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Emmitt Riley III

A conversation with the director of DePauw’s Africana studies

Just as George Floyd’s death has sparked worldwide protests, it can spark renewed conversations at DePauw University about racial issues, justice and equality, says the director of DePauw’s Africana studies program.

“We profess that the interdisciplinary nature of our curriculum prepares our students without respect to their field to do anything – to run corporations, to be economists, to do anything they want to do, so when they leave DePauw, they have the skills,” said Emmitt Riley III, assistant professor of Africana studies. “One question that we have to ask ourselves as an institution is, does the curriculum we offer enable our students to leave DePauw culturally competent? That is, are they prepared to go into a workforce that is diverse? Are they prepared to deal with people who come from different backgrounds than they do? Are they prepared to engage with these people in a manner that is not oppressive? And I think the way to do that is we can utilize our curriculum to center the notion that we have to prepare our students to be leaders in a world that’s going to look inherently different.”

The university can use classes and programming to “make sure that the people of color on our campus, the black people, whatever groups are oppressed or marginalized, feel welcome, feel valued and also feel included,” said Riley, who responded to questions about how Floyd’s May 25 death after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes and the ensuing protests can be teachable moments at DePauw.

In addition to the graduation requirement that students take a course on power, privilege and diversity, the university should urge students to take additional courses “that center blackness,” he said. “… As an institution in the U.S., there’s a responsibility to say how do we take this moment, when people are talking about black lives matter, and organize what we offer to make our students sensitive to that?”

For his part, Riley – who came to DePauw as a visiting political science professor in the 2015-16 academic year and won a permanent appointment thereafter – teaches several courses, including Introduction to Africana Studies, in which students consider how to “decolonize” the curriculum.

"That is where we should be pushing them – to be the new change agents and take these positions in society."
– Emmitt Riley III

“Our field is predicated on the notion that … when you center Europe and you ignore the contributions of people of African descent, you’ve essentially set up the very foundation of white supremacy,” he said. “… I think that a liberal arts college should be the breeding ground for teaching our students how to think analytically, but most important, (teaching them) how we deal with issues in the world and how we also have a consciousness and an awareness that everybody doesn’t have the same experience as us. And then, how do you then utilize that to craft policies and dismantle institutions and change?”

He will teach a first-year seminar in the fall on the Black Lives Matter movement, exploring how “protests are strategic; they are organized; there’s a message to the chaos and the madness that we see happening.”

As students contemplate issues of racial inequality in that and other classes, “I don’t think that there are any easy answers,” he said. But the university can equip students with “the language to talk about race” based on study and not the emotions reflected in social media.

He wants students to be able to “point to a body of intellectual understanding on this subject (and) a body of literature that supports (one’s) assertions, so I’m not saying, ‘Oh, everybody needs to chill’ or ‘I just think this should be that way.’

“That is where we should be pushing them – to be the new change agents and take these positions in society,” he said. “I think that someone who has that cultural awareness, that consciousness, is more likely to have a greater understanding of what’s happening. … DePauw is uniquely positioned to address, at least to provide our students, with the intellectual capital to do this work. It’s just that we have not prioritized questions that are sensitive to race.”  

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