UM professor speaks in Butte on white supremacy, flier incident
Oct. 10--A talk by a University of Montana professor in Butte Monday flared into a heated discussion about the role of racism in America.
Tobin Miller Shearer -- whose class on white supremacy made headlines recently after someone replaced a flier for the class with a racially charged flier mimicking it-- spoke at the monthly Burros Club luncheon at Butte Country Club.
Shearer, the featured speaker, didn't waste any time getting to the heart of the matter.
"Since (the flier), this story has been picked up by a couple of national news sources," said Shearer. "The white supremacy movement in this country has also picked up on it. They've now posted my picture on (some of their) websites and have included all my contact information," he added.
The now infamous flier was posted Thursday and took aim at Shearer's "White Supremacy History/Defeat" class. That day, The Missoulian reported, someone anonymously replaced a flier for Shearer's class with another flier for a fictitious course called "Black Nationalism History/Defeat," parodying core objectives of Shearer's course by replacing the phrase "white supremacy" with "black nationalism." The false sign also said the class would include group projects "aimed at dismantling race-baiting hypocrisy."
Shearer said Monday the author of the flier was creating a false equivalence. He said the author "took the coward's way out" by creating the poster anonymously and said that he would have been happy to talk with anyone who wanted to speak critically about the class.
Shearer then gave an abbreviated history of Europeans in the United States, saying that the country went from creating institutions designed to serve white people exclusively to a society that created similar but inferior systems and institutions for people of color. It is only in the past 60 years or so, he said, that Americans have started to examine critically the impacts of white privilege in a way that extends beyond mere multiculturalism and tokenism.
To fight white supremacy, Shearer said, one has to stop thinking of racism as something that only occurred in the past and reflect on how racism has come to shape world views in the United States and examine the purpose that racism serves for those with social, cultural, and economic power.
Shearer said most media accounts of racism describe it as something that hurts and demeans people of color, but it's also something that serves to preserve the status quo of white power, the department director said.
"The real purpose of racism is to ensure that white people are made to feel safe, comfortable, served, and protected by the systems of our country," said Shearer.
He added that the point of thinking critically about racism shouldn't be to instill guilt or impart blame but rather should be used as a source of awareness so one can be an effective ally in turning back the tide against white supremacy.
When Shearer opened the floor to questions, topics initially ranged from comparisons between equality movements among women, working people, and people of color to effective ways of responding to racist comments from friends and family members in light of recent events in the NFL.
But a few comments from the audience made clear that Shearer wasn't speaking only to the choir.
One woman said that she believed countries made up of people of color didn't seem to have the same racial tensions present in the United States. Given this, she said, she wondered aloud why immigrants should come to the United States.
"We're importing more black and brown people, and I don't see the necessity in that when they have their own countries," said the woman.
Another member of the audience wanted to know if it was possible for white people to experience racism. The man's hands shook as a he told a story of living in Chicago. There, he said, he was harassed for being white.
"So you're saying that I cannot have racism against me because I'm white? Is that what you're saying?" the man said.
"I know you had a few softball questions here, but let me explain my question, please," the man continued after the audience erupted in commentary.
Shearer said that the question was not a yes-or-no question -- that the situation is more complex than a black-and-white answer. Eventually he agreed that yes, white people can experience racism. But he maintained there is a difference between systemic racism and individual racial incidents.
Michele Robinson of the Public Housing Authority of Butte was also at the meeting.
"As a Native American member of the Arapaho tribe, I would like to welcome all of you immigrants to my native land," said Robinson in response to the earlier comment about immigration. The audience laughed and clapped.
Later, after the luncheon, Robinson spoke with The Montana Standard. She said she believes in talking with compassion to people with different ideologies.
"If we find people who don't agree with us, discuss it," said Robinson.
Shearer said he gives these types of talks often and wasn't surprised by some of the responses in the room.
"These are very important topics. People are very passionate about them," said Shearer.
"I'm always glad for people to push me," he said, adding, "our goal is civil discourse whenever possible."