Ed Lee III led a College of Arts and Sciences discussion about white supremacy, called "Ed Talks on Race: From Just Talk to Justice," on Monday.
During the discussion, Lee, who is the senior director of Emory's Alben W. Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation and Dialogue, discussed why conversations about race are important.
“I believe that racial dialogue is never just taught," he said. "What we say and don't say, what we listen to and choose to ignore — they directly inform our ability to develop critical racial consciousness about power, politics and people. Language is ultimately our storehouse for our history, our traditions and our relationships.”
In order to make changes in our community, we have to engage in conversations, Lee said.
According to Lee, before the 1700s, identifying people based on race or the color of their skin did not exist. People were identified largely based on where they are from or their tribe identification.
“It was in 1795 with Johann Blumenbach, a German physician and anthropologist, became the first person to publish a paper on the notion of there being distinct races," Lee said. "Blumenbach’s research shifted the way in which we grouped humans. We went from talking about geography to focusing on skull sizes and skin color.”
Because of Blumenbach, racial taxonomies changed, and being white moved an individual to the top and being Black moved an individual to the bottom, Lee said.
Lee presented several photos of a KKK rally; a demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia; and the Republican Party summer interns with Paul Ryan, former speaker of the house, where there were no people of color in the photo. He asked if those photos depicted white supremacy.
In one breakout room, attendees described white supremacy as being aware of the social hierarchy and realizing the social, political and economic power that exists within that hierarchy and using that to exploit others.
“It's about necessarily whether you choose to exploit that and oppress others based on where you are versus someone else that may have different obstacles than you are because of their skin color,” Micah Sherwood, a fourth-year environmental science student, said.
Lee also discussed what the costs to society and our social institutions are when we define greatness based on one’s proximity to whiteness. Lee defined this question by saying there is a status that comes with being white.
Victoria Ponds, a third-year environmental science student, said as others move toward whiteness, they lose “important parts of our identity.”
Sherwood said there is hypocrisy in the United States because citizens describe themselves as a melting pot, but then force people who don’t fit into the American ideal to assimilate.
Sherwood used an example, saying the government prides itself on the minority “success stories to support its patriotic and nationalism” ideals but continues to force women of color to “change their hair because it's not seen as appropriate for the workplace.”
Pond said: “My ancestors were German, and they spoke German and they made German food, but throughout the years, they started speaking English — they started assimilating to American culture in order to gain the status of whiteness and the privileges that came with that.”
Towards the end of the discussion, Lee talked about why proximity to whiteness is considered adequate “compensation” by some for centuries of institutional failure.
“Let's continue the revolution of challenging the norms and standards that are around us, that lead to a maldistribution of opportunities and resources in our society,” Lee said.