Do you have to be a person of color to be offended by a racial epithet?
No, according to Alexandra Polymeropoulos, a junior at the University of Mary Washington. During a lively discussion Wednesday evening in a session of UMW’s U.S. Race & Reality Forum, Polymeropoulos said she is riled every time she hears such language. And, she added, being white makes it hard to convince peers of how much it bothers her.
You have to build up “a wall of steel,” offered classmate Andrew Schneidawind, one of more than 150 Mary Washington students who enrolled in the course.
Candor, frustration, hopefulness, ardor – all were on display during a Zoom session of this specially designed eight-week, one-credit race forum, which was sparked by the murder in late May of George Floyd.
The sessions featured UMW faculty and staff, as well as speakers from outside the university. “We wanted to offer some conventional academic knowledge, but also make it possible for students to hear directly from individuals involved in making change,” said one of the co-facilitators, Associate Professor of Anthropology Jason James. “A great example of this was a session focused on policing and incarceration.”
Speakers for that session were Bridget Brew, a UMW sociology professor who teaches about crime and incarceration, and Christopher Rashad Green, a formerly incarcerated person who is now an advocate and community organizer. “I think the students benefited greatly from both perspectives,” James said.
An overview of the course describes it as being designed to help educate students on social justice issues, the goal being that they become allies or advocates for the Black community and other marginalized citizens. Knowing how sensitive these topics could be, the facilitators made sure the course followed UMW’s ASPIRE Speak guidelines, advising students to be open minded and respectful of other opinions.
Wednesday’s penultimate session featured several Mary Washington Cabinet members – Provost Nina Mikhalevsky, Vice President for Equity and Access Sabrina Johnson and Vice President for Student Affairs Juliette Landphair – as well as Brianna “Breezy” Reaves, president of UMW’s NAACP chapter.
Reaves discussed the importance of “allyship” and teaching others how to be activists. She said many people reported buy-in to the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder.
“They posted a dark square on social media on Blackout Tuesday and went to some protests,” Reaves said. “But where’s the in-depth commitment to equity and inclusion?
“Stop standing on the sidelines. Stop talking,” she implored. “Do the work!”
Polymeropoulos agrees. “Don’t stop fighting when things appear to be better.” Even with two jobs and a full course load this semester, she said she was inspired to enroll in the forum because of the protests in Fredericksburg this summer.
Junior Quinn Lipetz said: “Given the escalation of racial tension within our country, even in the city of Fredericksburg and on our campus, I saw this class as an opportunity to learn more about race and racism and how to approach the topic in everyday life.”
He added, “The class has provided valuable reading resources, opportunities to converse with peers and knowledge from social justice leaders.”
Topics, developed by James and his co-facilitator, College of Business Assistant Professor Kim Gower, included common myths about race, privilege and fragility, Confederate monuments and identity, and policing and incarceration.
Students in Wednesday’s class questioned administrators on a number of issues, including the lack of diversity among UMW faculty. Mikhalevsky acknowledged the problem, explaining that systemic racism starts early, often resulting in a limited pool of Black faculty candidates.
“Everything you’ve been studying this semester is playing itself out at UMW,” she said. “And – unfortunately – there’s no silver bullet.”
James said that developing a new and innovative course under a tight deadline was both challenging and rewarding. Gower, who hadn’t previously worked with James, said, “I just wish I could hug him because we both poured our hearts and souls into this.”