One of the things that I love about Penn is the many opportunities it affords me to learn about and discuss issues pertaining to my identity as a Black woman outside of the classroom. This is owed in large part to the tireless efforts of departments like Africana Studies, student groups like the Black Graduate and Professional Student Association (BGAPSA) and Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), and programs like the Penn Program on Race, Science and Society (PRSS) run by Professor Dorothy Roberts. There are certainly critiques to be made about the extent that diversity and inclusivity are embodied at Penn generally, but minority groups on Penn campus and their allies have done an excellent job opening up discursive opportunities through extracurricular programming.
I love these programs. Earlier this week, the Penn Program on Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies convened a panel discussion entitled “Gender, Race, and Ferguson, co-sponsored by Africana Studies. On Wednesday, Professor Aliya Saperstein presented her work “The Past and Present Significance of Racial Mobility,” for PRSS, in conjunction with the Sociology department. That same day, the Media Activism Research Collective (MARC) hosted Dr. Simone Brown of UT Austin.
Unfortunately, student groups with more dubious aims turn out to be just as enterprising. At the same time as my department enjoyed a no-doubt stimulating talk from Dr. Saperstein, the Penn Law Federalist Society was hosting a panel misleadingly named “Police Reform: Community Efforts to Combat Police Brutality.” The panel, moderated by Amy Wax, consisted of two White male speakers, former FBI Assistant Director Ron Hosko and Professor David Rudovsky. The Penn Federalist Society saw fit to serve BBQ ribs and chicken at the event. It is hard for me to resist suspecting racial undertones in this choice of stereotypically Black cuisine. In any case, it is certainly not the type of food that suggests an atmosphere of attentive, respectful dialogue.
Word of the event spread through Black graduate students across Penn and Drexel campuses. We were concerned that a panel had been put together to discuss topics that disproportionately affect African-Americans (both police brutality and policing in general), without any attempt to dialogue with any Black students on campus. Moreover, Wax has repeatedly shown herself to be hostile to African-Americans as a group. For example, during Q&A after a talk she gave at Middlebury, she responded to a concerned audience member’s inquiry about her racial motivations by asserting that her background – being from a two-parent household – made her an extreme outlier. She additionally proclaimed that inequality between Blacks and Whites is the result of Black moral failure. The audio recording is here.
The lack of publicity surrounding the event also cast doubts that the Society were truly interested in a nonpartisan and productive discussion about policing, especially given its history of framing contentious topics from a decidedly conservative viewpoint that contradicts its leaders repeated claims of impartiality. For example, on March 31st, the Penn Federalist Society held a discussion on Penn’s new sexual assault policy, centering on the letter written by several Penn faculty critiquing it. None of the students who signed a rebuttal to that letter were invited to the discussion.
Many concerned students attended this talk to accomplish two goals. First, we wanted the voices of Black citizens to be heard in a discussion that directly affected our lives and the lives of those we loved. Secondly, we wanted to ensure that the names and faces of victims of police brutality were not forgotten in an abstract discussion of laws and financial costs. Our presence turned out to be a necessity for ensuring these two outcomes. By any definition, “community” played no substantive role in the “discussion,” which consisted primarily of length monologues rather than moderated conversation. Chafing at the images of victims like Akai Gurley (the poster that I had mounted on my laptop lid), Hosko remarked that he hoped we had brought a poster of a Philadelphia officer that was killed during an arrest. He also repeatedly referred to the high costs of new police accountability measures, ignoring completely that the cost of forgoing those measures is Black lives. During Q&A, Dr. Clem Harris attempted to get the panelists to reflect on the relationship between policing and continued racial segregation. He was aggressively interrupted by Wax, severely curtailing a potentially productive line of inquiry.
All in all, I did not find this panel to have been productive. Despite our interventions during questioning, there was little that could be done to change the overall direction of proceedings. However, I fear how the event might have proceeded without our showing, and I know this concern is shared by other students of color and allies. As a result, Black student leaders, led by BGAPSA, gathered to draft an open-letter to the Penn Law Federalist Society, signed by concerned students. The Federalist Society responded in turn with a dismissive and disingenuous open letter of their own, which reinforces the continued need for our continued vigilance.
I attended this panel out of a sense of responsibility to both the Penn community and to the many Black Americans who are affected by police brutalization right here in Philadelphia. To do that, I made the difficult choice of skipping the PRSS lecture. I was also so emotionally and mentally exhausted after the event that I missed the opportunity to meet Professor Simone Browne, author of Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness.
Now follow me here: I am not complaining that I was too tired to do everything that I wanted to do, or that events on campus overlap. This happens, and I have no doubt that affects all students who are deeply invested in campus community and learning to various degrees.
The problem is that every time I am absent from event that fosters a dialogue on race or features a woman of color, I fear that type of programming will be less common in the future. This is because, too often these events that I find so important are perceived as “diversity programming” meant only for specific minority groups. Those groups tend to make up the majority of the audience, even when the programming could be beneficial and interesting to all students. The Ferguson, Race, and Gender panel, for example, consisted of primarily of Black women. Likewise, Black women were extremely overrepresented in the overfull room, despite their relatively small percentage of the campus population.
What this means is that when two events that deal with marginalized identities overlap, it functions like splitting an election ticket. Potentially great programming gets a turnout that doesn’t reflect the interest at all. When that programming is created not by the groups themselves, but by general organizations or departments, it can seem that the market for these events is too small, or worse, nonexistent. This brings me to the original idea that prompted this piece: learning about marginalized people is not just for marginalized people. It’s for everyone.
If we truly believe in unity and liberty for all people, we should be committed to educating ourselves in a way that fosters understanding and empathy. That means seeking opportunities outside our comfort zone, and maintaining open dialogues with people different than ourselves. This can be especially hard for those of us who have marginalized identities ourselves, and who are tasked with a triple labor of representation: supporting efforts to represent our group positively, being present to challenge negative representations or attempts to render our group invisible, and educating ourselves about the oppression of groups to which we do not belong.
Especially if you benefit from White privilege, I challenge you to support events by, for, about, and featuring people from marginalized identities that you do not share. Your attendance could mean the continuation of programing that enriches the entire university community. And just as it importantly, it arms you with the knowledge to be an effective ally in efforts toward equality.