writing an all-staff email in which he called the event “a show of force, and an act of oppression” while encouraging a boycott. Frustrated students protested his remarks and demanded he resign as a viral video of a confrontation between them emerged.

Then students and faculty of color started getting threats of violence in racist emails. In June, a caller to the school threatened a mass shooting, provoking the university to hold its graduation ceremony off-campus. And two weeks later a right-wing group held an event it promoted as a “free speech” rally at the school to oppose what it called a culture of “political correctness.”

Weinstein and his wife Heather Heying, a chemistry professor, filed a lawsuit against the university in August. The next month, both resigned as part of a settlement for $500,000.

In June, Evergreen hired Chassity Holliman-Douglas, its first Vice President and Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion.

Holliman-Douglas spoke with the NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano about her role, the roots of racial tension on college campuses, how predominantly white institutions can work to support all students and what Evergreen is doing nearly a year after the events.

In your new position, what are your priorities going into this year, especially in the light of the events of last spring?

I’m auditing what we are currently doing in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion so that we can see where the gaps are. I want to learn from students, faculty and staff about their experiences here at Evergreen, and how I can build programs and initiatives to meet their needs. And then looking at the infrastructure.

For those who don’t understand what it’s like to come to a mostly white campus as a member of a historically marginalized group, can you paint the picture of what that experience is like?

You can feel like a fish out of a pond, coming onto a campus that’s predominantly white. Not being able to see yourself in the classroom or not being able to see yourself with your peers. Second-guessing yourself a lot, feeling like you really shouldn’t be there. What we call imposter syndrome — you know, not being able to learn what you feel is important to your own culture. These are just a few of the things that marginalized students experience when they come to a predominantly white institution. And so that’s why it’s so important in roles such as this that I’m able to create these strategies that stretch across our institution to where we can build a more culturally engaging campus environment. That’s what I see as my number-one priority.

Positions like yours are popping up at universities and colleges all over the nation. Why do you think that is?

I think that’s speaking to the need of where we are currently across the nation. I think we can all agree that we are in a place where diversity is increasing across the nation. Research is saying that the number of people of color is increasing. And so we have to answer that need. Our institutions are not looking the same way they looked ten years ago or even five years ago. And so how are we preparing ourselves to be able to meet the needs of this new population of students?

What are these institutions not offering students of color?

We’ve seen increasing access for students of color and for students from marginalized groups. But institutions of higher education, we’re still struggling with, how do we keep them there? How do we provide them with the tools and experiences that they need to be successful? That’s something that we’re still grappling with. Even here at Evergreen, you know, one thing that we’re really focusing on is retention. Students’ confidence, you know? Being able to be confident in knowing that what you’re learning right now will apply to the career that you’re trying to achieve, or the graduate degree that you’re trying to achieve.

I can imagine that some of our viewers who aren’t part of historically marginalized groups might say, “Well, I felt that way in college. I didn’t necessarily feel confident. Or, you know, I felt like a fish out of water.” What is the difference that you’re speaking to?

As a marginalized student, you’re showing up to a place that wasn’t created for you. When higher institutions were created, they weren’t created with students of color in mind. And so that’s why it’s so much more important that we are as intentional as possible in trying to right that wrong, and trying to create these spaces where students can thrive. All of our students.

Can you break down the term ‘microaggression’ and how it relates to this conversation?

Most of the time when we think about racism, we think about overt racism. We think about all of the various groups, the KKK and the burning of the crosses. That’s what comes to our mind. But racism is still alive and well and it’s also covert. And so I like to [describe] microaggressions as covert. It’s those subtle slights that happen where you kind of second-guess, ‘Did that really just happen? Did they really just say that to me?’

I can remember working with a student in one of my previous institutions and there was a news report of an African-American male that robbed a white student at gunpoint. And so when this student showed up for class the next day, their white peers asked them, ‘Was that you on the news last night?’ And it was meant to be a joke even, but it still stung.

I think about intent versus impact. Their intent was not to demean him. But it did. And it really had an impact. And it’s even, you know, faculty and staff, when we may second-guess a student’s abilities and we don’t realize that it may be coming from an unconscious place of what we may think about a certain group of people.

How do you foster spaces that are safe enough to grapple with these issues, where everybody feels comfortable sharing their opinions?

So how do you create these spaces to have these conversations? That’s the thing. I think you start by acknowledging that these conversations are not comfortable. We don’t call them comfortable conversations. We call them courageous conversations. And so establishing those ground rules of how we are going to conduct ourselves in this space, in this dialogue. Thinking about how we’re going to respect each other, you know?

Oftentimes when we’re having these difficult conversations, we’re listening. But we’re trying to think, ‘How am I going to respond?’ We should really be thinking about listening to understand what that other person is saying. And so establishing those guidelines at the very beginning, that’s very important for trying to create the environment where we do feel free in sharing information.

How would you respond to people who call this conversation “political correctness”?

We are providing equitable education, which is access to education for everyone that enters through the doors of Evergreen. That’s what our goal is. Our goal is to be able to help to remove whatever barriers may be there. Structural barriers, institutional barriers. But helping to remove those barriers so that people have equal access to a good education.

Ivette Feliciano and Zachary Green contributed reporting.