When Darrell Jones III PO ’14, Emma Wolfarth PO ’14, Emily Glass PO ’15, and Wes Haas PO ’15 began work on bringing anti-racism activist and author Tim Wise to campus this past Tuesday, they made a conscious decision to choose a white speaker in order to attract a specific demographic.
“We wanted athletes to be there, and we wanted your average white students to be at the talk. Obviously this is a discourse that definitely does occur at Pomona, but obviously it occurs more in some circles than others, and we wanted to make it happen on a large scale,” Glass said. “We marketed it in a way that we wanted the audience to be big and different than the audience that is at many events.”
Though the decision was deliberate, it provoked controversy among students who expressed dissatisfaction with the choice.
“I wish he focused a little bit more on his whiteness and how it is playing a large factor in his success,” Joseph Reynolds PO ’15 said. “He definitely hit on it a bit when he talked about the fact that this room wouldn’t be as full had it been a person of color giving the talk, and it definitely hit hard, but I think that with all the other points that he made it can be easy for a lot of people, especially if this is the first time that they’re thinking about it, to let go of that detail.”
Both Glass and Haas compared the event to similar discussions held by the Office of Black Student Affairs, Students of Color Alliance (SOCA), or the Women’s Union, which have drawn crowds much smaller than the 300-some attendees of Tim Wise’s talk. Tuesday’s event had a demographic breakdown of around 60 percent white versus nonwhite, but it also included, according to Haas, a greater amount of students who had not previously attended events dealing with issues of race.
“To talk about or even think about matters of racism is a difficult and emotionally weighty task,” Wise said.
During the talk, Wise took a relatively basic approach to his discussion of race. He chose to address issues that surround efforts to have any sort of conversation related to the topic, rather than to delve deeply into any specific issue.
“I really appreciated the things that he said simply because they spoke to a good base level, and I think he tackled the issue of whiteness and race in general—and kind of here at Pomona—very tactfully and made people question, and I think the right people question,” Reynolds said.
“For students who had never been to a type of discussion like this, they found it incredibly informative, and it’s really gotten people talking in a positive way,” Haas said.
Getting people talking and thinking about the issues was one of Wise’s goals, as well as one of the goals of the event organizers.
“Gaining that consciousness, that hyper-alertness, to the reality of a racial lens, or to a gendered lens, or a class lens, is going to help you if you continue to talk about that. Having that critical lens is going to help people move forward into other spaces,” Wise said in his talk.
In general, the student response to Wise’s talk was positive and especially successful in terms of opening students’ eyes to the pervasiveness of racial issues.
“It made me see the way race plays a huge part in everything in our lives,” Benjamin Kersten PO ’15 said.
“I think that the issues that he’s talking about are things that people don’t get that much exposure to a lot of the time, and yet its something that I think a lot of people, at least here at Pomona, do care about and want to be more informed on, so an event like this serves that purpose,” John Verticchio PO ’15 said.
While the event accomplished what the organizers intended, Haas was adamant that the conversation is not over, and the issues are nowhere near resolution.
“The people who planned this event, all of us, we didn’t feel that this was the be-all, end-all talk. This was a talk that needed to happen to get more people on the same level before we as a community can all start talking about this and advancing the discussion and actually making progress, because right now there are people who are talking about these issues, which is great, but we all need to be talking about these issues. It can’t just be groups of people, it has to be everybody,” Haas said.
Within the context of college communities, Wise expressed a similar desire for discussion and efforts for change. He also cited diversification of campus as an important component in creating a safe environment for those discussions.
“Higher education has a moral, ethical, and practical obligation … to create a community of learners, which cannot be done when its members come from the same background,” said Wise during the talk.
In a flyer posted around campus in honor of Black History Month, SOCA cited the statistic that Pomona College has not hired a faculty member of color to a tenure-track position in the last five years, making Wise’s call for a diverse campus especially applicable if Pomona wants to uphold anti-racist values.
Pomona students also made various other suggestions for the college beyond diversifying faculty and student populations.
In reference to the title of the talk, “I’m White, Where’s My Resource Center?” students suggested that the idea, which is often treated as a joke, could be a helpful idea.
“People talked about a white resource center as a resource for white people to learn about whiteness and someone referred to Tim Wise himself as a mobile white resource center,” Haas said.
He continued, suggesting curricular changes as another option.
“Our breadth requirements and all that are very indicative of our actual values compared with what we might say, so I feel like if we’re going to be serious about this, that’s one way of addressing this,” Haas said.