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University, researcher silent on bizarre ‘whiteness-in-us’ campus talk

Event description is extremely difficult to decipher

A university is refusing to respond to questions regarding a bizarre “whiteness” speaking engagement taking place on its campus, with the speaker also refusing to comment on just what the event will actually address.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst this week is hosting a talk by Em Rabelais, identified as a “health ethicist and health humanities scholar with a primary focus on decentering whiteness in bio/health ethics and health professions research, education, and practice.”

Rabelais, who is a professor at the College of Nursing within the University of Illinois at Chicago, and who goes by “they/them” pronouns, is scheduled to speak at UMass tomorrow. The event is titled “Listening outside of whiteness: Make our bodies matter.”

Rabelais did not respond to multiple queries seeking clarification on what kind of information the speaking engagement is meant to impart. The College Fix had sought further details on the event simply because the listing on the school’s website is extremely difficult to decode, at least with respect to what exactly Rabelais is going to be promoting and discussing during the afternoon session.

The main body of the event listing consists of over 350 words of description that purport to describe the purpose of Rabelais’ speech. The text of that listing addresses concepts ranging from white supremacy to the “prioritization of knowledge” to spoken word poetry:

We in these institutional spaces have been told for centuries—by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, as well by the disabled, queer and trans* folx, and others—that health and healthcare is a contested political state, centered within the oppressions of whiteness and, more accurately, white supremacy. Is our refusal to listen finally entertaining a crack in the wall? Whiteness, by its defining existence, always centers itself; there is no way for whiteness to exist without holding on to and commanding in/from the center. Whiteness has always been political because every policy is built from/within whiteness, which dictates what is (ab)normal and (un)acceptable about bodies, encompassing what bodies look like and how bodies are used. Health professions and research educators attained their position(alities) only through complying with whiteness; as such, how can they/we confront the concept I call whiteness-in-us that promotes a specific transmission and prioritization of knowledge and knowledge’s sources? Grounded in listening to, reflecting upon, and believing Black feminist and intersectional discourse, I call for us to engage and disrupt the whiteness-in-us. Quite often our students, always for our patients, and sometimes we as educators and clinicians, know where whiteness resides and how it works, yet our integrations of which knowledges are normal/acceptable continue to manifest the centering of whiteness in the classroom and clinic. Students’ and patients’ impassioned pleas against whiteness are part of our daily realities and share a rhetorical goal with the artistic expressions of spoken word poetry. Spoken word is an oppositional art intended for performance and frequently embodies issues such as social and racial justice, the personal as political, and responses to normative whiteness’s (mis)understandings of the body. Because spoken word poetry centers personal, family, and community lives, it is also inherently related to health. Spoken word artists, such as FreeQuency, Muna Abdulahi, Kate Hao, Sabrina Ali, Arianna Brown, Ebony Stewart, and others, offer us a starting point to ask ourselves questions about how we center whiteness in our work as healthcare clinicians and researchers every day—even if that’s the last thing we’d want.

University officials also did not answer when asked how many people were scheduled to attend this talk, and if Rabelais was getting paid to give it.

According to Rabelais’ biography, the academic’s research projects focus on “identifying the manifestations of whiteness” and “providing clear and tangible changes to eliminate whiteness from professional policy, educational priorities, ethical codes, and teaching and research methods.”

Rabeleais uses “narrative ethics,” the website states, in order to “make apparent actors’ positionalities within structural racism, white supremacy, and professionalisms while simultaneously identifying possibilities to re-create space, practice, and education as defined by those who are demanding the change.”

Universities nationwide discuss ‘whiteness’

The University of Massachusetts Amherst is far from the only university where students are being encouraged to address whiteness in some form or another.

Humboldt State University in 2018 held a workshop series for “white folks who want to participate in conversations about race more productively” in the hope that they might “better understand whiteness and privilege.”

In May of 2019, The Fix reported on a course offered at the University of Colorado Denver called “Problematizing Whiteness: Educating for Racial Justice.” As The Fix reported at the time, students in that course were instructed that whiteness “is not restricted to actually being a white-skinned person, and instead it is a set of beliefs, characteristics, values and norms that determine somebody’s ‘whiteness’.”

Readings for the course included “White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism,” “Black Bodies, White Gazes,” “White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism” and “Handbook of Social Justice in Education.”

At one college in the U.K., meanwhile, a “Resisting Whiteness” symposium recently banned white people from asking questions during it, though organizers said white people could ask questions after the event itself was over.

MORE: White privilege lecture tells students white people ‘dangerous’ if they don’t see race

MORE: Whiteness course offers ‘corrective’ to ‘denial of dominant racial constructions’

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About the Author
Maria Lencki -- Franciscan University of Steubenville