On Sept. 14, the university announced a new grassroots antiracism initiative to be implemented. The purpose of the initiative is to bring together faculty, staff and students to take action against systemic racism and create an antiracist community.
Michael Vaughan, interim vice provost for Diversity and Inclusion, emphasized the fact that the initiative is mostly faculty-driven. According to Vaughan, it is a grassroots initiative, not a “push-down” one. He described it as a community effort that the university has supported and funded, not something that they have forced onto their staff.
“The university is absolutely partnering with them [the faculty],” Vaughan said.
Alison Parker, the current history department chair and Richards professor of American history, called the first meeting on Aug. 26 of this year to gauge interest in the topic. Over 200 people attended the initial meeting and signed up to be part of the initiative. Co-chaired by Professors Lynette Overby of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Theodore Davis Jr. of the Department of Africana Studies, the initiative now has 30 subcommittees all working towards making the university a more antiracist institution.
“There are specific committees that are working on curricular areas,” Overby said. “[There is a] group working on general education and the multicultural requirement, combining work with the Faculty Senate with an antiracist subcommittee. They’ve joined forces to look at curricular changes. And then other groups also working on courses and adding new courses that would help us to have a better understanding of racism and antiracism in different disciplines.”
The initiative has also set up a series of speaking programs to take place throughout the year.
“Our first one was having people who were faculty and administrators, past and current, to talk about their experiences with racism,” Overby said. “So what we’re doing is getting an understanding of, ‘What do we mean by racism? What’s happening at UD? What are other universities doing?’”
Vaughan referenced author Ibram X. Kendi, who describes the line from racist to antiracist as a spectrum, where most people fall somewhere in the middle. By listening and learning, people will move towards the antiracist side. Kendi said that actions, words and willingness to shut down racism are all measurements of becoming more antiracist.
“[In 2020], we’ve kind of knocked down that wall of attempting to be … gentle with our language,” Maisha Carey, a member of Morris Library’s human resources team and a chief diversity advocate, said. “Let’s call a spade a spade: This is racist. It’s not just unjust; it’s not just inequitable; it’s not just unfair; it’s not systemic racism. It’s just racism.”
Carey provides communication between the library and what is happening on the larger campus level, designing programs and group training to educate staff. These programs discuss topics such as privilege and how to be an ally.
Vice Provost for Libraries and Museums, Trevor Dawes, told Carey that he wants every staff member trained on how to be an ally. But even with this explicit direction as her ammunition, Carey, as a black woman, said she has certain reservations.
“If I am claiming a discussion or a learning event for my mostly white colleagues about diversity, or anything related to diversity, I’m kinda scared, right?” Carey said. “I’m always on guard of how I’ll be received.”
Another chief diversity advocate and professor in the departments of Africana Studies and Art and Design, Colette Gaiter, expressed a similar feeling.
“I am aware that students are hyper sensitive to [talking about race],” Gaiter said. “I think that there’s a certain segment of white students who are afraid that me, as a Black woman, I’m going to call them out as racist. So I bend over backwards to not do that.”
Carey pointed out that some people are only just beginning to feel comfortable wielding the word “racism”.
“It’s not that I care whether they think I’m accusing them of being racist,” Gaiter clarified. “What’s important is that I don’t want them to stop listening to me because they hear that trigger word. As soon as you use the word ‘racist,’ certain people just stop listening and get defensive.”
Vaughan pointed out that any statement from the president will be met with varied responses, saying there are some people who genuinely don’t understand.
“When you say something like, ‘the university supports Black Lives Matter,’ — seems pretty basic and pretty innocuous on the surface,” Vaughan said. “But even such a basic statement will garner backlash and confusion.”
Vaughan touched upon the different viewpoints that such a public stance may rise out of the general population. According to Vaughan, some will be angered that the president supports the group Black Lives Matter because they think it is controversial, others will be exasperated that it took the president so long to speak up and some will not understand entirely and wonder why all lives don’t matter.
“So, what happens is the President has to really balance what [he says], based upon ways in which [he wants] to guide the community towards who we aspire to be,” Vaughan said.
This fine balance is complicated further by the current U.S. presidential administration. Recently, President Trump released an executive order that labelled racial bias training as “offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating.”
The Justice Department has since suspended all diversity and inclusion programs for their employees. This executive order puts extra strain on the university leaders to be cautious of what they might say.
“If what’s important to the institution is money, survival … it is gonna get in the way of some of the antiracist work that people are trying to do,” Carey said. “These things go at cross purposes. They fight against each other. It’s literally how it was built. The system isn’t broken — it was built this way.”