Forum tackles racism, celebrates Roosevelt visit

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 11, 2017

By Rebecca Rider

SALISBURY — It’s time for people to start having uncomfortable conversations about race and racism. That was the message author and UNC Charlotte professor Dr. Shannon Sullivan had for guests at Catawba College’s February Community Forum held Thursday.

Sullivan was joined at Catawba by Nina Roosevelt Gibson, the granddaughter of Eleanor Roosevelt. Gibson’s visit marked the 75th anniversary of the former First Lady’s visit to Salisbury and Livingstone College in 1942 to promote equal opportunity and the New Deal.

Livingstone and Catawba College worked together to bring Gibson and Sullivan to Salisbury. Rev. Vincent Huntley and Dr. Gary Freeze helped organize the event, which was hosted in the Omwake-Dearborn Chapel on Catawba’s campus.

Sullivan and Gibson spoke in two sessions, one at 11 a.m. and one at 7:30 p.m.

During the evening session, Mayor Karen Alexander issued a proclamation in honor of the event and Dr. Jimmy Jenkins, president of Livingstone, presented Gibson with a resolution honoring the anniversary of Roosevelt’s visit. Jenkins said the historic visit “still resonates” at the college.

For local organizers, Thursday’s visit echoed that same conversation, and underlined the enduring legacy of the Roosevelts.

Sullivan is a professor of philosophy and psychology at UNC Charlotte, and is the author of “Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism.”

Her talk, “Race and racism in America: Where do we go from here?” covered the history of race as a concept, and urged people to have open, often uncomfortable conversations about race.

Sullivan said that in modern-day America, it’s common for people, particularly white people, to adopt a “colorblind” approach to race. Those who ascribe to colorblindness may say that they don’t see race, they just see people.

“And I want to argue that we have one of the most harmful strategies going forward,” she said.

According to Sullivan, ignoring race allows racism to flourish under the surface. Ideas of white supremacy did not end with the abolition of slavery or the Civil Rights movement, Sullivan said. Instead, they adapted and changed, moving to legal, political and financial institutions.

Someone who ignores race, while they may have good intentions, is also unable to spot the continued suffering of people of color, she said.

“Good intentions aren’t enough, folks,” Sullivan said. “White people’s good intentions aren’t enough …  So I’m calling this a kind of sham. Colorblindness is not going to get us out of the fix that we’re in.”

Instead, she said, white people need to acknowledge race — particularly their own — and have open, honest conversations about it in order to combat racism. They need to think about what it means to be white and to function as a white person in society.

White people never learned how to have conversations about race, Sullivan said, but they have to learn — particularly when it comes to educating their children. Doing so might involve a lot of “remedial work” and self-education, and will be uncomfortable. She encouraged people to build communities of support, and to talk to others about race and its impacts in society, a topic that may feel “risky.”

“This is not going to feel good,” she said. “I don’t have a happy ending to give you.”

It’s not work that can be done “in an afternoon,” Sullivan said, but it is necessary for the country to move forward as a unified group.

During a question and answer session following the talk, Sullivan and Gibson answered audience questions regarding privilege, demographic distributions and self-education.

Huntley and Freeze said the day was “fabulous” and “extraordinarily successful.” Huntley said he felt the visit accomplished its intended goal.

“We created the beginning of a dialogue,” he said.

He added that he’d like to have open conversations like this regularly, perhaps once or twice a year.

Freeze mentioned a luncheon held Thursday with the Catawba Black Student Union and students from Livingstone, and said he’d like to see that become a regular event.

“I think one of the goals here was to begin things, not to define answers,” he said.

Sullivan and Gibson continued their tour of the area on Thursday, paying a visit to Mooresville and meeting with representatives of Davidson College.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.