- by Mount Saint Mary College

Kevin Gannon, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) and professor of History at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, recently discussed the roots of racism and how to combat it during a series of talks at Mount Saint Mary College.

Gannon's "Being an Effective Ally" and "What Does it Mean to Be an Anti-Racist Campus?" were brought to campus by the Mount's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Social Sciences Sub-Committee. The DEI is composed of faculty and staff from many different backgrounds and disciplines. It facilitates conversations about race and racism in America, promotes diversity on campus, and fosters an inclusive environment for all members of the Mount community.

For everyone in higher education – students, faculty, and staff alike – racial equity and justice are important concerns, said Gannon. During his presentations at the Mount, Gannon examined the ways in which historical precedent and power often work in favor of white people and against other groups.

"Racism consists of micro and macro processes," said Gannon. "Racism is processual, it's structural."

One example he discussed was the Homestead Acts, which gave American families free land in underpopulated regions from about 1862 to the early 1930s (and up until about the mid-1980s in Alaska). While the program was open to people of color, many stayed away due to rampant discrimination. The result was that the majority of Homesteaders were white, said Gannon.

Now, decades and decades later, the descendants of these homesteaders are still benefiting from the actions of their forefathers. And this group of people remains predominantly white.

With the actions of our ancestors still impacting the structure of our society as we know it today, American life has become skewed towards the advancement of white people over other races, said Gannon. This is what is meant by the phrase "white privilege."

"Let's look at white privilege as a label to explain this phenomenon where white people have greater access to power and resources than people of color who are in the same situation," Gannon explained. "The stumbling block for many people as we confront this is, it's hard to talk about privilege with someone who doesn't feel like they've benefited from any specific set of privileges."

White privilege doesn't mean that white people haven't worked for the things they have earned, he said. It's more like their skin color hasn't made their lives more difficult. The same cannot be said for people of color, he added.

So how can institutions of higher education address race and privilege? They must do so in a frank and unambiguous manner, Gannon said. It is not enough to simply not be racist, he noted: students, faculty, and staff should work to be actively antiracist.

"We have to hold each other accountable, but we have to use our platform for others to stand on as well," said Gannon. Racism "is something that actively has to be dismantled, or we are allowing it to proceed."

Gannon is the author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, published in April 2020 as part of the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series from West Virginia University Press. He is a regular contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and his work has also appeared in outlets such as Vox, CNN, and The Washington Post. A scholar who studies race and racisms in US history, Gannon appeared in the 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay.


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