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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Students and Faculty Come Together to Discuss Race and Society

Students and faculty came together last week to discuss matters of race and color in American politics. The discussion featured a diverse panel and was made possible by the Raise Your Voice Campaign (RYVC) and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The panel centered discussion around Brazilian author Paulo Freire’s theories as outlined in his 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire suggested that established orders must be attacked “in the attempt to affirm human beings as the subjects of decision.” Ethan Sewell of RYVC told the gathering that the purpose of the event was “to create a dialogue which actually fuses thought, reflection, and action,” and to get people involved in matters of race. He urged all present to question the meaning of race and asked the group to “have the word ‘race’ mean the whole human race as one.” This theme was echoed by the other participants who asked audience members to look beyond the color line and toward interracial solidarity. They proposed the idea that race is an “illusion.” The panel suggested that those who employ race in its traditional sense have ulterior motives. “I am proposing the continued use of these terms in society is harmful…and only serves the purpose of the dominant elite,” Sewell said, adding, “It is better for them to divide the people and to maintain the status quo.” Tony Van Der Meer, professor of Africana studies at UMB, commented that race issues serve to “distract the masses” by people in power. Pepi Leistyna, UMB professor in applied linguistics, argued that race is a social construct, not a matter of biology. “The amount of melanin in someone’s skin is irrelevant,” he said, and added that racism is based on “unequal power relationships and antagonistic social relationships.” The panelists also addressed the dynamics of race in other cultures. Ifeoma Malo, a native African and master’s student in dispute resolution at UMB, talked to the audience about her experiences living in Nigeria. “In Nigeria we don’t classify people based on race” she said, adding that, “the way we do it [classify people] doesn’t dehumanize,” claiming that racial distinctions serve to lessen the value of people. She argued that in order to make changes in the way race is perceived in America, “we have to change the structures that exist within the government and those that exist in the society,” and urged students to make these changes. The group also offered ways to breakdown racial barriers. Ketlen Celestin, an English teacher at City on the Hill Charter School, suggested than ethnic tensions could be solved if people “put themself in somebody else’s shoes” and “empathize.” Malo encouraged people not to prejudge, saying that despite the negative stereotypes she had heard about Americans in her native Nigeria, “I have met the most wonderful people in America.” The panelists addressed issues such as the meaning of democracy and the role of education as well. Leistyna criticized the contemporary meaning of democracy, saying people need to “deconstruct the definition of democracy” and redefine it as “a critical humanist participatory space.” Van Der Meer said that most people “get an education for a job” but urged students to use their education “to become critical thinkers and help transform ourselves and our society.” He also called for reform of the educational experience and stated that, “educational institutions are part of the institutional racism structure.” The group also sampled films and music to better facilitate the examination of racial issues. Clips from the movies “A Bronx Tale” and “Mississippi Burning” were played to highlight the struggle of minorities in America’s past and foster understanding of racial dynamics. The panel left the audience with words of anxiety and hope for the future. “When I look at society there is an enormous amount of discrimination taking place,” said Leistnya, adding that in America, “stratification is profound, oppression is profound.” Celestin told the audience that altering racial perceptions starts with the individual, urging everyone to alter their outlook. “I personally do not categorize myself as any particular race other than a human being. I am first and foremost a human being,” she said.