Where Do We Go From Here?

Standing against anti-Black racism in the College.

Emma Cline.

On June 5, the Bloomington Enough is Enough March began in Dunn Meadow and ended on the grounds of the Monroe County Courthouse, bringing the Indiana University campus and community into alignment with nationwide protests catalyzed by the deaths of George Floyd and other Black victims across the country. It also foregrounded painful revelations and fundamental questions about racial injustice and inequality on the IU campus, including in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“What will I do, what will you do, what will we do together to turn this hashtag-powered movement into a turning point in the College of Arts and Sciences and at IU Bloomington?” asks Carmen Henne-Ochoa, assistant dean of the College’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. “We must say Black Lives Matter. But saying it is only the beginning, and it is not enough. We must work consistently to highlight and eradicate the depth of racial violence, injustice, and inequity, as these impact our Black students, faculty, and staff.”

Listening to the experiences of Black faculty, graduate students, and staff was a crucial step for the College’s executive dean, Rick Van Kooten, who hosted a listening session on June 10 and a second session on June 18 for a broader group of the academic community. Opportunities for undergraduate students to participate and be heard will be announced when classes resume in the fall. There will be more opportunities for the College community to participate in these discussions, including an upcoming listening session about anti-Asian racism.

When asked during the June 10 session what he wants to see, Van Kooten replied: “I want to see a pervasive anti-racist mindset and corresponding action throughout the College, with people of all colors and backgrounds calling out acts of aggression or bias and white supremacy when they see them. I want to see offenders held accountable. I want an equity of resources for everyone.”

He repeated these words in an e-mail to Black faculty, staff, and graduate students who spoke during the initial listening session. “I want you to know that I am committed to working across the College community to change the climate via concrete actions: to have you feel welcome in every room you enter, to have your voice heard in every conversation, and to have you seen and believed. I want to see our anti-racist work engender persistent changes in individual and collective behavior that lead to lasting transformation.”

As the work moves forward, two faculty members with extensive experience in understanding and combating racism will join Executive Dean Van Kooten and Assistant Dean Henne-Ochoa to help guide the process.

Beginning July 1, Professor Vivian Nun Halloran of English and American Studies assumed the role of associate dean for diversity and inclusion for the College, replacing Professor Russell Scott Valentino of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures. Valentino stepped down from that role after a period of two years during which he worked to establish of the College’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Professor Amrita Chakrabarti Myers is also a newcomer to the executive dean’s office. Myers, the Ruth N. Halls Associate Professor of History and Gender Studies, has been appointed a fellow of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Both Halloran and Myers have studied and addressed anti-Black racism as scholars, teachers, and activists.

The College is also offering new courses that encourage students to learn and think more deeply about systemic racism. This August, incoming freshmen will have the opportunity to get a jumpstart on their academics by participating in a two-week pre-fall session. Courses featuring highly relevant topics will be offered, including several that focus on race: “COVID-19 & U.S. Inequality” and “Talking Race, Doing Anti-Racism.” More race-focused courses will be offered in two additional special sessions later this fall and in spring 2021.

“We have to say Black Lives Matter over and over and over again,” says Henne-Ochoa. “We must say it until Black lives do, in fact, matter. We are not there yet. We must address head-on anti-Black racism and the systemic inequity that disproportionately claims the lives of Black men, women, and transpeople and their livelihoods.”

Dean Van Kooten underscores this message. “We need to treat ally as a verb, not as a noun; a label that can be used too easily. The challenge is to be actively anti-racist, to be continually acting as an ally. And the actions we take need to be collaborative efforts.”

Protesters demonstrate during the June 5 Enough is Enough march in Bloomington.

How do we move forward?

An interview with the College of Arts and Sciences’ new diversity and inclusion fellow

 

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers believes a pivotal moment in history can lead to lasting change. The Ruth N. Halls Associate Professor of History and Gender Studies, Myers was recently named the College’s diversity and inclusion fellow — the first position of its kind in the College.

In the days after the national Black Lives Matter movement sparked one of the largest anti-racism protest marches ever to take place in Bloomington, Myers, who was a designated speaker at the march, shared her ideas about how to combat systemic racism and create enduring change. She was interviewed by Emma Cline, a student journalist and social media intern with the College of Arts and Sciences' Office of Communications and Marketing.

Emma Cline:

What do you think the recent Enough is Enough March accomplished for IU and the Bloomington community?

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers:

I think that it actually was the beginning of something. What I was really impressed by was how amazing the march organizers were. They’re wonderful young people. They are full of great ideas and enthusiasm. This is where it needs to come from, right? We really need to see this kind of activism and enthusiasm and energy coming from students on our campus. To me, the march wasn’t an end; it was really the beginning.

I’ve been doing activism work in Bloomington for a long time. I’ve organized marches, I’ve spoken at marches, and I’ve never seen anything this large. We’ve been seeing this all over the country in terms of size and also in terms of demographics — age, race, ethnicity — people of all backgrounds coming together.

What I want to see, and what I told people that day, is that this needs to be the beginning. We can’t let this be another situation where we forget about it in two months or two weeks and we’re back here again in two years or four years having to have the same conversation. This needs to be the time where we actually implement real structural change. And I know that the organizers of the march feel the same way — that this is not a moment, but it’s a movement.

We need to take this momentum and this energy and begin putting it towards applying political pressure on and off campus. So, to university officials, to the city of Bloomington, to the Bloomington Police Department, to IUPD, to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, to all the different structures in the community, we must begin pressuring for actual legitimate structural changes that will make things better in Bloomington and on Indiana University’s campus. That will make life better for Black people.

Protesters demonstrate in downtown Bloomington.

Emma Cline:

Systemic racism against Black faculty, students, and staff exists at IU. What would you like to see administration and faculty do to help dismantle these structures?

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers:

One of the things that I think is really important is that we need to invest more resources, first and foremost, into our African American and African Diaspora Studies department. It’s one of the oldest departments of its kind in the nation, which is very, very significant, and it needs more resources. What I mean by more resources is that it needs more tenured and tenure-track faculty at all levels.

But also, what’s really, really important is that it can’t be the only department that’s doing this work. It’s exhausting to do this work. It’s exhausting for Black faculty to be isolated and be the only faculty members scattered in individual departments doing this work. To be an ‘island’ is very difficult. If we are truly committed to anti-Black racism, we need to have faculty — several faculty — doing this work in every department. This way they can encourage one another, help one another, support one another, and they can also begin helping and supporting and being examples for graduate students and undergraduate students in their individual departments.

Having all those faculty across the campus is also going to make a difference in another way. We can begin to do the bigger work of decolonizing our curriculum. It’s not enough for AAADS to have wonderful courses. It’s not enough for individual faculty members in departments to offer wonderful courses, although that’s going to be important. We need courses in every department. We then hire across the university, across departments, across programs, and then those faculty offer wonderful courses.

I also think we need to ensure that we promote more Black faculty into positions of leadership and higher administration across the campus. We have precious few Black folks in positions of real power. That needs to change.

Then we also begin to decolonize the spaces. We begin to decolonize the curriculum. We begin to integrate anti-Black racism and materials into existing courses. President McRobbie announced that he is going to be examining renaming structures on campus, and that’s important when we talk about decolonizing spaces — renaming pathways and buildings on our campus.

So, yes, decolonizing our spaces, decolonizing our faculty, decolonizing our syllabi and our courses. That can’t just be the work of one individual faculty member or even one department. We need to have solid, required general education courses that must be taken by all students on our campus that deal specifically with anti-Black racism and the history of African Americans in this country. It can’t just be a College requirement; it must be a requirement for every student that walks through the Sample Gates before they graduate.

Protesters demonstrate in Dunn Meadow on campus.

Emma Cline:

Congratulations on becoming the College’s diversity and inclusion fellow. What are your goals in that role?

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers:

First and foremost, I’m really excited to join the College’s diversity and inclusion team. I’m really excited to be working with Assistant Dean Henne-Ochoa and Associate Dean Vivian Nun Halloran. What I’m hoping to do is move forward from talking about the problems. As academics, we talk a lot. We’re kind of like politicians — and I include myself in this issue —  academics are a lot like politicians. We talk a lot about problems. We do a lot of research. We always want to have another committee about something. We want to say, ‘Let’s do a survey and get more research.’

But what we want to do is move beyond the talking and the surveys and the research to actually implementing action items. Because we know what the issues are across this country. We know what they are, and we’ve known for a long time. We know what the issues on IU’s campus are, because they’re not really all that different from the issues across the country. What I think is important is that we signal to our students, staff, and faculty that if we want to make this a more welcoming and safe environment and make it attractive to new faculty, new staff, and new potential students, then we need to begin moving away from talking to actually doing the work.

We need to decolonize our courses, classrooms, and syllabi, and make this a place where people don’t just say ‘I’m not a racist,’ but where they are actually doing the work of being anti-racist. By decolonization I’m referring to the process of deconstructing colonial ideologies of white, European superiority which privilege Western thought and approaches over all others. As an academic community, we need to think outside these imposed Euro-Western ideologies and practices that still frame most conversations in higher education with regard to our curricula and policies, and which clearly underpin all the socio-economic and governing structures of our society.

That’s why I’ve been encouraging people to read the work of Black thinkers and scholars like Ibram Kendi, Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, and James Baldwin, to name just a few. Because it challenges you to move into the actual walk of how to be an anti-racist ally. That’s what I would like for us to do as a collective at IU and certainly in the College — move out of simply talking and move into the walk and begin to engage actively in dismantling the structures of white supremacy on our campus. Reading one of these books together as a campus community would be a great place to start.