Tufts as an Anti-Racist Institution, Part 1: Students, administrators and university staff discuss what ‘anti-racism’ means at Tufts

The Academic Quad is pictured. Ava Iannuccillo / The Tufts Daily

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on the anti-racist initiative at Tufts. The next part of the series will be published on Monday, Nov. 22.

Tufts as an Anti-Racist Institution,” a university-wide initiative, was first announced by University President Anthony Monaco on July 8, 2020, with a goal to “find and eradicate any structural racism at Tufts,” according to the initiative’s executive summary. Organized into five separate workstreams, the initiative represents an institutional effort to make Tufts an anti-racist institution, bringing together more than 100 students, faculty and staff. All in all, the initiative culminated in over 180 salient recommendations to make Tufts a more diverse, equitable and inclusive learning environment for all.  

In the process, the initiative has invited the Tufts community to engage and grapple with what “anti-racism” would mean at Tufts from a wide range of perspectives and identities. Alfredo Ramirez, a second-year MALD student at The Fletcher School, is one of the student leaders who participated in the initiative’s Compositional Diversity Workstream last school year, continuing the important conversation on campus.

Born in Venezuela and raised in Miami, Florida, Ramirez came to appreciate and understand diversity as a strength of American society.

“For me, diversity is many differences among people — be they cognitive, experiential or racial — that might seem like a gap on paper, but can actually be a bridge to bring people together,” Ramirez said. “Diversity can help people offer distinct perspectives, backgrounds and thoughts which can ultimately help build better solutions [to a problem] together.”

Within this context, Ramirez added that the university’s anti-racist efforts can help foster a sense of tolerance and extend the institution’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“Anti-racism, for me, is a step beyond building diversity and inclusion and equitable solutions,” Ramirez said. “It is taking a very active and intentional stance against racism, opposing racist policies and building toward racial tolerance, embedding tolerance in the university’s culture.” 

On top of that, Aaron Parayno, director of the Asian American Center, added that anti-racism at its core is about bringing about necessary systemic changes and leveling the playing field for all Americans. 

“Anti-racism really centers on dismantling systems and barriers that have impacted people of color historically and listening, really listening, to these communities’ experiences, challenges and needs,” Parayno said. “Anti-racism at an educational institution such as Tufts would mean to relinquish its power and some of its privilege to provide access and opportunities for communities that had been historically disenfranchised.”

The Rev. Elyse Nelson Winger, university chaplain, wrote in an email to the Daily detailing how anti-racism as a philosophy and social justice can also be understood from religious and spiritual perspectives.

“Anti-racism is an active commitment to understanding, in all its complexity, the history and continuing impact of systemic racism endemic in our society,” Winger wrote. “Religious communities bear a tremendous responsibility in and for this work. On the one hand, our religious and spiritual traditions are living reservoirs of wisdom, liberation, story and practice that have inspired (and do inspire!) people to challenge injustice at every turn.”

Winger added that many different faith communities continue to wrestle with their historic complicity with systemic racism in the United States.

“On the other hand, too many religious communities and institutions have been complicit and actively invested in racist systems, theologies, and beliefs, especially white Christian churches and institutions,” Winger wrote.

Echoing Parayno and Winger’s understanding of anti-racism, the University’s Chief Diversity Officer for the Somerville/Medford and SMFA campuses and Associate Provost Robert Mack elaborated on the salience of the initiative, especially in the context of last year’s social and political climates.

“The senior leadership was undoubtedly moved after bearing witness to the string of anti-Trans, anti-Black, anti-Asian violence in 2020 and by the ways in which COVID-19 shone a light on the race-based inequities within so many of our nation’s infrastructure,” Mack wrote in an email to the Daily.

Joyce Sackey, the Tufts health sciences schools’ associate provost and chief diversity officer, similarly reflected on how last year’s events laid bare systemic racial injustices to be addressed in the United States.

“The racial inequities that were exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled by the racial reckoning that swept our nation in 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, compelled the Tufts community to address head-on systemic racism,” Sackey elaborated.

Mack and Sackey added another way of understanding and defining the term “anti-racism” both philosophically and linguistically.

“We define anti-racism as the intentional practice of disrupting the many angles and degrees in which racism presents itself within thoughts, actions, policies, systems, organizations, and structures,” Mack and Sackey wrote in a joint email statement to the Daily. 

In a similar vein, Tufts Community Union President Amma Agyei, the first Black woman to hold the position, highlighted “anti-racism” as a broad philosophy and an integral part of today’s social justice movement.

“I think that [anti-racism] envelops everything … it begins from understanding what microaggressions are to understanding what anti-Black rhetoric and anti-Asian rhetoric are and look like,” Agyei said. “Anti-racism is about understanding the importance of respecting people’s boundaries and respecting people’s identities, and respecting people’s backgrounds.”

Despite the initiative’s salience to the university community, Ramirez noted how the very term “anti-racism” can be polarizing and divisive for some, especially in today’s nationwide political landscape.

“I think the reason that there’s been a backlash against it is because it is a part of this broader conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion, and within that conversation is the issue of privilege. And I think it isn’t comfortable for a lot of people to admit that they have privileges,” Ramirez said. “I [also] think there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation about what anti-racism is really about … And I think one of the ways to work toward that end is educating people about what privilege really is.”

Parayno similarly understands the resistance to anti-racism as being connected with both psychology and politics.

“At its core, the resistance is about people and institutions not wanting to reckon with the fact that they may have biases, both explicit and implicit, and that they might themselves participate in racism, whether explicitly or passively … To be anti-racist, though, we have to look at the ways that we were racist. Many people do not want to do that,” Parayno said. “In some of the more conservative states, they also associate anti-racism with not being able to be proud of American history and identity anymore.” 

It is critical, however, to understand American history as it is in its fullness and totality, as Parayno explained. He thinks that people can be both a proud American and committed to antiracism, provided that there are nuances.

“You have to accept American history and politics as imperfect … There is no perfect ideal, there is no perfect story. I think that when you are able to really reckon with these imperfections, you can have pride in being an American in a more balanced way,” Parayno said.

Within national political and social climates around anti-racist efforts, Mack and Sackey underscored how Tufts’ initiative to become an anti-racist institution could set an example for others to follow.

“Given the national political and social context we find ourselves in, it is profound that Tufts steps into its university-wide anti-racist initiative,” Mack and Sackey wrote. “Depending on how deep we go in our internal work, we have the potential to become uniquely positioned to be a model, standard, and firm invitation for post-secondary institutions to step into their anti-racist practice. Our initiative has the potential to impact the landscape and trajectory of higher education in America for generations to come.”


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