‘Allow us the space to be Black’: Diversity forum talks anti-racism with Ibram Kendi


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Ibram Kendi, author of the 2019 book “How to Be an Antiracist,” discusses anti-racism during a Wednesday event as part of the Diversity Forum series.

By Benjamin Nigrosh, News Editor

Discrimination is a binary system, according to Ibram Kendi. In the fight to create equitable spaces for Black, indigenous and people of color, he said, every person is given the choice between racism or anti-racism.

“What I’m seeking to do is have Americans eliminate the term ‘not-racist’ from their vocabulary,”  Kendi, author of the 2019 book “How to Be an Antiracist,” said. “We’re either being racist or anti-racist based on the ideas we’re expressing, the policies we’re supporting, based on even our inaction.”

Kendi and Pitt community members spoke about the anti-racism struggle, and the University’s place in it, at Wednesday’s ”America’s Persistent Pandemic — Racism: How to Foster Antiracist Practices and Create a Culture of Inclusion, Equity and Justice” session presented by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Valerie Kinloch, the dean of Pitt’s School of Education, and Eric Macadangdang, the Student Government Board president, moderated the event.

He said claiming the side of “not racist” is a kind of inaction that denies the validity of intersectional anti-racism and is complicit in discriminatory systems and policies. To choose inaction is what the current systems of oppression want citizens to do, Kendi added.

“I’m sitting right now in Boston, Massachusetts. There was a time when in this nation’s history when slaveholders in South Carolina wanted people in Boston to do nothing,” Kendi said. “Because they knew to do nothing in the face of injustice and inequity is to allow the injustice and inequity to persist.”

According to Kendi, one of the most important elements of the fight for anti-racist policy is intersectionality, the understanding of how interdependent identities such as race, gender and sexual orientation create overlapping and unique systems of discrimination and privilege. He said establishing anti-racist policies requires the input of entire communities in order to represent and protect all identities within them.

“You have white women who imagine that white women are the representatives of women, so when they think of challenging the patriarchy or sexism, they’re really only thinking of the policies that are impacting white women,” Kendi said. “Then women of color are completely left out.”

Kendi said now is the time to develop intersectional, equitable policies on campuses to help Black students, faculty and staff thrive.

Morgan Ottley, a senior neuroscience major and president of the Black Action Society, said the University has yet to create such a campus and does not prioritize the voice of Black, indigenous and other students of color.  She added that students of colors have felt marginalized by administrators, making the Black student experience very different from the general Pitt student experience.

“It’s one thing to ask Black people what their space looks like, but it’s another to actually create it,” Ottley said. “I feel like we’ve been asking for our space and advocating for it and telling the University and community what we want. Now we’re just waiting for action.”

BAS and 17 other Black Pitt student organizations joined together last month to demand change from the University administration. Their wide-ranging list of more than 20 demands touched on topics including amplifying the Black student voice, increasing the number of Black students and faculty, curriculum changes, additional training for employees and Pitt police reforms.

“Allow us the space to be Black at this predominantly white institution,” Ottley said. “Allow us the space to use our Black voices to advocate for ourselves because, at this point, nobody else is.”

The University met many of the demands with the release of an anti-racism, diversity and inclusion action plan last month, which included a commitment to expand diverse hiring practices and establish a board of presidents to represent every Black student organization.

Keisha Blain, an associate professor in Pitt’s history department, said she hopes the University will follow through with its plan, and also improve its recruiting and retention of Black faculty. According to the 2020 Pitt factbook, about 6.5% of Pitt faculty and staff are Black.

Blain recognized that the University has been hosting a number of conversations to learn what it can do to promote opportunity for Black faculty and students, but said she is “fatigued with conversation.”

“Let’s be real, the job market is terrible,” Blain said. “But I assure you, it is not as difficult as people imagine to bring five, 10, 15 scholars of color to Pitt next year if we wanted to.”

Blain added that Pitt has the opportunity to create systems where faculty of color can be tenured and promoted, as well as have opportunities for active mentorship and join administrator ranks.

“Maybe they shouldn’t wait for an uprising,” Blain said. “Maybe they shouldn’t wait for George Floyd to die and have a police officer place his knee on his neck before we say, ‘Aha! We have Black faculty doing anti-racist work.’”

Majestic Lane, the City’s chief equity officer and a deputy chief of staff to Mayor Bill Peduto, said creating policy to promote growth in Pitt’s ranks of Black faculty will in turn help the City. He said the University occupies a distinct position in the Pittsburgh community to “make the City a place where Black people see the forms of opportunity.”

“All of our institutions have to have another conversation and have to say, ‘What are we doing individually and collectively to make this city a place where Black people feel comfortable, to make the city a place where Black people can build a family?’” Lane said.

Kinloch said that if the University is committed to change, it does not have to look far for working models. She said she looks to her own alma mater, Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina, as an example of how historically Black colleges and universities can provide a strong model for what nourishing academic spaces for Black students can look like.

“I think about how HBCUs are so heavily underfunded, how HBCUs do not get the hype that they need, yet HBCUs produce some of the most brilliant Black minds in the entire world,” Kinloch said.

Ottley said Pitt can no longer act as though it does not have the resources to make changes. From Black student activism to the expertise of faculty scholars, she said the University has the opportunity to mobilize its resources and commit to crafting a more equitable experience for its Black students, faculty and staff.

“I hope that with these conversations, you are learning exactly what is going on at the University right under your nose,” Ottley said. “I hope that you are able to learn more about policies and the way we could actively change them and actively advocate on behalf of our Black, indigenous and other students of color.”