By Ryan O'Connell
Arts & Features Editor
By Raena Doty
Lyssa Palu-ay, dean of the Office of Justice and Transformation at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, hosted a workshop and lecture about critical race theory and equity in education Sept. 27.
Palu-ay, who received her Ph.D. in higher education from UMass Boston, first held a workshop focused on helping faculty better acknowledge the struggles BIPOC students face in the classroom and how to help combat them.
She began the workshop by sharing her full legal name, how it evolved over her lifetime, as she moved across the country. She asked members of the workshop to share their names as well and the stories they carry with each other.
“Now, more so than ever, our identity matters - as educators, as those of us that are in the classroom,” she said.
Palu-ay said her experiences in academia relate to the critical race theory concept of the narrative and the counter-narrative, and said she has seen it in universities.
She said she has seen students with immigrant backgrounds come to school and have their names shortened by their peers within a few weeks, detaching themselves from their culture.
“I actually did this name story exercise with one of my students that first week and the story that came out was [his name was] Johnston. His Cambodian parents asked the doctor who delivered him to give him an American name,” she said.
Palu-ay provided other examples of the simplification of non-white students’ names, and said she even allowed her own name to be misprounced for a time until she entered graduate school. She said the community and sense of belonging brought on by having her peers correctly say her name was necessary to her.
She added while she finally felt this connection as an adult, she encouraged attendees of the workshop to help students by establishing these connections earlier. She said they should think about “how much more” students feel, and how these interactions can encourage educators to learn more about people's names and stories.
“[It] feels like a seemingly small gesture, but it can be really big,” she said.
Palu-ay gave a definition of critical race theory to the workshop, for anyone uninformed, or those unaware of how it particularly affects students and educators. She said it was about “how systems of oppression, policies, practices are happening in the education system.
“Our BIPOC students so desperately want to be heard in school … to express themselves,” she said. Palu-ay added it was important for BIPOC students to have someone to relate to in school environments.
“This was many years ago at MassArt, and a student walked into the auditorium, he looked around the auditorium and walked directly to the admissions office, and he said, ‘I can’t do this.’ He was a Latino student, saw a sea of white faces, and he didn’t see anyone he could relate to. He was just totally overwhelmed.”
Palu-ay said even though the admissions director brought several faculty of color in to talk to him to share their experiences and spoke to him about a mentoring program, she never saw that student again.
She asked, “What are the explicit and implicit messages we send our students at large events like orientation, or even daily encounters like in the hallway, or classrooms, or anywhere on campus?”
Palu-ay facilitated small group discussions for the rest of the workshop, encouraging educators to think about the first time they felt seen in their identity.
The following lecture, open to all staff and students, took place in the Dwight Performing Arts Center at 6:30 p.m. Palu-ay talked more specifically about her experiences being in art school and how a history of racism impacted her and other students of color.
She described an experience she had in first grade when she was 6 years old. Her class was assigned a project that involved taking home dolls to care for them. Rather than leave her empty handed, her teacher gave her the only doll that looked anything like her - a dark-haired, light-skinned doll, wearing an Indigenous American parka.
“I came home unfazed until I saw the look on my mom's face, an immigrant from the Philippines, which is made up of over 7,000-plus tropical islands. Looking back on it now, the underlying message that it sent to me is, ‘I don't see you and what I do see doesn't matter. Rather than trying to understand you, I'm going to put you in a category that I do understand,’” Palu-ay said.
These reductions of identity are common throughout education, and they cause tangible harm to students of color, including and perhaps especially in art schools, Palu-ay said.
She added racism is not new and educational institutions are in and of themselves racist. She used examples of racist caricatures of people of color being compared to animals.
Palu-ay also discussed recapitulation theory - the theory that humanity goes through a linear progression of least to most developed, and that people in “barbaric” civilizations are stunted mentally by their “barbaric” societies.
These historical examples of racism were built into the foundations of many parts of academia and they echo in curriculum today, she said.
Palu-ay shared experiences with students who “had to contort their names, ideas, and in the case of art school, expression to fit in.”
She provided examples of modern racism in curriculum. For example, the types of “great artwork” professors teach are by European artists - comparatively few works by people of color make it to art schools.
Historical context is often stripped away from the way these pieces are taught, which degrades their meaning, she said. Palu-ay gave the example of teaching about Frida Kahlo’s art without mentioning her Mexican heritage.
Students of color who represent their culture or heritage in their artwork may be graded unfairly for doing so if it doesn’t appeal to the western ideal of what makes “good” art, further distancing these students from their peers, teachers, and the institutions of art and academia, she said.
The identity of students of color “is funneling through and interacting with the Eurocentric curriculum and pedagogy,” Palu-ay said.
At an art school she referred to using the pseudonym, Institute of Contemporary Art and Design, Palu-ay described some of the conditions of Eurocentrism that make the space hostile to students of color.
“The findings from the experiences of [students of color] in this department were an unwelcoming environment in studio courses, faculty were out of touch, identity was on the margins, yet the liberal arts offered space,” she said.
The student body of the Institute of Contemporary Art and Design is 25% BIPOC. However, the staff is only 1%, she said.
Palu-ay gave several suggestions for how to make more inclusive environments in academia and in the classroom.
The first steps toward making spaces more inclusive are gestures both big and small. School administrations need to both spearhead and support policy and curriculum change, she said.
However, on an interpersonal level, small things go a long way. She said asking someone where their name comes from and how to pronounce it correctly is a great way to start for both students and teachers, because like herself, so many students of color have names that matter - names that have been ignored or forgotten.
The goal is to find “ways that we can see our full humanity and dignity in everyone” - a privilege that isn’t given to so many people of color, she said.
As educators and students work to build a better school, the task will be difficult. Critical race theory gives a framework for understanding why academic institutions are racist, and how this racism presents itself in everyday life, she said.
Unpacking the history of racism and remodeling the school into a positive, collaborative, anti-racist environment will take time and effort on behalf of students, staff, and administrators, she said.
“Identity is not neutral, and I think now more than ever, we need to realize how we can understand that and build a capacity to have our classrooms and the spaces and the culture and the way we move with each other, mindful of those things,” Palu-ay said.