DWN Spring Faculty Forum: “Acting as if Black Lives [Really] Matter”

By Kris Gallagher

I feel like I shouldn’t be the one writing this blog post.

I’ve spent most of the past year working on DePaul’s B.U.I.L.D. diversity certificate, so I was immediately drawn to the topic for DWN’s Spring Faculty Forum, cosponsored by DePaul’s Black Leadership Coalition. What I heard was powerful, revelatory and often painful. I was acutely aware that I was a racial minority in the room, a feeling much too familiar to people of color.

The speaker promised us a safe space, and it was. She also said that safe spaces are frequently uncomfortable, and it was that, too. I came to listen and learn. I did, and I’m glad I attended.

About two dozen people gathered to listen to Derise Tolliver Atta, associate professor and self-proclaimed Chief Happiness Officer for the School for New Learning. She pointed out that the opinions she was about to share were her own and not DePaul’s. She then opened the forum by sharing with several African traditions, including seeking permission from her elders, sharing libations for thanksgiving and healing, and encouraging us to be warriors, healers and builders. She drew us in with a table full of items from her past, including family photos, gifts, a pair of boots for stomping on some toes, and a cheering toy elephant.

The real elephant in the room, she said, is the question that hovered over us all: “If we say Black Lives Matter, what’s the issue? Why is there push back?”

Accompanied by supportive murmurs from the attendees, she explored the emergence of #BlackLivesMatter since 2013 while noting that the actual movement predates it by centuries. The hashtag erupted from the highly publicized killings of unarmed men, women and children and the lack of consequences for the shooters.  Tolliver Atta pointed out that detractors call the movement militant, anti-police, reverse-racist, terrorist, and anti-white, but #BlackLivesMatter doesn’t say anything against others.  She encouraged us to think about why people turn a positive statement into a negative one.

“Why is there fear around these things, and what can we do about it?” she asked.

She told several personal stories illustrating how Blacks had been threatened or mistreated by whites. All of us then read the names of some of the unarmed Black people who recently were killed by police. I think it’s ironic that some white people react with fear-based anger over #BlackLivesMatter when it is so clear that the people who have the most reason to be afraid are people of color.

The development and wellbeing of each of us is important to all of us

“Black lives are systematically, intentionally targeted for demise. That’s a hard thing to hear,” she said. “It’s about spirit killing if it’s not body killing. It’s about annihilating someone psychologically, spiritually, physically, emotionally.”

Tolliver Atta explained that BlackLivesMatter is an ideological, political movement committed to resisting, unveiling and undoing the history of state-sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies.

She talked about a concept new to me: Maafa, the African Holocaust, a centuries-old and ongoing form of genocide against the mental and physical health of people of African descent. Slavery was baked into the United States when it was founded, and the systems that were put in place then continue today.

“Modern-day policing is descended from the slave patrols,” she said, “so it’s natural for police to use violence, to be overly aggressive, because that’s what they did when they started.” People need to understand history to start making change.

History transformed into present day when she and others started telling stories of what they had experienced at DePaul. I love working here and I want to believe we’re better than this, but I winced over and over again.

Black students being asked for ID in the library right after white students were not. Colleagues being surprised at prestigious degrees. Limited leadership opportunities for people of African descent. Racial profiling of faculty, staff and students. Low recruitment, retention and graduation of students of African descent. The lack of an African-American resource center. White faculty members arguing they should be able to use racial epithets.

“Privilege says that I have the right, under the guise of free speech, to say something that I know is disrespectful,” she said. “The message that is communicated is that your life doesn’t really matter.”

The problems are both systemic and institutional, she says. For example, leadership should be looking at the proportion of Black students and faculty in any program being considered for elimination.

What do we do?

So, what can white people like me do?

  • Learn about whiteness. Even if I think I am opposed to racism, I may unwittingly support systems of racism.
  • Work on discovering and countering the ideas of privilege and supremacy that we all have internalized.
  • Learn about the systems that kill Black lives—mind, body, soul and spirit
  • Become aware of how you might be silencing others by dictating the conversation.
  • Buy from black businesses.
  • Call for changing structures in the organizations you belong to.
  • Hold your colleagues responsible for the things they are saying and doing.
  • Use your own influence to work for positive social change.

“Doing the work is not necessarily going to be comfortable. Don’t expect people of African descent to carry you out of racism,” she said.

She also called people of African descent to get to work:

  • Develop oneself and don’t allow others to dim your light.
  • Recognize that you may not receive outside endorsement. Know that you don’t need it.
  • Give up hearing people who are oppressing you.
  • Affirm your own mental and spiritual self and those of others
  • Resist the myths of superiority and inferiority.
  • Reflect on your own identities.
  • Accept your Black-nificent being and celebrate personhood without oppressing others.

Then, she called for change she would like to see at DePaul:

  • Mandatory cultural competency training for faculty and staff
  • More resources and effort put into recruitment and retention of Black students and faculty
  • Town hall meetings promoting diversity discussions
  • A diversity section in the annual mandatory compliance test

“I am calling for a revolution. I am calling for a revolution at the personal, societal, global scale,” Tolliver Atta concluded.

“We have to do this. We have to do this work. Doing this work and enduring this pain”—she raps the stiletto boot heels on the table—“will get us to a place where we don’t simply say that Black lives matter, we don’t simply act as if Black lives really matter, we will actually live the reality that Black lives do matter. It will be who we are.”

That’s a future I want to be part of.

Click here to watch the full video of the event.

Kris Gallagher is a member of the DePaul Women’s Network marketing and communications team, and an associate editor in the Office of Advancement at DePaul University.

What to be a contributing writer on the DePaul Women’s Network blog? Click here for more information.

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