By Emma Brentjens ’21
On June 10th, Davidson faculty published a response to systemic racism and injustices via the college’s website. In an initiative led by Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies Dr. Sokrat Postoli, 173 faculty members signed a committment to condemn racism and fight discrimination on campus.
“I read statements that different people were making in academia, and I just felt that they were not going far enough […] They were saying something without really committing to anything. And so I thought that we need something different, especially given Davidson’s history and the need for that kind of strong stance,” Dr. Postoli said.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies Dr. Yurika Tamura felt that the statement was necessary “because there are people who think that because you’re not personally or individually participating in this racial act that they don’t have to speak, and this is such a position of white privilege […].”
As she and Dr. Postoli both recently joined the Davidson faculty, Dr. Tamura wondered “first of all, why is this so late? And second, how come nobody is doing it? […] We just came here. Why are we the [ones] doing this?”
Physics professor Dr. Michelle Kuchera hopes that faculty can use the statement to generate change. “When the Black Lives Matter movement is no longer centered in society’s mind and decisions arise that can benefit the Black community at Davidson if resources are allocated, I hope we can hold this as a document that helps us allocate funds to these causes,” she said in an emailed response.
Both faculty signatories and those who chose not to sign expressed concern that the statement will not lead to concrete change. While Associate Dean of Faculty and Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Fuji Lozada stated, “I especially think it’s good for […] white people to make a statement,” he noted that “a statement like this is performative. Many of us do want change. We want action, not just performative anti-racism.”
Similarly, History and Gender and Sexuality Studies Professor Dr. Rose Stremlau shared over email, “We can’t reduce work to words. Although I am skeptical of statements, I signed in solidarity with those faculty who crafted it with intention and because I do agree with the ideas stated.”
Particularly on social media, students and faculty have debated the significance of whether professors decided to sign or not. Emily Duval ‘20 commented over e-mail that the signatures of faculty members who “in my experience during my four years at Davidson, repeatedly caused harm to BIPOC students, whether through microaggressions, erasure, or simply not listening” made her question the statement’s credibility.
While some students thought non-signatory faculty members disagreed with the statement’s values, Dr. Stremlau pointed out that “many faculty of color did not sign a statement worded to newly commit themselves to the antiracist work that they already do. […] They don’t owe anyone a signature to prove that, and their contributions shouldn’t be erased or ignored.” Likewise, Dr. Lozada stated, “I did not sign it. I’m the Chief Diversity Officer. […] Leaders of the Faculty of Color Caucus didn’t sign it.”
Roy Toston ’20 specifically mentioned Biology professor Dr. Mark Barsoum, who leads Research in Science Experience (RISE) and Strategies for Success, both of which are designed to help underrepresented students in STEM. Though the letter lists Dr. Barsoum as a signatory, “If he hadn’t signed it, I would’ve seen no issue with that,” Toston said.
While the statement includes specific action items, some students are wary of its effectiveness. Luísa Pereira ‘22’s first thought was, “Not again, Davidson, not more words and no action.” She continued in an emailed response, “We are in a vicious cycle of conversation at Davidson. We’ve been having conversations for too long.”
Morgan Martin ‘23 shared concerns of performativity, drawing connections between the statement and “Blackout Tuesday,” a social media campaign in which many users posted a black screen in support of Black Lives Matter. “I know for some people it hurt them even more just to see [Blackout Tuesday posts] because they were […] performative actions,” she said.
Critiquing the statement’s impact, Chloe DeBeus ‘21 echoed, “A written word is not changing your bylaws. It’s not changing who your Board of Trustees is. It’s not changing how many professors of color you have in the Biology department or Chemistry department. […] If you don’t follow up on your word, it is just a manipulation.”
Toston noticed a disconnect between the commitments outlined in the statement and his experience with faculty. “They said that […] they support all these groups […]; you don’t even come to our events.” Toston was involved in Fostering Inclusivity and Respect in Science Together (FIRST) along with Claudia Hernandez ‘20, who created infographics about the demographic breakdown of STEM majors at Davidson. The two noticed their fliers were vandalized and obstructed in Wall. “Faculty, you’re in there all day, you don’t see anyone doing this? You have no idea? You don’t say anything about it? So yeah, I don’t feel your support at all,” Toston said.
Comparatively, SGA President Brandon Harris ‘22 and Vice President Oğuzhan Çölkesen ‘22 thought that the statement was “a step in the right direction.” Çölkesen was happy to see faculty call on administrators to implement specific changes. One such request was that the college “investigate all accounts of racial profiling by Davidson College Campus Police, and […] take immediate and appropriate action to discipline those found responsible for racial profiling.”
“I think that instead of focusing on whether the statement’s performative, I think that we should give faculty that signed the statement the benefit of the doubt and hold them accountable to the words they put out,” Harris said. Likewise, Saidah Rahman ‘20 stated over email, “I honestly don’t have an issue with the statement itself. I care a lot more about what Davidson is going to do from here.”
“I think our statement is the first step […] I don’t think I’m qualified to propose solutions, but I do think that something needed to be said, and I think my colleagues and I said it,” Dr. Postoli explained. “It’s up to the administration to take very, very concrete steps in consultation with leaders on campus, especially diversity leaders and faculty of color, staff of color, and students of color who are willing to contribute to those efforts and then institute something that […] hopefully will go further than all previous efforts.”
Beyond the statement, faculty are looking to make changes in their departments and curricula. While Davidson prides itself on producing graduates who work to benefit the world, Biology and Environmental Studies professor Dr. Kevin Smith urged, “We need to be thinking about what we can do tomorrow and today and yesterday, here at our institution.” At a recent department meeting, faculty asked, “What are the structures that we need to evaluate and change?”
Dr. Lozada also attended a department meeting centered on “[making] Environmental Studies at Davidson anti-racist,” during which faculty discussed adding environmental justice to their departmental learning outcomes. “So that’s one thing, a very small, minor thing. […] People of color are asking for a cultural change. […] Some of it’s big stuff that we need to happen, but also some of it’s everyday stuff.”
While highlighting efforts at Davidson to foster inclusivity in STEM like FIRST, Dr. Kuchera recognized that departments need to put resources towards hiring and retaining faculty of color before tenure-track positions become available. “For example, departmental funds can be allocated to bringing in a young, diverse community of scientists for seminars or other on-campus activities. This exposes students to young scientists from diverse backgrounds while also putting Davidson on the radar of scientists who will be on the job market in the future.”
Chair of Communications Studies and Sociology professor Dr. Amanda Martinez highlighted the current work of on-campus organizations, particularly the Davidson Microaggressions Project and the Faculty of Color Caucus. To move beyond performativity, her emailed response suggested “tangible recognition, like taking up space on the official college website, elevating the work these organizations are doing, counting it in college service systems that account for the service faculty do, and supporting their endeavors with funds to pay collaboration teams and fund their events.”
Furthermore, Toston emphasized the need for an improved system to hold faculty accountable for microaggressions towards students, explaining that department chairs often dismiss students who turn to them for help. As one of three Black Biology majors last spring, he shared, “If I go report a professor for having said some microaggressive comments and I’m the only Black kid in the room, they know it’s me, more than likely. And to fault these kids for […] not being willing to step up initially and say something about that knowing that they will be the one singled out, that’s just incredibly ridiculous to me.”
Martin suggested incorporating anti-racism into Davidson’s honor code, which according to the college’s website “demands commitment to the highest personal and community values.”
Beyond campus, Rahman urged the college to be more active in the community, suggesting a scholarship fund for Black residents of the town and of Mecklenburg County. “If Davidson wants to fight systemic racism, they can start by opening doors for Black students to obtain a prestigious liberal arts degree.”
Also underscoring the importance of concrete action, Dr. Stremlau focused on how faculty can show commitment to anti-racism in the classroom. “My signature on [the statement] is truly the very least I can do to undermine white supremacy. […] Do we assign the work of BIPOC scholars? Do we recognize, address, and undermine white supremacist ideologies in our discipline? Do we build our courses using inclusive teaching methods? […].”
Pereira reiterated the importance of faculty members’ actions, saying that “in the end, faculty make their own statements every single day [in] their classrooms, [in] their office hours, [and in] their conversations with students, staff and other faculty on and off campus. Their actions (before and in the future) speak more to me about their commitment to dismantle racism and increase diversity than their signature does.”
Reporting contributed by Ariana Howard ’20