Interim University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce announced a wide-ranging initiative to combat racism and inequity on Thursday by talking about prejudices she herself has experienced.
Using her personal experiences of racism and homophobia — hurtful words and actions that occurred even in her own family — interim University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce on Thursday announced a wide-ranging project to combat racism and inequity on campus.
Cauce’s voice quavered briefly as she recounted coming out to her mother more than 20 years ago. But her speech was also forceful and bold, wading into sensitive topics time and again as she spoke before an audience of about 350 students, faculty and staff in the UW’s newly opened Native American longhouse.
It was the first time that Cauce, who has worked at the university for 29 years, has talked so publicly about being gay, and also about enduring racism as a Latina.
“We may not be able to solve racial inequity, and all those other forms of ‘isms’ everywhere in this country or in the world, but we’ve got to begin by not being part of the problem,” Cauce said. “We can only do that by recognizing it and acknowledging that it resides within us.”
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Cauce, 59, had been provost of the university for nearly four years when President Michael Young unexpectedly took a job at Texas A&M University this February. She was named interim president within weeks of Young’s announced departure.
She said she was moved to have such an open discussion by many racially charged events in recent months, including an incident at the UW earlier this year, when students marching in a Black Lives Matter protest were called “apes” by people standing near a fraternity. It’s still not known who made the remarks and whether they are fraternity members.
Several students who attended the standing-room-only speech praised Cauce for being so forthright.
Maggie Negussie, president of the Black Student Union, said she is curious just what the two-year initiative is designed to do, but “just the fact that it’s going to happen — I’m definitely thankful for that.”
Cauce offered some details, but also said the initiative is still being planned.
Maria Abando, vice-chair of the Office of Minority Affairs’ Student Advisory Board, praised Cauce for the courage to address racism and launch a conversation on campus.
In her 30-minute speech, Cauce described the pain of losing her brother, one of five people slain by Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party demonstrators during a rally in North Carolina in 1979. The killings later became known as the Greensboro Massacre.
“One of the several reasons he had been targeted is because he was viewed as a race-mixer,” said Cauce. When he was killed, Cesar Cauce was newly married to a black woman from Panama.
Cauce described how difficult it was to tell her mother about her brother’s death. Yet later in life, when she came out, her mother’s response was to treat it as another death in the family.
“Now both of my children are dead,” Cauce remembers her mother saying. For Cauce, “nothing could have been more hurtful.”
Eventually, she said, something changed, and her mother “grew to love my partner, now spouse.” Cauce is married to Susan Joslyn, an associate professor of psychology at the UW.
Cauce said she fears that many of today’s students have a poor understanding of other cultures and races, even though they believe they get along well with people of different backgrounds. That was a finding revealed in UCLA’s annual National Study of College Freshmen.
“I think these two seemingly incompatible beliefs — embracing diversity but not really claiming knowledge of other cultures — emerged, side by side, because yours is the generation raised on the notion that we can be ‘color blind’ or culture blind or gender blind,” she told her audience. Students of this generation, she said, believe they “don’t need to know about differences to work across them, because differences just don’t matter.”
But she raised questions about the wisdom of being blind to another person’s culture, and she recalled a colleague once telling her that he never thought of her as a Latina because “you don’t act like one.”
“I felt like screaming, ‘What’s the problem with acting like a Latina, whatever that means?’ ” Cauce said. “That’s who I am! And why the heck should that be a problem? ”
Cauce also talked of how her parents told her she was lucky, as a Cuban, to be light-skinned. “My religious aunt, who went to Mass every day and who taught me compassion and charity, also taught me that white skin was a gift from God so we should be extra kind to those who were darker.
“How incredibly condescending and ‘white’ of her,” Cauce said.
Cauce emphasized that the racism and inequity initiative was not her initiative, but one she hoped would be owned by the university community at large.
“I’m not naive enough to think we are going to solve all the problems of prejudice, hatred, bigotry or ethnic conflict here and now,” she said. “But we can, right here and right now, pledge to stop being a part, or at least so much a part, of the problem.”