History department host ‘The history of Racism and White Supremacy’
Ellis McGinley – Reporter
Tuesday, Feb. 2, the university hosted “The History of Racism and White Supremacy.” The 2 hour event was dedicated to discussing the roots of white supremacy and how students, educators, artists, and other allies could work to recognize and combat white supremacy and implicit bias.
According to event moderators Siobhan Carter-Davis and Jason W. Smith, history professors at Southern, the panel was inspired by the video works of Jim Stewart, professor emeritus at Macalester College.
“Jim Stewart’s Tonic for Fragile White Folks,” as his channel is called, is a series of 16 videos “that strip away academic elitism,” according to the promotional video pinned on his YouTube. The series intends to provide historical context to “motivate antiracist activism.”
Stewart was one of the guest historians at the university event alongside Donald Yacovone, a Southern alum and historian at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
Stewart and Yacovone were accompanied by a slew of more residential panelists; primarily students, faculty, and other alum within the Southern community. This included Student Government Association president Sarah Gossman, graduate student and former sociology professor Brenda Harvey, graduate student Sarianna Sabbarese, associate professor Jessica Powell, English professor and author Timothy Parrish, and associate professor Cassi Meyerhoffer.
All the panelists present were white.
“You might be looking around at the panelists. You may notice that all of our panelists are white, and this was chosen purposefully. Jason and I understand that this may be a controversial decision,” said moderator Carter-Davis. “We wanted to center white folks in this particular discussion.”
Co-moderator Smith said, “we really want to have this conversation about the role of history in understanding these issues across the disciplines, and more importantly what is the role of white faculty, white students, and white Americans more broadly in fighting back against racism?”
“I’m puzzled as to what people are learning at all in terms of American history,” said
Yacovone. “The image which always comes back to me is the analogy between the person and the country. A person without a memory. A nation without a memory. If you can’t remember what you’ve just done, you keep doing the same thing over and over again. If you don’t know what you’ve done, how can you move forward?”
“What’s going through the head of the protesters,” said Stewart, referencing January’s insurrection at the Capitol, “is a very, very strong perversion of American history that powers them.”
The event was hosted on WebEx. Audience members were encouraged to keep their cameras and microphones off in order to best focus the event, but were allowed to ask questions and discuss topics in the written chat.
Audience members and even other panelists used this to compare their own experiences, discussing a perceived inequity in the American education system.
“To Dr. Yacovone’s point, I made it through my entire (public) high school career without ever taking a single history class — American or otherwise. It’s unbelievable,” Sabbarese wrote.
Other discussion topics for the panelists included racism in education, implicit bias (or the idea that everyone carries some subconscious bias rooted in white supremacy), the importance of accurate representation of people of color in art, and making change throughout multiple liberal arts disciplines.
“Artists have a really unique responsibility and white artists in particular have a really unique responsibility for engaging with the history of racism and how it shapes representation, characters and the stories they tell,” said Harvey, who is pursuing an MFA in fiction and science fiction.
She, along with fellow panelists, went on to discuss stereotypical portrayals of people of color in art and fiction, particularly Black women.
“I think it’s really important that we name white supremacy so that white folks can really grapple with their own implicitly in all this,” said Meyerhoffer.
As Jim Stewart summarized, “the idea of allyship – it can’t be based on narcissism.”