A Conversation on Equity, Inclusion, and History at Georgetown University: PART I – How do Diversity Advocates Think About History?

Casey Donahue

At the end of March, I spoke with leaders from the diversity and equity initiatives in Georgetown’s History and Foreign Service departments. The goal of the discussion was to learn how these graduate students understand diversity work in the context of their academic discipline, and how they leverage the study of history in their respective approaches.

Joining me from the School of Foreign Service was Ishanee Chanda, student representative on the MSFS Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee and the former President-Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Georgetown (DIG). From the History Department came Devinie Lye-Ukwattage and Emmanuel Mehr, both Masters student representatives on History’s Inclusive Climate Committee (ICC).

Below is the first half of our conversation, which tackles the role and relevance of understanding the past while trying create a safe, diverse, and equitable community:

Casey Donahue: Seeing as this is a history blog, let’s start off by talking about each team’s relationship with the past. How and to what extent do you see history education as a form of activism, as a vehicle for change?

Emmanuel Mehr: One of the interesting ways that we see our role as a History Department is being able to accumulate and distribute the most helpful resources that have been produced by historians to address contemporary events. I think the best example was in 2014. After the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Professor Marcia Chatelain produced what was called the #FergusonSyllabus, and it became this viral Twitterized academic thing, crowd-sourced all over social media. It was essentially a digital syllabus of the resources that could be most helpful for thinking about police brutality and racism and the history of struggle and protest. We also distributed something with a similar approach this past summer in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

Devinie Lye-Ukwattage: I think history plays a huge role. I’m from Sri Lanka and, although we had history in the syllabus, I never really learned any history. And one of the reasons for that is because we don’t teach it as a narrative. It’s taught more as a lesson. My personal interest is in the history and sociology of science and technology. Even in these subject areas, there are so many places that aren’t as diverse as they could be, areas where certain people are underrepresented. So there’s a place [for diversity initiatives] in any field. And if we can find a way to reach people through narratives without making it [feel like] a history lesson, that’s one very powerful way. 

Ishanee Chanda: What I mull on most of the time in the scope of this work is that history is a form of activism when it’s accurate–when we’re accurately portraying how things have happened, when we’re not erasing voices or uplifting whitewashed narratives. And that is something that we’re going through in almost every single class, questions like who writes history in the Western world, and whose voices are we choosing to put on our syllabi to ensure that this is the narrative that we’re reading? 

The curricular review that we’ve been doing in MSFS for two semesters now is to ensure that we have representation from diverse voices, that we’re not just looking at American voices, we’re not just looking at Western, European voices. Because those people will tell history in a different way.

If you’re going to talk about climate change, you have to talk about First World countries and their impact on the narrative, in terms of how emissions have largely been something that we’ve done, more so than developing countries. If you’re going to look at global business and finance, you have to look at the whitewashed narrative [that says] “We, as a company in the First World, are going to go in and do development and we’re going to actually help the people on the ground,” and not take into account the impact on local labor and local markets. In terms of diplomacy, if you’re going to go somewhere as an American diplomat, what impact does that have on the politics of where you’re staying?

CD: As DEI workers, are you here to introduce new aspects of history, correct false ones, or amplify new ones? Or is it a little bit of all that?

EM: A lot of our work is internal to the History Department’s culture, so it’s sort of assumed that graduate students and professors have some base knowledge. So it’s not really about introducing the history itself, but pointing to the lessons that we need to take from it. As historians, we track continuity and change, so that can be really helpful for figuring out how we can actually achieve systemic change.

DL: I didn’t initially come here to educate or change. I wasn’t always in this movement. I’ve been here [in the United States] for maybe about a decade, but when I first came, I didn’t know a lot about American history. As a South Asian, I had a lot of questions. I came in 2007, so, the president-elect was Barack Obama, and I had seen so many white people working together with everybody to get him elected. So what I saw was a very limited picture. It took me years to learn that there is a really systematic racist way of life in this country that excludes people. If I want to educate anybody, it’ll be my own people. Coming from South Asia, we don’t understand the racism that happens in this country. It takes a couple of years. You see certain pictures, you see limited narratives, you see a president who is African American. But there is something happening, and it’s important to teach.

In 1965, there was a law passed that opened citizenship up to certain South and East Asian countries, and one of the preferences given was to education. So you had a lot of educated people coming into this country, and that caused generations of people who promoted education within their families. These are important things that I had to speak to my family members about. I’d say “you know what? That’s right. All our family members are educated, and it may have seemed easy to us, but it’s not going to be easy for certain peoples of certain races.” These are conversations that have to happen, and they have to start at home. 

IC: I grew up in Texas. It was made very explicit to me when I was in high school that the Civil War was not caused by slavery; the Civil War was caused by states’ rights. Now, that’s the states’ rights to own slaves, right? But you could have asked me in tenth grade, and I would have just told you [states’ rights], because I had spent four or five years having that drilled into my brain. 

So I think a lot of [our work] is correction. I had to correct myself, since no one would correct me. A lot of it is also introduction. It’s us saying, “So, I’m telling you that this thing that you’ve believed for a really long time is just not accurate. Let me introduce something else that is.” I don’t think you can do one without the other. You have to correct old ideas and introduce new ideas in tandem, in the scope of public education, in the way that we educate our kids, and in the way we talk about these issues in university. 

CD: I’d like to ask about resistance to DEI initiatives. This past year in particular has seen a lot of conversation about the importance of diversity and equity within institutions and schools and corporations. And perhaps the most high profile pushback was from the Trump Administration–its executive orders targeting diversity efforts on campuses, its rhetoric against teaching critical race theory, its 1776 Commission, which was explicitly designed to promote a more “patriotic history.” The through-line here seems to be a battle over national origin stories. My question is: why might an average American resist participation in a DEI initiative? Is there one type of critic?

IC: It’s complicated. First of all, you’re not only telling people that the status quo they’ve grown up with is wrong, or different, or being challenged. You’re also telling them that their place in society changes to some extent, even if it’s just a perception of who they are in society. You will always have folks who are afraid of the change.

The other thing is–and I think about this a lot–is that we can only do so much without offending anyone. For me, as a minority in this country, as a South Asian, I get frustrated with white people. Yeah, and I’ll joke that I’m frustrated with white people, because I’ve lived through a life of micro-aggressions and a lot of things that have just built up. And I recognize that it’s hard to tell people that they should accept me and give me a place at the table, while also expressing my frustration with them.

There are these two narratives that are going around. One says that we have to work together, and we have to ensure that there’s equity for everyone. But at the same time, [the other narrative says] “You treated me really really badly, and I want to make sure that you know that, because that’s the only way we can move forward.” And the situation’s just not ripe enough for that kind of acceptance and that kind of mediation. So that’s just my take. You can’t police people, but at the same time, folks need a space to vent. I vent in DEI spaces, mostly. I don’t vent in front of white people [laughs], because I don’t want to alienate them.

It’s hard to accept, like, “Because of me, or because of something my ancestors did, I’m somehow guilty.” I mean, that’s reparations, right? That’s the whole concept—that I, today, should pay a certain amount of money for something that my ancestors did. Those kinds of concepts are hard. And if we can figure that out in this conversation, that’d be great. But for now, I’d really appreciate an answer. 

DL: It’s hard for people to think of themselves as the bad guy. It’s hard for anybody. And that’s why it’s important to give space also to the people who are making those mistakes. And Emmanuel can talk later about our [History Department] Bystander Training. But I really want to hear from these people—people who have racist ideas. Like, how did they come to this idea? I think that’s how we can learn. There are certain levels [of racism] where there’s just no point in talking, but when we don’t allow people to come out and say, “I’m scared,” [their feelings] are going to get swept under the rug. And then those who need inclusion are going to be the ones who suffer from it.

When you approach a person differently, they can almost feel it. There’s a word I use–ineffable–when just there’s no way to say something. But you know when a person is looking at you in a different way. You feel it. They’re talking to you nicely, they’re polite, they’re answering you when you raise your hand. But you know they don’t like you for some reason. And that’s why I feel like we need to open up the conversation and see what’s up, what’s going on. 

EM: I want to mention two things regarding resistance to DEI initiatives, particularly within our department. Casey mentioned the 1776 Commission. Of course, that was a response to the 1619 Project. And I think that the historians’ response to the 1619 Project was an example of how the historical profession actually can get in the way of activism sometimes. There was this really helpful New York Times project that had so much promise for reforming how American history is taught, and historians really got into the weeds of it and came out with all these critiques and letters to the editor and all that. And then non-historians sort of said, “Well, historians say it’s wrong, so we’re not going to look at it.” And that sort of became a weaponization of the practice of academic history. So I think it’s really important to think about how we can get over ourselves a little bit and think about what can actually be effective for activists, instead of having our typical historiographical arguments about everything. 

The second thing I wanted to mention is our Bystander Training [open to all History Department members on May 6th]. In terms of resistance, [department members] not attending our programming is the main issue. I’m not sure if I would call this passive resistance or whatever. But if we put together programming and people don’t come to it, then it’s not [effective]. You would think that the people who don’t come are the ones who actually might need it the most. So that’s something that we work to address—finding ways to increase attendance, especially in this virtual environment where we can no longer lure people with free food. 

Though we also cannot lure you in with free food, please re-join us on Monday, May 3rd, for Part II of our conversation. Emmanuel, Devinie, Ishanee will discuss what it means to be both students and activists in the Georgetown community, and will share perspectives on the work that remains unfinished.

Casey Donahue, Ishanee Chanda, Emmanuel Mehr, and Devinie Lye-Ukwattage

Ishanee Chanda is a second year MSFS student graduating in May with a degree that focuses on refugees and humanitarian emergencies. In addition to her leadership work with DIG and the MSFS DEI Committee, Ishanee works in the SFS Office for Diversity and Inclusion under Vice Dean Scott Taylor. Post-graduation, Ishanee will be working on climate change and food insecurity issues for rural Bangladeshi communities. 

Devinie Lye-Ukwattage is a Graduate student at Georgetown University’s Global, International, and Comparative History program. Devinie‘s research interests explore the political and socioeconomic factors that shaped the development of science and technology in the West. She also serves as the History Department Inclusive Climate Committee representative for the MA Class of 2022.

Emmanuel Mehr is a MA candidate in Georgetown’s Global, International, and Comparative History program. His research explores immigration policy, eugenics, and nation-making in the early twentieth-century United States. He also serves as the History Department Inclusive Climate Committee representative for the MA Class of 2021.

Image: Posters hanging on a DC fence after a June 11th, 2021 rally. Photo by Ted Eytan. Modified by Casey Donahue.

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