Like many of you, I was moved and enlightened by President Obama’s eulogy for Congressman Clementa Pinkney. President Obama honored those who lost their lives, and he reminded us of this nation’s history of violence based on racial hatred and prejudice. His remarks about how the deaths of those in the church stimulated “big-hearted generosity” and “thoughtful introspection and self-examination” in South Carolina and in the United States was a needed balm for all who grieve. It helps to think that these lives were not lost in vain.
I was taken with the emotion and sincerity that the President showed throughout the eulogy. However, I think he made one comment that he did not mean for us to take literally. We all know that he spoke the truth when he said that we cannot expect a “transformation of race relations overnight,” but I think his emotions were outweighing his beliefs when he said that we do not need more conversation or more talk about race. The point he was making is that we need to act on our talk. Just having conversations is not enough.
Discussions, dialogue, and discourse are the coins of the realm in colleges and universities. These are our tools and we must use the tools we have. We cannot be part of helping to achieve the vision the President painted if we don’t have the talk with our students.
I think it’s the manner in which we have historically fashioned these conversations that doom them from the start. We can’t just invite students to come to a conversation on race and expect anyone to come except those who already have what President Obama called the “path to grace,” that he described as “an open mind” and “an open heart.” A lecture on the history of racial prejudice followed by discussions won’t change a mind or heart if students have not experienced personally or vicariously through peers what it means to be the object of discrimination or violence based on racial hatred. In a world de-sensitized by violence and tragedy, empathy does not come naturally.
If we, in Student Affairs, want to participate in President Obama’s vision of not avoiding uncomfortable truths, not judging people as bad because we disagree with them, not shouting but listening, and move towards “recognition of ourselves in others, we need to set the stage for the conversations by inviting students to have conversations that are firmly grounded in the academic program of the college.
To achieve this grounding in the academic program, Student Affairs partners with faculty to expand the definition of student success to include skills essential for the workplace and for good and humane citizenship. We must convince faculty that Student Affairs can help to deepen students’ learning of the content of their courses and programs by reinforcing the content in a structured group experience where students are also learning how to influence others and be influenced by others through the development of strong interpersonal communication skills.