The Common Read Project: Sociological framing of “How to Be an Antiracist”

Grace Fassio, Staff Reporter

The first session of the Common Read Project that discussed Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” occurred on Oct. 8. It was intended to help facilitate campus-wide conversations about the academic theme of Race, Violence and Health. Associate Professor of Sociology Gilbert Mireles provided a sociological perspective to help frame the group’s discussion, and Associate Professor of Psychology Erin Pahlke will provide a psychological perspective for the next discussion.

In the middle of July, President Kathy Murray announced that “How to Be an Antiracist” would be Whitman’s common summer read to spur conversation. Each student was mailed a copy of Kendi’s book over the summer, which was financed by donations from alumni and members of the President’s Advisory Board. 

The Common Read Project is a three-part discussion series that uses “the moments of realization that Kendi narrates from his life as a way to consider the epiphanies we’ve had in our own lives.” Each session covers a different stage of life: childhood, high school and college, and graduate school and beyond. The first half of the discussion is a lecture. Then, the group is divided into small breakout rooms to discuss the contents of the lecture, of Kendi’s book and the audience’s own experiences.

Nearly 20 members of the Whitman community attended the first session, and the majority were faculty and alumni.  

During the first session, Mireles provided a sociological perspective on institutions and the influence they have in shaping lives. 

Mireles defined institutions as the basic building blocks of social structures that constrain or enable the behavior of individuals. This means that the actions of individuals are influenced but not fully determined by the underlying components of a given social system.

“In this way, we might say that institutions socialize us,” Mireles said, “and what I mean by that, is that they teach us appropriate ways of thinking and acting in society.”

Mireles continued to explain that dominant social beliefs and values become embedded within institutions and that the emphasis of these values legitimize certain behaviors over others, ultimately normalizing them within society.

Mireles used an example from “How to Be an Antiracist” to support this idea. In elementary school, Kendi noticed that his white teacher consistently called on white students over Black students. Mireles explained that in this case, the institution of education enabled white students and constrained Black students. The white students were taught that they should be heard and the Black students were taught that they should be quiet. 

Mireles also emphasized that institutions are inescapable and that society needs to examine the beliefs which institutions support in order to enact change.

“We don’t often stop to interrogate those values that are at the heart of our institutions,” Mireles said, “but if we are to move from a colorblind or racist institution to an antiracist institution, it behooves us to take a close look at those values.”

Next, participants were divided into breakout rooms each of six people to discuss realizations they had about racism or antiracism during their childhoods.

Sophomore Libby Hetzel enjoyed the breakout rooms because it allowed everyone to comfortably share their own perspectives, which is why she signed up for the Common Read Project. As a white person, Hetzel feels a responsibility to educate herself. 

“I feel like the least I can do is sign into a Zoom meeting and listen to people and listen to what I can do to help,” Hetzel said.

She is looking forward to attending the next two sessions and hopes to see more students show up.

“I was pretty disappointed that there were not a ton of students at the first session. I think everybody should be there,” Hetzel said. “Taking every opportunity you can to listen to people and educate yourself is important.”

The next session of the Common Read Project will be held on Thursday, Oct. 15. For more information and registration visit the Events Calendar.