by Megan Toomer

In our class, we have focused on formulating a lens through which we can consider the plight of women around the world and, specifically, women of color. This intersectional lens has allowed our class to recognize the systems that women navigate while concurrently considering the role that race plays within these discriminatory systems. Our class read Thirty Girls, by Susan Minot, which juxtaposed the plight of women of color and white women. Esther is a kidnapped Ugandan teenager who experiences extreme abuse by Kony’s rebels who kidnapped her. Jane is a white woman from America who is in Uganda to document the story of the stolen children. The novel demonstrates the privilege Jane has and how she benefits from a system created for white people, while Esther directs herself through a system that actively works to oppress her. Minot does not allow the reader to sit comfortably with one narrative of white women and women of color by creating narratives of Esther and Jane that are multifaceted in nature due to the inclusion of white women and women of color in each of the character’s complex stories. The reader is able to see the way in which these women interact with one another despite the stark differences in their lives. The reader witnesses Jane’s power within her own situation, while observing the power that men in her life have over her.

Jane’s power specifically manifests through her privilege, which grants her the ability to go to Uganda and choose when she will document the story of the missing children and how she will relay this information. In contrast, the stolen children are dependent on Jane to publicize their story to other countries. Harry represents the power that men possess within the novel by serving as the influential male in Jane’s life who has emotional control over her and directly affects the decisions she makes throughout the novel in regards to the story she is supposed to publish. Simultaneously, the reader witnesses the acts of defiance that Esther demonstrates with the rebels and after she escapes. Esther disassociates herself from her situation during her kidnapped and then chooses to withhold information to the mothers of other stolen girls once she escapes. In this sense, Esther reclaims power by making autonomous decisions, despite the oppressive systems she navigates. Minot urges the reader to consider the effects of power and race within the novel by analyzing the stark contrast between Jane and Esther. Jane and Esther serve as a means for the reader to examine how power and race drastically affect the way in which we carry out our lives and deal with our own circumstances.

Similarly, Duquesne University has taken the initiative to address issues concerning racism within students’ lives and how race affects their experience within classrooms. Duquesne University is a predominantly white campus; thus, many minority students find that their experiences are not properly addressed within the classroom and on campus and, if these issues are addressed, they are commented on in a discriminatory manner. Duquesne University’s “A Day for Learning and Speaking Out,” which has occurred for three consecutive years, allows for conversation between students, faculty, and community stakeholders regarding the effects of racism systemically, in the media, and within our own communities. This day aims to create productive dialogue concerning racial discrimination and puts these conversations into action within institutions and communities in order to effectively change the way in which Duquesne University and surrounding communities address race and racism.

“A Day for Learning and Speaking Out” occurred on Tuesday, March 21st. The day began on Tuesday at 10 a.m. with an event called “Race and Resistance: Media, Myths, and Facts about Protest” that occurred in the Power Center ballroom. This event started the day off with conversation regarding representations of race in the media. This conversation included Duquesne University faculty member Dr. Pamela Walck and University of Washington doctoral candidate Mr. Lamar Foster. The event’s ending led into the lay down on academic walk. This lay down was facilitated through the NAACP and served to protest the injurious depictions of race in mass media and the integral role media plays in the way issues of race are addresses.

Next, a movie screening of Ava DuVernay’s film 13th was played in the Power Center ballroom. The film, similarly to the reasoning for the lay down on academic walk, integrates race and media in order to shine light on the injustices that black and brown communities face. The film 13th addresses systemic racism and its manifestations in the U.S. prison system and how these manifestations disproportionately affect communities of color. This film allowed the audience to think deeply about issues of racism and how deeply they are embedded into our political institutions.

After the film, a discussion titled “Exploring Race and Pedagogy” took place in the Power Center Ballroom. This discussion allowed for conversation with faculty and a student panel regarding race in the classroom and how faculty can work to properly address race and racism at a predominantly white university. Faculty also talked with students personally during round table discussions and discuss specific situations in which race could be brought up in the classroom and how to deal with these circumstances. I worked alongside Ms. Allie Reznik, who was a graduate student and teaching fellow discussant at the table, to facilitate one of these round table discussions. I was able to talk with professors individually about their concerns when addressing race in the classroom. Many of them felt fearful of creating an awkward environment in the classroom or experiencing outright hostility from students who are bothered by discussions of race and racism. I suggested combating these issues by fostering an environment where students who are unfamiliar with topics of race and racism feel welcome to explore their own thoughts regarding the subject while giving minority students an opportunity to express their concerns as well. This environment allows for everyone in the room to learn from one another and grow as a whole. The conversation was productive and the professors left with new tools to address race and racism in the classroom effectively and appropriately. More information regarding specific student panelists and faculty and graduate student discussants can be found here.

After the student and staff discussion, an event called “Past Meets Future: The Enduring Legacy of Racial Criminalization”  began and Dr. Muhammad, who is a Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study facilitated this keynote presentation about race and the justice system. The presentation specifically focused on how the justice system negatively affects people of color. The day ended with student dialogue about racism generally and on campus in the Africa Room. Students discussed with their individual round tables and everyone in the room about their own experiences involving racism on Duquesne University’s campus. This conversation led into conversations concerning protesting, media portrayal of people of color, and racism in society.

The following day, Dr. Eva Simms presented on systemic racism and how it affects African-American neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. Simms explored ways to combat this violence and work towards an environment of understanding in a world that is racially discriminatory. This talk allowed the audience to think introspectively about their role in these oppressive systems and how they can actively be a part of creating change.

Duquesne University’s “A Day for Learning and Speaking Out” created conversations that are pivotal for people of color and white people to have. Historically, and in present day, people of color are disproportionately incarcerated, unemployed, and discriminated against within many institutions such as universities. Duquesne University took the initiative to bring these topics to the forefront of conversation and hold people in positions of privilege accountable for their place within these racially biased systems. Although this day was an important step towards change on campus, Duquesne University still has a long way to go in regards to racial equality. There is still a lack of accountability on the part of many professors and students on campus who, due to their privilege, can turn away from the injustices minorities face every day. These conversations need to be normalized and brought to everyone’s attention in order to create change. Minorities should feel completely accepted at a university that they are paying thousands of dollars to attend. There is no reason that people of color should contribute so much money to these institutions while having a constant reminder that they do not belong and will never be fully accepted. With these systematic injustices in mind, it is imperative that faculty, students, and community stakeholders actively work to create an environment where acceptance and inclusivity is normalized.