Almost 60 students gathered in the Sankofa house living room at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 4. They were there to discuss race and racism in the media in the first of a conversation series organized by the Committee on Diversity Affairs. Students sat on the floor after the many chairs and couches around the room were filled.
“A conversation series in which we see who we’re talking to is something Lawrence needs right now” said CODA chair and senior Brienne Colston as she introduced the event, referring to conversations held over social media, particularly the local messaging app Yik Yak, whose users remain anonymous as they post. Students then went around the room sharing the gender pronouns they prefer to be addressed by and their reasons for coming.
Next, CODA internal relations manager and sophomore Aj Williams shared a presentation of several examples of racism or racial discussion in the media, including a banned Mountain Dew commercial featuring a police lineup of five black men and a goat, and a commercial drawing attention to the negative connotation of the “Redskins” team name and imagery. This second commercial never aired due to a lack of funding.
Students attending were then divided into groups of about fifteen, where they were asked to discuss the implications of the images and commercials they had just seen. Participants were encouraged to learn from one another and to remain respectful if they disagreed.
“[Small groups] are really important to discussion” said Williams, emphasizing the discomfort many people might have when discussing a sensitive topic like race. “You always have something good to say, but there’s not always going to be a moment to say it [in a large group].”
After spending 30 minutes in these smaller groups, which had dispersed throughout the house, students reconvened in the living room. At this point, it was just after 10 p.m. Members of each of the smaller groups spoke about what they had discussed, then the organizers of the event concluded with statements of their own. “We clearly think these things are important, so let’s show other people that they are important” said Williams to the group.
Although the meeting had officially ended, students were invited to stay at Sankofa and watch Disney’s “Tarzan” with house members.
“Sankofa house is new on campus this academic year, and it’s still defining its role on campus,” stated Colston, who lives in the house. “We started out with a Halloween party last term, and we wanted to start with that method because we’ve seen it work at Lawrence” she said, explaining how Sankofa was working to construct a welcoming environment. “We really want to create a safe space on campus for students of color and marginalized students … we want people to feel comfortable here.”
Senior Nancy Corona, who also lives in Sankofa, agreed that the house is important as a safe space on campus and as a setting for this type of event. “It was great to see that students who I see every day on campus cared and recognized the value of having a conversation on race and racism in the media … I think it was important to hold this event at Sankofa not only because it aligns with the house’s mission but also because Sankofa is intended to be a welcoming space for these kinds of conversations.”
Corona concluded by emphasizing the importance of having a physical space like Sankofa at Lawrence. “I hope Sankofa’s presence on campus leads to a truly more inclusive campus. Lawrence and its student body prides itself on being friendly and welcoming; that is all true, but friendly and welcoming isn’t the same as inclusive. As a senior, I wish a space like this had been around when I was a freshman.”