Untangling racism

Just one month after the Untangling Racism Conference held at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, racial segregation and prejudice seem to be at an all-time high. In the past few months countless celebrations have taken place, with the most recent focus on Asian Heritage Month. However, after attending the 18 April discussion “Knowledge is Power: Empowering Asian American through a Global Race Consciousness” with Dr. Nitasha Tamar Sharma, it was clear that racial prejudice was at the forefront of the conversation.

After a lecture detailing multi-racial commonalities between (mainly) African Americans and Asian Americans, given by visiting Professor Dr. Sharma, from Northwestern University, the floor was opened for discussion.

A UW-Parkside student started off the discussion claiming, “It’s disrespectful for Asians to not want to learn about black culture.”

Detailing the discussion of consumer trends, and complaining that Asians blindly market to African Americans without knowing their own marketable product, the conversation quickly shifted to power struggles and racial prejudices.

Whisper Jackson also stated, “Without the Civil Rights Movement, Asian Americans wouldn’t have the same freedoms we fought for either.”

When Dr. Sharma posed a question asking whether students thought other minorities can be racist, one student from the Parkside Asian Organization claimed that, “the only [racial] group that can truly be racist are whites because they hold all the power.”

Although Dr. Sharma attempted to defuse the statement, the majority’s reaction was a nod of approval in the audience, which is not surprising, since the given lecture was mainly demonstrative of white’s historical oppressive motives in Africa and Asia. Even though Dr. Sharma spoke of the diversity in the United States’ current government and mentioned the increasing global power of China and India, she did not dissuade students from a white-bashing impetus.  In fact, throughout Dr. Sharma’s lecture whites were largely liable for pinning Blacks and Asians against each other, for invoking religious issues between Asian countries, as well as the institution of slavery, indentured servitude, and migrant labor.

Interestingly, she left out the commonly ignored historical correlation that institutional slavery was inspired by Africa’s earlier establishment of slavery for its own citizens from the Duala of the Cameroon, the Igbo and other peoples of the lower Niger, to the Kongo, Angola, etc as well as leaving out the fact that many Arab nations held as much interest in African slavery as “whites” during the 14th century.

Another segregation- fueled argument was the bashing of cultural diversity initiatives in universities. Dr. Sharma notably remarked,  “I personally don’t believe in the idea of cultural diversity programs…we are not equal [cultures] as I stand eating my pasta invented in China for Italian day.”

While the lecture was an informative display of interesting global connections as well as demonstrative of continuing racial prejudices within marketing and public perception, solutions were hard to diagnose. If cultural diversity initiatives are dissuaded and counter-productive, then what is the alternative?

As Justin Irwin stated after Dr. Sharma’s lecture, “When can people remember we all originated from the same place?”

As Dr. Sharma pointed out there are many commonalties in different racial groups and the first step to progress is education and open dialogue.

As efforts continue with UW-Parkside’s Ethnic Studies program to combat the issues of campus racism, the concept of monthly forums becomes more appealing. As Chancellor Debra Ford has said, “We are a diverse campus that is proud of the diverse living and learning environment we offer the community.” What better place to open such hard subjects than a university setting?

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