Symbolism is not enough

This op-ed appeared in the ACBJ higher ed newsletter, The National Observer.

This month Portland State University will honor Juneteenth, the day that celebrates the end of slavery in America, as a university holiday for the first time. We are joining other institutions across the country in this symbolic calendar change as we grapple with the horrific death of George Floyd and so many others — glaring evidence of ongoing systematic and harmful discrimination.

But we all know that symbolism is not enough. The effort to eradicate racism and build a truly equitable university requires a sustained institutional effort and support from the top. I want to share some of my own journey in the hopes that it is helpful to other white leaders engaged in this work.

I’ve been involved in equity efforts in higher education for years, but the experiences of the last year have added up to a personal reckoning for me and has led me to commit to learning much more deeply about the life experiences of others from different backgrounds and cultures and to focus my leadership responsibilities in a higher education institution on racial justice.

I have made equity and racial justice the top strategic priority of my presidency at Portland State. Why? Because if we can be successful in eliminating persistent and structural racism, we will usher in success for all students, more equitable working conditions for all employees, and create an environment where people feel safe and can prosper. We are in the process of launching a number of innovations to address racial justice, working harder than ever before to understand discriminatory practices and make changes that advance the success and opportunity of all.

If white leaders sincerely wish to contribute to positive change that advances racial justice, we need to undertake personal journeys. For too long, we have sat back with our good intentions — around here we call it “Portland polite” — and relied on people of color not only to lead the charge on diversity and equity, but also to educate us and help us understand. But that’s not fair. It’s too much to ask people of color to do all of the work to educate us.

As members of the dominant culture, we have a responsibility to not only provide opportunities for people of color — which we should be doing every day — but also to take some time to educate ourselves. Diversify the media you consume, pick up a book that can help you frame the issue of race in a new way. It’s an important first step in starting to make meaningful change.

For me, a book I have found very helpful in my journey is “Me and White Supremacy,” by Layla Saad. It is guiding me through the process of personal understanding and challenging my own biases as well as more clearly seeing the structural racism that exists in so many corners — of the university that I lead and in society at large. Through that text and other books and articles, I feel better equipped to work in partnership with people of color, as an ally to the fight against oppression and the effort for meaningful progress.

Societal change isn’t easy. Portland State, similar to other universities, has been targeted by those on the right as a purveyor of “woke studies” degrees. But racial equity is as much a strategic priority as a moral imperative. As white leaders, we must persist in the effort to uncover and repair harm. It’s about the people in our organizations and our communities — not about us.

Author: President Stephen Percy

Hi, and thank you for visiting! I have led Portland State University since May 2019. Before that, I served as dean of PSU's College of Urban & Public Affairs.

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