RaceTalk – UW Ocean

Below is the summary that the co-Organizers (Rosalind Echols, Hannah Glover and Claire McKinley) of RaceTalk in the School of Oceanography put together about our first quarter of sessions.

The initial instigation of Race Talk book club was to create a space for folks in the department to learn about anti-racism, and anti-blackness especially in the Academy. We created this group as a response to the killing of George Floyd We took many cues from the Race Talk discussion group at Lamont (Link to LEDO’s Group)  We sent an email to all of the staff, faculty, Post Docs, Graduate Students and Undergraduate Students that said:

“There is a critical and long overdue need for discussions about race and racism within our department. It is important for white people to take ownership of doing the hard work that is so frequently placed on people of color, and especially Black people. Those of us who are white have a responsibility to educate ourselves and one another, and take action.  

With this in mind, we are starting a bi-weekly reading group that will focus on issues of race and racism, both within academia specifically and within American society more broadly. The readings will be both short-form (journal articles, newsmedia, and so on) as well as books, both fiction and non-fiction. The group will work together to develop a reading list as well as group expectations, and use these readings to identify urgent actions within our department.

Everyone is welcome. We would love to see participation from faculty, staff, grads, and postdocs of all disciplines within the department. The first meeting will be on June 10th, 2020 a day that has been designated a Global Strike for Black Lives: a day of rest for Black people and a day of work for the rest of us.” 

We start each session with a land acknowledgment and a review of the group expectations. In general, each group discussion involves 5-6 breakout groups each assigned to a slide in google docs where they take notes and outline their thoughts. Then groups rotate and look at other groups notes and discuss them. This allows us to keep a record of the discussion. 

Intentional format and use of active learning to foster community

In light of the subject matter focus of this group, the varied backgrounds and positions of the participants, and the fact that we started this group in the midst of a pandemic where most of us were working from home, we made a number of deliberate choices about how to structure each meeting. These are outline below:

  1. Set group expectations: the facilitators developed an initial list based on a combination of our own experiences as teachers, facilitators, and learners about race, as well as existing community expectations from intersectional groups. We then invited additional recommendations from group members during the first meeting. We devoted a significant portion of the first meeting just to discussing these group expectations.
  2. “Begin as you wish to go on”: each meeting began with a land acknowledgment and a review of the community guidelines. We also stated our intention for each meeting, so that participants would have a clear understanding of the goals for each discussion. The community guidelines and intentions provide a valuable reference if participants are behaving inappropriately or discussions are getting off track in unproductive and/or harmful ways, and provide a way to redirect conversations in those cases. (At a later date, we plan to focus on moving beyond the land acknowledgment towards more meaningful actions towards Native visibility and Indigenous sovereignty; for now, our goal with this is to make it an essential part of all of our work)
  3. Structured discussion: Given the online nature of the group, it rapidly became apparent that large group discussions (~30-40 people) were too unwieldy for having meaningful discussions. In addition, given the heterogeneity of the group, including undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and staff, we felt that providing specific goals and structure for the discussions, based on the reading of the week, was important for keeping discussions on track and focused. Structured, small group discussions (3-5 people), have thus far been the most effective way to provide opportunities for everyone to participate, work through their thoughts, and develop new understanding, while also working towards specific goals. For each meeting, we developed a set of prompts for small groups to discuss that were related to our stated goals (see this set of example slides). Although the precise structure varied from week to week, most of the structures were variations on a “gallery walk” or “jigsaw”, where groups would initially discuss one set of prompts, and then move on to observe and comment on what other groups had done. 
  4. Request ongoing feedback: After each meeting, we make an anonymous survey available for participants to share their thoughts on what is working, what is not working, what changes they would like to see, and to share their own recommendations about material/topics for discussion. This has been valuable in helping us to understand what the participants are getting out of the group and how we can adjust our approach to make it more effective. When we make changes based on survey feedback, we highlight this so that participants can see how their feedback is used. 
  5. Reading choices: As mentioned above, the initial choice of the book “Race Talk” was modeled after the LDEO group’s previous work, and it provided very useful common ground for later discussions. Subsequent reading choices were made in response to specific issues we have observed in our own department, our specific context in the city of Seattle, and ongoing current events. Future readings/listenings will be organized around a quarterly theme, such as “Racism in Academia”.
  6. Providing a schedule and future goals: After the first two meetings, attendees requested more information about the future plans. We started providing an outline for the next few meetings, which corresponds to ~6 weeks ahead. We explicitly state why we chose each reading and the larger goals we are working towards as a group (e.g. Next month we will be reading “Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence” and building skills for engaging in race talk outside of this group). In the future we will be organizing the readings around a theme each quarter. This provides structure for us and clarity for attendees.

Group Expectations

This is a list of group expectations we refined as a community during the first meeting. We plan to revisit and revise them periodically over the course of the Reading Group.
• Do the reading, as much as possible. If you did not complete the reading please attend but focus on listening.
•Come ready to listen and get comfortable with being uncomfortable, our goal is to introspective and look to ourselves instead of assigning external blame
•Trust Intent, Acknowledge Impact: We have to trust each other to work together, but we may hurt each other along the way. Listen when you have harmed.
• “Space for grace” while identifying implicit bias
• Leave rank and the power structure of academia outside book club
• Acknowledge: this will be hard! And revisit this thought often.
• Feel free to tell personal stories and experiences–but please keep it anonymous. And be mindful of the potential harm done by repeating racist or harmful anecdotes.
•Take away what you have learned, but do not repeat anecdotes or statements outside of RaceTalk, we want this to be a space where people can learn, without fear. 
• Learning is more important than being right. Differentiate between opinion and informed knowledge, which comes from sustained experience, study, and practice. Hold your opinions lightly and with humility.
• Honor Language an Individual Chooses for Themselves: No policing of identities.
• Avoid Harmful Language: Avoid ableist, ageist, racist and gendered language. In this space we are going to intentionally practice interjecting into harm.
• Don’t put people on the spot and don’t ask people of color, questions or to speak for everyone. And trust the experiences of BIPOC when they chose to share
• We come here from a wide variety of experience levels, financial access, and opportunities. Recognize your own social privilege (e.g., race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, occupation, position in academia) and how it informs your perspectives and reactions.
• The organizers are here to support everyone, we welcome feedback and will support your safety. You can leave your breakout room, or move rooms if you want/need to.

Summary of Discussion Materials in the Order we read them

Meeting 1 Race and racism in the geosciences by Kuheli Dutt

Meeting 2  Ijeoma Oluo’s talk at the UW School of Public Health /  Vox article by Ijeoma Oluo

Meeting 3-4  Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race by Derald Wing Sue (Two sessions)

Meeting 5
Ally-phobia: On the Trayvon Martin Ruling, White Feminism, and the Worst of Best Intentions 
When the academy wants you to be Black
Collectors Nightlights and Allies Oh My White Mentors in the Academy
What do do when you’ve said the wrong thing
How white women use strategic tears to silence women of colour

Meeting 6-7 Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Two sessions)

Below is a meeting by meeting breakdown of our intentions for each meeting and out discussion topics.

Meeting One

Reading: Race and racism in the geosciences by Kuheli Dutt

We started off reviewing the proposed group expectations. We felt it was important to come up with the group expectations and agree upon them in order to build a strong foundation for the group moving forward. We used breakout rooms on zoom to facilitate small group discussions. 

We discussed the article in break out groups, specifically these two discussion questions: 

  1. What was one thing you were surprised by/learned?
  2. The article states “A lack of diversity and inclusion is the single largest cultural problem facing the geosciences today” Identify some processes or activities that are negatively impacted by racism and avoiding talking about race.

Meeting Two

Reading: Ijeoma Oluo’s talk at the UW School of Public Health  With an alternative option of reading this Vox article by Ijeoma Oluo.

We did a warm up activity looking at what we think the racial composition of the United States is, and comparing that to what we think the racial composition of the geosciences is as well as the actual numbers. 

We discussed the article in breakout groups, specifically these three discussion questions: 

  1. What makes talking about race so challenging? 
  2. Ijeoma Oluo said “The opportunity to be anti-racist is in every system you interact with”. Think of some examples of areas of your life 
  3. Discuss a plan for yourself when you find yourself feeling defensive about a mistake, something you didn’t know, being called out, etc.

Meeting Three

Reading: Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race by Derald Wing Sue


– Define the components of Race Talk (White Talk and Back talk). 

– Discuss the stories we tell about race and how they impact our community. 

We broke the group into five breakout rooms in order to examine the Five “White Talk and Back Talk” Myths from Chapter Three of the Book: 

  1. We live in a meritocratic society
  2. Racism Is a Thing of the Past
  3. Color Blindness: Minimizing Differences or Pretending Not to See Them
  4. Invisibility of Power and Privilege
  5. Denial of Individual Racism

Each group identified the “White talk” and “Back Talk” present in this theme, and summarized them in a google slide. Then the groups roasted to look at the other summaries and answered the question “why is this Theme is a powerful myth and how it might manifest in your community?” Each group returned to their original theme to synthesize the materials contributed by all the groups. 

Meeting Four

Reading: Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race by Derald Wing Sue


– Identify and discuss guidelines for becoming and staying anti-racist

– Think about how to recognize and avoid potential pitfalls

The discussion focused on Chapter 12: Being an Agent of Change: Guidelines for Educators, Parents, and Trainers. In breakout groups we described the guidelines the identified actions that you could take to follow this guideline and then identified some potential pitfalls that well-meaning people may fall into when trying to follow this guideline.

The guidelines are: 

  1. Learn About People of Color From Sources Within the Group
  2. Learn From Healthy and Strong People of the Culture
  3. Learn From Experiential Reality
  4. Learn From Constant Vigilance of Your Biases and Fears
  5. Learn From Being Committed to Personal Action Against Racism

Then the other groups used the comment feature to add or annotate based on the discussions. 

Meeting Five

Jigsaw exercise: What to do when you screw up, what happens when allies do harm


– We are inevitably going to make mistakes as we work on being anti-racist. 

– We’re going to think about how to apologize.

– We’re also going to think about how imperfect allies do harm, and how to repair harm.

We preassigned folks in the breakout groups from week four to read at least one of the following articles: 

Ally-phobia: On the Trayvon Martin Ruling, White Feminism, and the Worst of Best Intentions

When the academy wants you to be Black

Collectors Nightlights and Allies Oh My White Mentors in the Academy

What do do when you’ve said the wrong thing

How white women use strategic tears to silence women of colour

Part One: We asked each group to summarize the article, and then summarize the main, actionable takeaways and to write this to be helpful for someone who did not read the article. Then each group rotated through the other slides and made comments.  

Part Two: We looked at a case study of a recent example of a racist comment and a public apology. We laid out the events of Alison Roman’s comments about Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo (Link to full description of events here) We shuffled the groups so that folks who had read different articles we working together and asked them to answer these questions: 

  1. Identify what the person should be apologizing for.
  2. What is missing from the apology they gave?
  3. What should a good apology for this issue include?

Meeting Five Bonus

Meeting five was the first meeting where we offered a short and optional half hour discussion we call “Race Talk in the news” for the first session we looked at some high profile examples of highly public “allies” who have done immense harm to the communities they claim to serve.

We looked first at Shaun King, who has made a career out of “waking up white people” to the realities of police brutality, anti-black racism.  

Links about Shaun King: 

Then we looked at BethAnn McLaughlin who is one of the founders of #MeTooSTEM, which  was intended to take the momentum of the #MeToo movement and highlight sexual harassment and assault in academia.

Links about BethAnn McLaughlin: 

We discussed these two questions: 

  • In what ways is their behavior problematic?
  • How do we assess our own potential harm in our efforts to be allies? 

Meeting Six 

Reading:  Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie In Race Talk Dr. Sue recommended reading fiction in order to build empathy, and so we selected Americanah. We would like to note that since this meeting we have become aware that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Trans-Exculsionary Radical Feminist and we would probably select a different book if we were to re-do the first seven sessions.


– To practice empathizing with people of a different race from your own

– To apply the “white talk/back talk” themes from Chapter 3 of Race Talk to Americanah.

We did a warm up where we asked “what themes or specific situations in this book stood out to you?” and everyone listed their thoughts in a chat. We used this word cloud to identify important themes for meeting seven. 

We assigned each group one of the myths from Chapter three of Race Talk and asked them to detail how the “White Talk/Back Talk” Theme comes up in Americanah. 

Meeting Six Bonus

The second Race Talk in the news focused on Kamala Harris’s nomination for Vice President. We wanted to talk about identifying the difference between criticizing policy/political record and criticizing the human based on race/sex/etc.

We looked at questions that have been raised about Kamala Harris:

  • Is she black?
  • Is she eligible to run for Vice-President?
  • Is it offensive to mispronounce her name?
  • Why are the conversations about these issues around her identity harmful?

This NPR article is a pretty good and relatively unbiased summary of how these issues are harmful. 

Meeting Seven

Ifemelu’s (fictional) blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non-American Black, covers the themes you identified last week really well. We used the blog posts to discuss the book. We assigned each breakout group a blog post (which are short) and asked the groups to discuss  these questions: 1) How does this blog post relate what happens in Ifemelu’s life? 2) How do you see this playing out in your own community and life?