A few months ago, the Fordham community received what I found to be startling news; a black student had arrived home to his dorm room to find the n-word carved into his door. I couldn’t believe it. How could something like this happen in 2015, amongst young people, at a Jesuit university that preaches compassion and education?
As it turns out, my shock was incredibly naive.
As reported in the Fordham Observer, there have been six what the administration calls ‘bias incidents’ on our campus since 2012: the n-word gratified on a black RA’s door, a homophobic word in a Lincoln Center campus stairwell, a racial slur in a Rose Hill bathroom, this fall’s racist carving in a student’s door, and, most recently, a swastika scratched into a stairwell at Rose Hill, and a swastika and white supremacist reference in a Lincoln Center bathroom. About a month ago, we received another email from Rev. Joseph M. McShane, Fordham’s president, alerting the community about a preliminary investigation into the behavior of Fordham students in an off-campus apartment, who were loudly chanting racist language.
The sheer volume of these incidents proves that racism is not an isolated problem on our campus; it cannot be written off as one bigoted student in a sea of otherwise “color-blind” students. Whether it’s through reported acts like those listed above, or minor, routine instances of microaggresion, our school has a racism problem. And of course, our nation has a racism problem.
It’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of racial injustice. With each new reporting of yet another instance of racism, it is easier to sink further and further into a place of sullen, passive behavior. Is the situation hopeless? Are we doomed to live in a nation brimming with institutionalized racism that is not always so easy to pinpoint and then change?
Absolutely not. And here at Fordham, we are lucky to have a group actively working to defeat these instances of racial injustice. Enter: the Undoing Racism Collective.
The Undoing Racism Collective is a group of faculty, students, and staff from both the Rose Hill and Lincoln Center campuses who meet monthly to discuss issues surrounding racism at Fordham. Founded roughly eight years ago, the collective began as a place for people who had undergone the Undoing Racism® Community Organizing Workshop with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond to meet and discuss the principles they’d learned. The Undoing Racism® two-and-a half-day workshop covers topics such as institutionalized racism, the history of racism, the negative impacts to all races of racism, and tools to begin undoing racism.
“The training is kind of the learning and practicing of some of these anti-racists principles,” said Jeannine Hill Fletcher, P.h.D., professor of theology and a member of the collective. “Learning how racism is embedded in the system of our country…understanding what sorts of choices were made and legislation that was enacted to help us see racism not just as an immediate reality, but really as something that has a history.”
The training had a profound impact on the students who’d undertaken it. “It really gave me the language to articulate how racism was manifesting in my own life,” said Scarly Rodriguez, Fordham College at Rose Hill (FCRH) ‘16 and a member of the collective, “how I had internalized inferiority because of racism, and how it plays out in my actions.”
“This workshop helped me to see that racism dehumanizes everyone,” said Sarah Allison, FCRH ’16 and a member of the collective. “White people also lose from white supremacy…it makes it so that we can’t even be humans with each other. We’re operating on all of these stories and myths instead of being present to who people are.”
In 2012, after Fordham suffered a racial bias incident on one of its campuses, the collective partnered with the Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice to bring the training to Fordham’s campus. They brought the training to campus again the following year, working alongside the Center for Teaching Excellence. Eventually, the collective began planning for a full day teach-in of its own, which led to their event ‘Teach-In on Racial Justice’ this past October. The goal of the teach-in was to provide “a space to explore the realities and impacts of racism, and to take collective action to address personal and structural racism” within Fordham. The teach-in covered topics like history, identity, religion, microagressions, and becoming an anti-racist institution. The event had almost 400 attendees, comprising faculty, administration, students and staff.
“It was successful, I would say,” said Rodriguez of the teach-in. “Ideally I would have loved it to be so much larger, if we had the capacity as a collective to do that. But I felt happy afterward.”
In a follow-up email to the attendees and to McShane, the collective listed three steps Fordham could take to begin its anti-racist work. The first is the need for anti-racist training for more faculty, staff, and students. In a recent meeting of the Faculty Senate which Rodriguez attended alongside five other students, she requested the same: “I requested that everyone in the faculty senate do the undoing racism training and that the head of every department do it. Just because I feel like professors are not trained in these conversations, so I don’t feel like professors are my allies.”
The second step is to create “a more robust inclusion of race/racism within the curriculum.” The core curriculum at Fordham is “very Eurocentric, western, white, white American narratives,” said Allison. “If you want to see any history or study from another angle then you have to actively seek that out.” The collective is not the only group striving for a more diverse curriculum at Fordham. According to Allison, many students are contacting faculty and the core advisory committee to alter the pluralism requirement into something that explicitly acknowledges race, class, and gender.
The third step offered by the collective is to address the “importance of diversity in the makeup of our campus community,” including in members of the faculty, staff, administration, and student body. This certainly reflects my own experience; in the five years that I’ve been at Fordham, I have had only three non-white professors. I can almost count on one hand the number of students of color who are in my classes this semester. “Walking into a classroom and seeing two other people of color and everyone else being white just makes me hyper-aware of my skin color,” said Rodriguez. “I feel like it just weighs on me.”
Though not included in the email, members of the collective also emphasized the urgent need for Fordham to acknowledge the realities of its racial climate. “It’s not pretty that we are where we are and that these racist incidents happen every other week,” said Allison. “But instead of being shocked when this happens, we could be like, okay, this is a symptom of a larger disease that we need to take steps to address.”
“I think [we need] a deep acknowledgement of what the problem is,” said Rodriguez. “Mark Chapman, when he spoke [as the keynote speaker] at the racial justice teach-in, said that what he thinks we need is for the powers that be, whatever they are, to really have some sorrow, and mourning over what’s so right now.” Neither Chapman nor Rodriguez feel that remorse from the Fordham community when racial biases occur. “If I felt like people were really with me in my pain—because I’ve been feeling a lot of pain—then I would feel like OK, I trust that they’re going to do something about this now because I see that they feel something,” said Rodriquez.
Part of this acknowledgment arises from recognizing the long history of institutionalized racism that the Undoing Racism® training highlights, and that the Undoing Racism Collective discusses in its meetings. “It’s not enough for us to say that we are not racist,” said Hill Fletcher, “because if our systems and our history and our structures and our institutions have been formulated with racism built into them, then these realities of our societies and our institutions are racist by default.”
“Let’s not pretend that it [the racial bias incidents] are just individual students who are bad people,” said Rodriguez. “It’s not even about being a bad person, you can’t help it. You can’t help being racist, that’s something that the undoing racism training will tell you…You have to be actively confronting these ideas, because if you’re simply just ‘not racist,’ you’re still going the way the current is going.”
What is so important about the realities the collective describes is that they are not diagnoses of an institution that cannot be cured. By realizing the internal biases we’ve been formed to hold, we can finally begin to figure out how to break them. This process, of course, will not happen in a day. “The work of becoming and being an anti-racist institution will need to be every institutions’ work from here forward,” said Hill Fletcher. “It’s not a one-day teach-in or a two-day workshop; it’s approaching our work and our institutions with anti-racist pedagogy, anti-racist practice, anti-racist relationships and organizations.”
In addition to collective meetings, members of the collective are involved with outside racial justice events that the collective supports. Rodriguez, for example, is planning an event inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., called ‘A Beloved Community,’ which aims to address the “lack of love, a lack of connection, community, unity, joy on campus” that Rodriguez feels when racial bias incidents occur. The event will invite attendees to celebrate themselves through dance, poetry, music, and art, “just to create an atmosphere of unity and love.”
“Fordham has been important for me and finding myself, and [also] really hard,” said Rodriguez. “I wouldn’t wish it on someone. It makes me really sad that there are underclassmen that are going to keep going through this experience of inevitably feeling inferior at this place.”
Rodriguez hopes that the work of the Undoing Racism Collective and other racial justice work will begin to alter these realities for future generations at Fordham. “I want to come back to a place that I’m proud of.”
And certainly many second her sentiments. “I would hope that every member of the Fordham University community would want to be a part of an anti-racist institution and an anti-racist collective,” said Hill Fletcher. “So really asking the question how do we do all of this work together, in all of the different areas in our lives and our institutions, is really where we’re at in the long term here.”
To learn more about the Undoing Racism® training at the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, visit their website at www.pisab.org.
~ Brianna Goodman, Class of '16