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Gonzaga’s Race and Racism Lecture puts issues in perspective for the university, Spokane high schools

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 12, 2021

High school English teacher Jennifer Showalter talks about African-American literature while teaching an online class from her desk at Lewis and Clark High School Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. She is holding the book “Citizen: An American Lyric” by author Claudia Rankine, who will visit Spokane for a lecture.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
High school English teacher Jennifer Showalter talks about African-American literature while teaching an online class from her desk at Lewis and Clark High School Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. She is holding the book “Citizen: An American Lyric” by author Claudia Rankine, who will visit Spokane for a lecture. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

How can educators cause enough “peaceful discomfort” for students to acknowledge the need for change and become more accepting and inclusive?

That was one of several questions asked Wednesday night of award-winning poet, playwright and Yale University professor Claudia Rankine as part of the Q&A for Gonzaga University’s virtual Race and Racism Lecture. Rankine shared insights into how she authored her award-winning work “Citizen: An American Lyric” in relation to historical and present-day examples of racism and discrimination.

And while she doesn’t know how educators could make people do certain things, Rankine said she does know what teachers can do instead.

“I think that if we do our work as professors properly, we can leave the rest of it to life, in a way,” she said. “I don’t really go into a classroom insisting that anybody do or change because I can’t. I can’t. But I can go in there expecting certain kinds of work to be done in the classroom in terms of how close reading happens, how much attention is paid to historical framing. All of that stuff is my job to communicate, and hopefully those are tools that will allow people to see things more clearly.”

Rankine was the featured guest for Gonzaga University’s fourth annual Race and Racism Lecture.

This year’s event was a collaboration between Gonzaga and Spokane Public Schools. Gonzaga purchased 750 copies of “Citizen” for high school and university students and faculty, with 300 going to Gonzaga and 450 distributed to high school teachers and students.

In the coming weeks, students and faculty with Gonzaga and Spokane Public Schools will reflect on Rankine’s lecture similarly to how they prepared for her talk through discourse surrounding her book, said Brian Cooney, English professor and director of Gonzaga’s Center for Public Humanities. In the days leading to the event, Gonzaga faculty partnered with high school classes to discuss “Citizen” and the lecture’s keystone topics.

Cooney said event organizers were encouraged by the number of great questions they received .

“The high school students were clearly there and engaged and really thoughtful, so I thought that was one of the most positive outcomes of the whole thing,” he said.

Knowing the constraints the COVID-19 pandemic would have on this year’s Race and Racism Lecture, organizers requested and received approval from Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh to purchase the books, said English professor Tod Marshall. Marshall said the resulting discussion surrounding “Citizen” led to “some really great energy.”

“Rankine’s writing has emotional ties,” said Rose Word, a junior at Lewis and Clark High School. “The way she words, has a deeper meaning behind the stanza. Also, Rankine’s writing includes pictures that help further understand her writings. Because you might not understand the words but can decipher from the pictures. Relating to her writing can also be poetic because it can help us understand us and people around us.”

Beyond the coursework, event organizers also helped coordinate a virtual meeting between the Black student unions from Gonzaga as well as Rogers High School and Ferris High School.

Pastor Shon Davis, a mentor for the high school Black student unions through the Spokane Public Schools Office of Family and Community Engagement, said the discussion gave students a safe space to discuss issues including microaggressions and the concept of visibility – whether it’s hypervisibility or invisibility – as related to a person’s skin color.

With the concepts of visibility, Rankine’s “Citizen,” in an essay about tennis superstar Serena Williams, invokes a quote from author Zora Neale Hurston: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

“The significance to the students is they’re like, ‘we experience that every day.’ It’s relative. It’s relatable. It’s what we have to deal with in Spokane, Washington,” Davis said. “The book, it opens the floodgates of relief of feeling I’m not alone and that somebody is going through the same stuff I do every day.”

Cooney said event organizers view this year’s Race and Racism Lecture as a way to explore outreach possibilities for Gonzaga, especially with the humanities. Repeating this type of project between the university and local schools, he said, will be appealing when in-person classes return.

Beyond that, organizers said Rankine’s book will be available to teachers for future course curricula.

“This isn’t meant to be a one-off thing and then it’s over,” Cooney said.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Feb. 12, 2021 to correct which high schools’ Black student unions participated in the virtual meeting.

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