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Commentary: A Deeper Understanding


In the late 1960s I joined the Women's Movement. In the 1970s I even wrote my dissertation on the representation of women in film. In the early 1980s, however, I read bell hooks' Feminist Theory:  From Margin to Center and was compelled to rethink much of what I had learned about feminism and to think beyond white women and our experiences. That led me to read works by Black and Brown women, including Barbara Smith, Cherríe Moraga, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, and Louise Erdrich.

Then in 1990 I began working with Dr. J. Q. Adams, a WIU colleague and an associate in the Office of Faculty Development where he focused on increasing multicultural awareness across campus. bell hooks had primed me to recognize that men could not be eliminated from the equation when considering issues of race/ethnicity, gender, or class, so it was a relatively easy step to again widen my interests and read more about cultural diversity and social justice as these affected men and women. Authors included Ronald Takaki, Cornel West, Paula Rothenberg, and Tim Wise.

My horizons were expanded again when Dr. Adams and I received a grant that allowed us to sponsor annual conferences on cultural and social justice issues. I was introduced to more scholars and activists, among them: Rev. C. T. Vivian, Barbara Ransby, Sut Jhally, and Pedro Noguera. More reading and more listening as insights were shared and absorbed.

More recently, my reading intensified, prompted by my retirement resolve to read more but also by the disturbing direction our country has taken and by the wealth of research being done by young scholars and activists. In the last few years I have read more history: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy, and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

These works have been eye-opening to say the least. Well written and based on primary sources, they fill many gaps in U.S. history as I had learned it by placing race at the center of that history. We tend to deny the impact race has had here, but racial inequality was written into our Constitution when African Americans were counted as three-fifth a person.

Fortunately, our Constitution has been amended and not only Blacks but also women have been recognized as whole persons, as citizens with multiple rights, including the right to be counted and the right to vote—though at this moment both of these rights are in jeopardy, particularly the right to vote, given legislation in several states that makes voting increasingly difficult for some people, i.e., people of color and people living in poverty.

Despite the changes in our Constitution, we are still affected by that early racist proclamation of the diminished worth of some people. We still need to study our history to deepen our understanding of this reality and to learn ways to counter the devaluing of people around us, whatever their color or culture. Macomb is not unique in having to deal with this reality. It could be unique as it recognizes this and responds with a genuine, ongoing commitment to every person in our community.

Led by Mayor Mike Inman and WIU Interim President Martin Abraham, the Moving Macomb Forward Committee is working to make this happen. Other organizations and individuals are joining the effort. I hope to do so as well. It’s a matter of continuing to expand and deepen our understanding so we can contribute to Macomb’s vision of itself as a welcoming, inclusive community.

I’ll keep reading, but I’ll also up the ante for myself by trying, on the local level, to communicate more effectively with a wider range of community members and, on the state and national levels, to strengthen efforts to preserve the rights of our diverse population.

Janice Welsch is a Western Illinois University faculty emerita.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.

Works and Authors Cited

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Davis, Angela. Women, Race & Class. New York, Vintage, 1981.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2015.

Erdrich, Louise. The Round House. New York: Harper, 2012.

Isenberg, Nan cy. White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America. New York: Viking, 2016.

Hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1984.

Jhally, Sut. Advertising and the End of the World. (DVD). Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 1997.

Johnson, Allan G. Power, Privilege, and Difference. New York: McGraw Hill, 2001.

Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Nation Books, 2016.

McRae, Elizabeth Gillespie. Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy. New York: Oxford, 2018.

Moraga, Cherríe and Gloria Anzaldúa. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1981.

Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Rothenberg, Paula S. White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism. New York: Worth Publishers, 2002.

Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. New York: Little, Brown, 1993.

Smith, Barbara. The Truth That Never Hurts. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 1998.

West, Cornel. Race Matters. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Wise, Tim. Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity: New York: City Lights, 2010.