Part III of Important Q&A Series with Founding and Associate Director of CASAA
Arcadia University’s three-part Q&A series with the founding and associate director of the Center for Anti-Racist Scholarship, Advocacy, and Action, Dr. Doreen Loury and Dr. Christopher Allen Varlack, respectively, concludes below. Read Part I of the series here, and Part II here.
Part of the stated goal of CASAA is to “to shape the thinking and mindset about racism across the globe.” How do CASAA members plan to meet this ambitious goal?
Dr. Doreen Loury: On the CASAA website, www.arcadia.edu/casaa, we have a series of quotations that provide a visual arc to the various goals of the Center. The statement, by bell hooks from her work, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, speaks to how the Center will work to meet this “ambitious goal”: “There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.” This statement speaks to me spiritually because I know that the revolutionary work that is required means moving our consciousness toward an ideology of antiracism and racial healing that will transform those structures that keep racism alive as an active societal agent. Just as our goals state, we will promote and support new and existing University scholarship that is related to better understanding contemporary and historical forms of racism, how notions of white supremacy create racism, and other similar foci.
Additionally, we will encourage the creation of curricula for understanding racism and antiracism and begin to develop, implement, and evaluate best practices for antiracist advocacy and action. This is the agenda for CASAA as we change our conversations and paradigms from being focused on supporting and celebrating diversity to one focused on dismantling the systems that dehumanize others. We intend to answer the charge set by President Nair’s June 1, 2020 message by illustrating just how we can reimagine our University and inspire radical change. As an institution, Arcadia has a responsibility to develop and advance an antiracism agenda that is pertinent to all of us individually and the University broadly; CASAA will play a major role in designing transformative, meaningful, and measurable ways toward meeting those responsibilities.
Dr. Christopher Varlack: In the process of conceptualizing CASAA, the members of the working group realized early on that such a complex issue as racism would require an ambitious vision since all around the world, racism manifests in different ways. After all, it is informed by histories and systems both intersecting with yet distinct from our own. Because of this, it was necessary for us to envision a center that would tackle racism across the globe while playing a pivotal role in shaping the discourse for both academic and non-academic audiences alike. Participants in the work of CASAA will help meet this goal through the production of innovative scholarship (it is important to note that CASAA recognizes multiple forms of scholarship, according to the Boyer model: scholarship of discovery, application, etc.), the sharing of scholarship through publication and presentation, and the facilitation of scholarly conversation with colleagues near and far. This includes encouraging conversation/collaboration with international scholars also working in this space along with some other exciting initiatives that we look forward to unveiling in the coming years. In Spring 2022, we have started this work by networking with other social justice centers across the country, building a framework for additional grant funding, and working to hone the Center vision–all of which is necessary to establish the reputation of CASAA as a global hub for antiracist scholarship and racial justice advocacy.
What does it mean to you to be involved with CASAA?
DL: I have always tried to operate in the spirit of Sankofa, a word from the Twi language of Ghana that means “go back and get it.” It is symbolized by a bird whose feet are firmly planted forward with its head turned backwards. Hence, the spirit of Sankofa signifies the taking of the knowledge of the past, learning from it, and using those lessons as guideposts for personal, professional, and spiritual development and living in the future. CASAA will truly embody the spirit of Sankofa by laying the groundwork/facts at its door, alongside the complicated and multifaceted history of racism, and investigating its impact on people, places, systems, and cultures globally. This quest for knowledge will be based on critical examination and intelligent and patient investigation. For me as a Black woman, I have lived with this history being truly forgotten, misrepresented, or better yet dismissed or undisclosed. CASAA can be seen as a project of “legacy restoration” that produces scholars, projects, and initiatives that will follow the lessons of Sankofa as we go back to our roots and unpack the truth and the ills of the past so we can all move forward.
We have chosen a very creative and visual way to display the ills of this past with the showcasing of Black Africana throughout the Center. These objects range from signs reporting slave auctions, to placards of segregation, even Mammy houseware, children’s games, magazines, and books all featuring exaggerated and demeaning representations of African Americans that were alien to the hardworking and dignified people I knew and grew up with. It has been an exciting expedition among the bins of my basement as Dr. Varlack and I have uncovered years of material that I had truly forgotten about. Each piece has its own story and my being able to share this disturbing history with him and the Center has conjured up some troublesome memories for me, especially when I notice the attempt by so many of the E-commerce sites like Ebay and Facebook Marketplace trying so hard to sanitize these racist images. However, alongside these problematic representations, we are also displaying artifacts and relics of many marginalized and indigenous cultures to make sure we exhibit a true and balanced picture of these cultures as part of this learning space.
It was exciting for me to learn that Dr. Varlack was also a Black Africana enthusiast, as myself, as we came together in making sure these items were part of the living and working space of CASAA. We are indeed living the tenets espoused by “Sankofa,” making sure that those horrible images are not forgotten or reappropriated. A special word of appreciation is due to Adam Hess and Matthew Borgen for their support in showcasing pieces from the various collections of African and Southeast Asian art at the Center.
CV: During my final year of high school, my literary arts teacher, Mrs. Bonny Boto, gifted me a small wood carving of an African boatsman and encouraged me to venture out into the murky unknown to share my gifts with the world. For much of my career, that has driven me to the field of education, eager to provide my students with the skills and the knowledge they would need to face the challenges of modern society while pursuing their individual dreams. CASAA, however, offers me an opportunity to make a greater impact toward societal change, not only using my knowledge/research to support students through continued teaching but also to be a voice in a global movement countering racism and the devaluing of BIPOC’s lives. This for me represents a significant turning point in my career and my life.
Too many people, as Alice Walker notes in her landmark essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” have died with “their real gifts stifled within them.” And so, I want to honor those who died with an unsung song in their souls by using my gifts to elevate underrepresented communities, to advocate for the changes they envision for a more equitable world, to eliminate the barriers to their social and professional advancement, and to build a safe space for open dialogue on the injustices that shape our human condition. CASAA is the home I have been searching for in which to make that difference.
What is one key to changing attitudes where racism exists?
DL: Changing these attitudes entails dismantling racism as a major form of political currency in our current environment. It also demands understanding the realities of racism and being able to diagnose it as a major contributor in the development of our country’s history and its ever-evolving racial landscape.
CV: First, in order to confront the systems of racism and discrimination in the modern world, we will have to adopt a multilayered strategy, recognizing that a single solution cannot resolve the deeply rooted problems that have resulted from historic racism, let alone the present and future concerns we face. That established, we need to begin with recognition of the equal humanity we all share. As the transatlantic slave trade, the Jim Crow era, the Holocaust, the persecution of Acholi and Lango peoples in Uganda under the reign of Idi Amin all reveal, just as a few examples, when we refuse to see one another as human, as brethren, we can reach the heights of depravity: the commodification and objectification of BIPOC along with the denial of their dignity, their agency, and their sense of worth. Sterling A. Brown, in his 1933 essay “Negro Character as Seen by White Authors,” addresses this issue, calling attention to the stereotyping of Black men as the “Brute Negro” in an effort to stoke racial fear and to spread a message of Black racial inferiority. That stereotype become one of the bases for the lynching tradition in the United States and the violence of the Red Summer of 1915. And yet, this is not a thing of the past, as many erroneously contend. The anti-BLM rhetoric, the incidents of racial violence and police brutality, the mass incarceration that Michelle Alexander terms “the New Jim Crow”–all of this points to the failure and/or refusal to recognize our equal humanity. Until that occurs, as my father has always reminded me, the roots of racism will only grow thicker and those who dehumanize others will further dehumanize themselves.