University uses DePauw Dialogue and cancelled classes to teach social justice

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Ashton Johnson speaks during a small group discussion over lunch.
Attendees of DePauw Dialogue were randomly assigned a room
where they conversed after both presentations.
SAM CARAVANA/THE DEPAUW

For the first time in over 100 years, DePauw University suspended classes and operations to have a campus-wide dialogue, named "DePauw Dialogue,” about microaggressions that occur on campus.

The last time DePauw suspended operations a student had just been recognized nationally for athletics. This was in 1884, and he was welcomed back with a 21-gun salute.

First-year Diamond McDonald, one of the students to first call for action, said she was spurred to action by thinking of her own experience as a black woman of color. She said she and other people of color always feel like “the odd one out.” She wanted to do something about that, but she was nervous.

“At first, I didn’t want to do [anything] because I felt like it was going to be really intense,” McDonald said. “But then I though ‘How selfish of me not to do this for future generations.”

When the day finally came, McDonald was once again nervous.

“I felt like what we were going to say wouldn’t be received,” McDonald said. “I felt like I had to have my guard up.”

She was happy to see that she could let her guard down.

President Brian Casey opened the day with a brief history of how DePauw has shaped conversations about inclusiveness.

He began with DePauw’s founding as Indiana Asbury University in 1873, in which the university was one of the first Methodist universities to not have a religious test.

In 1867, DePauw began to admit women, and in 1888, DePauw had its first international students, four students from Japan. In 1888, DePauw also graduated its first African American student, Tucker Wilson.

Casey said that in the 1980s, the University made a major institutional effort to diversity itself, leading to being named one of the most diverse liberal arts schools in the Midwest.

 “We have to understand that we are in the midst of a national moment,” Casey said.

Similar conversations have been occurring at Casey’s Alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. They introduced a six-week class titled “White Privilege Seminar: An Introduction to the Intersections of Privilege.”

Then, a little over a week ago, over 100 professors wrote a letter to The Observer, Notre Dame’s campus newspaper, addressed to a student of color that was considering transferring. Their goal was to let that particular student know that their presence on campus was valued.

Tom DeWolf (left) and Sharon Morgan right) speak about their ancestry and friendship. 
DeWolf's ancestors were slave traders and Morgan's were slaves.
SAM CARAVANA / THE DEPAUW

In 1998, Denison University canceled classes to have a similar afternoon to discuss racist events on their campus.

“There are no more difficult conversations than conversations about race,” Casey said.

In his opening remarks, he also addressed the flurry of negative comments on Yik Yak, an anonymous social media platform.

“We are not Yik Yak,” Casey said. “At a university, you attach your name to your thoughts and ideas.”

The first speaker was Derald Wing Sue from Columbia University. He began by dedicating his presentation to the late Maya Angelou. He focused on recognizing microaggressions and working toward eliminating them.

He used examples of microaggressions that he felt as an Asian American. The first was a cab driver in D.C. telling him, “You speak excellent English.” He replied with, “I hope so. I was born here.”

The second was a woman who asked him where he was from. Sue, who was born in Portland, said as much, and the woman asked him where he was born.

“What they failed to realize was the meta-communication,” Sue said.

Although both the cab driver and woman meant well, Sue said, they sent a message riddled with stereotypes.

Microaggressions can apply to any marginalized group, and Sue believes that the first step is to acknowledge that they happen.

“Oppression of another is an oppression that is painful to ourselves,” Sue said.

He encouraged the audience to work together to create a dialogue and listen to one another.

“We should not see one another as enemies,” Sue said.

After small group discussions, about 1,500 of the initial 2,000 students, faculty and staff in attendance returned to Neil Fieldhouse to listen to Tom DeWolf and Sharon Morgan speak about their book “Gather at the Table.”

“For people like me, this conversation has always been optional. For people like Sharon, it has always been mandatory.” DeWolf, a descendent of slave traders, said. “If we want to end racism, this conversation needs to be mandatory for all of us.”

DeWolf and Morgan talked about epigenetics, or the study of the impact that experience and environment have on human genetics.

 Epigenetics could be an explanation as to why it seems that hatred and aggression is passed down from one generation to the next.

However, DeWolf and Morgan talked about each individual deciding what they needed to do to engage others in conversation about race.

“If they’re willing to enter the conversation, that’s a really big step, so welcome them in,” DeWolf said.

Junior Thomas Miller thought DePauw Dialogue was a good starting point.

“It would have been great to have seen more people there,” Miller said, “but the opportunity for faculty, students and staff to come together is good.”

Professor Jen Everett of the philosophy department expressed the same sentiment.

“I’m proud of the committee that put it together,” Everett said. “They really brought in some impressive folks to help out.”

Dr. Derald Sue explains microagressions and their affects
to the audience at DePauw Dialogue Wednesday morning.
SAM CARAVANA/ THE DEPAUW

She was also proud of students for their turn out at the event.

“I think those who did cut out early were overloaded,” Everett said.

What DePauw’s next move ought to be is still up for debate.

 “I think we can certainly expect on-going efforts,” said Carrie Klaus, dean of faculty and one of the people who planned the event. “We really do have underrepresented groups here and we need to be looking at ways to improve as an institution.”

For many marginalized students on campus, DePauw Dialogue seemed like a good start.

“It opened up a lot of communication,” said junior Iesha Brooks. “I’m really happy this happened.

The day generated several ideas for individual changes to prevent microaggressions.

Cody Watson, DePauw Student Government President, said that Student Government will be pushing for follow-up events and for the discussions that began today to continue as the campus moves forward.

 “We need to make sure that students feel safe talking about these issues,” sophomore Erika Kischuk, said. “Especially when microaggressions happen.”

“I do think there’s a lot for us on an individual level,” Everett said. “But for DePauw, I’m not sure.” Everett.

Like Everett, McDonald is skeptical the University will actually change.

“Yes the conversations were good today, but I feel like that’s where we’re going to stay. History tells us that,” McDonald said. “My question is what makes DePauw different?”