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Speaking Out

May 10, 2011, Volume 57, No. 33

An Open Letter to Faculty at the University of Pennsylvania

Recently, one of our Penn undergraduates—Christopher Abreu—was the victim of two separate incidents of racist treatment while walking through campus in the early hours of the morning. Christopher (a Black male student) was confronted by some of his White peers who, according to Christopher, were intoxicated. These students mocked him, hurled racial slurs and stereotypes at him, and questioned whether or not he belonged at Penn. In response to this incident, Christopher wrote a first-person guest column for The Daily Pennsylvanian (DP) calling into question Penn’s suitability for minority students and the institution’s commitment to fostering an inclusive community.

In response to Christopher’ s essay, many students and alumni posted comments on the DP’s website. Some comments were supportive, but too many only served to confirm the presence of deep prejudice, racial misunderstanding, anger, fear, and racism here at Penn. 

The fact is that Black students and other students of color experience racial microaggressions on a regular basis, both on and off campus. The accumulation of these experiences can and often does have negative effects on these students’ academic outcomes, psychological wellness, and sense of belonging at Penn. Certainly, the environment for students of color is better than it was in the past; however, recent events—and some responses to those events—make it painfully clear that we still have a long way to go.  Getting us all onto the same campus is not sufficient for ensuring that our community is at all times, and in all circumstances, cognizant and respectful of our common humanity. 

As faculty affiliated with Penn’s Center for Africana Studies, we urge our colleagues across the University to reflect upon the incident involving Christopher as well as the Penn community’s responses to it.  Incidents like this can cause a great deal of pain to many individuals on campus; as members of this community, we all have a responsibility to work together to create a campus climate that condemns the denial of the basic humanity of any of our community members, both on and off campus.  We as faculty must challenge uninformed students in our classrooms, and provide an environment in which they recognize and respect the full humanity of those they perceive as “different” or as “the other.”  We cannot assume that students come to Penn having learned to be accepting of difference, or that they fully understand the toll that intolerance takes on its targets, or on the community more broadly.  And, all of us—faculty, administrators, staff, and students—as members of the Penn community, are responsible for doing everything in our power to create and maintain a safe and transformational learning environment for all students, respecting individual differences as well as our common humanity, in the same way that we respect differences of opinion, worldview, and methodological approaches.

Perhaps the most devastating aspect of Christopher’s experience was being told that he doesn’t belong at Penn. As faculty, we must be clear, always, that all our students—no matter their race/ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, social class status, the School through which they matriculate, their age, or any individual opinions to the contrary—are valuable assets to our community and to the world. They all belong here. We all belong here. Christopher Abreu belongs here. In two weeks, he will graduate cum laude with a degree in English, and we should all celebrate his accomplishment. 

As faculty members committed to creating a learning environment that is supportive of all students, we urge our colleagues to find ways to openly discuss and, when necessary, challenge the negative aspects of the campus climate in honest, meaningful, and transformative ways. 

We stand behind Christopher Abreu and all students who have been denied their basic humanity as victims of racism and all other “isms.” We support and commend Christopher’s courage in coming forward, and all those in our community who have supported him both publicly and privately. We should not tolerate this kind of behavior at the University of Pennsylvania.

—Regina Austin,
William A. Schnader Professor of Law

—Cheikh Anta Mbacke Babou,
Associate Professor of History

—Herman Beavers, Associate Professor of English

—Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought, Professor of History

—Anthea D. Butler,
Associate Professor of Religious Studies

—Lee V. Cassanelli,
Associate Professor of History
—Virginia W. Chang, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Sociology

—Camille Z. Charles,
Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Social Sciences,
Professor of Sociology and Education, Director, Center for Africana Studies, Chair-Elect, Faculty Senate

—Christopher Lance Coleman,
Fagin Term Associate Professor of Nursing and Multicultural Diversity,
Associate Professor of Nursing in Psychiatry

—Thadious Davis, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought, Professor of English

—Ezekiel Dixon-Román, Assistant Professor of Social Policy & Practice

—Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, Associate Professor of History

—Damon W. Freeman, Assistant Professor of Social Policy & Practice

—Vivian L. Gadsden,
William T. Carter Professor of Child Development and Education,
Professor of Education

—Marybeth Gasman, Professor of Education

—Daniel Q. Gillion, Assistant Professor of Political Science

—Larry Gladney, Professor of Physics and Astronomy

—Steven Hahn,Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of History

—Shaun R. Harper, Associate Professor of Education

—Theodore Hershberg, Professor of Public Policy and History

—John L. Jackson, Jr., Richard Perry University Professor of Communication and Anthropology

—Tsitsi Jaji, Assistant Professor of English

—John B. Jemmott, III, Kenneth B. Clark Professor of Communication, Professor of Communication in Psychiatry

—Loretta Sweet Jemmott, van Ameringen Professor in Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing

—Michael Katz, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History

—Shiriki K. Kumanyika, Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology

—Monica Miller, Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Africana Studies

—Georgette Chapman Phillips,
David B. Ford Professor of Real Estate, Professor of Legal Studies, Vice Dean, Wharton Undergraduate Division

—Eve Troutt Powell, Associate Professor of History

—Guthrie Ramsey,Jr., Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music

—Adolph Reed, Professor of Political Science

—Timothy Rommen, Associate Professor of Music

—Barbara D. Savage, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought, Professor of History

—Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Associate Professor of History of Art

—Kenneth L. Shropshire, David W. Hauck Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics

—Howard C. Stevenson, Associate Professor of Education

—Deborah A. Thomas, Associate Professor of Anthropology

—Salamishah Tillet, Assistant Professor of English

—Tamara Walker, Assistant Professor of History

—Tukufu Zuberi,Lasry Family Endowed Professor of Race Relations, Professor and
Chair of Sociology

Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short, timely letters on University issues will be accepted by Thursday at noon for the following Tuesday’s issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines. Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated.  —Eds.


Almanac - May 10, 2011, Volume 57, No. 33