Reading, Writing, Reflecting on Racism
To better understand anti-Black racism in America, Joe Karlgaard set out to educate himself about the Black experience, recording and reflecting on what he read, listened to, watched and learned every week for a year.
By William Edmond
As director of athletics, recreation and lifetime fitness, Joe Karlgaard has an outsized influence on the student-athlete experience at Rice. In addition to leading 16 intercollegiate programs, providing strategic leadership for program success, and overseeing massive facilities upgrades and new construction since arriving in 2013, he was recently appointed to a Lead1 athletics administrator working group to examine issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion in college sports. On June 19, 2020 (Juneteenth), Karlgaard began a yearlong project to educate himself “on the lingering effects of racism, discrimination and bias in America.” As a form for accountability, he created a blog where he posted weekly about his readings and reflections.
As this project concluded in June 2021, we reached out to William Edmond, who has held key positions in student life at Rice, to speak with Karlgaard, a colleague and friend, about what he learned along the way. Edmond recently served as assistant director of multicultural affairs, overseeing cultural student organizations, programs and training for the campus community with the intent to create and maintain a safe and welcoming environment for everyone at Rice.
In this capacity, he led the Black Male Leadership Initiative for undergraduates and worked with Athletics on Black male student-athlete retention. Karlgaard and Edmond took students to the Black Student Athlete Summit — a summit that’s coming to Rice in 2022. Currently a full-time MBA student at the Jones Graduate School of Business, Edmond is also a residential associate at Sid Richardson College. The interview took place in July 2021.
WILLIAM EDMOND: As a diversity educator, I am always curious about how people come to engage in self-reflection and expanding their knowledge about diversity and inclusion topics. So, what led you to start this self-educational journey on Juneteenth 2020?
JOE KARLGAARD: It started with the killing of George Floyd and the effect that the recording and posting of his murder to social media had on so many people. Our athletics administration felt compelled to start having conversations with our staff and our student-athletes. I was reaching out to colleagues across the country to see how they were doing, how they were reacting. To hold myself accountable, I wanted to make a public commitment. So I made this announcement June 19, 2020, that I was going to spend the next year doing something to educate myself on discrimination, bias and the history of the Black experience — and blog about it every week. I set aside time every day to make it happen.
WE: What struck you from the beginning and as you were learning or reading throughout that year?
JK: I learned how little I knew about the history of the Black experience and where the gaps were in my own education. These gaps go back to high school or earlier and even in college, where I was a history major. There just wasn’t much that I knew beyond slavery, the Civil War, the civil rights movement and today. I also probably thought that the Black perspective, so to speak, was more monolithic than it is, not understanding that there is no single Black experience or perspective.
I came to recognize that I don’t have to think about the color of my skin, my gender or any other demographic characteristic every day. And that helped me develop an awareness of my own biases. Also, I’ve come to the conclusion that this has got to be a lifelong journey for me and not just a one-time or a one-year occurrence.
WE: Were there specific readings or articles that were most memorable for you or helped lead to some of those takeaways you’ve just mentioned?
JK: There’s just really a lot to choose from. I’ve watched movies, documentaries, webinars and listened to podcasts. I really enjoyed auditing Leonard Moore’s1 class on the history of the Black experience at the University of Texas at Austin and viewing the documentary “13th” by Ava DuVernay. I think it’s tough to understand the Black experience in the United States without knowing the history of violence and oppression and racism — both Moore’s class and “13th” trace the history from slavery to convict leasing to Jim Crow to the civil rights movement to mass incarceration.
I’d recommend the podcast “Code Switch” from NPR, which covers race and gender discrimination more broadly. Also, PBS has excellent documentaries on its website. One I watched was on the Rainbow Coalition2, which was really helpful background for watching the movie “Judas and the Black Messiah” about Fred Hampton. Kimberlé Crenshaw3 is just a brilliant scholar. Her 1988 article on race in the Harvard Law Review is helpful for understanding that we need more than laws to combat racism.
I also really enjoyed hearing voices of folks like Chloé Valdary, founder of Theory of Enchantment4, a diversity and resilience training company, linguist John McWhorter5 and Erec Smith [professor of rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania], who have very different takes on how to tackle racism and create a sense of common humanity. There were books that people would recommend to me, especially first-person works by Austin Channing Brown6 and Ta-Nehisi Coates7.
WE: How did you go about this project as a daily discipline?
JK: I allocated generally about 30 minutes per day to reading, listening or watching something for the blog. On Friday, I spent another 45 minutes or so writing up my thoughts and then posting.
WE: This dedicated practice is a good model for leading by example, learning empathy and gaining understanding on other’s perspectives. How did you share these lessons?
JK: I tried to share the blog posts weekly via social media, and I usually highlighted one particular entry, so that people who were interested could follow along or maybe go to the primary source itself.
If I happened to listen to or read or watch something that I found particularly compelling, I’d send those links to my family, friends, coaches and colleagues. There were just many, many informal conversations about what I’m doing and what it means. Those occurred on both sides of the spectrum — with people who thought it was the coolest thing ever and people who thought it was absolutely ridiculous.
For that latter group, it afforded me an opportunity to explain that I think it’s always healthy to learn the perspectives of others. I come at this is as a cisgender, white, Protestant male. So, to read the perspectives of people from the LGBTQ community or people from the Asian American community or the Black community or the disabled community — those things were just really helpful, and I think it helps you develop a sense of common humanity with others. When I explained it from that perspective, I think people got more comfortable.
WE: What advice would you share with other leaders in college athletics or anyone who may not be familiar or comfortable with these issues and/or topics?
JK: I think it’s absolutely critical to educate yourself on the history of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. In my case, it’s the perspectives of our student-athletes and staff that I’m first and foremost concerned with. The analogy I’ve used with a couple of people is that it’s kind of like getting a deep tissue massage. If you’ve got a knot in one of your muscles, you go in and you get this massage, and it’s really painful the first time to get one. Then you go back again, and it’s painful. You go back a third time, and it’s less painful and eventually the knot works its way out and you can function.
And I think that’s the way this is meant to work, particularly when I’m delving into a new topic. I read an article written from the perspective of a parent on having a nonbinary 7-year-old child. I hadn’t read any pieces from this perspective before, and it was sort of awkward. You have to do that to really work through the issues that you have as an individual, so that you can come to appreciate the perspective of that person. But you have to put in the work. It doesn’t just magically happen, but you do get to a point I think where you can get past most of the awkwardness and internal strife that you have over diving into the perspectives of others.
WE: What are the next steps for diversity inclusion within Rice athletics? Are there other ideas that may have come from these readings?
JK: Personally, I tried to approach this over the course of the last year by doing things to make myself better, more conversant, more knowledgeable in topics of diversity and inclusion. Then, I thought about things we could do in the athletics department to help foster better education, more conversations and perhaps changes in policy. We all are here for our students, and in my case, our student-athletes, so finding ways to work together — that could be co-sponsoring a lecture, pairing mentors with student-athletes from similar backgrounds —these require cross-campus collaboration. I absolutely do not think it’s just about other campus departments helping athletics and student-athletes. It’s about asking, “What are the things that we can be doing to make sure that Rice is living in its mission and is becoming a more inclusive place?”
WE: In addition to being the athletics director, I want to understand how this process affected you personally.
JK: You know, it’s hard to disassociate professional and personal life. We work in education, so this project is a good reminder to me that there’s always something that you can learn. We have curious students at Rice; it makes sense that we — you, me, coaches, faculty and administrators — should always generally approach things that we don’t fully understand with a level of curiosity and eagerness to learn.
I think it helped me exercise my empathy muscle and helped me see people better, really see people better, and helped me embrace a curiosity about the lived experiences of others, and an understanding that I need to carry that curiosity with me for the rest of my life.
1. Leonard Moore is the George Littlefield Professor of American History and the former vice-president of diversity and community engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to winning numerous teaching awards, Moore is the author of four books on Black politics.
2. “The First Rainbow Coalition” is a 2019 documentary by filmmaker Ray Santisteban about the alliance between the Chicago Black Panther Party (led by Fred Hampton); the Young Lords Organization that fought for Puerto Ricans, Latinxs and Third World people; and the Young Patriots, a Southern white working-class group.
3. Kimberlé Crenshaw is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia University, a prolific author and civil rights activist. Her 1988 article, “Race, Reform, and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law,” pioneered legal concepts like critical race theory. She coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the double bind of simultaneous racial and gender prejudice.
4. Learn more about Chloe Valdary’s work at theoryofenchantment.com.
5. John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, the author of many books on language, and a regular contributor to magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times.
6. Austin Channing Brown is the author of the bestseller “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness,” a public speaker and the producer of the web series “The Next Question.”
7. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a journalist and author of many bestselling books, including “Between the World and Me,” winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction. He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, a MacArthur Fellow and the author of Marvel Comics’ recent Black Panther series.