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A Guide to Racial Literacy: NU Pop-Ups Inspire Conversation

The beginning of autumn ushered in the start of Northeastern University’s Racial Literacy Pop-Up and Speaker Event Series. The first event, titled ‘Introductions and Reflections,’ opened with Tracy Robinson Woods providing the ‘ABCs of racial justice’ to better understand the repercussions of racism around us. A, affect, describes the feelings of inclusion and exclusion happening as a result of microaggressions and institutional biases. B stands for the behaviors that arise when confronted with microaggressions and biases. And C, cognition, describes the types of thinking and presumptions that create barriers to racial literacy. In the second event, we applied this lens to Boston’s History.

With our knowledge of racist history and with Robinson-Wood’s framework, how can we (as members of a university) implement progressive change?

Matt Lee and Kylie Bemis offered reflections on this question. Bemis, a professor in the Khoury School of Computer Science notes that the line between academic and personal is a social construct. During the pop-up she discussed her gender identity – and how colonialism has created a false binary system of gender roles. In activism and scholarship, ‘facts’ may actually be socially constructed. Meaning, there is no line at all between academics, racial justice, and scholarship.  In an interview following the pop-up Bemis spoke to this, mentioning that “Statistics can be used in ways that are both good and bad. The ways that technologies can seem blind to race is actually colored by the data we collect. Bias still happens.” In fact, sometimes the idea of ‘science’ can be co-opted to misrepresent a person’s identity. In Bemis’s case, that tension arises from the concept of Blood Quantum and her ownership and right to her Zuni culture. Understanding this often is second nature to scholars in Social Sciences and Humanities. Yet, one of the strengths of these pop-ups is that not every participant is familiar with this.

Picture of Kylie Bemis
Kylie Bemis, Professor of Computer Sciences

“Statistics can be used in ways that are both good and bad. The ways that technologies can seem blind to race is actually colored by the data we collect. Bias still happens.”

Kylie Bemis

Appealing to students and community members who are new to topics of social justice is one of the things that makes the pop-ups special. It’s an aspect that inspires speaker Matt Lee. Matt Lee, a professor of Human Services, is developing a new study abroad program for Northeastern that explores recovery in post-conflict zones. In the pop up, Lee spoke at length about discovering racial identities and his development as a race-conscious scholar – specifically learning about the legacy of institutional racism. A strength of the pop-up, he notes, is its ability to expose new ideas to its audiences. He’s reminded of his own first exposure to institutional racism – which dramatically changed his goals and beliefs. He notes,  “This is brand new content for some people and we need to respect that.” Lee offers this piece of advice to newcomers: “You are stronger and braver for initiating a conversation which you haven’t done before.”

Matt Lee, Professor of Human Services

You are stronger and braver for initiating a conversation which you haven’t done before.”

Matt Lee

It’s empowering for people new to discourses of racial justice to join the discussion – but it can also be uncomfortable. Bemis hopes that these pop-ups accustom people to the feeling of discomfort. “In order for things to get better,” she said in a later conversation, “you need to be willing to be uncomfortable.”

It’s powerful advice for those of us who find comfort in the binary lines that we’ve been taught. But, as Matt Lee also noted, part of research and connecting with others is “taking risks and putting [yourself] out there.” Tracy Robinson-Woods mentioned that understanding ourselves and the systems that created us is a non-negotiable step of moving forward, especially when locating oneself historically and in the local community. The second public event in the series examined the history of Boston with an emphasis on better understanding its troubled and troubling history. We invite you to continue this conversation in our upcoming talk on Community and Policing.

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