Author visits campus to speak about white racial identity

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On Wednesday evening, students listened to author Robin DiAngelo talk about white racial identity in the community and what it means to be inclusive of all members of society, no matter their ethnicity or class.

David Jones, an English professor at UW-Eau Claire and one of the university’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity fellows, spoke to DiAngelo via Skype last spring at the EDI retreat. She proposed a visit campus to speak to students as part of the Visiting Minority Scholars and Artists Program.

“We’re all socialized to have these identities, but I think that it may be the case that white students don’t have as many opportunities to talk about how their identities have an impact on their personal lives,” he said.

Jones said he hopes the talk, titled “What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy,” and the student workshop on Thursday open up this discussion and allow for a more inclusive conversation on topics of racial identity.

It’s important to remember all racial and ethnic identities have a history, and when discussing this now Jones said to separate the two, pushing back against the negatives and accepting things that make people proud to be who they are.

“The encouragement that Dr. DiAngelo is offering is there are some elements of social structure that are part of white identity,” he said. “And there’s also kind of a personal journey of this ‘how do we discover a language for talking about that?’”

He thinks DiAngelo is a good person to start the conversation because she is open to listening to everyone’s point of view and reflects on her own experience of being white.

“I think sometimes it’s a powerful conversation when it is coming from someone from that ethnic identity to say ‘let’s welcome some more inclusive ways of thinking and being in the world,’” he said.

Carolyn Wolff, a junior, was in Jones’s honors class last semester and was present for the Skype discussion with DiAngelo at the EDI retreat last spring.

Wolff said she was excited to see DiAngelo would be speaking on campus because, while the Skype talk was geared more toward faculty, she hoped to hear DiAngelo focus more on students on campus.

In regards to the speech, Wolff said she thought it was important for students, especially at Eau Claire, to become exposed to their privilege, of which they may be totally unaware, and learn how to respond to it.

“As white individuals we can help make the community better for people of different races,” she said. “We can be kind of an ally in recognizing that you’re privileged and then trying not to talk over other people of color.”

Katherine Hinnant, an assistant professor of research and instruction, also attended the EDI retreat and said she was supportive of bringing DiAngelo to campus and having her talk not only to students but also faculty in a separate workshop.

Hinnant said she wanted a separate workshop for faculty because DiAngelo changed her approach to working with students of different ethnicities, and she wants other staff members to consider this.

“She really has people examine whiteness, or growing up white in a culture that sort of privileges whiteness, in a way that is not about being guilty or feeling guilty, because that’s totally unproductive,” she said. “Instead, it’s a way of recognizing assumptions that we have about ourselves and about people of color in our society.”

DiAngelo is also a nonjudgmental person to talk to, Hinnant said, which she hopes both faculty and students will use to their advantage when getting at the core of these issues.

“If I were a student thinking ‘whoa, I don’t want to talk about race and I certainly don’t want to talk about whiteness,’” Hinnant said, “she would be the best person of all the people I can think of to talk about it.”