Blog Post

RaceB4Race® Education 2021: Community, Care, and More Just Futures

By Anita Raychawdhuri | March 2, 2021

2020 was a pivotal year for Americans and other US people.  The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery forced America to face the truth that many people of color already knew, that America and its institutions—including academia—are founded on white supremacist structures that threaten Black lives. However, racism in the US has long endured and the past few years have cultivated a rise in antiracist movements to combat the systemic racism thriving in the United States. We see these antiracist movements in our own academic communities and institutions.  In 2019, Ayanna Thompson, in a response to the concerns raised by Medievalists of Color about the biases and exclusions at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, founded RaceB4Race®  to provide a space for pre-modern scholars of color to present work overlooked and silenced by  academia. 

In Ayanna Thompson’s opening remarks to this year’s RaceB4Race® Education symposium  she draws attention to this deliberate erasure and says this of BIPOC scholars: “We have always been here and have rich histories but our education systems have not always taught those rich histories.” At the core of RaceB4Race®  and the work of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Center is to draw attention to those very histories, whether via citational practices of scholars who came before us, attending to perspectives and figures elided in history, and by implementing methodologies that decenter whiteness. RaceB4Race® is a space for all that have been relegated to the sidelines. Since its inception in 2019, there have been four RaceB4Race®  symposiums dedicated to a variety of topics. The inaugural symposium was held in Tempe, AZ, the second, themed “Race and Periodization” was held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in D.C., and the third symposium “Appropriations” was held in Tempe, AZ in January 2021. 

The most recent iteration of RaceB4Race® lends its focus to the topic of  “Education.” Hosted over Zoom, this recent installment of the symposium allowed attendees to contend with our own academic experiences, universities’ attempts at re-imagining curriculums, antiracist movements on our campuses, or challenging academia’s racist roots, RaceB4Race®  Education sought to shed light on educational practices as a whole. These conversations are not new to those who cannot “opt out” of grappling with white supremacy (a point discussed by speakers at the symposium), yet they are urgent and complex. The first day featured Ian Smith (Lafayette College) and Adrienne Merritt (St. Olaf College). Smith’s brilliant reading of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet illustrated a larger point about consumption of blackness, racialized theatrical types, and racial literacy as being about working on “who we are and how we are in relation to others.” Merritt focused on “imagined supremacy,” a term she uses to describe how figures of blackness are portrayed within the white imagination, specifically in the context of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. In the Q/A Smith brought in a quote from James Baldwin, relating it to our role as educators, where we must “help students help themselves,” while Merritt talked about the importance of not just action and reflection, but declaration. In other words, we must state our commitment to doing this work and hold ourselves accountable accordingly. 

Continuing the consideration of accountability,  Tarrell R. Campbell (Saint Louis University) and Mariam A. Gallarita (UC Riverside)  asked how early modern works or categorization limits the work of BIPOC scholars. Campbell offered an example of himself, wanting to analyze Richard Wright’s Native Son as high modernism. Due to the alliance in the academy of high modernism with “all that is great in European literature” Campbell’s proposal was not taken seriously. This particular anecdote forces us to consider, then, what field-changing projects have been ignored because of racism in the academy? As mentioned in Ayanna Thompson’s opening remarks, both Toni Morrison and Stuart Hall were almost pre-modern scholars. Campbell’s talk grappled with this loss, while also asking how we might allow for growth, supporting our students to write how they want to on what they want to. Building on this concern of loss, Gallarita’s moving talk opened by asking the audience to consider their own  relationship to language, invoking her own, often painful, one. Through Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone and its description of language that aligned Asian with the alien, Gallarita urged the audience to remember the way that literature courses, especially pre-modern English literature, produce racial melancholia for students. Speaking from her own personal experiences in graduate school, Gallarita invokes the work of author Ocean Vuong, through the final consideration of “how do we write ourselves out of the footnote,” prompting  us all as scholars and educators to re-examine how we  privileging certain relationships to languages in our classroom and ultimately replicated systems of erasure and trauma in the classroom. 

Furthering questions of how literature takes up space in the classroom,  Ambereen Dadabhoy (Harvey Mudd College), Eric L. de Barros (Old Dominion University), Brenna Duperron (Dalhousie University)  collectively asked attendees to interrogate allegedly “inclusive”pedagogy as it often end up reifying white supremacy and centering white feelings. Dadabhoy thoughtfully demonstrated the damage of “recuperative texts” through Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, considering how the play “elides the burden of blackness” both through Amir’s assertion of being the “new Black man,” and the problematic characterization of Jory, an African-American woman. Dadabhoy reminded the audience of Audre Lorde’s essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” when we teach “relatability” in our classrooms, as this often caters to a white gaze. In a similar vein, de Barros responded to the documentary Romeo is Bleeding to critique the ways that Shakespeare is used, again and again, as something that can “save Black and brown lives.” In other words, the documentary—and Shakespeare–becomes part of the “white savior industrial complex,” more interested in catering to white feelings than actual change. de Barros’s paper asks us to consider the damage we are doing when we position Shakespeare as a figure of relatability, as this narrative reinscribes the colonial violence that Shakespeare is entrenched in. Focusing on the methodology, Duperron’s talk considered Mi’ kmaq framework of Etuaptmunk to “think with both your eyes,” utilizing both the Western European and Indigenous eye. This practice, Duperron reminds us, is not just about academia, but life. With this methodology she analyzed The Book of Margery Kempe, and how that text centers speaker and listener and the necessity of their engagement with each other. While I scrambled to take notes on this session, Duperron gave me pause, as she discussed settler economy in relation to writing. In other words, what do we miss when we are writing and not just listening? 

Further pursuing what it means to care, Andrea Achi (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), Nedda Mehdizadeh (UC Los Angeles), and Barbara Bordalejo (University of Saskatchewan), all offered practical ways to be better educators of the pre-modern world. Achi discussed the exhibition as a “pipeline” for potential students in Medieval studies, citing sustainability practices with exhibits, where local scholars received training in archival work, or programs at the Met that ask people to consider Medieval objects and their contexts, allowing visitors to challenge preconceived notions of history, particularly in relation to race. Achi’s presentation also asked attendees to consider how we curate spaces, asking us to move beyond aesthetics. Focusing on the classroom, Mehdizadeh’s talk started with an anecdote from her own classroom. Mehdizadeh shared an activity she uses with her own students, that asks them to describe maps. This exercise allows Mehdizadeh to confront her students with the, often colonial, narratives they have inherited that allow them to describe maps how they do. For example, Mehdizadeh relayed that her students often say a map that places the Northern hemisphere upside down is “weird.” Mehdizadeh then turned to Richard Hakluyt to underscore the necessity of asking our students to interrogate the assumed authority of a text. Mehdizadeh states that students often feel disconnected to writing, finishing with the quote in the symposium that stuck with me the most: “care and compassion are not antithetical to academic rigor.” Mehdizadeh reminds us of our ethical commitment, one grounded in Black Feminist scholarship, to care for our students and not reproduce the harm that we may have internalized in our own training. The final presentation was from Barbara Bordalejo, who stressed the value of caring for our students, asking viewers to consider cognitive justice and epistemic alienation. Through her example of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath,” Bordalejo illustrates the way that editing and analysis can do a violence to students reading that scholarship. She reminds us that Middle English studies are not neutral, and we must offer mentorship to our students so they can succeed in the field when up against challenges from the very foundation of how manuscripts are presented to us.

In such a brief post it is impossible for me to fully encapsulate the brilliance of the speakers at RaceB4Race® Education or respond adequately to their calls. However,  I do want to briefly reflect, as so much of the work of bettering ourselves and our communities must start with reflection on ourselves, our practices, and how we may have harmed or been harmed. This January’s symposium hosted smaller group meetings for graduate students and  early career faculty. I attended the  Coffee Talk: Scholar Activists  with Seeta Chaganti (UC Davis), and a theme that came up consistently, was “How do we build solidarity and be part of a space?” Coalitions can elide difference in problematic ways, privileging certain people in those spaces. Coalitions can also be difficult to form in academia which, through its competitiveness and brutality, positions people against each other, which is compounded for anyone already made to feel as if they don’t quite “fit” into what academia imagines as their ideal scholar. 

Yet, in contrast to this, RaceB4Race®  has been integral in providing community for BIPOC scholars. The generosity and care that scholars from all levels of their career demonstrate at RaceB4Race®  should be a model for other academic spaces. In academia, where diversity statements become a genre of trauma-porn or Elizabeth Warren-ing, where departments champion their decision to hire a woman of color but make no strategic changes to support and retain said woman of color, or students are bullied by faculty and admin for asking for a living wage, spaces like RaceB4Race® are a place of respite. Before the Thursday talks, Jonathan Hsy (George Washington University) shared remarks that resonated with my own feelings about RaceB4Race®, how it demonstrates the value and strength of BIPOC coalitions. In the highly hierarchical world of academia, we are actively told to disavow alliances, unless they benefit our career trajectory. Yet, the way my friends and I are surviving graduate school is through the networks we form. 

With gratitude to the organizers and speakers at RaceB4Race® Education, I encourage everyone to watch the recordings and spend time reflecting on one’s practices, particularly moments that may be uncomfortable. An antiracist committee is not enough to transform an institution seeped in colonialism. Instead, how can we form communities of care, where we provide love and support as we ask challenging and uncomfortable questions together in the aim of radical transformation? RaceB4Race® offers a model for what that might look like and we should all continue, as Duperron urges, to listen.