Black Student Union discusses racism, prejudice in panel event

UAA’s Black Student Union hosted a discussion panel called “It’s Okay to Be…” on Feb. 1 to tackle ideas about race and social constructs. While it also addressed the “It’s Okay to Be White” posters that had been hung up around campus last semester, the event presented an opportunity to discuss bigger ideas about racism, according to Nile Morris, vice president of BSU.

Robert Hockema, Elena Peyton Jones, Nile Morris, and E.J.R. David were on the panel for the “It’s Okay to Be…” event. George Martinez, special assistant to Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, served as the moderator. Photo credit: Alec Burris

“The premise of the panel discussion was to bring a rich conversation, a dynamic conversation about the tools and the narration that are used by the alt-right and neo-Nazis and white supremacists to control the narrative of African-Americans in this country,” Morris said.

Over 40 people attended the event, which lasted for about three hours.

The poster that advertised the event read, “The exploration of what it means to be human is older than any language. Yet, through language, we have built and sustained social constructs that have no biological support: such as the idea of race.”

Robert Hockema was a panelist and is also a member of the Seawolf Debate team. He says that such questions can have a direct focus on the politics around race and similar topics, making it difficult to have these kinds of discussions.

“I think some people would be very uncomfortable just because there’s sort of a breakdown of communication happening not just at the university level, but seemingly the national level where we can’t have discussions with each other unless they are safe,” Hockema said. “It’s more difficult to have discussions where people are challenged and forced to rethink their ideological paradigms a little bit more.”

It’s important to the panelists that this conversation began and will go on despite the controversial climate. For E.J.R. David, associate professor in UAA’s psychology department, the event was a great first step for difficult, necessary conversations.

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He was skeptical about attendance but by the end of the night, he says his expectations had been exceeded.

“[Even] though the event was kind of framed as a discussion about those posters that were posted around campus… I think it was important that all of us understand it wasn’t just that,” David said. “It’s about racism at a much larger scale. It’s just that those posters served as a starting point for us to have a conversation.”

Morris is unsure when there will be another similar event, but he hopes to have monthly talks to keep the conversation going. He encourages other organizations that are interested to reach out and work with the BSU.

At the end of the day, the exploration of these issues should continue with people engaging with one another, Hockema said.

The dynamics of conversation seem to be different between areas, such as a university setting versus Twitter.

“It seems like those average conversations in other spheres, you know, you can’t talk to someone who disagrees with you. If someone disagrees with you, it’s because they hate your country and they hate people who are like you,” Hockema said. “That comes from a lack of engagement and talking to each other.”

David said that he hopes there’s never an ending to the conversation.

“Once we end talking about racism, then racism has won,” David said.