Onye Ozuzu on Undoing Racism

Onye Ozuzu
"If race is a drama that human beings wrote, what part do I play in the performance of it?"

Many institutions across the country are engaged in some form of diversity, equity and inclusion. Some have long-established histories, others with central offices and many that are just recently reacting to students mobilizing or protesting on their campuses.

At Columbia College Chicago, diversity, equity and inclusion is a named priority in the Strategic Plan and reflects the voices of the campus community from students to trustees. As the college moves into the second year of the Strategic Plan, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee—appointed last year by President Kim, and chaired by Onye Ozuzu, dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts—kicked off the year with an “Undoing Racism” workshop.

The two-day training/workshop included 139 members of the Columbia community (trustees, administration, full-time and part-time faculty, staff and students) and was led by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. The People’s Institute said Columbia’s approach to “Undoing Racism” was one of the most comprehensive undertakings by a campus community.

Columbia’s work with the People’s Institute began a few years ago with the Dance department, when Dean Ozuzu was chair. Following are excerpts from an interview with Dean Ozuzu on how the People’s Institute has become a partner in Columbia’s efforts to address structural racism.


In 2010, the Dance department was holding an audition to place incoming students in levels of dance technique training.

Imagine it: you’re an incoming freshman, just out of high school and you’ve been dancing in your church’s liturgical group your whole life and your community has been telling you that you are an amazing dancer, that you should pursue it, and the forms you have been training in have been hip hop and tap and the social dances of your community; or imagine you are a break dancer and mostly dancing on the street; or your background is in gymnastics or basketball. You are there with others who have been taking ballet, jazz and modern/contemporary dance since they were little.

The audition starts off with a ballet class. Ballet dancers line up on the ballet barre with hip hop dancers turning their hats around, most of whom have probably never worn a pair of tights before. Everyone is going to by evaluated by the same barre. But, is it really the same for everyone?


By the next day, levels had been determined by assessments done by multiple faculty members who identified students by audition numbers pinned to the front of their shirts. There was no way for anyone to play favorites since the levels were determined by an average score taken from a diverse group of expert faculty.

What the faculty found was that students placed in the class reserved for students who “weren’t quite ready” to start at Level One were almost all students of color. The room for students who were ready to start Level One were almost all white students. Everyone recognized that there was a problem. Our curriculum and the way we assessed levels in it was having an unintended impact. It wasn’t designed to separate people based on color but somehow that was exactly what it was doing. The question that we had to consider was why, or how?


The People’s Institute, who I had worked with previously, came in and did training for the Dance department. In my previous experiences what I saw was that their workshop could offer a simple accessible model to recognize when a system was working to produce a “racist” effect, meaning that it was providing more value or power to some and less to others; with race being a defining factor of who gets more and who gets less. They provided us common language that we could use in faculty meetings and day-to-day working scenarios to talk about race quickly, efficiently and effectively.

If I said, for instance, “I think our curriculum requirements might be having a racist impact,” before the training people would say, “What do you mean!” and some would be offended. The conversation would often ground to a halt. The word “racist” was a foil to any useful problem-solving work. If you say that something people do is racist, and you do not already share a common systemic understanding of what that word means, then you are saying that they are bigots. You are saying that they are the same kind of people that would drag a person around behind a truck. What the People’s Institute shared with us was an understanding that “racist” can be defined similarly to “capitalist.” A racist system gives varying degrees of access and power and success to individuals based on race. A capitalist system gives varying degrees of access and power and success to individuals based on capital.

The students that showed up in those two different rooms were going to have different access points to power and success in the system of our curriculum. We did not literally make the color of anyone’s skin the test of their dance technique level. But we did choose a style of dance to use as our measuring stick that has a particular culture of origin and practice. Our assessment was having an impact that was systematically sorting people; it was having an impact that was clearly racial. We were able to collectively recognize our system as functioning in a racist manner. And we were then able to choose to change our system so that the impact would also change.


Many of my colleagues and I shared our experience with the People’s Institute work in the Dance department with others across campus. The president and the provost heard about it from colleagues, students in the department and beyond. As the Strategic Plan implementation phase began last year it came up as a possible way to begin to integrate practical approaches to diversity, equity and inclusion work in each of the six areas of bold and dramatic change being worked towards. The plan’s stated goal described us as striving to become leaders in the integration of diversity, equity and inclusion into education. In the United States in 2016, I don’t see any way to do that without clearly, directly and effectively addressing power, race and racism in the processes we use to do everything that we do as an institution.


I am curious how the People’s Institute training (along with other diversity trainings) and the subsequent conversations are all going to affect the way that faculty and staff are making decisions about core curriculum, universal learning outcomes, financial services and all of these key systematic structures that shape the experience at Columbia.

I’m excited by what could happen next. I am inspired by the energy of Columbia. Here, offering access to a wide diversity of students has long been a part of our identity. Taking on a serious intentional practice of training ourselves to be effective at communicating with one another about race, class, sexual identity, gender identity and an array of systemic diversity issues can only serve to up our game. I think Columbia might be a place that could get it right.


People come at things from so many different perspectives, from intellectual experiences to personal ones. During the workshops, I saw many people that were open, people who were honest, people who were unafraid to be different from one another, people took risks, people were vulnerable, people thought about things and talked about them in a systemic way, while acknowledging their place in the system. They worked to move past it as just being an intellectual discussion. They worked to sit with it, to be with the idea of race and racism and to just feel and then to think from that place of feeling about what could be done about it.

There is something powerful about the way the People’s Institute structures the progress of information sharing and conversations that happen in their workshops. First, they establish a common, accessible understanding of race as an historic, legal and academic idea. Then they facilitate a shared realization that race is not real, that it’s a thing that we constructed but that nevertheless has real effects on us. On the second day, we ask ourselves: “what part do we play?” If race is a drama that human beings wrote, what part do we play in the performance of it? How are we upholding it? What do we do on a day-to-day basis? These are hard questions. It’s scary to do this work in front of other people. With all of that, I continue to be encouraged, fascinated and proud of us as a community.


In our society, especially in professional cultures, it is not polite to bring up race in a conversation. It is particularly frowned upon when talking about budgets or assessments or other business of “logic” and quantifiable reasoning. It’s impolite because you might make someone uncomfortable or you might be perceived to be calling someone a name in a context where rationality and objectivity are supposed to take precedence over subjective, feeling-based ideas. My highest hope for all of this work is that it gives us useful, clear language to bring to the objective table. We in the U.S. are becoming more racially complicated than this country has ever been. Our student body is going to reflect that complexity and diversity. If we cannot talk about race on an ongoing basis at the heart of how and what we do, then we are not doing our jobs as people who are designing and delivering education to our students.

We’re not going to solve the problems of more than 400 years of oppression at Columbia College Chicago in five years. But we do have some power as the people that are making decisions that shape the education of a highly racially diverse population. We can choose to offer students educational experiences that we perhaps never had ourselves. We can give students the opportunity to grapple with radical differences deep inside of their required curriculum. Students are going to go out into a racially charged reality and it is important that we are at least grappling with what they might need to have in their foundation to navigate it. The Dance department just graduated the first cohort of students who took both Ballet and West African dance technique as a part of their core required training for all four years. I can say many many things that my colleagues and I observed as benefits of their training but my favorite by far is how consistently they make dances and choices as artists and humans that surprise me. I think for a teacher to be surprised is a cherished sensation, because it means we have facilitated a learner, a maker, an innovator, a generative contributor. It’s the marker of someone who will go out there and figure it out.