Pres. Donald Trump continues to deny that racism exists in this country, going so far last Friday to proclaim that training dealing with “critical race theory” or “white privilege” is “un-American propaganda training sessions.”
Many Americans disagree.
That includes Gwenne Berry, Chief Diversity Officer at University of Northern Iowa.
Berry is incredulous that the memo states federal funding may be withdrawn for diversity training.
“That kind of statement,” said Berry, “that you are being threatened with your loss of funding for teaching about privilege, which does exist—it doesn’t mean you were born rich, it simply means you have the privilege of the world being designed for you.”
As part of UNI’s Cedar Valley Diversity Book Read, which Berry started when she took over as CDO, the entire Cedar Valley community is encouraged to read “How To Be An Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi.
UNI isn’t the only one backing the reading of Kendi’s book. Others supporting the community read include Waterloo Commission on Human Rights, Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart, Cedar Falls Mayor Rob Green, Wartburg College, Hawkeye Community College, YWCA, Grow Cedar Valley, Waterloo Community Schools, Cedar Falls Community Schools, and Cedar Valley Interfaith Council.
Berry hadn’t planned to pick Kendi’s book. This year’s book was supposed to be about a more general diversity issue: accessibility. Then Summer 2020 came and with it George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police.
Berry remembers that horrible day. She’d been working from home with access to the news, so she knew what had happened. Her husband hadn’t.
“He comes in and he goes into the other room,” said Berry. “And he turns the television on right to the news and I hear him screaming at the television, ‘Get off his neck! Get off his neck! You’re gonna kill him! You’re gonna kill him!’”
Floyd’s murder had a profound effect on her husband, as it did his friends and Berry.
Then the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man pursued by three White men and then shot, took the spotlight.
That’s when Berry decided the community read needed to change the focus.
“We need to talk about race,” Berry said. “We need a book that is not just going to educate us but will give some hands on methods for changing our behaviors and attitudes.”
Rev. Abraham Funchess, Executive Director of Waterloo Commission on Human Rights, agrees with the focus.
“It’s already controversial,” said Funchess, referring to the book, “because people don’t like the definition of racism Kendi provides in his book. And so we already know the fireworks are going to be there.”
All the more reason to discuss anti-racism.
“Diversity is about being uncomfortable, of getting uncomfortable with the way you see the world,” said Berry. “Realizing that the way you see the world isn’t correct.”
Last year, Funchess wrote an opinion piece, “Race is an issue in our community,” for The Courier in response to 24/7 Wall Street report, which ranked Waterloo-Cedar Falls as the #1 worst place in the country for Black people to live. He thought the denial of the report was worse than the report itself because people wouldn’t even acknowledge the problem.
He sees similarity between people’s reaction to the report and people’s reaction to changing the griffin, i.e., denial that there is a problem.
“People were saying no, the 24/7 Wall Street report is not real, it’s fake news, it doesn’t reflect anything,” said Funchess. “But we are going to hold on to the griffin, a symbol that oppresses Black people, that reminds Black people of racial terror and racial trauma. We’re saying that’s just a figment of your imagination.”
All the more reason to discuss anti-racism.
Funchess and Berry, who will both be reading Kendi’s book with groups, hope that the community will do so as well. Posters (coming soon) and social media will be used to help inspire participation. Additionally, a list of reading groups will be compiled and published online to enable others to join.
Funchess, who has participated in prior community reads, will try something new this year to encourage participation.
Every Thursday in October, he will host virtual panel discussions comprised of educational leaders, law enforcement officials, religious leaders, student activists and others. These “local celebrities” who will have read the book will discuss what it meant to them. If certain sections of the book apply to their vocation, they will be asked to focus their comments on that section.
“The idea is that people who may be reading the book in their individual groups may use those panel discussions to inspire another strand of thought in the discussions around those issues,” said Funchess.
So what is the hope for readers after they complete Kendi’s book?
Funchess would like people to admit racism is real and take action. Possible actions include attending and participating in city council meetings regularly and supporting, promoting, and/or creating policies, ordinances, and laws that effect change.
“I want them to start to question ‘why do I believe negative things about other groups of people who don’t look like me or haven’t had the same experiences I’ve had because of how they look?’” said Berry, adding that she wants people to stop believing negative stereotypes. “Getting to know you as a human being, that builds richness into our lives as opposed to always thinking ‘these people’ want my purse and ‘that person’ wants to take my car and ‘these people’ want to move into the house next door to me and using drugs … I want them to work on changing that so that they will ultimately build a fuller, richer life and then a fuller, richer world.”
UNI’s Annual Cedar Valley Diversity Book Read is underway now until Nov. 25. UNI hopes to culminate the community read with a virtual appearance by Kendi. For more information, including a list of book reading groups and the Facebook page (both coming soon), visit https://diversity.uni.edu. Additionally, a fund has been set up for those who can’t afford to buy a book. Send a request to Diverstity@uni.edu.
by Rachelle Chase
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