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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Obama and whiteness are focus of conference

By Daniel Kerwin

Last weekend’s American Studies Conference, titled “Whiteness in the Age of Obama,” attracted a wide range of students from all different reaches of campus over two days of events, much in the same way as Barack Obama himself attracted a broad spectrum of attention during his Presidential campaign. Exploring such a timely topic, the conference addressed the countless questions that have arisen in the racial discourse following the election of the nation’s first African-American President. The conference, an annual event that is in its tenth year, addresses a different topic each time it is staged.

“In my four years at Macalester I’ve been impressed and pleased with each conference in different ways,” Chair of American Studies Jane Rhodes said. “All the conferences have brought influential scholars and thinkers to campus. This is certainly up there among the best conferences; the timeliness made it very relevant to the audience. The conference underscored how interested people are in talking about this topic, about whether or not Obama’s election has larger ramifications in conversations about race in America.”

The conference featured two of the best known scholars in the field of whiteness studies as keynote speakers, Professor Cheryl Harris from UCLA School of Law and Professor David Roediger from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Harris and Roediger gave their keynote addresses to a capacity crowd in the Kagin Ballroom Friday, Feb. 20.

Harris’ address was titled “Tracing Race in Colorblind Spaces,” focusing on the lack of conversation about race in the nation and the false assumption that the nation has reached a post-racial moment.

“We average Americans simply don’t talk enough about race,” Harris said.

Roediger’s address, “Whiteness as Management: Race and Capitalist Control of Production in the U.S. Past and Present,” took a more historical perspective on the topic, in particular focusing on racialization in the workforce.

“Both Professors Harris and Roediger are top experts in their fields,” visiting professor of English and Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow Kristin Naca said. “Their work in Critical Race Theory spans the disciplines of History, Law, Cultural and Ethnic Studies, and is particularly relevant today, I believe, because it is linked to social activism. It is prescient, and particularly useful to those in Media Studies, the law, even those who protest worker and immigrant rights.”

Naca was included as part of a six member panel during the Saturday morning panel discussion portion of the conference. The other panelists were Harris, Roediger, former Macalester professor and current University of Notre Dame professor Jason Ruiz, Sarah Deer of the William Mitchell College of Law and Minnesota State Senator Mee Moua, the nation’s highest positioned Hmong elected official.

“Participating in the panel provided me the opportunity to articulate how texts by writers from marginalized communities, often in memoir, serve as historical accounts of people who are silenced by racial discrimination and/or unfair labor practices,” Naca said.

The panel discussion was followed by a student led lunchtime roundtable, featuring current Macalester students Kyera Singleton ’11, Jason Rodney ’10 and Brittany Lewis ’09, as well as three recent Macalester graduates. The conference ended with a reading of the play “Drunk Enough To Say I Love You,” which was led by Assistant Professor of Theater & Dance Harry Waters Jr.

Planning for the conference started a year in advance of the event. The theme was actually chosen last September, prior to Obama’s election victory, so it was a stroke of luck that the conference topic became so relevant to the current climate.

Planning for next year’s conference is already in its initial stages.

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