Emory Report
April 3, 2006
Volume 58, Number 25


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April 3, 2006
Puzzling out issues of race, difference

BY frances wood

On March 20 in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library, President Jim Wagner and Provost Earl Lewis hosted the fifth of six seminars, “Understanding Race and Difference,” focusing on Emory’s strategic initiatives.
One of the sparks igniting conversation was an acknowledgment that, while the language people use to describe human experience remains imperfect, it is nonetheless necessary to have shared understandings and work toward modes of communication that are intelligible and meaningful across disciplinary boundaries.

As in previous seminars, the meeting opened with a welcome from Wagner, who described the strategic planning process and the initiatives identified under two broad scholarly themes: “Confronting the Human Condition and Human Experience” and “Exploring New Frontiers in Science and Technology.”

Co-leading the discussion was Frances Smith Foster, Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Women’s Studies, along with anthropology Professor George Armelagos and biology Senior Lecturer Arri Eisen. Foster opened the panel with a reference to one of the readings for the seminar, a chapter from Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, and Other Conversations About Race. Is the purpose of understanding issues of race and difference, Foster asked, to affirm identity, build community and cultivate leadership?

Sander Gilman of the Institute for Liberal Arts said part of the dilemma facing Emory is how to frame discussions on race globally, given the use of categories such as “Jewish genetic diseases” and prescription drugs designed specifically for “diseases affecting African American populations.” He noted that while genetic coding does predispose certain groups to particular health risks, scientific studies simultaneously are demonstrating how similar the components of human genetic makeup actually are.

Lewis asked whether today’s vocabulary of race “takes us back to the 19th century,” citing a study at Penn State in which students had their mouths swabbed for a DNA analysis that would help determine exact proportions of their genetic background among various racial and ethnic groups. While recognizing such DNA studies can have benefits, Lewis cautioned attendees about what he termed “spurious precision.” He also asked whether race is an obsolete analytical category—even as it remains an important social category.

Emory should strive for “intentionality” and self-reflection, said Maggie Gilead of nursing and Michael Brown of theology. Referring to Anne Fadiman’s Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down—which has been well received in mainstream and academic settings—Gilead explained how, when working with students, she employs an explanatory model of illness that emphasizes recognizing patients’ understanding of their illnesses, not simply practitioners’ diagnostic categories.

Brown said, at a recent meeting on diversity in theological education, many of Emory’s peer institutions were not able to participate because they fail to meet standards of both faculty and student racial diversity. Thus, he said, Emory needs to be intentional about how it understands as well as forms policy and action that consider race and difference.

Of the approximately 50 attendees, those who spoke during the open discussion seemed to echo the sense of both urgency and complexity evident in the panelists’ remarks.

Even a campus visitor voiced an opinion. Martha Hargraves, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Texas at Galveston, said people in the United States are accustomed to using race as “a form of transaction.”

“What might it mean,” she asked, “if we were to understand the concept of race not as a currency for transaction, but rather as a catalyst for our shared transformation?”