Ferguson panel discussion sparks important conversation about race
October 2, 2014
At first, the audience that gathered in the late afternoon of Sept. 22 at the UW-River Falls Kinnickinnic Theater seemed nervous to talk; the theater was sparsely filled, with only 60 seats occupied out of a 150 seat capacity.
The topic of the panel discussion was the Michael Brown shooting by a white police officer, and the weeks of violence since in Ferguson, Missouri.
The panel included Professor Sandy Ellis, Journalism Chair; Assistant Professor Ann Mason of Multi-cultural Education; and Professor Cindy Kernahan, Psychology Chair.
Paul Shepherd, director of Student Life, hosted the discussion starting with an introductions of the panel. Shepherd all showed several brief video news stories from different media sources which had been broadcast about the shooting and subsequent events in Ferguson.
Mason began with a statement of intent for the discussion of the racial tension surrounding the events of Ferguson.
“Focus on talking about what happens in a society and community that can create conditions like this as opposed to, we are not going to be debating about what happened with Michael Brown,” she said.
Kernahan started her opening statement with the qualification: “It’s not just about the Browns, it is about all the other places and spaces where people are monitored at a greater rate than whites.”
Kernahan then explained the common practice of watching people of color more intently for illegal behavior than whites. In stores, at public events, and in public places a person of color is used to being watched and monitored for expected negative behavior.
At first, when Shepherd invited the audience to ask questions of the panel or make a comment on the topic, the silence was briefly uncomfortable. No one jumped into the conversation immediately.
The question of the night seemed to echo throughout the theater. After a while, the thought of how uncomfortable and hard the topic of race is for most was repeated by several people in the audience. Many participants asked generally the same kind of question, wondering what people could do to start the conversation on race.
Ellis spoke of an inability or difficulty understanding other points of view when we have no concept of what that feels like or what their reality is on a daily basis. “People have different lived experience,” she said.
One woman in the audience brought up the differences in how most white parents react when their child remarks out loud, in public, about differences in skin color. The woman noted the usual parental reaction was to shush the child, sending the message that race is not talked about.
Another audience member remarked that most black parents talk about race all the time, by necessity, with their children.
“More discussion is needed about race; we should not be afraid to talk about race,” said Black Student Union member Ashley Beth Rosana. “The more it can be brought into the open, the easier it will be. UWRF describes itself as diverse but it is not, yet, but having more discussion like this panel will help. I think most people who presented wanted more time to talk and hopefully there are more of these events in the future.”
After the discussion forum, many echoed Rosana’s desire to schedule more talks on race and racial tensions. Shepherd was positive about the response and indicated more talks would be a good idea.
Christine Marriott is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.