Dr. Craig Steven Wilder

Professor and author of Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities

Dr. Wilder’swork as an historian at MIT has sparked important discussions and debates about race, slavery and higher education in North America. He is the author of Ebony and Ivy, a 2013 book which explores the role of race and slavery in the development of several Ivy League universities in the United States.

What does belonging mean to you?
I think in part, especially in the context of the university, it means something more than inclusion or representation. It means being in a space that’s actually willing to adjust to my presence and reflect upon its own traditions, its own history and its culture to make sure that my presence can actually be respected in that context. It’s the willingness of an institution to not just have my presence but to respect and embrace my presence by actually changing in response to my being there and to other people being there.

I think we hide behind “tradition” a lot, and we weaponize tradition and turn it into a kind of slogan that protects us from these kinds of challenges. What I want from a university, what I want for my job and for my students, is that the university come to understand that the challenge of diversity is actually about really rethinking who we are, constantly, and reacting to the changing realities of a modern university campus.

Why does belonging matter in today’s world? Or today’s universities?
With regards to universities, I think our universities are more national and international than ever before. We have intellectual and productive partnerships well beyond our campuses.

And so, part of the reason that “belonging” matters on campus is that it’s on campus that we learn to rehearse and understand the sets of behaviours and the equipment that we need to really actually engage with the world in respectful and productive ways. If we’re going to think about ourselves as national and international, and that’s something more than just rhetorical, then we’re going to learn that and practise that on campus on a daily basis.

When have you most felt like you belonged?
I never felt about that question that way. In fact, I probably spent more time with the opposite thought: with the spaces where I didn’t belong, and how I negotiated them.

As a first-generation college student, my experience in higher education—from the very beginning—was shaped by a sense of not belonging: not fully understanding the terrain of the university that I was walking on as an 18 year old; not understanding how to network on the campus, or how to get the kind of advice I needed to successfully negotiate classes and all that. And you’re confronting this extraordinarily steep learning curve that you have in your first year or two of college when you’re trying to figure out just how things work and how you survive in that system. And then graduate school wasn’t all that different. I entered into another stage of feeling like I didn’t belong, feeling like I had to prove or establish my right to be there.

I think a lot of my career has been shaped by a sense that the spaces I occupied were not intended for me. So whether or not I had a right to be there wasn’t always the point—it was that they weren’t designed for me, to accommodate me, to anticipate my presence. So I had to create space for myself. And I think the bad part of that experience is that you have to go through it, but the good part is it made me more sensitive to my students and colleagues on my campus today. I can think about them not only as colleagues and students but as three-dimensional human beings, as people, who arrived having taken very different paths, and that all of us actually belong in that space. We create it—we have control over whether or not the people around us feel like they belong.

So just by telling my life story, and by respecting the life stories of other people, I create the space for them to feel like they belong. And, in fact, that actually benefits me greatly—there’s a certain empowerment that comes from that, and one learns about their own entitlement by extending respect to other people.

What is the single biggest threat to building a belonging society?
I think there are multiple. We live in a world where we’re often siloed: racially, ethnically, by class divisions, etc. We live in our own spaces, and in many cases we practise not hearing the experiences of other people. There are all sorts of incentives to not listen to, to not understand, not respect what’s happening in other people’s lives—even people who are actually spending space with us, intimately, on a daily basis.  And there are very few incentives, really, to thinking broadly of what’s in the best interests of full, diverse communities of people.

But I also think we have tremendous resources. Universities actually have an extraordinary advantage in terms of creating well-integrated, thoughtful, respectful communities. We have the people and the expertise to do it. But we also have to have the will to do it. It has to be a priority. And it has to be a priority at every level of the university and sustained to be truly transformative.

What one change could we make as a society to improve belonging?
Look, there are things that we can all do, and whenever I’m talking to my students about these kinds of questions, one of things I like to remind them is I don’t have a political litmus test for them. I don’t have a sense of what they should be doing. My job as a professor is really to help them articulate their values and then live up to their values. Whether they think of themselves as conservative or liberal, or left or right, they have values—they have a sense of what’s right and wrong in the world. And my challenge to them is to have them articulate those visions and then to problem-solve. I want them to engage with the world and solve problems from exactly where they are, and exactly whatever location they’re in.

One of the things I hope I model, in my own life, is that you use the skills you have to make a social impact where you can. That is one of the reasons why I find myself, for about 12 years now, teaching in the prisons in New York. There are only so many ways that I, as a historian, can impact the cultures of incarceration in the United States and the political and social problem they represent. One of them is to just use the skills I have, and bring them into those spaces—and hopefully also leave with a better understanding of the inequalities of the nation, and the humanity of people who are incarcerated and their continuing connections to the rest of us.

If you really want to think about breaking down barriers and building inclusion, well there’s no greater barrier than a maximum-security prison. But one of the things you learn is that each person in that prison is connected to an extraordinarily broad network of people outside, and their incarceration affects all of those people’s lives. And this isn’t a judgment about crime and punishment—it’s about the way in which we manage to hide the incarcerated from the rest of society, to pretend that incarceration doesn’t have broader social impacts. For me, it’s been one of the most interesting parts of my career over the past decade or so, really thinking about and taking the skills I have into the prison and leaving with a much richer understanding of inequality and the social realities of the United States. Even as someone who studies the social realities of the United States full time, what I’ve learned by teaching in prison has actually been extraordinary, for me, as an academic and as a citizen.

What one thing can each of us do, right now, to foster belonging?
We all have access to intellectual and cultural events happening in our towns and cities where we live. And some of them are events that are not actually about “us”—they’re informational sessions in immigration and immigration reform, they’re political meetings, etc. I encourage us to really think about reaching out and going into spaces that are not, in fact, particularly comfortable for us, but are likely to really challenge ourselves to think about the world from someone else’s vantage point.

And we’re not doing that for them—I think that’s actually for us. During Black History Month in the United States, whenever I do events I like to remind the audience that coming to a talk or an event is not, in and of itself, an act of social justice. It’s what you do when you leave. It’s what you do after that matters. And I think we all have that opportunity to walk into spaces where you find inspiration, or some kind of moral or social challenge, or some new body or knowledge. And the key thing is: what do we do with it when we leave? And I think we should all challenge ourselves to think about experience that way, as one that doesn’t end when the session ends but when we incorporate what we’ve learned into our own lives and our own politics.