This 28th Annual Saint Michael’s College Martin Luther King Jr. Society Convocation theme was, “We are what we watch, hear, and learn: Overcoming the impact of unconscious and conscious bias in classrooms and college campuses.” This launched a week of speakers, film, poetry and panel discussions designed to help unearth the hidden bias, prejudice and racism in each of our lives.
Before keynote speaker Clifton Clarke spoke, College President Lorraine Sterritt reminded the crowd of the school’s founders, the Edmundites, who have always been on the right side of justice. These religious men were boots on the ground on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. She introduced Associate Dean of Students Moise St. Louis who followed up with a deeply personal story about how he, himself, has participated in the narrative of oppression.
We are all taught to see white people as heroes and everyone else as villains through the books we read, songs we sing, and in the movies we see, St. Louis said. The dehumanization of people of color is learned in our churches, classrooms and in our homes. This cleverly designed, maintained narrative needs to be recognized and unlearned, he said.
Student Kayla Erb took the stage next like she had done it a thousand times before. She drew the audience in with her bold confidence and by speaking from the heart about her heritage and struggles she and her loved ones endure. “It’s hard to be grateful when so little is right,” she said when speaking of her mother’s resignation from the fight.
Her mother once told her, “There is no sense being angry at a system we will never escape.” Erb is finding her way out and is dedicated to her Saint Michael’s Community and its plight to help everyone rise above such systems.
Keynote speaker Dr. Clifton Clarke is a global scholar, pastor, educator, missionary, community leader, and professor of religion and intercultural studies. He said that when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the March on Washington so many years ago, he spoke of the “fierce urgency of now.”
He said urgency is vital in this still divided nation and there is a need to dismantle the machine of racism, starting with new sight. Stereotypes and pre-judgement of our neighbors are “blinding us from seeing the image of God in each other,” he said.
Clarke said growing up in the U.K. left him feeling as though he lived in a world that had already determined he did not belong. He spent his whole life trying to penetrate that veil. It was when he relocated to Ghana that he had an awakening, as he called it. In Ghana, being black was normal. There were black bank managers, black airline pilots, and his soul began to breath, he said. “I found being black was beautiful,” he said.
Like St. Louis and Erb, he spoke about the process of unlearning internalized, false narratives. He told the crowd to question everything they are taking in around them, to be suspicious, but to also maintain a position of love in the face of this great unrest. He said we are all called to disrupt the structure that is causing exclusion and embrace the love and justice that Jesus taught.
“Let’s not be divided. Choose love,” Clarke said.
For more on this week’s MLK events check out: https://www.smcvt.edu/about-smc/news/2020/january/scholar-clarke-headlines-mlk-week/