Panelists consisted of UM faculty and Montevallo community members. Photo by Jasmine Baxter

“The best way to quiet a room down is to walk in and say ‘today, we’re going to talk about race,’” remarked Dr. Paul Mahaffey as he overlooked the audience that had gathered in LeBaron Recital Hall on March 12.  

“People will shut up. That’s the biggest obstacle—to break that silence and to have a two-way dialogue about it, an honest two-way dialogue about it. And that’s a good start, that’s the basis.” 

Mahaffey’s comments were an integral part of “Confronting Racism in a Divided Nation,” a panel that sought to find ways to engage in conversations about race and racism in diverse groups. 

The panelists, which were all UM faculty or community members, included Mahaffey himself, as well as Mrs. Elvis Schooley, Dr. Sally Hardig, Pastor Albert Jones, Dr. Jennifer Rickel, Dr. Scott Turner, moderator Dr. Andrea Eckelman, and this year’s Hallie Farmer Lecturer, Dr. Melanie Morrison.  

Each person was asked to share their experiences and answer questions like “How do we prepare ourselves to engage in open and raw conversations about racism in our country? What can we do or how should we engage with systemic racial bias?” 

As a response, Rickel offered the following: 

“I know the other panelists’ messages of listening and learning, and I think, in particular for white people, learning is really important. People of color have been forced by white supremacy to learn about white culture or white systems. So, with the idea of doing my homework, it’s so that I don’t become a burden on a person of color, saying ‘explain that to me.’”  

“One of the things that I, too, think is important as a white person engaging in those conversations is coming to them with some kind of cultural humility—meaning to me that there is so, so much every single day that I have to learn about racism,” Morrison added.  

The group tackled other topics like the resistance of victimhood, generational ignorance, demonstrating trustworthiness, responsibility and agency as the night went on.  

Even the audience members began to look at their own actions more critically. 

“As a white person, I cannot feel the trauma the same way as a Black person. However, I must listen more closely when Black people reveal their trauma, their anger, their rage,” emphasized Dr. Erin Chandler, an English professor at UM. “They have this right and I have the obligation to listen. This listening is part of reparation.” 

“Confronting racism must be a spiritual experience. Yes, we must talk. Yes, we must reflect, but more than that, we must check our moral compasses,” she continued. “Changing our outlooks on the world means changing our spirit, the spirit in which we look at other people, speak with (and not to) other people and act with and on behalf of other people.” 

Central to her argument was the idea that challenging racism requires us to feel, act and love differently, and to make those changes publicly, in spaces that are outside of our academic ivory tower.  

One student, senior theatre major Chloé Scott, intends to do just that.  

“The event reignited that spark to stand up for marginalized people all over the world, specifically those in my city in north Birmingham. As a black queer woman living in Alabama, there are plenty of opportunities for me to shut down a conversation that might be uncomfortable for either side,” said Scott.  

“Rather than get angry or depressed, I’m reminded that a third option exists: start a conversation so that people are listening to each other. I can’t change the world alone, but I can at least help give a voice to my people,” she maintained. “Racism isn’t solved overnight, but with the right actions—voting, speaking out, researching and listening to learn—we can make progress. We can establish the problems, locate their sources and begin to uproot them.”  

To fully dedicate ourselves to conversations with people who are culturally and ethnically diverse, and to fully commit to seeing people who are different from us as human, is to make the first leap toward that goal.