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Kennedy Center Lecture Series Brings Racial Awareness to BYU

In the Winter 2021 semester, the Kennedy Center hosted a lecture series titled Race: Myths and Realities, which gave students opportunities to become better educated about the realities of race and the social impact it can have.

As humans, we can only ever experience our own consciousness and our own reality. Often we forget that others don’t experience life exactly as we see it.

Although we may never know what it’s really like to live through someone else’s successes, pains, and trials, we have a great capacity to try to understand the experiences of those around us.

The Kennedy Center’s winter semester lecture series attempted to do just that—to give BYU students an opportunity to step out of their own biases, which can come with living in a rather homogeneous place.

The series, titled “Race: Myths and Realities,” was intended to expel harmful myths about race and present the reality of how race influences the lives of people of color.

Professor Stan Benfell (Comparative Arts and Letters) hosted the series and recounts his own naivety as an undergraduate student at BYU, where he took an honors class on public policy which included a section about race. His professor invited ten Black students to come speak to the class of about twenty mostly white students. The twenty students were divided and paired off in order to be able to speak with the Black students in smaller groups.

Benfell remembers asking the student that he spoke with, “What’s the biggest challenge of being Black at BYU?” The student explained that it’s really just in the everyday, practical things.

The student shared a story with Benfell about a time where he was trying to find housing with his wife here in Provo. This student had called a landlord over the phone, and had set up an appointment to come tour the apartment. The landlord was enthusiastic to have a BYU married couple interested in becoming residents. The moment that this student drove up to the apartment and got out of his car, he saw the landlord’s face drop. The landlord said, “Oh, I actually just rented this apartment.”

Hearing the lived experiences of this Black student challenged Benfell’s perceptions of the social weight that race carries. This story highlights one of the biggest myths that the Kennedy Center’s series strove to expel—the myth that race no longer has social force or an impact on the everyday lives of people of color.

“That was something that I had never really confronted or thought about before I was an undergraduate, and that was important to me—so we were hoping to give students an opportunity to participate in a conversation about race globally, but also about how it affects our own community—within the church and then within BYU,” says Benfell.

Guest speakers for the series included artists, professors, journalists, and more. Each had a unique background and spoke on a unique issue regarding race.

Among those who spoke was Jeanette Ehlers, an African-Danish artist, who shared her work which addresses memory, race, and colonialism.

Dr. Nadia Brown, a professor from Purdue University, spoke about the politics of appearance in relation to Black women specifically. Her work and research uncovers the fact that appearance, specifically hair, has social implications for Black women and their political aspirations.

Dr. LaShawn Williams, a licensed clinical social worker and professor at Utah Valley University, shared an LDS perspective on how to approach and engage in difficult but necessary conversations about race.

Feedback on the series was generally positive; however, Benfell received a few comments about the series that had a similar tone. The general sentiment of these comments was that the semester’s lecture series “made it seem like everything is about race.”

This sentiment brought Benfell back to the idea that so many of us at BYU don't think constantly about race. We go through our everyday life without experiencing discrimination on the basis of the color of our skin. As Benfell eloquently put it, "Part of the gospel should be leading out in trying to promote respect for everyone and rooting out prejudice.”

Benfell reflects that if he were a person of color, perhaps everything would be about race. As the student shared with Benfell’s public policy class, the life of a person of color is daily impacted by race, in even the most minute ways. The fact that many of us go through our day without having to confront race is exactly why intentional education on the subject is so important.

As Benfell said, part of being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is rooting out prejudice and expanding your perspective on racial issues. We can turn to Christ as the perfect example of our capacity to empathize and care for those around us. This happens especially as we seek out opportunities to step into the shoes of another momentarily as we listen to and learn from their experiences. Although we we can only ever truly experience our own consciousness and our own reality, it would be prudent to remember our divine commission to bear each other's burdens, mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.

To see what other events the Kennedy Center will host this semester, click here.