Campus Conversation opens discussions on racial dynamics and inequality

Dean of Students Jenny Hall-Jones explains the procedure of the conversation after introducing the panelists. Photo by Sammi Nelson.

Dean of Students Jenny Hall-Jones explains the procedure of the conversation after introducing the panelists. Photo by Sammi Nelson.

Editor’s Note: delfin bautista prefers the pronoun “they.”

On Wednesday evening, Ohio University hosted another installment of the Campus Conversation series in the Baker Ballroom. For the second time this semester, the discussion focused on racial dynamics and inequality among Ohio University faculty, staff and the Athens community as a whole.

Dean of Students Jenny Hall-Jones opened Wednesday’s discussion by explaining the conversation’s focus and then introduced the panelist members. The panel included John Brown VI, an OU senior studying painting and drawing as well as the president of Hip Hop Congress; Shari Clarke, the OU vice provost for diversity and inclusion; delfin bautista, the director of the OU LGBT Center; Hashim Pashtun, an OU graduate student studying environmental engineering and the OU Graduate Student Senate vice president of administration and finance; John Schmieding, the director of the Athens Area Mediation Service; and Renea Morris, the chief marketing officer of the OU department of communications and marketing.

The panelists shared their personal backgrounds and highlighted their experiences of discovering racial identity.

“I always realized that I was different,” said Brown, explaining that there was never a defining moment of racial identity for him. Brown is a black individual who grew up in a military family that constantly moved.

As an artist, Brown centers a lot of his work around race, specifically on how he conceives racial dynamics and identity through his experiences. He said that because his work doesn’t always appeal to everyone else, the validity of his life experiences is often questioned by others.

“You constantly have to validate yourself,” Brown said.

Following Brown, Clarke spoke of her life growing up in an upper class neighborhood in Toledo that had a high population of black professionals. That environment surrounded her with a sense of positivity about herself and her community.

Clarke recalled the moment that she realized the color of her skin during her elementary school years. For one class activity, she and the other students were to make cut-outs of themselves. It was during that activity that her teacher gave her a black sheet of paper, which confused the young Clarke. It was then, Clarke said, that she realized she had brown skin.

Clarke also said that as she grew, she began to grow curious of the backgrounds and thoughts of other people. That curiosity helped her to develop more of an awareness and understanding of other individuals.

“I wanted to know people who were different from myself,” Clarke said.

Next, bautista spoke about how they identify as a Latino, trans, person of faith and queer individual.

“Being raised in Miami, you really don’t think about race and privilege because you’re surrounded by people of color,” bautista said. bautista grew up in Miami with immigrant parents.

It wasn’t until bautista went to graduate school that they realized there was a difference between races. They attended graduate school at Yale University, where they were one of few Latino students in their program.

While there, they were treated as a representative for all Latinos rather than as an individual. They also found themselves concerned with their acceptance to the program and whether it was actually earned or just a way to meet the school’s quota.

Next was Pashtun, an international student, who opened by questioning the participants about how they felt when he told them that he was from Afghanistan.

He asked that the participants would not prejudge him or have preconceived notions about him due to his nationality and appearance; he continued by further developing that point. Pashtun also called for more inclusion and conversation between diverse groups on campus and blurring the lines that often separate them.

“Nomenclature is wrong,” Pashtun said. “Just judge me as a human being.”

Schmieding related his story of growing up in Wisconsin, where he said it was impossible for him to separate understanding his race from racism.

“That’s how I got my idea of race,” Schmieding said. He recalled hearing slurs from people in his community about many diverse groups while growing up and how he spent a lot of his time trying to release himself from that dialogue.

Schmieding said that the process of trying to escape from that dialogue was like peeling an onion, as layers and layers still lie beneath the surface.

“It’s important for me to notice my pull to be defensive,” Schmieding said. “I don’t need to be defensive.”

Morris was the last panelist to tell her story. She grew up in the south side of Chicago, which was a primarily black community.

“Everywhere I went, everybody looked like me,” Morris said.

In the fall of her third grade year, Morris’ family moved to a mostly white neighborhood. She said that it never occurred to her that there was any cause for worry in that move.

She recalled a time when her extended family was spending time outside at her house. During that time, Morris saw a white female classmate of hers walking by her house. When the girl asked Morris why she had a white uncle, Morris was confused. She never thought of him as white, only lighter skinned. Morris then told a story of how her white friend’s mother wouldn’t let her daughter jump rope in front of Morris’ house because of her family’s skin color.

After they spoke, the floor was opened to the participants of the conversation to conduct a Q&A with the panelists. Several large, round tables filled with participants got the chance to ask the panelists questions regarding their stories and their perspectives on racial dynamics today.

One student asked the panelists about the existence of discrimination in the United States. Brown said that in order for discrimination to disappear, “society needs to be dismantled to a certain degree.”

Pashtun brought up his earlier point that a fusion between international students and American students is necessary for a better understanding between cultures. He called for students to break down barriers and strive to communicate with each other.

Another question was about the concept of privilege.

“Growing up in Miami was a privilege, because we didn’t have to think about it,” bautista said.

Clarke said that privilege can only take someone so far. She noted that as an African American woman and a “curvy girl,” she belongs to three groups that aren’t head voices in society, and often those identities can work against her.

After the Q&A finished, the discussion turned to the participants to share their personal experiences with others at their tables. Each table was provided with a moderator during that time.

At the end of the conversation, a speaker at each table gave a brief, in Jones’ words, “pearl of wisdom” that his or her group had gathered from their discussions. Many of the students resonated with what the panelists shared while also coming to terms with the stories of other individuals in their groups.

The students also shared their enthusiasm about the conversations, and many agreed that they wished to see more discussions in the future like this one.

Campus Conversation will be continuing its series with another session on Tuesday, April 7.

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