Swarthmore Professors Reach Across Disciplines to Unpack Charlottesville and White Supremacy


by Priya Dieterich 

“Why is it that the conversation we need to have might be the very reason we never speak again?” Shá Duncan Smith, Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development, presented this question to the audience during her opening remarks at the “What Happened in Charlottesville?” teach-in on Thursday evening. Her words as moderator set the stage for an event that would tackle issues that are both intellectually complicated and emotionally difficult, and which paved the way for many more difficult conversations to come. The panel of faculty were charged with discussing what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia this summer, how to confront white supremacy, and what the role of educators in this conversation should be. In August, white supremacists and white nationalists organized a rally to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in the recently renamed Emancipation Park in Charlottesville.  The protesters marched with Trump paraphernalia, confederate flags, tiki torches, and semi-automatic rifles, and shouted Nazi slogans along with other racist chants. Counterprotesters also gathered in the park to resist this display of hatred, and the protest ended in violent confrontation between the groups, including the death of anti-racist activist Heather Heyer and injury of 19 others when a protester intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.  

The purpose of Thursday night’s event at the college was “to try and give us all a venue for digesting the events of Charlottesville as a campus community,” said faculty panelist Jamie Thomas.  The event was organized at the encouragement of President Valerie Smith (who was ultimately unable to attend due to travel conflicts), and under the guidance of Peter Schmidt, Professor of English Literature, and Dean Duncan Smith, who co-moderated the panel.  The panel included Professor of History Bruce Dorsey, Assistant Professor of English Literature Gina Patnaik, Assistant Professor of Sociology Nina Johnson, Associate Professor of Sociology Lee Smithey, and Assistant Professor of Linguistics Jamie Thomas. (Johnson and Smithey are also the Program Coordinators for the Black Studies program and the Peace and Conflict Studies program, respectively.) Around 100 community members gathered to take part in this conversation about white supremacy, structural and historical racism, and the political climate that created and allowed the events in Charlottesville.  Maral Gaeeni ’18 attended the event hoping that it would be a similar experience to a faculty talk she attended last fall, on the heels of the presidential election, which included Professor Sa’ed Atshan, Professor Alison Dorsey, and President Smith.  

“Their discussions really helped me process [the election] and move forward in a way that was constructive and healthy for me. I expected something similar here, and definitely was not let down. I left having learned so much and I felt so incredibly thankful for the professors that spoke and were at times extremely vulnerable to the audience,” Gaeeni reflected afterwards.

The faculty members who spoke drew both on their expertise within their academic fields and on their lived experiences in order to unpack the social and historical circumstances of Charlottesville, and to discuss what and how we can learn from it.  Drawing on their variety of academic disciplines, the professors presented a diversity of lenses through which we might look at the question of what happened in Charlottesville.  While Dorsey highlighted the deliberate misremembering of the Civil War and the lies that are told to support that mismemory, Johnson spoke about the deliberate lies told by the country’s elite to pit working class white people against people of color and maintain the status quo.  While Patnaik asked the audience to look closely at the nuances of how the first amendment is applied to different people based on their identities, Thomas asked us to be discerning about how the language we use to describe individuals signals our beliefs and assumptions about them and their position in society.

The lived experiences of the panelists worked in conjunction with their data and academic insights to paint a nuanced picture of how they, as educators and individuals, approach the issues of white supremacy and structural racism. Professors spoke not only about about their lives today, but also about their personal and family histories. Johnson mentioned her ancestors who fought for survival so that she would have the right to be here today, and cited her mother’s wisdom with as much respect as she did statistical data. Smithey shared stories about the private school he attended in Nashville Tennessee where the principal wore a confederate soldier’s uniform. Patnaik spoke about the recent death by suicide of a family member who was in school in St. Louis, the site of recent protests due to the acquittal of a white police officer who shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011. Personal stories and moments like these complemented the thorough academic explorations of each professor, humanizing the discussion and making the space an emotionally charged one. At various points in the evening, speakers and audience members teared up or cried, making and taking space for the emotional weight and pain of the issues being discussed.

When the moderators opened the floor to questions from the audience, Professor of Sociology Sarah Willie Lebreton posed a question that circled back to Dean Duncan Smith’s opening remarks. She asked the panelists to speak on the issue of how someone like herself can reach out to people who believe a distorted view of American history, and who blame society’s problems on people of color or other marginalized groups. Further, she asked whether there was a place for her to communicate with these people at all, and if it was worth it. In response, Thomas, who had already spoken about the idea of a communicative burden that exists between a speaker and a listener, reminded us that while we should try to engage in these conversations, we must be open to the idea that we may not be truly or accurately heard.  Smithey noted that at times this communicative burden ought to fall on the shoulders of folks who are culturally and socially closer to the people whose minds we might seek to change.  Johnson, for her part, invoked anthropologist John Jackson’s instructions on how to have “impolite conversations”: you must be sure that you actually want to be in a conversation, that you are willing not just to talk but to listen, and to sometimes lose an argument for the sake of learning someone else’s perspective.  This question and its answers begin to address how members of Swarthmore’s community can bring the lessons of this teach-in out into the campus and into the world.  After the event, panelists and audience members alike voiced a desire for this event to spark further conversations.

Taylor Morgan ’19, who attended the event, hopes to see more than conversation coming out of this event.  In a comment during the question and answer portion of the teach-in, Morgan cited the fact that students can, and frequently do, graduate Swarthmore without having taken a single class that centers Black people.  In thinking about how Swarthmore’s community can confront the issues of white supremacy that underlie the events of Charlottesville and so many other recent incidents around the country, Morgan challenges Swatties to apply Afro-centrism to our daily lives and our academic curriculum.  To her, this means taking classes that focus on non-white groups in America, but it also means being taking a close look at what voices and perspectives we understand on campus. “Whose voices are you paying attention to most?,” Morgan asks, “Do you even know the name of your EVS worker? Have you ever talked to a Black student about the racism they experience on a daily basis? Do you even know what it’s like to be an undocumented student here? Have you even listened [to] or read an op-ed from a student who has it hard here or has it harder than other students?