Commencement Address by Dr. Johnnetta B.
May 10, 2008
Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole
Sister Chancellor Anne
Sister Chair Janice Brumit and Members of the Board of Trustees,
Colleagues of the Faculty and Staff,
Alumni and students,
Friends of this very special university,
Parents and family of the graduates,
The mighty class of 2008.
Sisters and Brothers all: Good Morning!
And what a great getting’ up morning it is as we gather to celebrate the
accomplishments of 467 graduates and wish them well as they “commence”
the next leg of their journey.
* This is the full text of
the speech Dr. Cole asked the class of 2008 to read on line. Excerpts
from this speech were delivered at the commencement ceremony.
To you, dear graduates, let me say: Congratulations! Felicidades!
Mazel-tov! and, “You done good!” But as much as I applaud you, I know
that you did not get here all by yourselves. Indeed, you would not have
made it to this day if you had not had been supported by your parents,
grand parents, aunts, uncles, Godmothers and Godfathers--- all of the
folks who have believed in you, especially during those times when you
didn’t fully believe in yourselves. Surely you are grateful to all of
your folks; and I certainly hope that you are grateful for the way that
your parents have been your human ATMs!
I trust you will continue to appreciate your faculty, the women and men
who have been your partners in the precious and powerful process of
teaching and learning. May you always appreciate the staff, those women
and men who provided all of the support services that allowed you to
grab a hold of and fully embrace a UNC at Asheville education.
Please know that it is an honor and a joy for me to share this great
celebration with you; and in receiving an honorary degree from this
great university, I consider it a privilege to be a member of your
class, the class of 2008. I very much respect and admire Sister
Chancellor Anne Ponder. And I must tell you that I am profoundly happy
and proud that this university has chosen as its new Vice Chancellor and
Provost, my colleague and Sister-friend, Dr. Jane Fernandes.
On what should I center this commencement address? After all, there is
no shortage of topics that meet my interest in speaking to an issue that
is of critical importance in our communities, our nation and our world.
To name just a few issues: the presence of war and the crying need for
peace; threats to our planet; immigration; education in our country,
especially what is taking place in our K-12 public schools; and the
troubling state of the American economy.
I settled on something that is clearly of critical importance all over
this great country of ours, and throughout the world as well ----- and,
it is something that you, dear graduates, and indeed each of us can
address. I have chosen to focus on the critical need for each of us to
do what we can to address bigotry and discrimination wherever we find
it: in our own homes, in our schools, in places where we worship and in
places where we go for recreation, in our work places, and in world
As I engage in the work of diversity and inclusion, I often think of
words written by the great African American scholar and activist, Dr.
W.E. B. DuBois. He said that the problem of the 20th century is the
problem of the color line. Here we are in the 21st century and we have
yet to eradicate the problem of the color line, and there are so many
more lines we human beings have constructed to divide us---lines based
on gender, class, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, age, and
physical and mental abilities.
Because various forms of bigotry and discrimination are so widespread
and so tenacious, many are led to say and to believe that it is “just
human nature” to dislike people who are different from the way you are,
and to create systems of inequality based on those differences.
No! bigotry is not “just human nature,” and it is not passed on
genetically! Bigotry is learned, and because it is learned, it can be
unlearned, and indeed we could just stop teaching it.
I am not naïve enough to think that we can rid the world of bigotry by
declaring a moratorium on teaching it. How well I know that bigotry and
discrimination are about power and privilege. And it is not easy for
folks who have power and privilege to decide to just give it up. We have
to offer to those who have it, a more rewarding alternative. We have to
think about and work toward making Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream a
reality. We need to imagine and work toward making real a world in which
difference doesn’t make any more difference. We need to envision and
then create communities where everyone is respected, and invited “to the
table” so that their voices can be heard. And if there isn’t room enough
“at the table” for everyone, then a bigger table is built.
Here in the United States, power and privilege based on race and gender
stand out, and so, as an African American woman, I know what it is like
not to have White skin privilege and not to have male privilege.
But it is ever so important that I acknowledge and deal with the reality
that there is some power and privilege that I do have. I clearly have
some power and privilege as someone who is upper middle class,
heterosexual, a Christian, and physically able.
This reality, that each of us has some form of power and privilege flows
from the fact that each of us has multiple identities. And it is ever so
important for us to be aware of those identities and to guard against
efforts to characterize us in singular terms.
During the current presidential race, I along with many others have been
particularly conscious of the complexities that can flow from our
multiple identities, as some folks attempted to gain our support for
their political candidate by saying that all women must be for Senator
Hillary Clinton, and all African Americans must be for Senator Barak
Obama. What is an African American woman to do? I believe the answer is
this: she must do what every other American voter should do, and that is
make the decision on who you will vote for on far more than a
candidate’s race or gender.
Let me share one more reality about this stuff that we call bigotry and
discrimination. It is this: unfortunately, being the victim of one form
of bigotry or discrimination does not immune one from victimizing
others. For example, some White women who have been the victims of
sexism practice racism. Some Black people who have known the bitter
sting of racism are homophobic, and practice heterosexism. Some people
who are Jewish, and have been the victims of anti-Semitism can harbor
feelings and carry out actions that stem from Islamaphobia.
My sisters and brothers all of this mighty class of 2008, based on the
points I have just made about on-going challenges to human diversity,
challenges that take the form of bigotry and discrimination, what can I
ask of you as you go out into the world of graduate and professional
studies or the world of work? There are indeed some very concrete things
that I want to ask you to do, but please know that I will not ask
anything of you that I do not continue to ask of myself.
Learn how you learned your prejudices. That is, interrogate yourself
about your particular journey around questions of diversity and
inclusion. And when that day comes when you are parents--- if that is
something you want to do and can do--- then please contribute to
changing the world by refusing to teach bigotry to your children.
If you are off to do post baccalaureate work, then encourage your new
institution as I hope you encouraged UNC/Asheville to do its part to
promote respect for diversity and to create an inclusive environment.
How much better our communities and our nation would be if each of us
spoke up and called out folks who tell racist, sexist and heterosexist
jokes. And suppose each of us took time to truly understand the issues
involved with highly charged topics such as immigration, and the number
of Black and Latino men --- and yes women too---who are entangled in our
nation’s criminal justice system.
I ask that each of you get in touch with your multiple identities. And
once you do so, then you must never let others relate to you in terms of
only one of your attributes.
I also urge you to honestly examine your own power and privilege. For if
you are to avoid using your power and privilege in ways that exploit and
oppress others, then you must be in touch with what power and privilege
you have, the basis of it, and how it can be used in positive ways.
It is time now for me to move toward closure on this talk, and I want to
do so by leaving with you some inspiriting words that come from the
heads and the hearts of women and men of diverse communities:
From a Native American people, the Sioux, we hear these words: with all
beings and all things we shall be relatives.
There are words that some say come from Native American cultures, others
claim they come from peoples of Africa. What we do know for certain is
that these words capture the value of gender equity. The words are:
Women hold up half the sky!
There is a Chinese saying that speaks to the beauty of human diversity
with these words: One flower never makes a spring.
You know that I must lift up some of Dr. Martin Luther King’s moving
words that spoke to the struggle against racial discrimination. “I have
a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where
they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of
Caesar Chavez, the exemplary Chicano leader once said: “Our ambitions
must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of
others----for their sakes and for our own.”
The beloved Rabbi Hillel was asked if he could stand on one foot and say
everything that is in the Torah. He responded that he could and this is
what he said: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow men (and
women). That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary.”
There is a passage in the Koran that says this: “We are made into
nations and tribes that we may know and love each other.
One of my sheroes, Audre Lorde, who described herself as a Black,
feminist, lesbian, mother, warrior poet offered these profound words: It
is not our differences, it is our silence about our differences that
In tribute to your newly appointed Vice Chancellor and Provost, Dr. Jane
Fernandes, and in tribute to all of us, I offer these words of Helen
Keller, an amazing social activist who was deaf and blind from the age
of 10 months: “Each of us is blind and deaf until our eyes are opened to
our fellowwomen, until our ears hear the voices of humanity.”
My dear classmates, I asked that you read this speech on line. I have
two more requests. I ask that you heed the counsel of Marian Wright
Edelman, the Sister President of the Children’s Defense Fund: “If you
don’t like the way the world is, you change it. You have an obligation
to change it. You just do it one step at a time.” And finally, I ask
that you all stand. Now give yourselves a big hug. Remember, you must
first love yourself before you can love the diverse people of our world.