Published: Aug. 7, 2020

CU Boulder Today recently spoke with Shawn O’Neal, a doctoral candidate in ethnic studies, to learn more about Anti-Racism I, the first of three new Coursera courses he has developed with Jennifer Ho, professor of ethnic studies and director of the Center for Humanities and the Arts (CHA). 

The first course in this new series launched on Aug. 4, 2020, on Coursera and is available to CU Boulder as part of "CU on Coursera". Two additional courses in this series will be available later this year. 

The development of this course was supported by the Provost's Office for Academic Innovation and assisted by Learning Experience Designers Leá Norcross and Scott Millspaugh. 

O’Neal is a Denver-based musician, performer and international DJ, and was a co-founding member of High Mayhem Emerging Arts, a not-for-profit emerging arts facility, record label and multimedia production collective based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His research at CU Boulder examines audio intersectionality: how music and performance can be used as strategies of resistance in activism and social justice initiatives.

(Responses edited for clarity).

What are some things a person who takes this course will learn? 

This is a working glossary. We realized in work such as critical and comparative ethnic studies, we're working with a lexicon and a verbiage that many of our students don’t know. It's important to have that glossary so that when you're actually going into the readings and the TED Talks and some of those things, you've got that terminology down. You have got to be able to speak the language before you can further your work in any area. 

The other component of this course is understanding whiteness, understanding white privilege. Folk of white European descent in a country such as the United States rarely even see themselves as a race or as a culture. So it's really important to understand a lot of those parameters. Because if you don't understand the historical background of race and racism, if you don't understand the historical background of Black people in this country, then you absolutely have no foundation of American history. 

Why is this kind of course important for individuals to take?  

We need to start looking at ourselves first and foremost, before we're able to apply anything else out into society. In terms of anti-racism, the first thing that has to be understood is that this is an ongoing fight, whether it's outside of society or within yourself—we do this work every day. I've done this work every day of my life. And other people need to start thinking of it in those terms. 

In order to get to the step of anti-racism, you have to understand what racism is, we have to understand what race is. We have to keep in mind that, particularly in a country such as the United States, we all think we're educated but many of us are not. Because when you go through a white supremacist educational system, you really start to realize how much vital information is kept from you in that process to keep us ignorant. So what this coursework does is give you those frameworks to actually start looking at yourself internally. Because if you are still operating in the framework of being colonized cognitively, you can't get to that step of anti-racism. 

What is anti-colonization, and how does it relate to anti-racism? 

With anti-colonization, you have to accept and understand the fact that the first structuring in American society was the genocide of North America's Indigenous peoples. Settler colonialism is the fact that now we are all living on land that was stolen from groups of people that are still being colonized within their own land. And that colonization of those folk allows these other systemic systems of oppression to be played out over the centuries, and that's what has gone on. You have to steal the land in order to be able to then set up the structure of slavery. So you have to understand and realize that that is the truth of this country. 

Who is this course for? Who do you hope takes this course? 

Without a doubt, this is a course where there's something to be gained for everyone. There's material readings, video documentaries that I think would be eye-opening for a lot of us. There are a lot of folks even from my community that I know would get a lot out of this course. 

Over the last 30 to 40 years, sometimes we've gotten a little too comfortable, a little too complacent. What's happening right now is reminding all of us how extremely important it is to keep perpetuating these discussions. But things can't be the same anymore. We all depend on each other. That’s the nature of a global society. And that's what I don't think people understand. And I think this course would just be very eye-opening for everyone, to have the basic foundations of who we're supposed to be, as humanitarians.

Everyone has all these separate agendas. But we don't even know who we are. People haven't checked in with themselves. I think this course allows you to at least open the door to do that, to start asking some very difficult questions within yourself and to start having some very difficult conversations with yourself and with those around you. 

What would you say to someone who doesn’t feel the need to take this course? 

I would ask them this: Who are you? Where do you come from? Where does this country come from? And why would you not want to have any interest in your self-history and the history of this country, that many claim they love so much?

Many people say they have undying love for this country, but they know absolutely nothing about it; only one perspective of this country is what they know and understand. And many of those constructs are embedded in violence, rape, genocide and racism. When you think about it, are those the values that we want for this country? I mean, is this the best we can do? This is not good enough. And yeah, that's a very, very difficult thing to contend with, but the truth is the truth. And I think once you're able to contend with that, then you are at least starting your process to truth.

What do you hope people will take away from this course? 

When you go through a white supremacist educational system, what I've realized is one of the foundations of that is to push people away from self-education. But Black folk in this country, we've always had to self-educate ourselves because education has been so out of reach for many of us. So someone can take this course, or someone can go and listen to Dr. Ho lecture, or go and listen to myself lecture all day long. But if you're not willing to engage in your own education, what's the point? When are you willing to engage in your own education? When are you willing to engage and reflect within yourself?

You think about anti-racism, it’s not just going to be taking this course. You know, who are you? How does your particular positionality affect your society and the societies globally? Because with an anti-racist initiative also comes an anti-misogynistic initiative, an anti-sexist initiative, an anti-homophobic initiative, an anti-transphobic initiative, and so on and so forth. You cannot look at any of these things as mutually exclusive.