Student group petitions for mandatory racial literacy course

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Sagal Ahmed, Contributing Writer

Some students are calling on VCU to implement a mandatory course at the university on racial literacy, or anti-racist cultural and societal teachings designed to educate and promote discussions about race and racism.

Marie Vergamini, co-director of the student advisory group within VCU’s Committee on Racial Equity, said she joined the group to promote racial equality in VCU’s curriculum. She said she believes the university’s diversity campaigns are performative. 

“We all see through it, the students see through it and faculty act as if they are doing the right thing,” said Vergamini, an integrative life sciences doctoral student. 

The group has met once a week for the past six months. During that time, it developed an online petition to make the racial literacy course mandatory for incoming freshmen and transfer students in fall of 2021.

“When I heard about this course, I felt this was an action that VCU could take in the right direction to actually saying, ‘We are a diverse university that supports our diverse population,’” Vergamini said.

The group has met with several committees to get approval of the course, such as the general education committee, which stated in a Jan. 22 meeting that the class would be an elective course in the “diversity of the human experience” category. 

“It’s hoped that with greater clarity about the ways in which race and racism operates within American society, that clarity will produce anti-racist outcomes,” said African American studies professor Adam Ewing.

The committee told the group that the course was made an elective rather than mandatory due to scheduling conflicts and failure of the group to submit a proposal with a syllabus on time, Vergamini said. The organization has attempted to convince the committee to make the class mandatory, despite these issues.

The petition is still open for signatures, and has been updated asking that the class be made a mandatory course by the fall semester of 2022. 

Senior African American studies major Madeline McDuffy said the course is being implemented as a trial period due to VCU listing it as an elective. The student advisory group is worried the class may not be offered in the future if too few students sign up for the class, McDuffy said. 

The group is promoting the class by asking advisers and college recuriters to spread awareness to future students. 

Adam Ewing, associate professor of African American studies, said the course is needed at VCU because of the institutionalized nature of racism in university spaces.

“It’s hoped that with greater clarity about the ways in which race and racism operates within American society, that clarity will produce anti-racist outcomes,” Ewing said.

Ewing said his definition of racial literacy relates to racial illiteracy; the latter exists because conversations about how race operates in society aren’t common.

“I think about racial literacy in that sense as an effort to address that consequential lack of literacy in thinking about this issue,” Ewing said. “And because we don’t have a shared language to really discuss it, we often don’t have very effective ways for dealing with racism and addressing it as a society.”

One way to address racial illiteracy is by prioritizing education about racial equality, Ewing said. 

“Living in a society that doesn’t produce those outcomes requires more than simply declaring a commitment to not being racist,” Ewing said. “It requires taking active steps to change the current reality, which is rooted in racist practice and racist outcomes.” 

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