Healing racism through discussion, study

Symptoms of racism aren't hard to find in Madison. Recent issues dominating public discourse include the achievement gap between white students and students of color and the disproportionate rates at which white and black offenders are incarcerated in Dane County.

On Sept. 13, a seminar series began to discuss how racism affects all people and steps needed to collectively heal the wounds it causes. The series is hosted by the Madison Institute for the Healing of Racism, founded by Richard Davis, renowned bass player and UW-Madison professor of bass, jazz history, and combo improvisation. Participants in the seminar series will meet for approximately two hours each Thursday through November 15. Participation in the seminar costs $20.

The seminar provides a safe space to explore race relations. A safe space is described by author Nathan Rutstein as a community "in which men and women of all races can address each other in a spirit of open and honest discussion, free of blame and victimization." Participants discuss Rutstein's Healing Racism in America: A Prescription for the Disease and other readings in the seminar.

A total of eight facilitators lead participants in their discussion of such readings and create a positive place for study and discussion. The course explores nine subtopics including the history of racism, the perpetuation of racism, the pathology of racism as a disease, the oneness of humankind, institutionalized racism, white privilege, local issues, ally building, and the fear/anxiety factor.

Each session begins with a participant sharing a thought or article related to a topic of past discussion. Then the group listens to a presentation on a chosen topic, after which they pair off and dialogue allowing just one person to speak at a time.

Seminar content will draw participants’ attention to examples of how racism impacts all levels of society. Facilitators stress the subtle prevalence of racism, important to acknowledge in a community that hosts a campus of students of a variety of colors and creeds. It is on this campus that Davis identified exclusionary behavior directed toward minority students, he told the Wisconsin State Journal’s Kevin Lynch in 2001.

“Many minority students say, ‘Man, I feel isolated here. People just ignore me,’” said Davis. “They often end up in tears because of the way they're treated, because some insensitive professor's behavior doesn't make students feel they're part of the whole system.”

Dale Burke, the former Assistant Chief of the University of Wisconsin Police, is an alumni of the program and credits  it with helping him learn the meaning of racism.

For more information on the Madison Institute for the Healing of Racism visit Davis’ website.