The terms of an anti-racist education

by Sarah Pearl Heard 

“Education, like movements, starts in the streets,” said Professor Hazel Carby, closing a teach-in on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day sponsored by various departments at Yale. Carby’s declaration rang through the high ceilings of the old-Yale gothic tower of SSS. The irony was not lost on the crowd, and a slight chuckle rumbled through.

Though attendees were the farthest from “the streets” as could be, “Keywords in Critical Ethnic Studies” aspired to describe experiences outside this literal ivory tower.

The day began in an overflowing Sudler Hall with remarks by Dean Holloway including a reading from his book Jim Crow Wisdom. His words followed an introduction by professor and acclaimed poet Richard Deming.

“A liberal education must be an anti-racist education,” he said.

Then the crowd split into roundtable seminars about the keywords featured, which ranged from recent buzzwords like reparations, “illegal”, first generation, and immigration to more academic terms such as decolonizing feminism, coalitions beyond identity politics, inclusion, and racialized space.

Students and professors alike found the seminars rigorous and engaging. Matthew Johnson, a professor in the African American studies department closed his seminar by saying, “in Computer Science, we expect the students to outpace us. This is true in the humanities. They have capabilities of understanding the politics of difference that we don’t possess. We are behind the curve. ”

Matthew Jacobson described a media that tells and ultimately shapes stories about people of color without the education required to discuss racial issues accurately or in proper context.

“To get an education in modern times, is to get an education in ethnic studies.”

The teach-in addressed the growing visibility of these issues by breaking down keywords surfacing in the media. Seminar leaders connected historical and present racism to the day-to-day experiences and identities of students on campus.

A group of graduate students organized the event in response to the call for a revamped ethnic studies program from NextYale, the undergraduate coalition that ignited a mass anti-racist movement on campus last semester. Anthony Reed, a professor in the African American studies department, discussed the tension between academic excellence and their political commitments.

“We take what we learn back to our communities, and this is where the change happens,” he said.

An ethnic studies education is a part of how people of color can fight institutionalized white supremacy, Reed continued. “Ethnic studies is the work of making the future better.”

To people overwhelmed by the pressure and daunting task of educating themselves and others about this essential task, he advised “Actively engage in your education because you are inspired to, but it’s not your sole responsibility to always be that person, that sole person raising your voice. You’ll grind yourself right down.”

A full list of the program, including seminar topics and faculty and student organizers, can be found here.