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“How to Be Anti-Racist”: A student’s journey to empowering her voice

"I wanted people to see the struggles of how even when it’s not noticed, racism can affect the littlest things,” said Apau.

January 24, 2021

Fear due to the color of your skin should not have to happen in 2020.

When the Black Lives Matter protests erupted in spring of 2020, it was shocking to see just how many Americans were unaware of the injustice that Black individuals face every day. 

Class of 2021 member Maya Apau explored what it really means to be anti-racist for her English 101 project. Not only did Apau learn the history of institutional racism, but she also used her podcast as a way to amplify and empower her own voice. 

“From this project, I was able to dig deeper [into the origins of racism]. As mentioned in the podcast, oftentimes the curriculum doesn’t expand outside topics of slavery, Rosa Parks, and MLK, so when I had the opportunity to learn more, I took it. The more I learned, the more confident I felt to speak about this topic,” said Apau.

Listen to the podcast: “How to be Anti-Racist” HERE.

Allowing a student to feel like their voice matters was a goal of English 101 instructors Natalie Rebetsky and Mary Ellen Newcomb.

“At first, I was working to make sure students could research their theme word from many different contemporary angles, expanding their understanding. When the podcast project ended, I was amazed to see how much students had ownership of their theme on a personal level,” said Rebetsky.

For her podcast, Apau took on the persona of Adwoa Serwa, a writer and poet.

“My persona’s name was Jolie, my middle name, but as I dug deeper into the project, I wanted to fully capture ‘How to be Anti-racist’, so I used my Ghanian middle name of Adwoa Serwa. Jolie is French and a more Eurocentric name so it’s ‘easier to pronounce’ over Adwoa Serwa. I wanted people to see the struggles of how even when it’s not noticed, racism can affect the littlest things,” said Apau.

Stereotypically, many assume that people with foreign-sounding names do not speak English. As a result, these individuals experience discrimination in the workforce as they search for jobs.

“I had a neighbor who was highly qualified in a technical field but struggled to find a job. When she changed her Middle Eastern name to an Americanized nickname on her application, suddenly she had interviews,” said Rebetsky. “That section of Maya’s podcast resonated with me and reminded me of my former neighbor’s struggle.”

This struggle is being addressed in life today as an attempt to normalize not assuming someone’s ability based on a trivial idea such as they can not perform because of their name. This can be seen in an Indeed commercial that is still running in January 2021. In this commercial, Chiamaka Nwokeocha describes her difficulties with finding a job because of her name.

Apau directly addresses this issue in her podcast.

“As I said earlier, my name is Adwoa Serwa. Many of the viewers might be confused, as they know my segments and work by the name of Jolie… I was brought up in America, yet very aware of my African, cultural, and Ghanian background. Throughout my childhood, I would attend church and hear my native language of twi. Memorizing the basics, ‘meda wo ase’ (thank you), ‘ɛte sɛn?’ (how are you?), ‘ho yɛ’ (I am fine). I tell you this backstory not to reminisce. I tell you this because the change in my name equates with today’s discussion of How to be Anti-Racist. For many years on end; friends, teachers, co-workers, and peers would butcher my name. Not being able to properly pronounce Adwoa Serwa. Instead of fighting or having the need to constantly correct, I conformed and instead went by my more ‘eurocentric’ name: Jolie. I found it interesting, yet baffling, that… people can look past the weird spellings and figure out to pronounce words such as Worcestershire, Quinoa, Anemone (UH NAM A KNEE), but once they see a person of color with a ‘slightly hard name’, the name becomes more difficult to pronounce,” said Adwoa Serwa, Apau’s persona.

When it came to finally putting the podcast together, Apau exceeded her instructor’s expectations and made her visuals during the podcast change in relation to the topic she is discussing.

“I wanted each act to have its own visual to sort of represent what was being discussed. Obviously it’s a podcast and you can’t see the speaker’s emotions, so I wanted to use the visuals to create a connection not only between the words, but through pictures and music,” said Apau.

Even though many would typically view the podcast as a final assignment, Apau viewed it as a chance to empower her voice and spread awareness.

…it’s been forever and people still can’t just learn to look past color and love their neighbors as themselves,

— Maya Apau

“[Spreading awareness] is important now more than ever. I mean it’s been forever and people still can’t just learn to look past color and love their neighbors as themselves. I believe that racism is taught, so if there is a way to counteract the racist ideals taught and to instead teach love and kindness, then the world can be a better place. Along with this, protests galore have struck our nation and it’s clear to say that these lessons need to be taught not only to children but to adults!” said Apau.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, so much has been taken away, but it is more important than ever to continue to learn about, be aware of, and empower the fight for racial justice.

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