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We All Have a Race Problem (and Need to Discuss It)

After a very divisive election, it seems that the maelstrom of online debates has only grown more violent on our social media feeds. From subtweets to 20-plus comment threads on Facebook, we are a clearly a nation devoted to righteously tapping our thumbs and clacking our keys.

Obviously, I'm not necessarily against that—I'm doing it now as I write this post. I only mean to say that many of us are becoming more engaged in discussion around recent topics in America and are navigating situations that are often sticky and emotional. In a lot of ways, I think that's a good thing. We can't move forward until we discuss those topics.

As I've skimmed these conversations, though, I've noticed the resurgence (or perhaps it's always been there and I've been blocking it out) of a popular phrase, "I'm not racist, but...". It's cousin, the defensive retort of "I'm not racist, how dare you?!", pops up as well.

Here's an important fact that, if you already read the blog (or perused the header), you may not need to hear, but it bears repeating: We are all struggling with race. We are all operating in a racist society. Perhaps, one could quote a famous Broadway song and hum that "everyone's a little bit racist."   

There are always a few interesting reactions to hearing that statement. Some folks read it, take a breath, nod and say, "Yup. So, now what do we do?" That's good. That conversation starts leading us towards work and, I hope, equity.

Some, however, clutch their pearls as they gasp in horror. They insist that they can't be racist, and how dare anyone make such an accusation? Others, such as the aforementioned song above, assert that this is true and so we need to accept it and move on. Neither of these move conversation forward. The former stops the discussion in its tracks; the latter complacently shrugs it shoulders and lets the status quo roll merrily along.

The issue, I think, may folks have with the belief that we are all struggling with race is that we have attached moral absolutes to the term. Jay Smooth discusses this in his excellent TEDxTalk, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race" (transcript).

As he points out: 

We deal with race and prejudice with this all or nothing, good person/bad person binary in which either you are racist or you are not racist. As if everyone is either batting a thousand or striking out every at bat. And this puts us in a situation where we're striving to meet an impossible standard. It means any suggestion that you've made a mistake, any suggestion that you've been less than perfect, is a suggestion that you're a bad person.

So we become averse to any suggestion that we should consider our thoughts and actions, and this makes it harder for us to work on our imperfections. When you believe that you must be perfect in order to be good, it makes you averse to recognizing your own inevitable imperfections and that lets them stagnate and grow.

When we see the term "racism" as a moral absolute, we add emotional baggage that gets in the way of having conversations that are really important. Instead, it's essential to understand that we all operate in a racist society, and doing so has made us all have problems with race. From Jay Smooth's talk:

...we all have unconscious thought processes and psycho-social mechanisms that pop up. There are many things in our day-to-day lives that lead us toward developing little pockets of prejudice, that lead us toward acting unkind to others, without having any intent to do so.

These are things that will just naturally develop in our day-to-day lives, so the problem with that all or nothing binary is it causes us to look at racism and prejudice as if they are akin to having tonsils. Like you either have tonsils, or you don't, and if you've had your prejudice removed, you never need to consider it again... But that's not how these things work; when you go through your day to day lives there are all of these mass media and social stimuli as well as processes that we all have inside our brains that we're not aware of, that cause us to build up little pockets of prejudice every day, just like plaque develops on our teeth. 

Dr. Beverly Tatum points this out as well in multiple writings and interviews (including "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and Other Conversations About Race):

Books, computer games, the Web, television—there are so many places that we can be exposed to stereotypes, that we can be exposed to distorted information. And there is a whole universe of information that we're not getting. Think about these stereotypes, these omissions, these distortions as a kind of environment that surrounds us, like smog in the air. We don't breathe it because we like it. We don't breathe it because we think it's good for us. We breathe it because it's the only air that's available.

And in the same way, we're taking in misinformation not because we want it... And it's so pervasive that you don't even notice it sometimes. In fact, a lot of the time you don't notice it.

We're all breathing in misinformation. We're all being exposed to stereotypes, and we all have to think about how we have been impacted by that. You sometimes hear people say there is not a prejudiced bone in my body. But I think when somebody makes that statement, we might gently say to them check again. That if we have all been breathing in smog, we can't help but have have our thinking shaped by it somehow. As a consequence, we all have work to do. Whether you identify as a person of color, whether you identify as a white person, it doesn't matter. We all have been exposed to misinformation that we have to think critically about.

Dr. Tatum also points out that, our actions can be racist without intending to (and, as an educator, this example spoke particularly to things I have done in my own classroom):

...there is a lot of behavior that also supports a system of advantage that we might describe as passively racist. For example, in education - if I am teaching a course in which I exclude the contributions of people of color, only talk about white people's contributions and only talk about white literature. And I never introduce my students to the work of African Americans, Latinos or Native Americans. I may not be doing that with the intention of promoting a sense of cultural superiority, but in fact the outcome of leaving those contributions out is to reinforce the idea that only white people have made positive cultural contributions.

I know a young woman who went to her English professor and asked, "Why is it that there are only white writers on our list? This is a 20th Century American Literature course. How come there aren't any writers of color?" Her professor, to his credit, was quite honest and said I'm teaching the authors I studied in graduate school. It wasn't malice on his part. He didn't wake up one day and say, "Over my dead body will there be writers of color on my syllabus." He was simply teaching the authors with whom he was most familiar.

The thing is, neither of these reactions is acceptable as educators. We are living in a time when race is an issue that is too important to ignore. Gene Demby writes in NPR's Codeswitch:

We've developed a whole grab bag of tortured terminology for contentious racial subject matter—racially insensitive, racially charged or just plain racial—to avoid committing to calling anything racist. The dangers here are obvious. Because active racial discrimination and inequality remain defining features of American life—in housing, in our schools, in our criminal justice system, in employment -- avoiding the word racist misrepresents the truth. The result is that racial issues have no meaningful distinctions, and racist in our mainstream discourse is defined only as something as extreme as the lynching of Emmett Till, or as an idea up for debate (Is THIS racist?), or as a phenomenon with no contemporary human vectors.

We see this, too, in our education system. As school climate worsens, we can't afford to stay silent on topics that are clearly affecting our students. As Jonathon Gold wrote for Teaching Tolerance, "Neutrality won't work in the face of bigotry, xenophobia and fearmongering..." We are clearly in a place where issues around race and power are playing out in the lives of our students. If we don't accept both this fact and our role in those issues, we cannot begin to move forward to fix the problem.

So, now what?

Besides the resources I've linked above, Stacey A. Gibson recently wrote a wonderful piece for ASCD about disrupting inequity and the silence about race. She provides a number of ideas and tangible sources (such as Teaching ToleranceEDUCOLOR, and Radical Teacher) to help us all self-educate and begin having the conversation. 

The first step, though, is actually two-fold. First, we have to shrug off either our complacency or un-clutch our pearls and lower our defense mechanisms. If we're so caught up in the idea of being "good people" that we can't see the forest for the trees about systemic issues, we won't be able to do the internal work to combat them. Then, we must be brave. Neither this realization nor this conversation is easy. But the consequences of ignoring it far outweigh the discomfort having it will bring. 

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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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