‘Now is the moment. So what do we do?’
I have a thought experiment for you. My middle name is Damian. Suppose my name were Damian A. Moore. If you did not know me, hadn’t seen my CV and a colleague asked you to meet me for coffee, what thoughts might cross your mind? What if just the two of us were to meet, at night, and I arrived wearing a hoodie?
Each of us filters the world through our own lens. Sometimes that lens can distort—other times it can blind us.
The title of Claude Steele’s book “Whistling Vivaldi” comes from the experiences of an African-American writer who would whistle Vivaldi or Beatles tunes while walking in the streets of Chicago so nearby people wouldn’t view him as a threat. What if I told you I would do more or less the exact same thing instinctually, but hadn’t fully realized why until I read that book.
Yes, I have been pulled over for “driving while black,” been stopped walking in my neighborhood by the police for “fitting the description,” and even sent an anonymous letter from someone telling me that all of my success derives from my having “minority status.” I wear NASA caps in public to reduce people’s fear, and even flash the nice watch I might be wearing so I won’t be hassled in stores. Whenever I receive a slight I have to wonder about the source of it, and if someone fitting a different profile would have received the same treatment. It can be truly exhausting.
I worry for my children. I wonder if their lives will be easier than my life so far. The other day, my wife Reates reminded me of when two kids were picking on our daughter in kindergarten. The teacher moved our daughter to the back of the class to separate them. Yes, in Ann Arbor. Will they ever be treated not for “what they are” but who they are? I want to believe we have made progress, but are we continuing to make progress?
I don’t share these anecdotes for sympathy. In many ways, I am more privileged than most people in the world. In truth, all of us in the College are. My point is that when my “deanness” is not front and center, my identity, in addition to being that of a husband and father, is foremost as a Black man. Tragically, through certain lenses, that identity can be lethal. George Floyd is but one in a historical litany, perhaps disregarded like so many others if it hadn’t been for a cellphone video.
I have waited to comment publicly on this horrific incident, in part, because I did not want to send “just another message.” I have been searching for a way to add something productive to this conversation beyond more anger and affirmation. I want solutions! But also, in full transparency, sharing my experiences is not comfortable for me.
Leadership demands discomfort. In this sad yet hopeful moment, this nation and many others are grappling with the long legacy of anti-Black racism. Governments, companies and educational institutions cannot ignore what is happening. Within the University, leaders and units across campus have come together in unison to say enough is enough. Within the College, our leadership has reached out to their departments to affirm an environment of support and solidarity. I appreciate this collective concern. The College and each of us individually—Leaders and Best—are being challenged to elevate our culture and climate.
I commend our students and the waves of other young adults in large and small places across this state, throughout this nation and around the world, who have engaged in an overwhelming response of peaceful protest—regardless of identity. They have been joined by senior citizens, little children and thousands of others in between—including our own faculty and staff. People from all backgrounds are confronting a system wherein Black men (and women) are disproportionately killed by police even when they are unarmed, charges are hardly ever pursued and convictions are rare.
The big question so many are asking is, “So what do we do?” Many would say the College already is doing a lot to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, from pre-College outreach to unconscious bias training to departmental DEI plans. Yet, the data show only two out of three Michigan Engineering African-American undergraduates feel they are treated fairly and equitably in classrooms and classroom settings versus more than 90% of their majority counterparts. A similar percentage of African-American undergrads feels listened to in class compared to above 80% for their majority peers.
Some of you may sincerely question whether individually you are obliged to do anything about this particular societal sickness, relative to other ills facing the world. My response is, as a community and as individuals, we can attack multiple “wicked problems” simultaneously. And sometimes you have to seize the moment. Now is such a moment. Change is achievable. But it requires intentional effort. Each of us owns a portion of responsibility for stemming the pandemic of racism. I challenge each of us to get educated—we all can gain some knowledge about the problem and possible solutions—then get active:
- Learn: Racism is a very complicated subject. Like all complicated subjects, one needs to put in the effort to learn. The College has a webpage of relevant materials. Recently, several other organizations and individuals have created lists of resources. And below is a list of resources my family has assembled for the Michigan Engineering community.
- Research: Examine an aspect of racism as you would an engineering problem you were intent on solving or family relationship you were committed to repairing. What skills and resources can you bring to bear: system analysis, data analysis, experts in the field, creative thinking?
- Reach: Extend beyond your comfort zone and begin to deepen a relationship with a colleague from a different background.
- Support: Volunteer with or financially back organizations seeking to eliminate police brutality or, more broadly, racist practices.
- Vote: Cast your ballot for people and initiatives more likely to improve the situation.
Today, a multi-identity coalition of STEM professionals and academics sponsored #ShutDownSTEM (and #ShutDownAcademia)—a day of education and action for Black lives. Organizations including AAAS and several higher education professionals are supporting this initiative. Although we just learned of this effort this week, the College is supportive of its goal—to take time to reflect, educate and plan. This morning, our Michigan Engineering leadership team repurposed a portion of our long-planned Leadership Planning Meeting to focus on what actions we can take—collectively and individually—to challenge systemic anti-Black racism. I encourage each of you to do something today—and in the following days—to learn of, teach about or act honorably on your privilege.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the iceberg framework. This was invented by Lilia Cortina, a professor of psychology and women studies at U-M. I was on a panel with her discussing her work as part of the National Academies Study on Sexual Harassment in Academic Science, Engineering and Medicine. The iceberg framework is used to describe the full spectrum of sexual harassment, illustrating how most think only about what’s shown above the water—the most visible and horrific examples. If we focus on only those events above the waterline, the vast majority of our community members will dismiss the need to learn about bias and sexual harassment as not applying to them since “I don’t and would never do those things.” But it’s what’s below the surface that enables those horrific events, and that most everyone does—usually without realizing it. If we can educate people on how to manage, control, and ameliorate the behavior below the waterline, we’d have a much better culture for women.
The same is true for race and ethnicity matters, which is why one of the answers to “what can we do?” is to educate the population on below the waterline phenomena associated with racism and bias. The murder of George Floyd is at the tip of the racism iceberg. Microagressions and more subtle forms of racism allow it to happen.
When discussing this with my family, we decided to share with the College some of the resources that help us understand racism and its effects on people. This list of resources speaks about racism above and below the waterline. In spite of the magnitude of this challenge, as an engineer and person of faith, I continue to work for progress—and I believe a change is going to come. But it will take all of us to achieve it.
Alec D. Gallimore, Ph.D.
Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering
Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor of Engineering
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Aerospace Engineering
- The Warmth of Other Suns (America’s Great Migration) by Isabel Wilkerson (2011)
- Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (great read & movie released in 2019)
- 13th – a full feature documentary on Netflix (very well done)
- Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates (quick read – deep youthful perspective)
- Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (poetry quick read)
- Dismantling White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo (podcast)
- Code Switch by NPR (podcast)
- Bias (2018 documentary discusses AI/ML bias as well) film maker Robin Hauser
- Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Time) Paperback – April 4, 2011 by Claude M. Steele (Author)
- An Inclusive Academy – Achieving Diversity and Excellence by Abigail J. Stewart and Virginia Valian
Join us for the virtual “EnginTalks: The Unsilenced Voices of 2020” event led by the Student Advisory Board on Tuesday, June 16 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
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Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor of Engineering, and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Aerospace Engineering