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A Deep Dive into History & Race

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Acutely aware of racial inequities in our society, Dustin Abrahamson is determined to change things for the better. At the UW he explored the causes and effects of racism, majoring in history and American ethnic studies (AES), with a minor in American Indian studies (AIS). “His rigor inspired his peers to delve deeper into the material and voice their opinions,” says AES associate professor Sonnet Retman, who describes Abrahamson as an “agile thinker” and “terrifically smart.” In June, Abrahamson was named Dean’s Medalist in the Social Sciences. The College of Arts and Sciences awards the Dean’s  Medal to one exceptional graduating senior in each of its four divisions.

Dustin Abrahamson, Dean's Medalist

"I decided that if I were to teach American history in high school, I would need to learn the history of racial tension in our country too often obscured and hidden," says Dustin Abrahamson. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Abrahamson doesn’t just study racism, he is committed to addressing it. As a board member for the UW wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ Intellectual House academic planning committee, he assisted with encouraging greater representation of American Indian students and scholarship on campus. He also worked at the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center and Theater and is helping develop a multi-media web platform to facilitate sharing and connections between students, faculty, and community members of color. For his history honors thesis, he examined four decades of American Indian activism at the University of Washington.

“Many white students feel powerless to improve the experiences of their classmates who are racial/ethnic minorities, but Dustin has faced this tension head on,” says AES assistant professor LaShawnDa Pittman. “In doing so, he has brought the kind of change to the world that he wishes to see.”

Below, Abrahamson answers six questions about his UW experience:

What led you to major in American ethnic studies and history?

I have been interested in these disciplines since high school, but it was after I read Black Power and the Politics of Liberation in America, by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, that I knew I wanted to study them in college. The book introduced me to black nationalist ideologies of resistance and showed me a different image of the social movements in the 1960s. From then on, I decided that if I were to teach American history in high school, I would need to learn the history of racial tension in our country too often obscured and hidden.

Dustin Abrahamson

"Dustin...has brought the kind of change to the world that he wishes to see,” says Professor LaShawnDa Pittman. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

What is the focus of your honors thesis?

The topic is American Indian activism at the University of Washington and what it means to indigenize academia. The paper covers more than four decades, from the storming of President Odegaard's office by the Black Student Union to the creation of American Indian Studies and the Intellectual House. It's about how, from 1968 to 2015, American Indian students, faculty, and community members have simultaneously engaged with and resisted the University of Washington's institutional structure in order to create Indigenous space within higher education.

Have UW faculty supported your efforts?

American Indian Studies faculty and staff have given a tremendous amount of support in lending me documents, agreeing to be interviewed, and giving me advice. LaShawnDa Pittman has helped tremendously as my mentor, and [history professor] Joshua Reid helped get the project off the ground, taught me how to write clear, convincing history papers, and helped me find sources.

You have been involved with the Intellectual House. What do you want the greater community to know about it?

I would like people to understand how the Intellectual House is intended to honor the long history of Indigenous peoples whose land the University resides on. It invites the campus community to engage in intellectual conversations about Indigenous history, art, linguistics, cultures, and contemporary issues in ways that respect and give space to Native points of view.

What’s the campus spot you’ll miss the most, and why?

The Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center and Theater (ECC/T). I have met some of the most incredible, passionate, and caring people there. The entire ECC/T community is full of socially aware, compassionate individuals who make sure every individual who visits feels welcomed and valued. The students there are each leaders in their own right, fighting to make this campus and society a better, more equitable place for everyone. The staff at the Center work hard every day to ensure that students are heard and that the building is a safe space. Truly, through the leadership and compassion exhibited at the Center, I have not only grown as a person but have found a home away from home.

What’s next for you?

I intend to become a teacher who integrates the histories of people of color, women, LGBTQ peoples, and Indigenous peoples into Washington public school curriculums.