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Opinion: In regards to anti-racist work, “We don’t need more conversation; we need action.”

Concerned Black Students meet in Spencer Grill to discuss issues that affect the Black community, which in turn affect the student body as a whole. Contributed photo.

By Raven McClendon

This letter is a response to President Anne Harris’s S&B interview, which you can read here.

President Anne Harris:

We are not living in two pandemics. We live in one pandemic: COVID-19. Slavery and its long-lasting consequences have only ever ravaged the Black American existence, whereas a true pandemic would attack anyone in its path. Anti-Blackness is not a pandemic, because it only kills Black people.

President Harris, I do not know how anti-Blackness has weakened the collective health of white people, but I do know how white supremacy has benefited you and every other white/white-adjacent person who has inhaled oxygen. Referring to slavery (the legalized trafficking, murder, torture, rape, sterilization and mutilation of Black people) and its long-lasting consequences (the prison industrial complex, redlining, voter suppression, standards of professionalism, neoliberalism, generational trauma, cultural appropriation, gentrification and microaggressions in addition to legal and illegal trafficking, murder, torture, rape, sterilization and mutilation of Black people) as a pandemic absolves all white people of their inherent racism. You, the president of my college, so blatantly soothing your own white guilt and subsequently that of my white peers, enrage me.

If white supremacy were a pandemic, why does a cure require 400-plus years of research and conversation to find?

“Poetry is Not a Luxury” by Audre Lorde:

“Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas. … But there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as [Black] women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves, along with the renewed courage to try them out … to attempt the heretical actions our dreams imply and some of our old ideas disparage.”

President Harris, you are just now arriving at a conversation that Black people are born into. By proposing nothing other than more conversation, you insult my labors, the labors of the Black people speaking with me and the labors of the Black people who have spoken before us. We don’t need to research our own experiences because we have lived them.

Below, I have responded to quotes from President Harris’ interview with The S&B.

“So, if you’re having a conversation about Campus Safety, you’re talking also about relationships with the local police department.”

Grinnell College should avoid contact with the local police department. Grinnell College should also adopt a set of steps in place of alerting the local authorities. It seems that the only purpose the police department serves is busting students of color who have drugs in their possession. Students of color face harsher punishments for drug related offenses than white students.

Calling campus safety is usually a step before involving local authorities, so I assumed the purpose of campus safety was to avoid the police when possible. If Campus Safety and the local police department work so closely together, then there is no purpose for the current Campus Safety’s existence. Campus Safety needs to be reimagined. What does a Campus Safety not modeled after the local police department look like? It looks like a Campus Safety centered around the safety of students rather than the protection of college property.

“What I can tell you now is that we have very good structures to have the kind of conversations that we’re talking about [allowing police officers to eat in the Dining Hall]. So, we’re starting to do that work.”

It’s cute that you’re just now starting to do the work, but Black students, faculty and staff have already begun to do the work. What do you have to offer beyond structures to have conversations, anyway? The structure to have conversation is called the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. That is the structure that allows us to converse. You are late to the party. We don’t need more structures for more conversation: we need action.

The program that allows armed police officers to enter the Dining Hall should not exist. Students have already expressed their contempt for this program, so the administration should simply listen. All police officers uphold the institution of policing, which is inherently racist and anti-Black. Police officers do not make Black students feel safe and, furthermore, guns should not be allowed in a cafeteria. Cops should not bring guns, civilians should not bring guns, no one should bring guns. We don’t need more conversation; we need action.

In regard to Grinnell College’s relationship with Iowa Prison Industries, why do you think “there’s always goodwill here?” In your own words, President Harris, what are the “perceived benefit[s]” of slave labor? That’s what prison labor is: either slavery or indentured servitude. Both are immoral, dehumanizing and unacceptable. How do you condemn the “pandemic” that is 400-plus years of slavery but see the “perceived benefit(s)” of it? That is quite a paradox, President Harris!

“I see that a lot of our conversations happen on social media, and I am very eager to move that into conversations and research that we’re doing together.”

The editors in chief of The S&B asked you, “What is the best way to move either into these conversations or beyond these conversations into action?” Instead of moving conversation to a place that is no longer accessible to the students, you should consider getting active on social media, too. Students are allowed to choose their mode of discourse, and this generation likes social media. Meet us there. Listen to us there. Engage with us there. We have been having this conversation. Again, you are late to it.

How quickly task forces by the administration are formed reminds me of a time when I sat in Student Senate and listened to three cisgendered men tell me about the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force they implemented without the proper consultation of students. Students follow the examples that administration set; administration should know to include more students, not just SGA cabinet members or white students, on these task forces. Lana is our SGA president, but she doesn’t speak for all of us students. She definitely doesn’t speak for all Black students or Black women.

“We want to take the time to make an informed decision that really hears all arguments and all parties.”

President Harris, I do not care to listen to the “arguments” of all students. Racism doesn’t require an argument, nor will I listen to opinions that belong to non-Black people. Since you claim to care about harm caused, then listen to those who have been harmed. We know what we want, and your I-just-learned-that-racism-exists attitude is not what we need. We are not moving “from a language of diversity and inclusion to a language of anti-racism.” If that were true, you would have used anti-racist rhetoric during your interview. Instead you spewed euphemisms and fluff.

If you and Grinnell College don’t plan on holding yourselves to anti-racist standards, then say that. Say, “Black womxn, all Black students, we do not care about your wellbeing. ‘With all deliberate speed’ we want to continue to have more conversations because that’s easier than actually giving up privilege.” Giving up privilege looks like holding yourself, your co-workers and your students accountable. Stop letting professors use academic freedom as an excuse to harm Black students. Stop letting non-Black students use their own ignorance or indifference as an excuse to harm Black students.

President Harris, do better, or we will find better. No one is safe because we are tired.

-Raven Chanel McClendon ’22

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  • S

    Samantha Massingale Gerth '91Jul 26, 2020 at 4:38 pm

    I just want to address the following point “There is no Black alumni honored with an Endowed Chair or who has had a building named after them. Connie Kimbo was a wonderful man, and we who knew him loved him, but he was not a Grinnell alum!”

    Kershaw Hall is named for Hannibal B. Kershaw the first Black man to graduate from Grinnell College in 1879. The first black woman to graduate from Grinnell Edith Renfrow Smith in 1937 has a gallery in the JRC named in her honor. She also was honored with an honorary Doctorate, celebrated her 87th reunion last May and 106th birthday this past July 14th.

    There are many worthy Black Alums deserving of such honors. I wish there were more and we should continue to lobby the college to represent the diversity of Alumni and ensure worthy Black alums are honored.

    I also think its important to acknowledge honors bestowed because like the naming of Kershaw Hall, the Smith Gallery and the Kimbo Center because they are the result of Black alums lobbying the college to have spaces named for Black people who were and are important to Grinnell College’s History. The efforts of Black Alums who fought for those honors and the results should neither be forgotten or erased.

  • K

    Kristy JohnsonJul 26, 2020 at 12:58 pm


    As a Black Grinnell alumna (’95), I just wanted to thank you for writing this piece.

  • I

    Irma McClaurin ‘73Jul 22, 2020 at 10:55 am

    Thank you -Raven Chanel McClendon ’22 or speaking truth to power—what we call”TruthTalk.

    ! As a ‘73 alumna, I recall vividly being asked by the Grinnell Administration for us to create the curriculum for an Afro-American Studies Concentration before we had even graduated. The white faculty has no interest in doing the work of learning.

    We did it, but in 1993, when I joined the faculty as the first Black alumni hire, not only did my former teachers accuse me of being an “Affirmative Action” hire, whom they had helped ro educate, but they eliminated the AA Concentration the next year!

    The Afro-American Studies Concentration was the template for LGBTQ Studies concentration and Women’s Studies Concentration. They would NOT have existed without the battle we fought in the 1970s. These programs remain in place with large endowments and their predecessor was dismantled! Time to bring the Afro-American Studies Concentration back and make enrollment in its classes mandatory, but especially for the new President, who has had a magical journey from being a Dean to the President of one of the most elite colleges —on the job training—and no one even asks “how’d she do that?—enrolling.

    She would then understand that the very creation of Afro-American/Black Studies moved the discussion about white supremacy and anti-Blackness into the classroom and into research decades ago. Black students and faculty don’t have to shift the space where research and knowledge production and knowledge transmittal take place because we have been doing that since the end of slavery! We have written the books, founded newspapers, and established Historically Black Colleges and Universities after just leaving the cotton and rice fields. And we did so without “conversations”, but with concrete actions.

    It would behoove the new Grinnell President to read the resumes of her faculty of color (past and present) and familiarize herself with the publications of her BIPOC alumni and she would realize that we already had moved the issues from the streets to the classroom before she was born.

    The problem is that the nature of white supremacy inside educational institutions like Grinnell was to marginalize us, denigrate our contributions, not tenure us, appropriate our knowledge and hire nonBlacks to teach Black subject matter-we became “nonessential” Black bodies—and so we had to go back to the streets to gain your attention.

    Grinnell’s own Black alumni have researched, published, and taught inside and outside of academia, on these issues of racism and white supremacy and anti-Blackness for decades without recognition from our own alma mater, until we are near death or dead! There is no Black alumni honored with an Endowed Chair or who has had a building named after them. Connie Kimbo was a wonderful man, and we who knew him loved him, but he was not a Grinnell alum!

    Learn the history of Blacks at Grinnell, read “Black Expressions”, the first admissions brochure that I wrote as a Grinnell sophomore; no pay. It’s in Special Collections. Search the archives of The Grinnell Herald, No, 103, 127th year, Monday, March 27, 1995. “People of Color: Even haircuts, food can cause problems for people of color,” a set of interviews about our experiences of living white BIPOC in Grinnell.

    Dig into the S&B archives from the 1970s and read about the library takeover by Black students and our demands. They laid the foundation for every other marginalized group st Grinnell imin existence today. We parted the waters, and have been left behind.

    Then fast-forward to Friday, April 15, 1994 and the article “Powers claims affirmative action abuse in latest hiring conflict” and my “Opinion” response April 22, 1994. I concluded that column by asking “Meanwhile I challenge all white ethnics on this campus to ask themselves what are you personally willing to give up to achieve multiculturalism? In response to those who want to know what they will achieve, I say a new white ethnic self-identity not predicated on someone else’s subordination and a glimmer of yoir own humanity not haunted by slavery, imperialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism or religious persecution. That brand of humanity I have found more often among those who have had the experience of exclusion or marginality. So I see this situation as the beginning of a new journey for Prof. Powers, whether at Grinnell or somewhere else. I wish him, amd any others of the Grinnell community who travel the same route, safe passage.”

    In May, 1995, as the only Black alumni and only Black tenure-track professor ever hired in Anthropology, I resigned. It is pitiful and overwhelmingly disappointing that Black students, like Raven, at Grinnell are still having to raise their critical voices and challenge a racially tone-deaf institution that can write amazing marketing “diversity” “BlackLivesMatrer” statements, yet maintain academic and professional structural racism, and offer “soft kumbaya” rhetoric as solutions.

    It has been over 47 years since I graduated, and 25 years since I resigned, because of structural racism and a disrespect for my teaching courses on race and gender.

    Not much has changed at Grinnell College—sad to say Grinnell has abandoned its Social Gospel foundation. Especially if it is building ties with the Grinnell police—JB Grinnell, a devout abolitionist, must be turning in his grave.

    To the current and courageous Black students, save your breath, acquire the credentials and then leave to fight the good fight and foster social change where you matter, your efforts matter, and people and institutions are INVESTED in real change and transformation. They are out there somewhere! This is an opportunity for Grinnell to prove it “can do.” We are Watching. Raven and others have given you instructions! Your Move to Do Better and Be Better.