Reedies Against Racism

Exploding the Canon, Episode 2

Reed student organizer Addison Bates leads protestors in a march inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, 2016 (Reed Magazine)
Reed student organizer Addison Bates leads protestors in a march inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, 2016 (Reed Magazine)

The autumn of 2016 at Reed College was tumultuous. On September 26, students organized a boycott of classes in response to recent police killings of Black people, both to allow time to mourn and to highlight the ways in which they felt Reed was failing people of color. They also put forward a list of demands—including an overhaul of the mandatory freshman humanities course, Humanities 110, which, they alleged, focused too narrowly on European history and ideas, wrongly discounting the contributions of other cultures. That same week, they would begin a year-long occupation of Vollum Hall, where lectures were held, thereby creating fissures among the faculty and kickstarting the process of changing the course.

Featured voices in this episode: Addison Bates, Eden Daniel, alea adigweme, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, Peter Steinberger, Jan Mieszkowski, Pancho Savery, Mary James, Nathalia King, and Mary Frankie McFarlane Forte. Newsreel: KOIN News.

Produced and hosted by Stephanie Bastek. Original music by Rhae Royal. Audio storytelling consulting by Mickey Capper.

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On September 26, 2016, a group of Black students at Reed College staged a boycott of classes. Chanting “Black Lives Matter, Black Reedies Matter” and accompanied by the pots, pans, and drums of a Reedie Noize Parade, students marched through campus—including briefly, through a Hum 110 lecture—before arriving at the Quad. It was shortly after the national media reported once again that two Black men were killed at the hands of police, adding to an already disproportionate rate of police killings. Addison Bates was a junior at the time:

ADDISON: It was Terence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott, Philando Castile, and Tyre King, if I’m not mistaken. And it was like me and all the Black folks that I knew at Reed were going through so much grief. And then simultaneously the institution itself didn’t seem to be in touch with or respond to the reality of the experiences of Black students at Reed.

Eden Daniel was a freshman:

EDEN: This idea of a walkout was in some ways to represent what it would be like for Black folks just to take a break. But also just knowing like what our absence meant and what that looked like and how much work we do, how much we contribute yet at the same time our lives are devalued. We bring so much value, but we’re devalued and failed by institutions like Reed.

The students assembled on the Quad, where they had set up speakers and a microphone on a make-shift stage in front of the dining hall. They taped up photographs along the brick wall of all the people who had been killed by police in recent years. Members of the college staff and faculty joined them, and the college blog, Sallyport, estimated that some 400 people of all races participated—about a third of the student body.

EDEN: We wanted to really create the space for a memorial for grief. We had an open mic. I think that was particularly powerful. We had people come to the stage. I mean, a lot of Black faculty—I remember Derek Applewhite, who’s a biology professor at Reed came. And just, it was very profound because you can kind of tell that there was a lot of these feelings that were held and shared by a lot of like, Black community members at Reed.

Students highlighted that at the time, just five percent of the student body was Black—and the average rate of Black students graduating in the past six years was 65 percent, compared to 79 percent for all students. That number doesn’t necessarily reflect the retention rate, which measures whether a first year student returns for the fall of their second year. That was rumored to be much lower for Black students, but we don’t know for sure because the school didn’t, and today still doesn’t, publicly break down that data by race.

ADDISON: But then once we were digging deeper, with the whole retention rate and all of the other ways that anti-blackness at Reed manifested, it felt deeper than just like, you know, they didn’t notice that these things were happening. It felt more like the institution itself hadn’t had respect or care for Black lives.

For a lot of students who gathered that day, the event on the Quad was their first brush with political activism—and with organizing any kind of large event. Addison had been in the Multicultural Resource Center with friends when news of the latest police killings gave them the idea for the walkout. In the span of three days, this small group had pulled together students from every class to stage the walkout. Reflecting on the event, organizers felt like something had been awakened in them that day—a desire to change things, to make things better, for Black students at Reed now and in the future. They wanted to bring their grievances to the Reed College President, John Kroger. So that same afternoon they started writing out a list of demands.

ADDISON: We invited folks of color from all throughout Reed’s community to come meet in the Info Shop and talk about our experiences of being people of color at Reed. And what we felt we needed to feel safer, to feel heard, to feel more respected and cared for at Reed. And in the span of like an hour and a half, something like that, we crafted these demands with all of those other Reed community members, and then presented them to John Kroger in the president’s office right after that.

EDEN: It felt like weeks went by, but it was like three days.

There were 25 demands in total, including hiring more tenure-track faculty of color, more transparency about Black retention and disciplinary rates, divestment from Wells Fargo and other corporations that profit from mass incarceration, and ongoing racial sensitivity training. But the demand that caught the most attention was #13, for a change in the Humanities 110 curriculum. They called for a more inclusive experience for “students from diverse backgrounds (including, but not limited to, those of different racial, gender, and socio-economic statuses) within both conference and the structural design of the course.” That meant not just changing how individual conferences were led, but changing the content of the syllabus. The protesters, who had coalesced under the name Reedies Against Racism, or RAR for short, framed these changes in some provocative questions challenging the current curriculum—questions I didn’t even think to ask when I was 18 and a freshman at Reed College, partially, I’m sure, because as a white student I hadn’t had to confront them. Here are a few of those questions, printed in an October, 2017 issue of the student newspaper, The Quest:

How effective is Hum at engaging students with the topics it seeks to present and criticize? How can students understand Hum as being distinct from the Western canon when, for many students, this may be their first formal interaction with the Western canon?

How does Hum reflect the priorities of Reed through the texts and cultures it chooses to emphasize and include in its canon? How does Hum converse with the Life of the Mind?

For Addison, these questions were intimately related to their experience in the classroom:

ADDISON: I had housing insecurity growing up. I did not come from wealth and getting to Reed … I went through a lot of culture shock, is what I would call it now. Suddenly being thrust into classrooms and in the dorm and everything, and this whole environment with folks who came from so much money, money that I’d never seen before. You know, their parents have $70,000 extra to spend on them going to Reed every year just out of pocket. So have $250,000 to spend on their kids, sometimes multiple kids. And those are the people who I was in Hum 110 with. I remember a lot of students that I was in Hum 110 with were like, oh yeah, I already read all these in high school. I felt like a fish out of water. I felt very alienated. And I was like the only Black person in my Hum 110 class. You know, I tried to communicate these things to my professor and my professor just really shut me down and was like, basically, get over yourself. To put it quite clearly, I felt stupid. And I would be willing to bet that a lot of folks who don’t come from those elite intellectual backgrounds in high school and went to prep school, da, da da, I bet you a lot of folks felt stupid in Hum 110.

And for Eden, her participation in the protests reshaped her understanding of Hum, after just a month of lectures and conferences.

EDEN: I grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood, underfunded high school, never had much exposure to a lot of these texts … so coming in already feeling a little out of my depth. I remember just the summer before kind of wondering why The Iliad was the required text … I don’t even think I got through the whole thing. So I came into it with some reservations and then contextualizing it through all of what happened through September 26th, the first glimpse at Hum was pretty negative.

This was not a new phenomenon at Reed—I think a lot of students, no matter their ethnic or racial background, felt it too. But nobody wanted to admit it, because Reed extolled the value of the Life of the Mind, of intellectualism, and, frankly, because 18 year-olds are insecure about what they don’t know. alea adigweme graduated in 2006, and has served in various roles on the Alumni Board for years.

ALEA: I did not struggle at all with feeling a sense of belonging socially, most of the time. But in the classroom, I feel like, especially in Hum, where I wasn’t that interested in the material, and I didn’t feel like it had any connection to my life. It feels like it was a kind of complicated situation that with a lot of dynamics at play.

Questioning the syllabus didn’t even occur to her.

ALEA: You know what’s funny is that I completely internalized that distance that I was talking about. So I thought it was a problem with me, honestly. And I feel like that is really common in some ways because Reed is an institution that kind of brands itself as being very kind of socially progressive, but at the same time has this kind of rigorous, very traditional, some might even say conservative academic structure. And I knew what I was getting into when I, you know, signed my name on the dotted line or whatever. But I didn’t really with Hum 110 because … it’s like I knew what Greece in the fall and Rome in the Spring meant, but that’s very different from going through it and experiencing it. I never thought, hey, this is not a flaw that I have, but it’s a flaw with the institution. And that’s one of the reasons why for me, I felt so kind of intensely supportive of the RAR protests because I thought, wow, like these students have recognized issues with the institution while they’re students and done something about it in a way that I wasn’t even really able to conceptualize in my time.

We could dial the clock back even further, to 1991, when Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, Professor of Religion, took Hum 110 as a freshman.

KAMBIZ: As a student, I probably didn’t know enough to be able to think of it as Eurocentric. I saw it as like this canon that I should know that I wasn’t taught in high school. I actually remember going back to my high school and writing a letter to all my humanities teachers and saying like, you didn’t train me well enough compared to like all these other students at Reed, I don’t know anything. I didn’t read any of this stuff. You have classmates who read half of them and things of that sort, you know, I was like trying to pronounce Thucydides, like, how do you pronounce that name?

The question of “canonicity” and that of “Eurocentrism” are distinct. For example, Reed has a Chinese Humanities curriculum centered on the Qin/Han dynasties that includes a lot of important texts like the Confucian Analects, the Dao de Jing, etcetera. So the syllabus engages with a canon, but is not Eurocentric. “Eurocentrism” literally means centering attention on Europe, but practically it means interpreting the world through the lens of Western values—which goes beyond Europe to encompass places like North America and Australia. We’re going to untangle the mess of “the West” more thoroughly in a later episode, but for now, it means looking at all cultures, whether European or not, through a European lens. From a teaching perspective, that can mean professors of European history or literature aren’t asked to stretch outside of their comfort zones to discuss other modes of thought, but professors who specialize in Islam, for example, are. Kambiz returned to Reed as a professor in 2002.

KAMBIZ: The time that it really clicked for me how Eurocentric it was, was during my interview … The person before me who I’d interviewed had apparently refused to teach in Hum 110 for whatever reason, because I got this cryptic email from one of the search committee members that said something about like, does this candidate know that part of this position requires teaching in Hum 110? And so when I got there, that was one of those things to make sure, like I knew that that was part of it. And at that moment, I realized like, oh man, I learned like all of these things in Islamic studies and I haven’t dealt with any of these sources for a very long time. And if I dealt with like Greek sources, it was in the way in which they have come into the Islamic tradition. Now, like 60 percent of my teaching is not gonna have anything to do with the stuff I actually have been spending and all this time, like the difficult Arabic texts, I’ve been trying to read and do all those things. And then, you know, my colleagues who are working on Europe, actually, their research and what they’ve trained in builds nicely with what Hum 110 offers. A lot of my training was not gonna be relevant.

Another way of thinking about how Eurocentrism might appear in Hum 110 would be to consider how it introduces the disciplines taught at a college like Reed. I asked Peter Steinberger, professor of political science and humanities, why he thought Hum was important.

PETER: What I’ve always found really useful about Hum 110 is that in many cases we are teaching students, introducing them to the disciplines by having them read what you might call the emergence or the foundational or the original works of the discipline. And that’s controversial. But my view is really, you know, philosophy in a certain sense, as we understand philosophy as a matter of contextual analysis, you really can’t find many examples of it before Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle, in terms of serious historiographical work, self-critical, so-called scientific history. There’s a lot of history in the Bible and all that kind of thing, but you don’t find that kind of self-critical discipline history before Herodotus and Thucydides. And that, that to me, makes the ancient Mediterranean world particularly interesting and particularly useful.

As Peter says himself, this is a controversial take, and not universal among the Hum faculty. But Peter has been teaching in the course for decades, and today is the longest serving faculty member in Humanities—and his perspective carries a lot of weight, even if his colleagues don’t necessarily share his opinion on this. Jan Mieszkowski started teaching German and humanities at Reed in 1997.

JAN: Look, someone like Peter—Peter will say in so many words, he thinks the Greeks invented thought. And, you know, you have to study Plato and Aristotle, or you don’t see the invention of thought. Now in contemporary academia or whatever that idea is heretical the extreme. But he doesn’t mean that in a bad way. He just thinks you can put a finger on where it happens.

Even if you don’t share Peter’s perspective on the disciples, though, you might agree that the liberal arts curriculum is in some fundamental way the European liberal arts curriculum, because that’s where our model for the liberal arts comes from.

PETER: Now, of course, this is a course in Western humanities, so we’re not doing East Asian materials. We’re not doing South Asian materials. We’re not doing South American materials. We’re not doing sub-Saharan African. So, you know, there are limitations to what we can do. On the other hand, it’s the ancient Mediterranean that we’re talking about, those materials have formed the basis of the liberal arts curriculum for better or worse. Um, and if you don’t like the liberal arts curriculum, that’s fine. Okay. But in order to criticize it, you really have to understand what’s going on first before you begin to seek to undermine it.

That’s certainly what my opinion about Greece and Rome was going in—yes, let’s critique the canon, but let’s read it first. An anti-colonialist play like Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête doesn’t hit quite as hard if you haven’t read The Tempest. As my fellow alum Michelle Nijhuis wrote in The Atlantic, “What I learned in Hum 110 is that so-called Western civilization is a narrative much like any other—except that it happens to affect just about everyone on earth. No matter where we were born or what we look like or what we believe, the narrative of Western civilization is part of the cultural water we swim in. By taking me back to the origins of that narrative, Hum 110 did me the great favor of hauling it into view—and impressing me with the universal right and duty to question it.”

But part of Reedies Against Racism was asking was how much of a challenge Hum 110 actually presented to the canon, and how well it actually trained people to read difficult texts—especially people who’d never encountered ancient sources before.

KAMBIZ: When I as first-year student read Aristotle, I didn’t understand a word I was reading. I remember actually going to my conference leader and saying like, I don’t know what I’m reading. I don’t understand it. Should I keep reading? And he was like, you know, don’t worry, it’s difficult and like, just listen to the lectures. But teaching Islam at Reed, I would always encounter this too, and it would make me very upset because people would come to me and be all like, “Well, we didn’t know what to do with this primary source you gave us because we don’t have enough background.” I’m all like, really? Who gave you background on Plato? When you sit down and read Plato, no one gave you background. You take the text seriously and you try to figure out what it’s saying. But the assumption is that that Plato’s speaking to you while the Quran is not.


So, on September 28, just two days after the walkout, students began sitting in the Humanities 110 lecture well, in front of 300 freshmen. Pancho Savery, Professor of English and Humanities, was one of the minority of faculty members who were openly supportive of the students from the beginning:

PANCHO: They were not disruptive in any way. They didn’t make any noise. Some of them held signs, but they were completely respectful of the person who was giving the lecture. Nevertheless, some faculty members were very upset. Some faculty members refused to give their lectures because they felt they were being harassed by students.

But some faculty had reservations.

KAMBIZ: I would’ve been totally comfortable joining their protests if they weren’t actually taking over Vollum Hall. Because taking over Vollum Hall meant that faculty members don’t have the freedom to be able to say what they wanna say in the terms that they would want to say. It became a space of protest. I’m particularly sensitive to that as a person who teaches Islam. Is someone gonna like hold a sign behind me that says “Islam is misogynist” when I’m teaching about Islam or something of that sort? I can’t have that. And I felt the institution shouldn’t allow for it. But the concerns that were raised were very real concerns that frankly as faculty we should have dealt with long time ago.

On October 6, there was an open meeting in the Student Union with students, RAR organizers, and the Hum faculty. The student newspaper, The Quest, published two articles about it, including one that asked: “What does it say about our school when the definition of institutional racism has to be explained to a room full of Ph.D. holders?” Student Yurel Watson was quoted as saying: “This isn’t a new issue that popped up out of nowhere. There’s been Black students and women students at Reed who’ve reacted to this [long ago]” At the meeting, a committee of six students and six faculty was created to discuss reforming Hum 110. Mary James, who at the time was professor of physics and the Dean of Institutional Diversity, helped set it up.

MARY JAMES: I’m a faculty member, and I completely understand to have someone very publicly say that you’re failing them in this thing that is the most … Faculty at Reed, being a good teacher is part of their identity. It’s not this thing they do on the side. It’s really part of their identity. And so to have folks publicly proclaim that you’re failing them at this most essential thing that you think of yourself professionally, that’s a hard hit. That’s a really hard hit. Trying to help the faculty hear the essence as opposed to kind of the rancor was a goal.

Nathalia King, Professor of English and Humanities, wasn’t on that committee, but she, like most of the faculty, was starting to think deeply about Hum 110.

NATHALIA: Two of my students from my prior humanities conference were really active in the Black Lives Matter movement. And I had lots of conversations with them about what they were doing and why they were doing it, and how effective was it was. But I think one of the things that became really evident to me is that, at that point in time, you know, during that year of protest, was that in some fundamental way, the course was failing or not reaching a very important cohort of students. And it seemed to me that it had to be possible to create a course that had the capacity, that had the cultural amplitude to reach everyone.

At the monthly faculty meeting a week later, on October 10, students observed a heated debate among faculty about whether to characterize the protests as “respectful.” This was one of the first indications, to students and onlookers at least, that a divide among the faculty over the stakes of the protests was widening.

JAN: I remember a colleague, you know, who’s this incredibly popular teacher coming to my office one day and saying like, “This student hates me.” And, you know, it was for some ostensibly political reason, and they were so shocked because it never happened to them. What was really interesting was to realize like, how many of my colleagues were really, really not used to being criticized. And particularly by the students. And again, not to be like holier than whatever—like, I mean, no one likes being criticized, no one likes not being liked, etcetera. But the simple fact that we’re being criticized was … you know, the clap back, to use the expression, was strong. And it was like, well, you know, hold on here. You know, it’s okay. One has to have a certain kind of humility with these topics.

To quote Ann Delehanty, professor of French and humanities, “[The events of the past few weeks] have provided ample evidence that we don’t know how to talk about race at Reed College.”

MARY JAMES: Americans can’t talk about race. And so why we would expect the Reed faculty in particular to be able to talk about race? For me, that was not an expectation. And this was a call to say, we can’t educate Americans and not talk about race, particularly in a foundational course in America, and particularly at a predominantly white institution. So now you’ve got a white faculty member. Let’s say 14 white kids, one Hispanic and one African-American in your Hum section, and now you’re going to talk about race? So even if you’ve decided, yes, I’m going to take on this challenge, it’s huge. So right from the start, I was thinking, well, the Hum faculty could do this, but if the pedagogy doesn’t change, this whole thing’s not going to work. This thing’s not going to work.

On October 26, after a month of three-times a week sit-ins, the faculty voted to accelerate the timeline of the regular Hum 110 curriculum review by one year. On November 7, Mike Brody, the Vice President for Student Services delivered a “November Progress Report” on the demands that RAR had delivered to President Kroger, following by another a month later. That progress included a standing committee on student success, more transparency about demographics in graduation rates and disciplinary enforcement practices, prioritizing on-campus housing for students with financial hardship, and the drafting of an anti-racism statement to bolster the existing one on diversity. Plus, two more student intern hires in the Multicultural Resource Center to focus on racial justice and first-generation college students, and more in the works for Peer Mentorship and the Office for Inclusive Community.

MARY JAMES: And then Trump was elected and everything changed. The students were so freaked out. They were 10 years old when Obama was elected. That was their idea of a president. And the fact that this country could elect Donald Trump. I mean, the level on which it just tossed their world into the dryer and tumbled it around, just cannot be overestimated. And then everybody was the enemy. So they would talk to me, but everything changed, everything.

On November 12, horrific graffiti was found on the Reed library walls, including the N-word, swastikas, profanity, and other abusive language directed at minorities on campus. Mike Brody and Mary James spoke to KOIN news about the incident:

MARY JAMES: Some students have reported to us that they feel unsafe.

KOIN 6 REPORTER: Reed College administrators say they were taken aback after hateful messages were discovered scrawled in black on the library wall. Including the message, “The white man is back in power.”

The perpetrators were never caught.

On November 14, hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and alumni rallied in the library lobby to counter the graffiti, which was swiftly erased by maintenance workers, with messages of love and support. The same day, Reedies Against Racism escalated, and took over the admission office to demand more of President Kroger: a schoolwide assembly to discuss how the administration was addressing racism at Reed, declaration of Reed as a sanctuary college on top of Portland’s existing sanctuary city status, academic accommodations for work disrupted by national events and local protests, among other demands. Students occupied the office for the entire week, around the clock until on November 18, President Kroger declared Reed College to be a sanctuary college, too.

And still, students were sitting at the front of the Vollum hall lecture every morning at 9 AM to demand changes from Hum 110.

ADDISON: It was a really scary time. I remember some white supremacist group drove around Elliot Circle to intimidate us with their flag flying in their truck. And one of our Google docs, like a signup sheet for some type of petition got infiltrated by white supremacists and they were like putting slurs on it. Someone got hate mail in their Reed mailbox.

EDEN: I was frustrated how a lot of the work we were doing, especially around Hum, was reduced to privileged liberal arts students. Like, you know, “These woke kids are just complaining about some books they have to read,” and not really understanding. I don’t know, the stakes kind of felt high, and not necessarily just about Hum, but all of the things that were going on. So it was a chance for us to like advocate for ourselves, and that looked like getting more of an equitable syllabi, whatever that looked like …. And I didn’t expect to be made those visible through the Hum syllabus at all, but I did feel like, wow, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to engage the texts that are, were always just told to me as what I should know as like the foundation for intellectual thought.

This was not a new feeling for Black students at Reed College. In fact, nearly 50 years before Eden set foot on campus, the Black Student Union had come together around that same sense of dissatisfaction with the syllabus—and on that day in November, Reedies Against Racism was taking a page out of their book.

Because in 1968, the Black Student Union of Reed College had occupied Eliot Hall to demand a Black Studies Program—and won. But just seven years later, the program would be dissolved.

MARY FRANKIE MCFARLANE FORTE: They just put something in place, a band-aid, tell us students that were involved, we kind of left. And then you don’t hear about it. They didn’t truly care.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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