I have a very modest goal for (me and) my white colleagues:
A modest goal, for sure. But a necessary one, and one that will allow us to move forward.
Each of these posts is by a Black (/Latino) writer, with teachers as (at least) part of the intended audience, and each calls out racism in schools. (And sexism—for which I have an equivalent goal for my male colleagues—it shouldn’t be hard to reread this post replacing race with gender wherever it appears.)
When white people read this writing, there is an instinctive reaction that begins and ends with Not all white people. That is the defensive response I hope we can do away with.
Here’s the problem with that response: Racism is not about white people’s understanding of the nuances and varieties of white people. It is about the lived experience of people of color.
“Not all white people” is a racist response.
“Not all white people” denies the experience of the writer.
“Not all white people” cuts off further conversation about race.
This leads me to a second claim.
Refusing to discuss race is a racist act.
There is a certain brand of white liberalism, for example, that believes noticing race to be a racist act. This view makes it impossible to talk about race.
In such a climate, asking a colleague what he knows about Somali culture in a quest to better understand a classroom incident is called into question as an act of racism because some white people engage in the same behaviors, and therefore there should be nothing to ask about. In such a climate we cannot speak of the vastly differential racial demographics of developmental math courses and College Algebra courses at the college level. To do so is seen as racist. Because—after all—we give the same placement tests to everybody.
Now a question for my white colleagues: Why is “racist” that rare varitey of action that we allow the power to define us?
We can live with duality in other areas of our lives: I did/said a ___ thing, but this does not make me a ___ person.
I have done many stupid things in my life, and I accept the potential for doing more stupid things in the future. Yet I am not a stupid person. I am comfortable owning that something I did was stupid. I can wish that I hadn’t done that stupid thing. But I don’t let the stupid thing define me.
Furthermore, it is OK to talk about how stupid something I did was, and the goal in talking about it is to ensure that I don’t do something that stupid again—or at least to eliminate this particular brand of stupidity from my repertoire.
But we treat racism differently. We pretend that only racists do racist things. (Again, do only stupid people do stupid things?) Therefore, we cannot own our racist actions. If we admit that we have done, thought or said something racist, we become racists.
This mindset—this inability to speak of our racist actions; to name them (even the inadvertent ones) as racist—keeps us from being able to talk about our mistaken ideas and actions. But talking about them would help us to avoid perpetuating and repeating them.
You don’t need to own the racism of your fellow white people. You don’t need to identify as a racist because someone else has done something racist, nor even because you have.
You need to (I need to) honor the experiences of others. When a racist incident is brought to your attention, you need not to explain that “not all white people…” or that you have not experienced this. Doing so puts the focus back on you as a white person (which, again, is a racist act; and which, again, you—I—can own as an act without needing to own the title racist).
See, you don’t need to explain the experience of others away. Instead you need to listen. You need to acknowledge that racist acts are committed in the world, and that our goal is to reduce and ultimately to eliminate their incidence. Pretending—through denial or through silence—that racist acts do not exist is itself a racist act. Pretending—through denial or through silence—that racist acts have no relevance is a racist act. Pretending that racist acts can only be committed by people who are racists through and through—this is not an effective means to the end.
I understand that my goal is modest: Reading accounts of racism, written by people of color, without becoming defensive. But we have ample empirical evidence that the goal has not yet been attained, and it is clear to me that moving forward to really dealing with racism is impossible in its face.
Achieving this goal allows us to listen.
And listening—to our own hearts, and to the hearts and experiences of others—is where learning begins.