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At Mitchell College, courses tackle inequality and controversial monuments

As protests for racial justice have erupted in cities across the country, Americans have been confronting the ripple effects of slavery through generations and the often controversial — or even outright racist — legacies of historical figures immortalized in monuments.

At Mitchell College, two professors looked to news headlines for inspiration this semester, weaving current events into their courses.

On the first day of the Marble, Monuments, and Memory: Culture and Commemoration in Society course this semester, associate professor Jeffrey O'Leary asked his students to examine photos of statues across the globe, including one right here in New London: the now removed Christopher Columbus.

He hopes to teach his students about the historical context behind monuments and statues that are still standing and those that have been beheaded, toppled or removed by protesters and politicians.

"The intent is to provide students with a perspective on monuments as a lens to understanding the past," O'Leary said, and encourage them to ask questions about whether that monument is appropriate for a public space and why people chose to erect it.

"I try to remind them and teach them that monuments don't just appear, there's always a very specific reason why they are built and placed," he said.

Nancy Parent, an assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences, is taking a different tack with her newly designed course, Beyond Skin Deep: Race, Class and Systems of Inequality.

A monumental lens

In O'Leary's course, students spend about a month learning about slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, tying in current events such as the removal of Confederate statues in Richmond and protests in Charlottesville related to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. In the latter, O'Leary discusses the ideas of white supremacy and "why people there are championing hatred."

Acknowledging the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, O’Leary, who is white, said his objective is to give students “the full story” of the past, not just “the great white narrative” taught in public schools for so many generations. He strives to teach people, through discussing monuments, about Columbus’ legacy and the repercussions of slavery using diverse perspectives.

“I think the search for racial justice in this country is an ongoing one and the notion that because slavery ended so long ago and that people need to get over it is the wrong approach because the residue of slavery and racial injustice are still with us,” he said. “The country has made tremendous strides, but you can’t just teach or know part of the story, you need to know as much of the story as you can.”

Erica Blocker, a 22-year-old senior at Mitchell, said she took the course to learn more about American history.

She is Black and Native American, and said she was glad the college was including courses that relate to current events, "especially around this time and what we see on the news."

"Where there is protests and police brutality, racism and inequality, it's good to learn more about it so that we as people can learn from our past mistakes,” she said.

In the course, she hopes to learn about the meaning behind the monuments around the country. “It's easy to glorify how beautiful a statue is, but it's beneficial to know what this statue (or) monument symbolizes,” she said. She added that the course also "teaches people that it is quite risky to build a monument without having the background knowledge of what the symbol means. It can cause quite the controversy.”

This is the second time O’Leary is teaching this course, which was first offered last spring.

Beyond skin deep

Parent, a cultural anthropologist, has been teaching introductory race and ethnicity courses. But, “With the current climate and in particular the resurgence of social movements in this country and high rates of police violence, I really wanted to develop a higher-level course where students could look at race and inequality,” she said.

The class is entirely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but she said the virtual space has given students a place to have digital conversations — an objective she had for the course.

“It’s an opportunity to look at the culture we live in every day and a chance to listen to lived experience in the classroom and outside the classroom,” she said.

Parent, who is white, started the course by having students take a test called Project Implicit, a Harvard University initiative that tests for implicit bias.

“We really have an opportunity to talk openly about lived experience and privilege, which is really important,” she said. “An important part of the work of this course is talking about whiteness as a prevailing theme throughout this country in terms of white privilege and white fragility.”

Anastasia Brady, 23, is a senior at Mitchell College enrolled in Parent’s class.

As a white transgender woman, Brady said the class has given her an opportunity to confront her own biases and privileges. She thinks confronting those things will help people better fight racism.

“When we can learn to take off our society glasses and see the world for what it really is, how it only serves a white central narrative, amongst many other societal sins," she said, "then the process of learning to combat racism and breaking down the systems can begin.”

Over the years, Brady says she has learned that "even though I am transgender, I'm still white and have a lot of privilege. Black trans women and trans women of color face the most violence in this country and worldwide. When someone says Black Lives Matter, that means ALL Black Lives Matter not just cisgender ones or heterosexual ones but ALL Black Lives Matter and there needs to be more focus on that.”

Parent said her class mostly focuses on current events but also looks into the process of nation building and the context of colonialism for understanding the history of race and racism in the U.S.

She said the racial uprising the country has seen this year is “pretty much weaved throughout the entire course in the context of social movements and resistance movements.” She said she hopes to unhook people from the “dominant narrative that you ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ and are self-made in this country” and address the barriers that are in place for people of color.

Parent wants her students to think more critically about the Black Lives Matter movement, including what it is symptomatic of and why there has been a recent flare up.

“I don't think that a more relevant subject such as racism and the systems of inequality is more important than it is right now, with the revolutions happening,” Brady said. “This should have happened decades ago, but it is hopeful to see so much change going on.”


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