When Steve Ray first read the email asking if he wanted to participate in a weekly discussion group about race, his curiosity was more than piqued.
“When I saw the email, I immediately thought ‘I have to be part of that,’ because conversations about race —or race talk—are just fraught with all kinds of difficulty in the academic setting,” said Ray, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor and associate head of the Department of Performing Arts.
“One of the first things I said in the group was, ‘I don’t want to walk on eggshells. I want to be able to have tough, difficult conversations in a way that students learn and grow from—and I learn and grow from.’ We can’t be scared to talk about it.”
When Jonathan McNair came across that same email, he knew he had to participate, too. Southern-born and raised in a predominantly white culture, he said he had been on a personal journey regarding attitudes about race and interacting with persons of color.
“With all the protests around the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others, this is a subject that’s not going away. And thankfully, this conversation is not going away,” said McNair, the Ruth S. Holmberg professor of American music at UTC.
When it’s come up in the past in class, he has seen white students upset by perceived accusations of being racist and students of color frustrated by feeling they’re not being heard, he said.
“When the racial discussion comes up in the classroom and it starts to get heated, what are you going to do as a professor? Are you going to clamp it down and stop it? I don’t want to be that guy,” McNair said. “Are you going to clamp it down and stop it? I don’t want to be that guy,” McNair said.
Ray, McNair and nearly 40 others on campus seized the opportunity to actually talk about race.
Not long after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, Michelle Deardorff emailed faculty and staff, asking if they needed help navigating a sensitive issue.
“Are you thinking about how you will be navigating discussions on race in your classes or with students this fall? Would you like to join a small group of colleagues who are similarly wrestling with this challenge?” asked Deardorff, Adolph S. Ochs professor of government and head of the Department of Political Science and Public Service.
Forty people said “Yes;” 38 completed all seven sessions.
“I only sent out one email,” she said. “The people who took me up on the offer—faculty, staff, some administrators—came from all over campus. I have a list of other people who wanted to do it, but four groups of 10 was about all I could manage and do all the COVID-related stuff.”
She proposed a weekly Zoom discussion group to read and discuss Derald Wing Sue’s Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race. Sue is an educational psychologist who encourages readers to wrestle with their own relationship to race and recognize how their discomfort can impact the way they discuss the issue.
“This book is basically about why is it so hard to have these conversations and what does that mean for people who teach,” Deardorff said. “As he says, for a lot of white people, they’re very afraid of being seen as racist, so they’re afraid to talk.”
Krysta Murillo, a UTC assistant professor in early childhood education, said race is always part of the conversation for almost everyone, in class, on campus and elsewhere.
“I think it’s important to say that as a person of color, race and racism are almost always forefront on one’s mind,” she said. “When you are interacting with others, it’s almost always, at the very least in the back of your mind, ‘Is this a safe space for me? Is this a space where I will be seen and heard and respected?’
“George Floyd’s murder before the entire world was bad enough, but I think that was the catalyst to make every person of color take pause and say, ‘This is really bad and we have to do something.’”
The COVID-19 pandemic became the straw that broke the camel’s back, she said.
“It was very impactful for me to see that despite COVID, despite all of the warnings to remain socially distant, taking to the streets to protest a system of oppression that has made us feel as Black people that we don’t matter—we are taking back the narrative and saying, ‘We do matter.’”
Murillo said race conversations are tied into people’s ability to actively listen and carefully consider and internalize some of the perspectives of those who are very different from them.
“These talks have never been shy. They haven’t shied away from very difficult conversations about where we have come historically as a society in terms of race relations, as well as confronting all important issues here,” she said.
Darrell Walsh has seen different political climates during his time at UTC. Walsh has been a part of the UTC community for the better part of 35 years, receiving both his bachelor’s in 1988 and master’s in 1996 from the University. A former admissions and financial aid officer here, he has been an assistant professor of sociology since 2005.
As a person of color, Walsh has seen different political climates while being part of the campus community. He said the opportunity to have a voice has always been there, but the question of whether his voice was heard might have met some resistance
“For people of color, engaging in race talk exposes all of us to microaggressions that we all bring to the conversation,” he said.
“What I have learned is I didn’t realize that people who have white skin pigmentation didn’t realize their own silence and tendency to avoid having conversations. And I didn’t realize that the deep fear is sort of connected to these broader historical processes that we’ve all been affected by.”
He is optimistic that the discussion will continue nationwide.
“There are some areas of our country that we need to remedy and improve, and I think this is where I’m encouraged,” Walsh said. “With the George Floyd incident, people witnessed the inhumane treatment that was applied to another human being, and when you watched that video, that’s when we realized, ‘Wow, we’re having a problem.’”
Libby Santin, director of the UTC Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, teaches two classes in the center. These discussions on race and racism taught her that perceptions aren’t always realities, and that she needed to be aware of her own biases and privilege, which she’d never considered.
“I went to a high school in the ’80s that was part of the big white flight, so I started in a school that was 80% white and ended up in a school when I graduated that was 80% black,” she said. “I always thought, ‘I get it. I understand it.’
“I always perceived that people of color took me at my word and thought that I was being honest and fair. I thought that I was. But I now realize that because of their experiences over time, that may not always be the case.”
When she started the discussion groups, Deardorff hoped to transform them into a community of people who could trust and reach out to each other for ideas and feedback.
“I wanted people to build community and get comfortable having conversations and get comfortable having harder conversations. And as you go through the book, the conversations get more complicated,” she said.
She wanted each group to become a community of people who could trust and reach out to each other for ideas and feedback.
“This was not a book group, but real discussions where people started asking themselves, ‘Why is this so hard?’ Engaging with people, working with people and giving them the tools they need to do this hard work is how you change cultures.”