Vanessa Gonlin was raised to have a colorblind race perspective by her Black mother and white father. Now, she is challenging students to work together and recognize their differences transparently.
As a Black biracial woman, Gonlin grew up in a “racially-tolerant” suburb in Columbia, Maryland, where “the idea of race didn’t really matter,” she said.
However, at a young age, Gonlin, now a University of Georgia assistant sociology professor, discerned the feeling of color evasiveness was wrong and couldn’t understand why.
“On the surface it made sense that you shouldn't judge a person by their color, right, but it didn't make sense because we are impacted by how we look and how people treat us,” Gonlin said.
A new conversation at UGA
Gonlin is starting a conversation on UGA’s campus through topics such as racial identity, colorism, racial ideologies and interracial relationships.
UGA will offer its first course on colorism and hairism in communities of color starting in spring 2022 due to Gonlin’s advocacy. To support the course’s development, Gonlin was awarded $2,000 through the 2020 Innovation in Multicultural Curriculum grant from the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.
Gonlin said she feels “pleasantly surprised” and supported by UGA. She is set to teach the course, which was approved by the sociology department last summer.
The class will focus on how colorism and hairism are forms of discrimination that are apparent in marital rates, prison sentences, wages, politics, physical and mental health, educational attainment, beauty ideas and media representations.
“I'm hoping to focus on an increased awareness of the significance of these forms of discrimination and how they impact the daily lives of multiple different communities,” Gonlin said. “I also want to encourage students with this foundational knowledge to work together and fight for and try to work against these discriminations.”
A push for race and ethnicity education
Amid increased conversations surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-Asian discrimination, college students nationwide are pushing for classes focused on race and ethnicity to be required.
In August 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill requiring all 430,000 California State University undergraduates to take at least one three-credit ethnic studies course as a graduation requirement. This was the first adjustment to the general education curriculum in 40 years.
There are a number of race and ethnicity classes at UGA interwoven into institutes such as the African American Studies Institute, African Studies Institute, Latin American and Carribean Studies Institute and the women studies and sociology department.
Each of UGA’s colleges has a cultural diversity requirement and its own list of courses that can satisfy that requirement.
Currently, Gonlin teaches an undergraduate race and ethnicity in America course at UGA.
She earned her doctorate at Texas A&M University with a focus on race and social demography, and her work is found in several published research studies on race relations.
When approaching the new course, however, Gonlin said she is very aware of her perspective as a “light skin” within the Black community and recognizes how personal experiences can impact the way she teaches.
For this reason, Gonlin plans to assign articles, documentaries and present different guest speakers to illustrate their lived experiences and provide students with an array of racial outlooks.
However, Gonlin said the histories of different racial groups are connected to whiteness, and in this sense, all people are interrelated.
“It's very difficult to talk about one history without talking about other groups because we're all connected,” Gonlin said. “But I think that oftentimes our histories are told and compared to a white perspective. This means we sometimes have a lack of awareness of perspectives of people who are Black, Indigenous or other people of color.”.
Gonlin said she hopes the new course will help white students recognize there are other perspectives that they haven’t had the opportunity to learn about before. She said it's exciting to see students connect across racial groups and observe experiences they have endured that are similar, but not necessarily the same. Gonlin believes commencing these conversations can help strengthen bonds across communities of color through education.