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Simpson Center for the Humanities

Interrupting Privilege: A Q&A with Professor Ralina Joseph

By Denise Grollmus

The last time I spoke with UW Professor of Communication Ralina Joseph, she had been recently awarded an inaugural Mellon/ACLS Scholars & Society fellowship for her work with Interrupting Privilege, an intergenerational, skills-building, anti-racism space of dialogue and critique that argues that everyday people can work together across generations and race to combat racism with the support of youth leadership, commitment to critique-in-action, spaces to share and hear racial hurt, and careful training modules. After running the program for two years on the UW campus with UW students, faculty, staff, and alumni, Joseph decided to move the program to Seattle’s Black community hub, the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), where the class now includes the voices and perspectives of community members, alongside Garfield high school and Seattle Central College students of color, as well as UW graduate students.

Since the move to NAAM, Covid-19 has not only made in-person meetings of Interrupting Privilege impossible, but it has also amplified and laid bare systemic racism and racial inequality, while giving rise to new forms of microaggressions online. A week before the country erupted in protests over the killing of George Floyd and other black men and women, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, by the police and white vigilantes, I checked in with Joseph to see how Interrupting Privilege was going in terms of moving online and in the context of America’s two deadliest diseases: racism and Covid-19.

How have things with Interrupting Privilege been going in light of the lockdown?

It’s going. Of course, as you know, we pivoted this year. We were at the Northwest African American Museum. We kept much of the same curriculum as previous years, but we shifted in different ways. For example, we still had a session on language and power, but we made it relevant for our all-black community session. The session on language and power started off the same, but then it quickly went to a discussion of the n-word and intraracial users of the n-word. For that meeting, I assigned a podcast on the history of the n-word that everyone listened to in advance, and then we ended off the session with some sociometric exercises where people registered their comfort and discomfort in using the word with their body positions in the room.

Those sessions were great. And then we have this wonderful group of graduate students from Communication, Political Science, and the College of Education, and even some undergraduate researchers. We met a week before the shutdown to finalize people’s research topics, which were meant to inform the next set of dialogues, when the students would conduct interviews with the community members. Then everything stopped.

So, we paused, and then came back together for our fourth session on Zoom, which had a great attendance for our participants between the ages of 15 and 75. And then, after that, we started recording our online dialogues around all different topics. One included an older participant who had made the final comment on the evening we discussed the n-word. She was on the side of the room for the sociometric exercise that asserted strongly, “I will never use the n-word.” She did a dialogue with her college-age grandson. They have very different perspectives. She told us a powerful story of the first time she remembered hearing that word. It was the late 1940s, and she and her sister were waiting for her parents and grandparents to pay poll taxes so that they could vote. This woman remembered very clearly being in the car and having that epithet hurled at her and her sister. She said there is no way, no how, no circumstance that she can use that word. And then her grandson, who is 20 years old, has a 100% different experience and talks about his casual uses of it. But by the end of their dialogue, he’s questioning his use of the word as well.

And so, the program has pivoted in lots of ways, but we're working it out. That dialogue, for example, couldn’t have happened without the quarantine as our participant lives here in Seattle and her grandson lives in Atlanta; previously we’ve done all our dialogues in person in our studio. We've done five dialogues so far around different themes and we are bringing the graduate students back in, which has been great. One graduate student is working on themes of radical healing, and had people talk about how being in an all-black environment can become a space of radical healing, especially in a place like Seattle, which is such a white city. That was a wonderful one. And we've had one dialogue talking about microaggressions in terms of everything moving online. That included a really terrific discussion of the differential labor that happens for women of color in work settings. We also have a couple of police officers who are participating, and so we have one dialogue set up with them discussing why black people sign up to be police officers on a very real level.

Because of shifting to our online sessions, we were able to have an Interrupting Privilege connection session this past Sunday afternoon, the day after the first protests about the murder of George Floyd. We got together to talk about people’s experience of racialized trauma in this moment, what movement building means to all of us, how we can all interrupt privilege in incremental ways in the process of building a movement, and how we can support each other in order to get there. Again, that’s something that would have been hard to get together on short notice if we were just meeting in person.

So, it's happening. And because of Covid-19, we’re actually continuing our relationship with NAAM for one more year, so the project is going to grow in exciting ways.

How has being online shifted the way we talk and think about race? Has it changed the conversation somehow?

I think to even begin there we have to talk about access. The youth that we have are from Garfield High School, Seattle Central, and the UW and then we have this adult population. From the youth, in particular, not everyone has equal access to technology. There's this one really powerful blog post written jointly by two of the high school students about how Seattle public schools had tried to get a computer to them. After waiting for a long time, one of the students finally got the computer, but the district failed to consider that she didn't have wi-fi at home. They weren’t handing out hot spots and still aren’t handing out hot spots. So, there’s a very real issue of access. 

Although we were able to get everyone to be able to participate, there was certainly, for our youth participants, an immediate drop in the type of participation they could manage, and so we pivoted. We had all of these plans where they were going to be the ones conducting interviews with the community member participants. But, we realized, even online, that wasn’t going to be possible just because of differential access to technology. And so, instead, we had them write blog posts, since everyone can do the writing, even on their phones.

But I think that for the people that did participate, both the students and the community members, maybe because we had already established relationships together in person, people were right there and they were really willing to share. We did a lot of similar exercises in our Zoom spaces. For example, we listen to a clip together and then, in person, we usually we do these activities where people talk about the clip. On Zoom, I put people into breakout rooms, and people said that experience felt pretty familiar to them, and so it felt easy to share. It felt like they were still able to access that same kind of feel.

But, still, there's no way to replicate the lack of a physical presence, as one of our graduate students wrote. We're all kind of feeling the loss of that. And yet, at the same time, it does feel like it's not just a substitution for community, but it is a new community and it's an extension of community. At the same time, it's not the same. And it’s also the best that we can do right now in terms of the large group.

You mentioned that participants have been discussing how microaggressions have changed since life moved online. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

It's interesting, because in certain ways, I think that that the experiences of daily microaggressions are better, and there are other ways in which the separation is exacerbating some of the same old issues.

Some of the participants talked about, first off, the relief of not having to experience daily interpersonal microaggressions. There was one gentleman in his fifties who talked about how he works in a building downtown and is used to going into the elevator and people not wanting to be on the elevator with him, particularly white women. He was used to kind of steeling himself for that feeling in the pit of his stomach every day, and now he's not experiencing that.

At the same time, we had a number of black women professionals talk about the extra labor that they have to do being online. Some of them talked about, for example, how they can often be ignored and dismissed in an online setting. Literally ignored. For example, if they send an email—and a number of them use Microsoft Outlook where you can see a little picture of the sender—people will see their photos and not answer their emails. At the office, they could simply walk over to that person’s desk and say, “hi, I just want to make sure that you got my email.” But right now, they can’t do that.

People also talked about how, in these online spaces, their voices are not resonating in the same way. And it's harder for even an ally to be able to amplify your voice in these types of spaces, because the people that tend to dominate meetings are dominating them even more in these online spaces. How do you make your voice heard in a videoconference when people speak over or silence you and not seem “angry”? That’s one thing we’re talking about.

What has it been like to move beyond the space of UW and include folks beyond UW students and alumni?

The room felt different in lots of ways, especially due to the fact that we had folks that had GEDs all the way up to PhDs in the space. In addition to being off campus, and the space being all-Black, it was very different in terms of folks from a variety of professions and educational backgrounds from previous cohorts.

What’s on the horizon for Interrupting Privilege?

So usually we have a class that's called Engaged Scholarship over the summer. We have been running it in partnership with Rainier Scholars. Unfortunately, we had to cancel that because it’s very much an in-person class. We were also hoping to do something with NAAM with that summer project that was going to be very cool, so, hopefully next summer we'll be able to pick up on that project.

We will continue to work on these recorded dialogues. And we have a number of research projects that are coming out of the work. Meshell Sturgis (Doctoral Candidate in Communication) and I have a piece that's currently under review. Anjuli Brekke (new Ph.D. in Communication), Gina Aaftaab (CCDE Assistant Director), and I are working on a revise and resubmit on an article, and Gina, Carmen Gonzalez (Communication Department Assistant Professor and CCDE Associate Director), and I are working on a third article on Interrupting Privilege. And then we have all these graduate students that are working on new pieces. And then I'm writing this book [on Interrupting Privilege]. So, the research will continue, and we’ll work on getting these dialogues and more of our students’ writing out into the world.