By Victoria Anastasi
More than 150 Towson University students and faculty members came together Wednesday for a series of speeches and small group discussions about race and equality in America.
The Race Matters at Towson event, which was the third “Teach-In” held on campus within the past week and a half, focused on the recent protests in Baltimore that were kicked off after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while he was in police custody.
Retired Maryland State Police Major Neill Franklin began the event with a discussion about the history of race and policing in Baltimore, adding material from his personal experience as an undercover official in the narcotics unit.
“Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, we have systems that are racist,” Franklin said.
Franklin said the drug industry is wide open and doesn’t discriminate against anyone. He said some people join the drug trade because they are living in poverty and need money.
“People have to live,” Franklin said.
Towson alum Dayvon Love said America’s structure and institutions were built by white people. He said Americans believe that the country has made progress toward racial equality because African Americans like Barack Obama currently govern America. But Love said this is merely a facade to make it seem like black people are included in society. It is not progress, he said.
Love also said people talk about slavery in moral and emotional terms rather than economic terms because Americans are uncomfortable talking about slavery. Because of the discomfort, Americans say how sad slavery was or they would rather not bring up the past.
The event was designed to push students out of their comfort zone to address the social problems that racism causes in society and on campus, according to Bilphena Yahwon, one of the six panelists who spoke at the event.
Some of these problems include not having enough black faculty members, not integrating diversity into the curriculum, and not learning and having meaningful discussions about diversity and racism inside the classrooms, Yahwon said.
“We were tired of making people comfortable,” said Yahwon, who helped organize the event. “We were tired of events that didn’t talk about the issue at hand. That’s why we brought in race because nobody wants to talk about it. We wanted to push buttons a bit, which I hope we did.”
The panelists, including Yahwon, spoke about their experiences with racism. The panel was made of white and black students and two professors.
One black female student panelist said that Towson preaches diversity, but the university is still predominantly white. She also said that the Black Student Union is the only group on campus that requires police officers to attend their events. Another panelist, a white male, said that it is important to correct people who say racist remarks, whether they are intentional or unintentional.
All of the panelists agreed that racism is everywhere. It is on Towson’s campus and it is in daily interactions with everyone.
After the panelists spoke, the audience was divided into smaller groups to discuss two questions: What does racism/race inequality look like at Towson and what can be done about it?
One of those students who spoke on behalf of her group, Alasia McDonald, 18, said Towson should hold more “Teach-Ins” to get students educated.
“Everybody needs to talk about it because it is relevant to everyone and it’s important that we have these open discussions about it,” McDonald said, referring to racism. “I wish I went to the other ones [Teach-Ins] because it was really beneficial and I learned a lot.”
Yahwon, who works closely with the Center for Student Diversity on campus, also talked about the need to talk about social issues on campus.
She wanted the audience to walk away from the event knowing that racism exists on campus. She said students have the power to stand up and make a change. Students need to acknowledge what’s going on and be accountable for what they say or do, she said.
“If you refuse to acknowledge race issues, it’s never going to be fixed,” Yahwon said.
The downside of having events like “Race Matters,” Yahwon said, is that some students are only coming because of extra credit or because a professor is forcing them to go.
“It’s only the people who already are aware of the issue there, so you’re preaching to the choir,” Yahwon said. “How to convince someone who doesn’t face this struggle, who doesn’t think this way… how do you convince them that they need to be here? That’s one of the biggest issues that we’re now facing.”
Yahwon said one way to solve the problem would be for the university to offer a cultural competency course that all professors would be required to take. In addition, she said that five percent of the entire staff at Towson is black. Another step For Yahwon is to find out why black professors aren’t getting tenure.
Love said there is a lack of race literacy in American culture. In particular, he said, are those who are in power.
“Take the time to give yourself a chance to do the kind of study that will give you a level of literacy,” Love said.