Panelists reflected on their experiences with race in childhood and how it shaped them and their current perspectives on race in the final “So You Want to Be Anti-racist?” session of the semester.

Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion and Director of Counseling Services Courtney Boddie said his early childhood experiences were based heavily around assimilating to a white culture. His family moved around the area often, but when he was in third grade, they settled in Troy, Illinois, which is where Boddie said he considers his roots having grown from.

“Many people who pass [Troy] on the highway think about it as a truck stop that then leads into a quiet rural space. So, if you were wondering if I may have been the only person of color in my classes, and in my residential space, and all those sorts of things, never having a teacher of color until college, you would be right,” Boddie said. “One of the things that was so difficult about that experience was that I go to school, and I’m asked to speak, sit, think, interact, et cetera in a specific way. But I go home, and the types of things we talk about at home, and the way we talk about them, the references, the movies and things, they were never there as part of the experience.”

Jerisha Rutlin, founder of the The Institute of Intrapersonal Development and community partner to the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Center, had a very different experience from Boddie.

“My upbringing was quite frankly the polar opposite from Dr. Boddie’s. I grew up in the inner city. I went to and graduated from all-Black schools. All my neighbors were Black, everyone at the grocery store was Black, so we didn’t see a lot of people who weren’t Black. So I didn’t really experience this idealization of whiteness growing up, and for many reasons, I’m grateful for that,” Rutlin said. “Sometimes, it has caused some issues, particularly when you think about assimilation, which I never learned. There wasn’t a reason in my community to learn that, because we were all very similar. I didn’t have this sense of ‘the other’ until college.”

According to associate professor of psychology Liz McKenney, since there are countless different experiences people can have, being socially conscious is a constant struggle. Additionally, McKenney said this struggle is not always a linear path.

“The continual challenge is to stay aware of the conversations people are having and the experiences people are having. When we start learning about our own identity development, we start learning about what other folks go through and what their experiences have been, we can start to think that we’re playing a game like Candy Land and our goal is to start at the beginning and go to the end, and be done and be happy,” McKenney said. “But it turns out that it’s much more similar to Chutes and Ladders. We gain skills and make progress, but sometimes we slide backward and find ourselves being challenged anew to learn more.”

McKenney is on the core planning team of the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Center. According to McKenney, one’s unique personal experience helps develop their own interactions and experiences with people of other races early in life.

“One of the things that’s important to remember is that when we’re talking about the Black American experience, when we’re talking about the experience of Latinx individuals, or Asian-American individuals, those experiences are often shaped by experiences of oppression and racism, whereas when we talk about White Racial Identity Theory, we’re talking about learning about racism, and seeing that, and then how that shapes our identity,” McKenney said.

McKenney said these experiences with racism tend to be earlier in life for non-white people, and for white people, these realities usually set in later. Once people have these experiences, she said the response can change how they view race. McKenney used the phrase, “You can’t see the forest through the trees.”

“In response to [those experiences], what many people do … is retreat to what‘s familiar. So, they retreat to the groups and identities in which they have been raised, and are comfortable and safe for them. Sometimes, what starts to happen here is we see some universal thinking about ‘the other,’” McKenney said. “When folks are in this stage, they might think of themselves and their own group as the trees, and see themselves very clearly as individuals, but see others as a forest. Like a monolith, or as everyone is the same in another group.”

According to McKenney, this struggle is difficult, but very important to both individuals and institutions. Ro Kicker, youth program manager of the National Conference for Community & Justice of Metropolitan St. Louis and a community partner to the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Center, said they were very optimistic for SIUE’s future commitment to that struggle.

“I’ve never been more hopeful for change in an institution,” Kicker said. “[Assistant Provost Jessica Harris and the Anti-Racism Task Force have] brilliant vision and this all works like a puzzle. It’s several different parts and pieces coming together to create change.”

The center has announced they will be continuing the series next semester, dates to be determined. For more information, check the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Center’s website or the Anti-Racism Task Force’s website.

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