News February 9, 2021

Task Force at FSI Focuses on Racial Equity

Since its creation in the summer of 2020, the Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Task Force has been addressing the ways in which systemic racism manifests at Stanford, at FSI and in the study of global affairs.
Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler
As part of the REDI Task Force's Critical Conversations series, Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler spoke about some of the barriers to having conversations about racial equity on the Stanford campus in January 2021.

The Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (REDI) Task Force has been putting the needs of students, scholars, and staff from underrepresented backgrounds at the forefront since its inception last summer. Formed at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) following the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, the REDI Task Force is leading the charge on the hiring of new staff and hosting community forums and seminars focused on promoting racial equity.

REDI Task Force Chair Gabrielle Hecht spoke to FSI about the group’s priorities and its achievements over the past several months.

What is the goal of the REDI Task Force?
The fundamental goal is to address the ways in which systemic racism manifests at Stanford, and at FSI in particular. This entails investigating the demographics, culture, power dynamics, and climate of the workplace, particularly as they pertain to racial differences.

We are also deeply concerned with epistemic racism, whose manifestations are most apparent in a university setting. Epistemic racism shapes what we know, how we know it, and what counts as knowledge worth pursuing. At FSI, this matters for how we think about global affairs. Whose perspective is privileged? What topics are privileged? Whose security are we talking about when we discuss nuclear security and national security? A racial justice lens asks and answers these kinds of questions. One goal of our task force has been to surface these questions and begin to develop ways of addressing them. 

“Whose security are we talking about when we discuss nuclear security and national security? A racial justice lens asks and answers these kinds of questions.”
Gabrielle Hecht
Chair of the REDI Task Force

What kind of work has REDI done so far? 
The centerpiece of our activity has been the Critical Conversation series. Last fall, we launched our efforts with events that focused on epistemic racism by considering the role of racial identity in a researcher’s ability to do international fieldwork in a variety of locations. Another event considered the place of Black thinkers in global affairs. Most recently, we hosted a panel discussion on the relationship between Asian American studies and racism.

The series has also dived into issues surrounding systemic racism. In January, Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler discussed – and inspired her listeners to discuss – some of the barriers to having productive, honest conversations about racial equity on the Stanford campus. Last week we had a student-centered and organized event on equity in the classroom. Moving forward, we will continue to focus on how we can encourage more discussions about systemic racism at FSI.

We've also been doing qualitative and quantitative research to document the demographics at FSI, and the experiences that people have here. In September, we hired Dr. Sonita Moss, who has been doing a lot of this work with us, and on REDI’s behalf. She also deserves our thanks for the important role she has played in putting our Critical Conversations series together.

Finally, we have several proposals in the works, including one to conduct a cluster hire on race in international affairs that would complement Stanford’s current efforts to hire a group of faculty focusing on the impact of race in America. Race and racism, after all, are not unique to America. Indeed, as several of our speakers have demonstrated, racism in America is linked both historically and in the present to racism elsewhere. The same applies to efforts to combat racism, such as Black Lives Matter. If Stanford is to meet its mandate as one of the top universities in the world, it must take the global context seriously for this subject as well as others.

Another proposal will address ways to support students with backgrounds that are underrepresented at Stanford. And another will address outreach to communities, contributing to a long-term effort to reshape the demographics of our campus.

Why is REDI’s work important?
Stanford has a very significant problem with racial diversity. The university has taken some steps to address it, such as the creation of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access in a Learning Environment initiative. That's a great foundation, but it is not sufficient. This anti-racist work has to take place on all levels — it cannot only be top-down.

This is urgent work in terms of improving the workplace climate and culture for those of us who aren’t members of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant demographic. It's also urgent in terms of improving the campus climate for our many students. Especially, but not only, our Black students, many of whom experience not just intensified policing on campus (not just the outside world!), but a whole range of other extremely unfortunate, frankly racist, encounters.

Who is on the task force?
The composition of this group is notable in that it includes not just faculty but also FSI research scholars, post-doctoral fellows, Master’s in International Policy students, undergraduate honors students, and staff members. The inclusion of all of the relevant professional categories at FSI was very important to me from the get-go. Part of the problem at all universities — and especially elite universities — are professional hierarchies that make it seem like some folks (for example, tenured faculty) are more important than others (for example, staff).

Such dynamics are at the root of the racial injustice questions that we’re looking at. It seemed a prerequisite for this committee to ensure that everyone is represented, and that everybody's voice counts equally in our discussions. That's the principle that we're operating on.

Why did you want to get involved with this group?
This work is so desperately and obviously needed. I am absolutely furious about the racial injustices that structure American society. George Floyd’s murder renewed my rage. I hated feeling like there was nothing that I personally could do about the system. This task force offers a concrete opportunity to make a tiny little difference in a tiny little corner of the country. 

My background also is part of it — I was born in Puerto Rico, but my mother was from the Dominican Republic, and my father was Swiss. My parents decided to bring me up as an American, because I happened to be born with American citizenship.

I have benefited from white privilege all my life because of my skin tone, and because of the name that I got from my father. But my cultural identity is very much that of a Latina. I spent the first 10 years of my life in Latin America. I personally have not been subjected to the indignities that my Black compatriots are subjected to. But one experience that I have had has to do with Stanford's culture of communication. Like so many predominantly white institutions in the U.S., this campus privileges a very specific communication style and language: that of white Anglo-Saxon elites. This affects all domains of discourse. If you're sitting around a table, and you say out loud that everybody around the table is white, you are all too often met with silence. Many people don't yet know how to talk about race here, and I have a profound need to help change that. 

I started my career at Stanford as an assistant professor. Then I left and spent 18 years at the University of Michigan. Since I came back to Stanford in 2017, I have had more unfortunate experiences related to these questions in the three-and-a-half years that I've been back than I had in 18 years away. I do not know what it feels like to be Black in an elite institution shaped by white privilege. But I do know what it’s like to be labeled “assertive” or “opinionated,” and to have those characteristics treated as faults and recast as “aggressive.” I know what it feels like to see people visibly roll their eyes when I raise issues around diversity, as though such issues are old and tired, as though they didn’t demand ongoing attention.

This was finally an opportunity to make my voice heard, and to elevate the voices of other people who felt like they were not being listened to.

Gabrielle Hecht

Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
hecht headshot

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