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Columbia professor encourages 'The Archaeology of Self' to end racism

Published on February 24, 2021

Columbia professor encourages 'The Archaeology of Self' to end racism

Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, associate professor of English education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz

It is rare to see a college professor begin a lecture with a moment of silence, but that is how Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, associate professor of English education at Teachers College, Columbia University, began her virtual presentation on Feb. 17. She asked an audience of nearly 50 Eastern Connecticut State University faculty and staff for a moment of silence to offer respect to the Native Americans who occupied this land before us all. This unique recognition, something Native Americans practice, counters what she called the dishonest “doctrine of discovery” taught in schools for centuries and opened her presentation titled “Taking the Antiracist Journey Through the Archaeology of the Self.”

Sealey-Ruiz, a nationally and internationally-known scholar, was the guest of Sociology professor and department chair Cara Bergstrom-Lynch. Sealey-Ruiz believes looking beyond self to larger truths — America’s history of personal, systemic and institutional racism and its continuing legacy of discrimination against African Americans, Latinos and Asians — will help all people come together to fix a fractured system. “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” she said, quoting poet and activist James Baldwin.

Sealey-Ruiz presented a “Pyramid of White Supremacy” graphic, which showed the deepening darkness of white supremacy moving from Indifference to Minimalization, Veiled Racism and Discrimination all the way to Calls for Violence, Violence and Genocide. She asked the audience to reflect on how we might perpetuate or experience or believe parts of it, and to think about which aspects of it we see in society today.

She said it is time for whites and people of color alike to engage in the act of self-examination. She said white people need to “adopt an antiracist stance” while people of color need to “resist a victim stance.” Referencing the work of Georgia State University professor Gholdy Muhammad, author of "Cultivating Genius," Sealey-Ruiz encouraged African Americans to “cultivate your own genius, since far too many others do not see the genius in you. Blackfoot Native Americans believed that you must have knowledge of yourself first. Historical literacy, critical reflection and humility are needed. Ask yourself, how do institutions encourage or dissuade you from doing this work? Who are the people who have helped you cultivate your genius?”

She called for “critical humility” — being open to understanding the limits of one’s own worldviews and ideologies — and “interruption,” interrupting racism and inequality at the personal and system level. With “self-archaeology,” the question is how deep does one dig? How deep does one need to go?

“I can think I am ‘antiracist,’ but someone might call me out for something I say or do, so I need to be open to listening.  The methods of excavation, "removing the guck" of racism as one of Sealey-Ruiz's students calls it, and detoxifying oneself through mindfulness practice have to be extremely rigorous. Therapy can also help, or one can start by looking at the white supremacy pyramid and looking at how you can interrupt it.” 

Sealey-Ruiz said critical to the success of the “excavation process” is profound love, a deep, ethical commitment to caring for the communities where one works. She cited a situation when African American filmmaker, musician, speaker and activist Bree Newsome climbed to the top of a flagpole to take down a Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol, following the 2015 murder of nine African American parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by white supremacist Dylan Roof.

The police suggested tasing the flagpole to get Newsome down, which would have electrocuted her. James Tyson, a white man standing nearby put his hand on the pole, preventing the electrocution. Sealey-Ruiz said this is the kind of profound love we need in order to make the “archeology of self-excavation” succeed. “This is the deep, ethical commitment to caring for people who don’t think and look like you in the communities where you work. It is this deep, natural, intentional love that is needed to heal this land.”  

She encouraged individuals to explore racial literacy by writing their own anti-racist plan. “What skin are you willing to put into this game? Will you no longer tolerate unfairness, inequality and injustice? Ask yourselves how can/will your teaching be different?”

Sealey-Ruiz concluded by saying that this self-examination process is hard work, but the reward is great, as it will make one remember our purpose in life — of having authentic relationships.

The lecture was sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the Office of Equity and Diversity and an AAUP faculty development grant, as well as the departments of English; Education; Political Science, Philosophy and Geography; Sociology, Anthropology, Criminology and Social Work; and Theatre and Women’s and Gender Studies programs.

Written by Dwight Bachman