One night last December, 50 students and alumni gathered in a Kane Hall meeting room to wrap up a 10-week experiment—a workshop where both groups came together to learn and explore the notion of interrupting privilege.
One of the senior participants, a white male, started to explain that he had some understanding of the issues because he grew up in a multicultural neighborhood. That sent a jolt through the students, one of whom fired back that living in a diverse neighborhood isn’t enough to understand privilege and disadvantage. The room started to buzz.
And then Ralina Joseph, an associate professor in the Department of Communication, spoke. All eyes turned to her. “I think what he is saying,” she started, slightly rewording the alum’s comment to focus on how he valued his early experiences with different cultures. And then she rephrased the student’s response.
“I critiqued it with love,” she says later. “I wanted the student to step back and take a breath and realize that it’s not about setting someone on fire with your words. I wanted the alum to see how troubling his comments would be to someone with a different worldview.”
Back in Kane Hall, she congratulated the group. “We’re making progress and discovering new things. In a culture of color blindness, we act as if we don’t see race,” she said. “But it’s OK to admit that we do see it. We should not silence the discussion of race.”
With Joseph’s help, the UW Alumni Association is hosting a “Race and Equity Leadership: Interrupting Privilege” seminar each quarter this year to offer alumni and students the chance to explore race and equity together. The program includes homework, guided discussions with Joseph, and workshops and lectures from nationally recognized experts on issues of race, equity and social justice.
“The alumni deserve a lot of credit,” says Joseph. “They signed up for this experience and they’ve prepared themselves to feel uncomfortable.” The work of interrupting privilege is meant to challenge thinking and push people out of their comfort zones, she says. “The alumni are really trying to step into it.”
For the students, who may already be conversant in issues of diversity and inequity, the course offers a chance to discuss privilege with people of different ages and backgrounds—good practice for after graduation, when they’re involved in their jobs and new communities. “We all need to be in this conversation together,” says Joseph. “You can’t dismantle racism without the work of white people. Just like you can’t dismantle sexism without the work of men, or homophobia without straight people.”
Watching Joseph interact with students has helped Marcus Johnson, one of her graduate students, in his efforts to be a better teacher and facilitator. “I see how I can enjoy teaching and provide a platform for my students to tangle and grapple with things that may be on their minds,” Johnson says. “You see the storm of things going on around race, and you think, wow, she can create a space for thought and challenge, a place to build from.”
Joseph arrived at the UW in 2005, the first tenure-track faculty hired to teach race and media in the Department of Communication. There wasn’t a lot of racial diversity among her colleagues. That provided a new challenge since new faculty typically seek out mentors like themselves among senior faculty. This type of mentor is especially valuable when working toward tenure and learning the politics of a department, says Joseph. But when you’re the first at something—like being the first person from a certain background doing research on your own community—you may not find that mentor.
Rather than focusing on the problem, Joseph collaborated on a solution. With new tenure-track hires Janine Jones in educational psychology and Habiba Ibrahim in English, she formed WIRED (Women Investigating Race, Ethnicity and Difference). “We found people across campus who were looking at things like race and gender. And we were researching and teaching about ‘us,’ not about ‘them’—and that made us unique,” she says. “So we got together to form this peer-mentoring and support-and-research group.”
That solution pushed her out of the shelter of her department and into campus as a whole. “I have always thought that campus was big and wide and open to me,” she says. “Now my friends and colleagues are all across campus, and we are reaching out and doing community work and helping each other.”
Joseph is in the right time and place for this work. Here on campus and in the Northwest “there is a demand for more voices, and more critiques of power and privilege,” she says. “My colleagues in other places can’t believe we have sold-out lectures” on subjects like race relations.
In 2015, Joseph became the founding director of the Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity. It grew out of demand and desire—particularly out of wanting to offer a resource to students who were sad, angry and dazed at the events that grew out of the Ferguson, Missouri, protests and riots following the police shooting of Michael Brown.
Now the center, which has a home in a conference room adjacent to Joseph’s office, is a regular hangout for students looking for support from each other and guidance from Joseph. “She has a kind, warm spirit about her,” student and mentee Havana McElvaine says. “She has this way of addressing these really sensitive, hard issues.”
Tae McKenzie, another regular at the center, signed up for the alumni/student workshop because Joseph was running it. “She showed me that you can be who you are,” she said. “You can call out what you believe and are passionate about and that’s OK.”
The center is a place for all of the things that fall outside traditional classes and traditional research, says Joseph. It is a place for faculty and graduate students from across campus to collaborate on projects focusing on difference and equity, a place where current news and politics spark teach-ins and forums—where undergraduate students can learn to be leaders. A summer CCDE course places students at the Boys & Girls Club in Rainier Valley to explore topics like youth mentorship and structural inequalities in the neighborhood. “It’s about creating paths forward,” says Joseph.
A first-generation college student, Joseph didn’t know she wanted to be a scholar until her senior year at Brown University, when she undertook her thesis project: an exploration of magazine images of multiracial women. After college, she worked for Americorps and taught high school English and public speaking. That and working with middle school students helped hone her teaching style. “I know when I’m engaged and when I tune out,” she says. “I want students to be engaged.”
Her graduate studies led her to the University of California San Diego, where she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in ethnic studies and was mentored by Jane Rhodes, now head of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“I remember very well her coming to me as a prospective student,” says Rhodes, who was struck by Joseph’s energy, maturity and intellectual curiosity. Rhodes focuses her scholarship on history, while Joseph pursues contemporary culture. “While we share many interests, we’re really quite different,” says Rhodes. But those differences make working together more interesting.
Recently, Joseph and Rhodes co-edited a special issue of Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society. The project grew out of a discussion about how to make sense of race and respectability politics (where members of marginalized groups change their behaviors to be accepted by a white-majority culture). The journal was such a success—with a high volume of contributions from senior-level scholars—that Rhodes and Joseph anticipate more collaborations, continuing their mentoring relationship for years to come.
“My mentors modeled a very ethical way of living,” says Joseph. “Being an academic is an all-encompassing career. They were being professors in a way that seemed to me to be changing the world.” Seeing them invest in their students as well as in the larger communities in which they lived and worked, Joseph realized her markers of success would not be just how many publications she was producing, but also how many students she was helping. And how they would go out into the world to effect change.
“I think that there is a responsibility of all us, really. It is mandated at a public research university that we all be engaged with and giving back to our communities,” she says. “For minoritized folks, LGBTQ faculty, and faculty of color… we’re asked to be with our communities in a different way. That’s a burden, and I choose to see it as an opportunity.”