January 21, 2013

Teach-In at Cornell on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Centers on Issues of Race

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In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Prof. Jane Bolgatz, education, Fordham University, challenged students to understand and stand up to institutionalized racism at a teach-in on campus Monday.

Speaking to a room full of students, Bolgatz asked why racism still exists, how it should be addressed, and what actions students can take to combat it.

Some students argued that although the attitude toward racism is changing, it is still a problem that must be addressed.

“I think racism still exists today a lot because of misinformation. We’re just ending that era of time, so I have hopes for the future and I think that we are moving in the right direction because people are thinking about [racism],” said Kendrick Coq ’15.

Bolgatz argued that racism as a social issue exists on both an individual and a societal level.

“In a lot of ways, [when] we think about racism, we think about personal prejudice … But there is also another layer when we say racism that is institutional. It is not just ‘I don’t like you,’ but there are actual structures in our society that make it so that some people are advantaged and some people are disadvantaged,” she said.

Throughout the workshop, students shared personal stories about their experiences with discrimination and their first encounters with racial differences. Bolgatz and other students specifically discussed instances known as “microaggressions,” which, according to Bolgatz, are seemingly innocent utterances that “feel little, but really kill you.”

Bolgatz compared combating racism to “running up the down escalator” because it requires constant effort in order to progress, causing many people to avoid the issue.

Bolgatz added avoidance can be intensified by a sense of guilt.

“White guilt is the best excuse for doing nothing about racism,” Bolgatz said.

Still, she offered students a number of strategies to use when confronted with racist or discriminatory behavior. She urged students to approach, acknowledge and build upon previous ideas discussed instead of trying to prove their peers wrong. In this way, Bolgatz said that conversations about racism can move forward while being more open, engaging and productive.

Bolgatz further urged students to be “strategic” in their responses to racism without reverting to guilt, confusion or discomfort.

“Racism is a smog. We can’t help but breathe it in, but it is our responsibility to work for change,” she said. “Frustration and guilt are good for about five seconds. It would be easy to wallow in frustration and be paralyzed by guilt, but don’t let yourself get stuck in them.”

Original Author: Lauren Avery