Dr. Dwaine Plaza Talks Race and History

Photo Credit: Hannah O’Leary

When asked about the work he does, Dr. Dwaine Plaza answers with what feels like urgency. He speaks rapidly, and perhaps this is because there is so much to say about the experience of African Americans in the United States, and there are many of us who have yet to hear it.

“I think the community needs to be more outgoing in terms of learning its own history,” Plaza says, “I think the community can’t put its head in a shell and think all of this is just a bad dream, [that] it’s going to go away.” 

This is what Plaza loves to talk about, what he needs to talk about. It’s why this winter – along with fellow College of Liberal Arts colleagues, Dean Larry Rogers and Marilyn Stewart – Plaza is once again co-facilitating a class called African American Resistance in the Era of Donald Trump. 

Course Design and Community Response
The course, which looks at resistance through music, church, sports, and protest, is designed to explore the African American experience from the time they were brought to the United States to present day America. The present happens to very much include President Donald Trump, which is why Plaza chose to use his name. 

This ignited the right-wing, and Plaza went on to talk to newspapers and radio hosts, all of whom wanted him to admit that the class was nothing more than a glorified Trump-bashing session. 

“…Donald Trump is just a bookmark. It was really hard for them to put their head around that because he just got elected. They saw the name Donald Trump, they saw African Americans in the title, and that automatically connotated to them… [that] a bunch of professors were going to sit there and go after Donald Trump,” Plaza mused.

He went on to say that Trump’s name only came up a few times, and that was because events were taking place that the class couldn’t ignore. Plaza and his colleagues would use this opportunity to historicize the events, to say these things had happened before and provide examples.

But for the most part, Plaza helped facilitate discussions and let experts deliver the course material. They brought in experts on music, sports, and the prison industrial system, just to name a few. Students were also required to watch 40 documentary films, to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and to have conversations that would build their consciousness around the theme of resistance. 

The students eventually created their own YouTube videos, all focused on a different topic from the course. 

“I like to tell students before we start the course – I like you to build out something that’s going to live beyond you in my course. Normally if you write a paper, you and I get to see it. By doing this, all of a sudden it pushes it to the next level where their creative work potentially gets viewed by a lot of different people,” Plaza explained. 

The videos, which can be viewed on YouTube, range from Resistance and the Black Lives Matter Movement, to Nicki Minaj: Agency and Resistance to Male Hegemony. One particularly moving video features speakers reflecting on multicultural resistance and what it means to have multiple identities. 

“Multicultural resistance to me looks like being myself,” one speaker says. 

That’s what resistance looks like for many people: being themselves.

The History Plaza Teaches
With his research focused primarily on migration and race relations, Plaza spends a lot of time thinking about movement; how did we get where we are today?

He was born in the Caribbean, but grew up in Canada. At Oregon State University since 1997, Plaza has been successful, accepting the position of Associate Dean a year and a half ago. But he’s also watched a lot of colleagues of color come and go in what he describes as the revolving door syndrome. 

“We have a lot of faculty that don’t actually live here because they find themselves so uncomfortable,” Plaza said. 

They move to places like Portland and commute to OSU, and within a couple years, they leave for good. But Oregon itself has a complicated history when it comes to people of color feeling welcome here. 

“I talk about the racialized history of Oregon, such that people actually understand that Oregon is not this welcome place that people like to construct it as. They’ve had legislation, policies, and people’s actions that actually made sure that Oregon is what it’s like today. A fairly white place,” Plaza points out. 

Oregon was the only free state admitted to the Union with an exclusion clause in its constitution, dictating that no black people could live in the state if they didn’t already reside there at the time the constitution was adopted. 

There were other exclusion laws that didn’t stick, all of which were attempts to keep black people from settling in Oregon. In 1844, one such law was Peter Burnett’s Lash Law, which dictated that any free black who refused to leave would be subject to up to 39 lashes. It was amended a year later, but the point is that it existed.

Plaza talks about other prejudices faced by African Americans, and the forms of resistance taken in many places, including our very own OSU. 

In one such case, a black football player named Fred Milton was asked by his coach to cut his afro. He didn’t comply and was subsequently kicked off the team. The confrontation led to all the black students on campus – which was about 70 at the time – to stage a walkout in 1969. 

“That set off a whole chain of events around student athletes who were African American not coming to this campus and feeling welcome,” Plaza said. 

“That word of mouth got around to the point where no coach could recruit a student up here to play football. So, the African American population also remained very, very small. One of the reasons is because of that.”

Why don’t we know stories like these? How could we go our whole lives without ever hearing about the Oregon Lash Law? 

Plaza blames the United States education system in general, claiming that it’s a disservice to us that we don’t learn these things, and then we end up feeling guilty for never having been taught the truth. 

When he looks at the way minorities – like Native Americans – have been portrayed in history books, he sees it as story that’s been washed out.

“When the winners get to write the narrative, then it’s a narrative that makes the winners look like everything was natural. It happened because these people were holding us up, civilization was being held up, they weren’t using the land anyway and we’re using it – look what we did with it. Not the narrative about the people who got oppressed or were displaced by the circumstance,” Plaza says. 

It’s the narrative of the oppressed that Plaza wants to bring to the forefront. These are the stories we need to hear.

Learning the Truth
I asked Plaza to consider a frustration that many conservatives seem to have with college campuses. They argue that campuses are no longer a safe place for conservatives to exist, that liberals are making it impossible to have more than one perspective. 

Plaza responded by saying, “What their coded language is: I can’t come on campus and say negative things about women; I can’t come on campus and say negative things about people of color, or people with disabilities, or different ethnicities. What they would like to be able to say is that I can come on campus and say those things and get away with it and there’s no repercussions. That’s their idea, that that conservatism is no longer around.”

He sees this as progress. And that’s not to say there aren’t individuals on campus who have sexist, homophobic, or racist views. What some would see as a trend in left-leaning perspectives on campus, Plaza sees a place where people can no longer yell all the things they think anymore and get away with it.

Lars Larson – a Portland-based conservative radio host that interviewed Plaza – pointed out that Donald Trump has never owned slaves, and cited this as a reason why Donald Trump’s name shouldn’t be used in a class about African American resistance. 

Plaza acknowledges that no one wants to say they’re racist, that they equate racism with carrying a noose and owning a slave. But that’s just one part of racism.

“I always like to tell people I’m a racist,” Plaza says, “because I actually grew up in a racist culture.” 

For Plaza, it’s about admitting that racism comes from socialization. It’s learned and deeply ingrained for most of us. If we want to follow Plaza’s example, we have to keep educating ourselves, to put in the real work of being less racist, less homophobic, and less sexist. 

Being racist doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad person; in fact, it may just mean you’re human, and that you’re a product of the history you weren’t taught in school. It’s time to learn it now.

Plaza invites members of the community to sit in on lectures this winter. If you are interested in attending, contact Plaza at dplaza@oregonstate.edu. To view the YouTube videos created last winter, visit: http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/soc204/plazad/Trump2017/Trump2017.html . It’s best to use Mozilla Firefox to load the page.

By Anika Lautenbach