Talking about talking about race
Over my time at CC, I’ve taken most of my classes in humanities and social science departments, where intersectional identities and racist systems of inequality are frequent topics of discussion. After class, I often find myself processing, alone or with friends, how the conversation went– what we said, how we presented ourselves, how the impact of everyone’s participation (or lack thereof) was influenced by their positionality in the classroom. Especially in the English department, I’ve done my fair share of complaining about people’s academic flexing, and white boys’ long and often problematic anecdotes only loosely connected to whatever books we are reading. But this Monday was the first time I’ve had a formalized discussion in class (which is called “From Multicultural Education to Critical Pedagogy: Civil Rights in U.S. Public Education”) about how conversations about race can play out in classrooms, often in unproductive and harmful ways.
I would first like to point out that I am a white student, and most of our conversation, which focused on the impacts of white fragility on discussions about race, spoke directly to me, allowing me to critically reflect on how I participate in class. This was likely old news to many other people, and I wish that we had read and talked more about the experiences of people of color and discussions about race and racism that are free from the constant influence of whiteness. Yet, as our professor pointed out, roughly 80% of the teaching workforce in U.S public schools is made up of white women, so the impacts of white fragility on classroom conversations have likely saturated most of our school experiences. The texts we read and talked about (including excerpts from White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, and Race Talk by Derald Wing Sue) explicitly named things I have felt and done, noticed and not noticed, in conversations both within and outside of the classroom.
We discussed the fact that many white teachers, both in K-12 and higher education, feel ill-equipped to facilitate conversations about race, and may avoid the topic entirely, or mishandle discussions. Whiteness and white supremacy, thus, become unstated ghosts upheld through classroom interactions, often in the name of Eurocentric constructions of “politeness.” Even in classrooms which claim to be dedicated to multicultural education and inclusive curriculum, these conversations can be deemed taboo or controversial, and often do not happen at all. Race is scary and uncomfortable to talk about for white folks because it can reveal our unearned privileges and unconscious biases. Ultimately, white people, especially at an institution like CC, are terrified of being called racist. As was talked about in the readings, and as I’ve seen in myself and others, they can often manifest this fear in harmful ways– by withdrawing from conversations about race, getting defensive, reacting with overly-emotional guilt that is burdensome to everyone listening (and paints the crying white girl as the victim of “attack” from anyone who calls her out), or talking way too much in an effort to prove just how ardently not-racist they are. This puts students and teachers of color in the tokenizing position of having to explain, represent, and comfort in the face of overwhelming white fragility, a point that I have heard brought up time and time again across campus, but that never seems to change. And it probably won’t, until CC continues to take critical steps to diversify and support students of color, and white students who take part in classroom discussions take a good hard look in the mirror. I learned through this lesson that, as a student, family member, friend, and employee, explicit conversations about conversations are important, and require a constant cycle of work and self-reflection.