By Ben Cooper
Three students and two professors at this university examined racial topics Thursday night in a roundtable discussion at Juan Ramon Jimenez Hall.
The event was hosted by Maryland Discourse, a non-partisan, politically neutral organization on campus that aims to create a more aware and engaged society, according to its website.
Gideon Epstein, director of events for Maryland Discourse, said the organization covers a wide variety of issues and aims to foster “productive, respectful dialogue” about those issues.
Epstein, a sophomore government and politics major, said the idea for the racial discourse roundtable came from Michael Spivey, a government and politics professor and Maryland Discourse’s faculty advisor.
Christine White, a criminology and criminal justice professor, joined Spivey in discussing the various issues with three students: Ja’Nya Banks, a senior special education major; Ashley Vasquez, a senior sociology major; and Tobi Olagunju, a freshman information systems and operations management major.
The discussion largely centered around getting past the idea of avoiding issues because they are “difficult.” This was accomplished through both dialogue and audience members submitting notecards of questions they had about racial issues.
A common theme in the discussion was that many students are unaware of the present issues surrounding race.
Banks shared a story of a class she took her freshman year that brought up common stereotypes such as “being followed around a store if you’re black.” A peer next to her then leaned over and asked her, “Does that really happen?”
An anonymous question from an audience member was read aloud, saying “I am just shocked that there would be hateful groups of UMD students. It’s disgusting.”
In hopes of alleviating that unawareness, roundtable members shared their experiences with racism including the ones that have occurred recently on campus, such as alt-right posters, nooses, swastikas, chalking, and most notably, 2nd Lt. Richard Collins’ murder last May.
“I grew up in a very racist, segregated culture in Columbus, Georgia,” said Spivey during the discussion. “My high school was not integrated until my senior year.”
Each roundtable member shared a variety of perspectives, which in turn gave the audience more to take away.
“I think we got a healthy dose of perspectives from every participant,” said Shawn Rabalais, a sophomore economics major. “I think people learned a lot.”
White hopes that more students will involve themselves in a discussion like the one on Thursday night. “I just think it’s important, since I already do teach a class about race, […] to engage as many students as possible because as some students on the roundtable said, some folks don’t talk about [race] at all,” she said.
White also hopes that the roundtable leads to more discussion about what the next steps should be for both students and faculty.
“I think it was productive, but I think more can be built off of it. When you have conversations, that’s fantastic, but then there has to be more,” she said.
Originally, the roundtable was supposed to have three professors, but African American studies professor Jason Nichols was not present.
Nichols made an appearance on Fox News in October and subsequently received a racist voicemail, a story that was picked up by multiple publications.