Teju Cole speaks on anti-racist work and liberation in Power & Privilege Keynote

Mo Dow, A&E Reporter

Teju Cole, a Professor of Creative Writing at Harvard University and acclaimed author and photographer, kicked off Whitman’s 2021 Power & Privilege Symposium with a Keynote speech on Feb. 17.  He addressed the complicated realities of racism, and made a point of emphasizing that although literature is an important tool, it is not the only key to anti-racist activity. 

“At its best, literature can bring us into the zone of understanding. It does not make us know what it feels like,” Cole said. 

Although many people have read books like White Fragility this summer in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, he and many others continue to be treated poorly by racist systems of power. Cole emphasized the importance of action, as opposed to performative education.

Cole added, “I wonder if part of our miseducation is the idea that liberation is just a reading list away.”

Cole pointed out that white people are accustomed to being the audience, and often feel entitled to the stories and experiences of others. On that note, Cole asserted that he doesn’t write for white people.

“This is not addressing you—you can read it, you’re welcome to enjoy it, to learn from it. But I am giving you the grace to let you know that not everything belongs to you,” Cole said.  

Professor of Creative Writing and English Scott Elliot watched the talk and came away reflecting on another part of Professor Cole’s message. 

“His (Cole’s) point about the phrase “white people” as one that disturbs the complacent white reader out of the assumption that they are the intended audience was also apt and hit home,” Elliott said. 

Cole’s speech did end up reaching a predominantly white audience. He said that white people who experience his writing should know that his stories don’t belong to them.

Senior Maamoon Saleh thought that this point had a lot of merit and believes it’s worth exploring more. 

“The question of who the intended audience is never one that is never explicitly confronted, but implicitly internalized,” Saleh said. “By doing this, the work being presented can be inherently exclusionary due to the way they cater towards appeasing white folk, while neglecting the entire audience.”

Chloe Michaels, a junior English and French double major said that Cole’s words really resonated with her. Michaels thinks it  is an important lesson for Whitman students. 

“So many people do put so much faith in reading, and do think that you can fully understand the black experience if you read, say, How To Be An Anti-Racist… It’s super important for the Whitman community to hear,” Michaels said. 

Alicia Even, a junior psychology major, commented on the speech and its impact on her. She was struck by Professor Cole’s opening remarks, which addressed the recent news story of Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi, who was removed from Parliament for the day for not wearing a tie. Cole used this anecdote to jump into a conversation about cultural identity, white supremacy and forced assimilation. Even walked away from the talk still thinking about these concepts. 

“The main thing that sticks with me is the expectation that indigenous people and people of color have to follow white expectations,” Evens said. 

Professor Cole’s talk had a strong attendance, and as the first Zoom event of the new digital Power and Privilege Symposium showcased how to utilize the medium to support audience retention and engagement.