UPenn students mark Thanksgiving with talk on 'racism,' 'strained' US history

The event will be conducted by a UPenn graduate associate who uses "they/them" pronouns and is "invested in anti-racism politics.”

A University of Pennsylvania freshman dorm will host "A Conversation on Racism - Considerations on Thanksgiving and ‘American’ Politics."

A former UPenn graduate associate speculated that the event would be a "fact-free leftist tirade."

The University of Pennsylvania invited freshmen living in its Stouffer College House to attend a Saturday event discussing the “strained” roots of Thanksgiving. 

Stouffer graduate associate Jax Lastinger is organizing “A Conversation on Racism - Considerations on Thanksgiving and ‘American’ Politics,” which will consist of a “facilitated conversation about racism in the week leading to Thanksgiving.”

Graduate Associates at UPenn are much like traditional Resident Advisors, the difference being that GAs are graduate students who are viewed as an asset to residential houses, as they help create a “stimulating living environment.” GAs often organize in-house lectures, activities, debates, and other events in order to bring added perspective and depth of experience to undergraduate residential life.  

The event description clarifies that Lastinger “identifies as white and doesn’t position themselves as an expert on this topic,” but is simply “invested in anti-racism politics.”

”Thanksgiving is a holiday that is often framed as a time to be thankful for the bounty we all have. However, the roots of this holiday lay in the strained history of the United States,” the description explains. UPenn invites students to explore how “Native Americans are erased from our culture in the context of Thanksgiving” and learn about “navigating anti-Indigenous racism in the contemporary context.”

[RELATED: College library: Thanksgiving a ‘#NationalDayofMourning’]

UPenn student Christian Bradley called the event’s subject matter “a lot to unpack,” adding that he doesn’t consider himself an expert on Thanksgiving or Native American history when speaking with Campus Reform

“I do believe Thanksgiving is a great and unique American holiday that everyone of all races, ethnicities, faiths, and backgrounds should be able to enjoy,” Bradley told Campus Reform.

Recent graduate and former UPenn GA Igor Bronz told Campus Reform that he has “several reservations” about the event and its structure. He explained that while part of a GA’s job is to organize events for residents, “these events generally consist of inviting an expert speaker such as a professor to talk about a subject.”

“I have never experienced an event where an RA or GA attempted to facilitate the discussion themselves as the primary subject of the event unless of course, this GA happens to be an expert, which this one claims not to be,” Bronz explained.

”So we have an admitted non-expert, non-historian attempting to talk about history and complex cultural affairs,” he told Campus Reform, pointing out that the event is taking place in a freshman residential house. He noted that Lastinger goes by “they/them” pronouns, using that as further proof of what he suggested would be a biased conversation conducted by someone “attempting to speak to a bunch of impressionable freshmen about a topic they are not an expert in, and there is no professor or expert there to at least steer the conversation in a useful direction.”

”Basically, if I was a GA right now, I would have serious issues about the setup of this event entirely separate from the subject matter,” the former UPenn GA said.

[RELATED: ‘Anti-Thanksgiving’ potluck sparks controversy on UVA campus]

Bronz notes that while he has his own right-wing political biases, he “strove to never create biased events or discussions” during his time as a GA: “I was careful about which speakers I chose to invite (nobody political or someone who is going to push a particular ideology). I would say that most GAs are this way.”

”I could never imagine any one of them trying an event like this. I don’t think it would even get past the dean,” Bronz said.  ”Forget the fact that this GA is going to go on a fact-free leftist tirade about what they think racism is. The event simply does not meet the academic requirement of being a useful event.”

Campus Reform reached out to the university for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @celinedryan