During an afternoon Social Justice Youth Summit session on Friday, Dec. 6, Dr. Decoteau Irby asked junior and senior Verona Area High School students to repeat a word after him, spell it and say the word again.
The word was “silk.” For 45 seconds, Irby and the students chanted, “Silk. S-I-L-K. Silk.”
He then asked the question: “What do cows drink?”
All of the students responded “milk,” only to realize seconds afterward they were wrong, despite knowing the right answer: Water.
It’s that kind of conditioning and mental association that can alter your thinking, Irby said. If 45 seconds of conditioning can make you state the wrong answer, he said, imagine what years of skewed messaging surrounding race can do to a person.
“Think about the power that conditioning has on you,” he added.
Irby, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Department of Educational Policy Studies, spent an hour talking to students about race. He spoke about how race is a socially constructed concept, the ways institutions play a role in how you see and evaluate race and how it’s been constructed to allow for winners and losers in society.
“You are socialized to believe and to act as though I’m black, and you’re Asian, and you’re white,” he said, talking directly to students in the audience. “We’re socialized to believe that way, and then we’re socialized so well that it becomes institutionalized. We believe it but we can’t even escape that reality.
“That means when I was born, I was born into a world that told me I was black, and treated me like I was black so much that I began to accept and believe and act as though I was black,” Irby added. “What I’m going to argue is that that’s not natural, it’s a process that is made up and a process that continues today.”
His talk was a part of VAHS’s second annual Social Justice Youth Summit. The summit featured some of Verona Area School District’s staff, such as district school security coordinator Corey Saffold, who presented on the paradox of being a black law enforcement officer, and district mental health coordinator Andreina Suzie Sainvilmar, who spoke about mental health.
Presentations on topics including race, media messages, Native American tribes, free speech and disabilities were also led by visiting lecturers.
At the opposite end of the high school, Percy Brown, equity director for the Middleton-Cross Plains School District, spoke about the messaging of hip-hop music and the impact that it has on the black community as a part of his “Social activism through Hip-Hop” presentation.
An avid listener of hip-hop himself – the Madison native discovered it on a trip to Florida, since it wasn’t being played on the then-two local radio stations – Brown started the session by asking students sitting in the semi-circle around him about what hip-hop artists they listen to, and why they listen: Is it the beats, or is it the lyrical content?
Lyrical content in hip-hop has been problematic, Brown said, because of the mentality behind it. In the earlier days of hip-hop, lyrics focused on what was happening in black communities, but it soon turned into glorifying acts of crime and drug use, rather than stating it was happening.
With the message of some of the hip-hop music, coupled with the crack cocaine epidemic in the black community and a justice system that treated the crack cocaine that had infiltrated the black community more severely than other types of cocaine, it resulted in a disproportionate amount of people of color being incarcerated.
It’s a powerful genre of music, Brown said, and people should be aware of the type of lyrics they’re listening to, and support music that doesn’t contribute to negative stereotypes or glorify negative actions.
“It has been more impactful globally than classical music, jazz music, blues music, rock music,” he said. “It’s a genre of music that can speak to people and shape who they are.”