Last Tuesday, the Portland State School of Social Work created a cultural conversation on race and higher education.
Students and community members gathered in Parkway North at the Smith Memorial Student Union to hear thoughts on race in higher education from a panel of five that included students and community activists.
Panelists included students and Black Lives Matter activists Robin Davis and Tessara Dudley, Somali Student Association President and Student Labor Action Project member Ladan Abdi, BLM and All-African People’s Revolutionary Party organizer Adrienne Cabot, Co-director of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays Portland Black Chapter Leila Haile.
“We’re going to start off by asking how we define higher education. Is the current state of higher education actually working?” moderator and student Jaboa Lake asked to kick off the panel.
“I don’t see myself in the curriculum, I don’t see myself in the student body,” Davis said. “I don’t see myself in the faculty, and especially the full time and tenured faculty.”
“There are times when there are really racist things said by students that teachers let go by. There are things that are taught in the curriculum that we don’t question that are from the dominant culture that I know don’t speak to my community—that are patronizing, that are dismissive of our cultural practices in a lot of ways—and teachers don’t want to interrupt that,” Davis later continued.
“I really love my professors, and I really love my program,” Abdi said. “However, it’s really isolating being the only Muslim Somali American. People are always asking my opinion and view and I always have to prove myself.”
PSU’s website reports that just three percent of the student body identifies as African American, as of the fall 2015 academic term. In comparison, census.gov places Portland’s African American population at 6.3 percent.
“Being one brown face in a sea of white is not cute, and it can actually be psychologically damaging to someone,” Haile said.
“We see at PSU how the administration is trying to accommodate black students with cultural centers and Islamophobia teachings,” Abdi said. “To be honest, they’re trying to accommodate us but it’s really like a bandage. It’s a quick fix to a problem.”
According the Associated Students of PSU, resources for students are funded by the Student Incidental Fee, which is allocated by a small group of students on the Student Fee Committee. The SFC similarly funds athletics, educational activities, and SMSU.
Dudley criticized the process by which funds are allocated.
“Pitting communities against each other—that’s not okay,” Dudley said.
In just under two hours, the five panelists went on to discuss the recent deputization of campus police, the rise of Islamophobia and failure on behalf of the university to provide more transparency.
Dudley shared their experience finding Islamophobic posters on campus this term, a problem they say that CPSO is keeping an eye on.
“I think we need to shift the conversation about what diversity and equity actually accomplish for us,” Cabouet said.
During the second half of the panel, audience members were allowed to submit anonymous questions. According to Lake, about five people asked questions regarding what a white person can do to help in racial justice movements.
The panelists made suggestions for various organizations that white people can join to cultivate social justice change, such as Showing Up for Racial Justice and the Marilyn Buck Abolitionist collective.
“If you are a white person and you go to panels like this, that is a really great first step, but if this is all you do it is not enough,” Cabouet said.
“When folks of color call you [out] on stuff, you’re going to feel defensive in the first moment,” Dudley said. “We don’t like to be criticized. That’s real. Do not try to auto-clapback. If your friend calls you out, it’s because they feel invested enough in that relationship to help you be a better person.”
Haile and Abdi both suggested that students interested in the DisarmPSU movement join the walkout from classes on May 10.
“I think that if you are a student of color at PSU and you feel like you cannot go on, find other students of color,” Cabouet said. “PSUSU is an incredible organization, DisarmPSU is an incredible campaign.”
The next Culture & Conversation event will be held Thursday, April 28 at the Women’s Resource Center and feature panelists from We Are BRAVE, a reproductive justice organization.