Arts & Events

RPI lecture: Whiteness as a barrier to racial liberation

By Audrey Davis, Editor in Chief

Friday, Nov. 4, marked the Race and Pedagogy Institute’s 20th anniversary on the University of Puget Sound Campus. Whiteness: A Primer on the Core Barrier to Racial Liberation, a lecture from Dr. Nolan Cabrera brought the campus community together for further exploration of the juxtaposition of the two fundamental words – race and pedagogy– and how whiteness continues to live and act within higher institutions.

“What does it mean that we keep having people apologize for ignorance, saying ‘we’re sorry, we didn’t know better’?”, “What does it mean that this ignorance is so costly?”, “What does it mean to repeatedly enforce the scaffolds of white supremacy?” Dr. Grace Livingston, Director of the African American Studies department, posed these questions to the audience gathered in Kilworth Chapel referencing the language and context of Dr. Dexter Gordon’s “An Open Letter to the UPS Community” from 2003. Dr. Dexter Gordon was the founding Director of the Race and Pedagogy Institute, and then Director of African American Studies, and this letter was a response to incidents of “Blackface” on the campus of the University of Puget Sound. The contemporaneous use of Dr. Gordon’s nearly 20 year-old letter underscored the unremitting need for discussions around race.

Jackson Dennis, a third-year football player and member of the ASUPS Senate, opened the event by discussing his experiences with prejudice. He noted a recent event where whiteness kept him silent – being a person of color in a room – at a university – of primarily white bodies and voices prevented him from sharing his thoughts on discrimination on campus. This concept of Whiteness keeping marginalized voices muted provided an important introduction for guest speaker Dr. Cabrera.

Dr. Nolan Cabrera examined in his presentation – as he does in his book; White Guys on Campus: Racism, White Immunity, and the Myth of “Post-Racial” Higher Education – the distinction between White people and Whiteness. White guys in the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity sang a racist chant on video – Whiteness within the structures of higher education enabled their actions. Racism on college campuses cannot simply be explained by the presence of racist people – Dr. Cabrera noted, “It’s not ‘here’s a bad apple, here’s a bad apple.’ It’s in the system.”

In an explanation calling back to Dr. Livingston’s questions from the beginning of the evening, Dr. Cabrera made the critical assertion that “no one bats an eye if it’s part of the plan.” The underfunding of RPI programs, white students engaging in “Blackface” and racist chants, and the denial of systemic issues on college campuses become invisible – they are endemic because they are part of the plan. Dr. Cabrera stressed that individuals cannot be held accountable and real change cannot occur without completely reexamining and restructuring these institutions built and functioning on the exploited labor and restricted access of marginalized populations.

Dr. Livingston, Jackson Dennis, and Dr. Cabrera all highlighted the persistent constraints Whiteness holds in our world today. Whiteness is embedded in every facet of our institution. Just because we aren’t witnessing our peers participate in blackface does not mean our campus is free from the same racist constraints Dr. Gordon spoke about in 2003.

For the first time since 2006, the University is not hosting its quadrennial Race & Pedagogy National Conference (RPNC), a project started by Dr. Dexter Gordon, this year.