A Message from the Incoming Chair

John Lane

Professor John “Lane” Hall will become Department Chair at the end of August 2020. By way of introduction, we’d like to share the statement Lane made at the UWM Campus Dialogue on Racial Justice, Friday, June 12.

In the Overpass Light Brigade, we work a lot with super short messages for display in public spaces. We put a lot of effort and discussion into these messages, and think a lot about them.

I like the phrase “Unlearn Racism” because it implies a process that moves forward in time, as well as an aspiration for a culture steeped in and founded on the social construction of race. As a white person who has benefited from racism, I need to reorder my mind in order to unlearn racism. This isn’t an easy thing to do, as it can be very difficult to inspect our own frames. Frames tend to drop into invisibility as they become definitional for majority culture, replicating and embedding at multiple levels and becoming ambient like pollution or common sense.

As an educator, I can ask myself, “What kind of tools do I have to question these frames in order to unlearn racism?” and I think of how I, myself, learn: through introspection, questioning, analysis, reading, listening, talking, discussing. Some of those are private, personal processes, and some are social and group processes. Both modes of reorganizing our minds need to be undertaken, as there is no magic arrival, there is only engagement.

I also think about what I teach: I teach writing, technology, modern art and literature within an English department. What kind of decisions do I make about what to include and what to exclude? What do I project about what art is worthy, what art is not? This is a very dynamic process and a very creative one. What frames am I using when I prepare the sixteen-week banquet that I hope to set for my students, who gather with a huge range of expectations, experiences and exposures?

But also, how do I teach? What methods might prefigure a world that isn’t rife with authoritarian declarations, toxic masculinity, violence to the earth and its non-human and human riches?

And what responsibilities do I have to the collectivity? The department and the institution’s governance structure, the replication of white supremacy or its disruption, the daily interactions with faculty, staff, students, administrators. The makeup of committees, of how we search for new colleagues and students, of how power is systematized. In other words, how do we create the world we want to inhabit?

I think it is worth thinking about the tools we have at our disposal to do this work. Talk is a tool. Protest is a tool. Listening is a tool; reading; teaching and what we teach; donating to what we believe in; spending our money in new places and new ways; making clear what we support and what we will not tolerate as individuals and as institutions. These are all tools to invoke, muscles to flex for new and old strength.

So, this is what I have been thinking about: Unlearn Racism!

Begin and escalate… It isn’t easy to talk about race, as part of the power of racism is its saturation within systems. As the signs in the streets say, “Silence is Duplicity,” “Silence is Violence.” Fellow White People: Let’s talk about race. Let’s talk about our racism! Don’t be afraid of making a mistake, or feeling stupid or saying the wrong thing. You might, but it’ll be okay. Try again and fail better next time. There is no magic arrival, but only engagement.

Like the Corona Virus, it won’t go away by magically pretending it isn’t there.

Unlearn Racism!