Smith College is honoring one of the world’s most visible and pioneering advocates for equality and justice with one of its highest academic distinctions. Thanks to a recent anonymous gift of $3 million, the college is establishing the Gloria Steinem ’56 Endowed Chair in the Study of Women and Gender.
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Activist and Author Loretta Ross: Staying Hopeful
“I think the pandemic has provided more bandwidth for people to think deeply about what is important to them,” says Ross, a visiting associate professor at Smith.
“COVID has provided everybody in society more time to be thoughtful about our relationships—our relationship to work, our families, our communities,” Ross says. “We have had to slow down and take a pause, and we benefit so tremendously from taking more time to think things out.”
The syllabus for the course she taught at Smith last fall, “White Supremacy in the Age of Trump,” is now being shared widely in response to the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the nation. Ross hopes to offer an online version of the course this summer. She is working with a planning committee that includes Smith faculty to make the course available to the Five Colleges network.
A former activist-in-residence at Smith, Ross is now at home in Atlanta, completing a book about how the digital era’s “call-out culture,” where people publicly critique each other’s beliefs, affects social justice organizing.
She is incorporating ideas about the impact of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests on such organizing. “One of the things I’m looking at is, can the people who are doing the uprising resist the tendency to go into the call-out, which will slow our momentum,” Ross says.
Despite the hardships people are experiencing due to systemic inequality, Ross remains optimistic about the future.
“I’m always one of those glass-half-full people. And I actually believe that humanity has a chance to unite to save the planet,” she says. I’m seeing so many signs of change that I didn’t anticipate this time last year or even three months ago. History pushes you along whether you are ready or not.”
Here are some thoughts she shared in an interview last semester about her work:
What inspired you to want to teach a course about white supremacy and President Donald Trump?
“In the 1990s, my job was with a black-led organization, the Center for Democratic Renewal [formerly the National Anti-Klan Network] that was monitoring hate groups. That gives me expertise in how these white supremacist movements operate. As the storm clouds were gathering around Trump’s election, I felt like Chicken Little, talking about the things that had been there a long time, but people were ignoring. When Hampshire College was looking for someone to teach a course on civil liberties [in 2017], I realized I wanted to teach about white supremacy at this particular historical moment. I am grateful to President Kathleen McCartney for reaching out to me to teach the course at Smith [in 2019].”
Is it hard for students to talk about the racial issues you explore?
“The subject is hard. And I don’t use any trigger warnings. The speaking guidelines I give out are probably the most challenging part for students who are used to talking about their feelings. How you feel is not the point of the class; we need to be talking about structural issues. I like to say, ‘We need less me-search and more research.’ I do try to make the class fun, because I believe all learning should be fun.”
How do you do that in a course about white supremacy?
“I’m an activist, so I’m teaching people about what resistance looks like, how to have fun doing it, and how to do it for the long haul. It’s important not to take yourself too seriously, because social justice is a big experiment. My mom told me when I was struggling in college, ‘Loretta, you don’t let success go to your head, but you also don’t let failure go to your heart.’ That’s part of what I teach.”
Do you see any positives in our current political moment?
“Many people are waking up to how fragile our democracy is—that’s what Trump is really calling the question on. A lot more white people are now aligning on the side of the angels and resisting because it’s in their own self-interest.”
How do you advise people interested in social justice to deal with people they disagree with?
“I’m not willing to accommodate the remnants of white segregationism. We’re planning for the 21st century, and it’s going to be a century of human rights! I do have a dedicated and loving relationship with apolitical people in my life.
Is the call-out culture you are exploring in your book mainly a problem on the left?
“Oh, no. It’s a non-partisan issue. The right is more strategic; they know how to unite in the face of opposition better than we do. I’m mostly concerned about this issue on the left because of the very real threats we face to our democracy.
“There are people who think calling out is the way to get access to the powerful. I’m not opposed to people doing that. But most call outs on the left are horizontal—we are calling out the people who may not get our gender pronouns right, but are also not the people trying to kill us. We seem to lack the ability to do accurate threat assessments. And technology makes all of this viral.”
How have you been able to stay in social justice work for so long?
“I’m very hopeful because I’ve lived through changes I didn’t think were ever going to happen. I was the third executive director of the country’s first rape crisis center [in Washington, D.C.]. We didn’t know that there would be centers all over the country and a #MeToo movement.
“I love the resistance of the pussy hats and the wave of people running for office in this country. We talk a lot now about privileges, and one of the biggest privileges is consciousness—knowing what’s going on. We shouldn’t take that for granted!”