For these students, personal stories and respect are key to promoting racial literacy

Screenshot by Northeastern University

As a child in an overwhelmingly white school, MaKayla James’s classmates would call her “Medusa,” when she wore her self-described “big and poofy” hair in braids.

When she put her hair into a ponytail, kids would “take turns swatting at my hair because it looked like a baseball,” says James, who proudly sported braids while sharing her story during a Northeastern University panel Tuesday night.

“I have learned to be confident in what are not my differences but just my characteristics, and I’m still in the process of learning to love them,” she said. “A large part of racial literacy is unlearning racial ideals and replacing those thoughts.”

The discussion was part of an ongoing Northeastern University series focused on racial literacy. James was one of three students who shared deeply personal tales about racism’s impact on their lives. The series, sponsored by President Joseph E. Aoun’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion, examines the role of racism in history, culture, and the law. Uta Poiger, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, and James Hackney, dean of the School of Law, chair the council.

Tracy Robinson-Wood, a professor in the department of applied psychology, moderated the student panel and described racial literacy as a necessary form of global citizenship.

“Racial literacy is invitational, and it says, ‘Come, all of us come to the table,” said  Robinson-Wood. “It will bring dissonance, it will bring discomfort, and it will bring development.”

Lauren Bough, a fourth-year international affairs student, said she grappled with several identities as she grew up with Chinese, Filipino, and African ancestors.

While she became close to many Asian peers in high school, she still felt like an outsider.

“In this situation, I often felt ashamed that ‘American’ in Asian American described me better than Asian did,” said Bough. She used to question which Disney princess she liked more.

“I was Chinese like Mulan, but I had brown skin like Pocahontas,” said Bough, who came to embrace her multicultural self despite her ongoing encounters with racism.

“The fact is I am always all of these identities, but I haven’t always felt like I could be all of these at once,” she said.

Abbey Stewart, a third-year nursing student, described her ongoing commitment to difficult conversations about racism’s impact on all facets of life, even when those uncomfortable talks hit close to home.

“Of those difficult conversations, the ones that took the biggest toll on me were those with people who were incredibly important to me,” said  Stewart. She now understands that she should expect resistance when broaching these tough topics. Remaining respectful during those conversations is key.

“I value the differences in every individual journey with race,” she said.

Bough said she recently had a tough conversation with her father following some statements he made.

“I had to identify that and calmly explain why that was the case,” said Bough. “I don’t think he understood still after the conversation, but I know that that’s something that’s still ongoing and that’s a conversation that we can go back to rather than shutting that down.”

Ellen Cushman, a member of Cherokee nation and a civic sustainability professor, emphasized that life stories can help foster connections.

“For all of us, racial literacy begins with our origin stories,” says Cushman.

The next Racial Literacy livestream is on March 2, when  panelists will continue an ongoing dialogue about racism throughout history.

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