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Posing race as a question instead of an issue to be solved

Evergreen Faculty Commencement Address — Spring 2016

Good afternoon, I would like to begin by sharing a poem. While I am not the author of this poem, the poem resonates with me in a particular way, I offer it today as a lens for understanding the content of what I will say as I stand here before you today.

Speak the truth to the people

Talk sense to the people

Free them with reason

Free them with honesty

Free the people with love and courage and care for their being.


This poem, “I am a Black Woman,” was written in 1970 by African-American poet, Mari Evans. As I begin, I would like to pay tribute to Maxine Mims.

Dr. Mims, it is an honor to be part of a commencement ceremony in which you are the honored speaker. Your words, actions, and work represent the very essence of Mari Evans words. Thank you for being the torch bearer, for preparing the space which enables me to stand on this stage today. On a more personal note, I would also like to thank you for the gracious hospitality extended to me as a new faculty member and even more so as a Black female faculty member…so very far away from home. Thank you for your wisdom and the gift and story of the octopus. To my faculty colleagues, thank you for this opportunity. I hope that my words today reflect our collective work. And to the 2016 graduating class of Evergreen State College, congratulations.

This year we witnessed on this campus how various student groups stood on the shoulders of their elders to change the discourse and social practices concerning race, gender, class, and sexuality. Your activism represents the many ways in which people can align the power of their ideas in service to social justice. Thank you.

Today, I will talk about race. My intent in talking about race is twofold—first, I hope to disrupt/dislodge a prevailing mindset which tends to situate race discourse in such a what that positions racialized others as problematic. Secondly, I wish to put forth a paradigm shift for talking about race. One which replaces the prevailing discourse and offers possibilities for new learnings.

First, we must move beyond seeing race as an issue to be solved. For when we place race as an issue to be solved, it renders people of color as being problematic. We are not problems to be solved! It is not the racists or the bigots who do this…for we all know where they stand. But rather it is well-intentioned folks who often see race as an issue in need of solving, this I believe is problematic. My aim here is not to make folks feel bad or point an accusatory finger, but rather name what I see as occurring and what I believe is in need of change.

So, I propose that instead of seeing race as an issue in need of solving, what if we situate race as a question? When race is posed as a question it challenges us to name it, talk about it, and do something about it. This requires us to move beyond a liberal self-congratulatory and incremental approach to race…for let’s face it…such an approach is not enough for the systemic change that needs to occurs. When we accept the challenge of seeing race as a question—then perhaps we can begin to envision the personal responsibility and sacrifice required to make real change to the deeply embedded acts of oppression engrained in organizational structures, routines and everyday practices. Yes, even here at Evergreen State College.

When we pose race as a question we can collectively engage in a conversation that focuses on equity, with equity goals as the center of our collective work. We can begin to equalize the quality of learning opportunities and focus on student outcomes. We can then begin to see the humanity of the students in front of us and the folks that work alongside us each day. As Dr. DeGruy stated, “I see you”. Such a move enables us to truly see one another.

So what are next steps? I believe we must follow the actions of the student groups. We must have courage. We must have the courage to face our fears when it comes to naming, talking about, and action upon race. Yes, our fears are real, but to be courageous means that one has to face one’s fears…because courage can’t exist without fear. My biggest fear is in not acting, for the consequences are dire, especially in our current climate where racist rhetoric and acts abound. This is the moment to step into the roar of our fears.

So how do we get there? I have no answers, but I do have some thoughts.

We must lean upon the wisdom of our elders who have traveled the road we are traveling for their strength and guidance. We draw upon the energy of a new movement where activism looks and sound differently, but if we listen carefully, we can gain learn new strategies. And lastly as a collective body of faculty, staff, and administrators we must act as professional knowledge producers—empowered agents to create change. To borrow from Patricia Hill Collins…we must “act as intellectual activists and put the power of our ideas in service to social justice”(p).

Phyllis Esposito, Ph.D, is a faculty member in Evergreen’s Masters in Teaching program.



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