Not Just Us? Using Classrooms to Get (White) People to Talk about Race

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If a Black body falls in the streets of Baltimore (or Ferguson or Cleveland or Columbia, SC) and no person of color hears it, will a White person (not named Rachel Dolezal) make a sound?

As the country mourns under the shadow of recent racial strife, many rights leaders and activists are, once again, calling for a series of “courageous conversations,” conversations about race that some researchers suggest White people don’t want to have and don’t know how to have.

For White Americans, race is more than just a touchy topic; its one that can often elicit an array of sentiments: shame and anger, guilt and grief, blame and confusion. However, the ongoing tensions surrounding race in this country, which have been amplified by the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, The Emanuel 9, and so many others, should inspire a more open conversation on race. But how do we have it?

Why White People Don’t Talk About Race

Don’t get me wrong: There are many conversations about race and the various forms of racism happening throughout the United States. Most of them, however, are not happening among White people.

Barnabas Piper, author of “Why White People Don’t Like to Talk about Race,” suggests that White silence on the topic is a privilege that stems from having grown up mostly “unaffected by” or “unaware of” the racial divide. For Piper, this privilege does not always redound to bigotry. Rather it reflects the extent to which White people are “unexposed to minority cultures (not just Black, but all non-White cultures) and unaware of the complexities, difficulties, and hurts there.”

Dr. Robin DiAngelo, associate professor of critical multicultural and social justice education at Westfield State University, adds that when White people talk about race, they “implode.” Much of this subsidence, DiAngelo explains, derives from Whites being socialized as privileged, which, in turn, renders them “racially illiterate.” Put another way, White people don’t resist conversations about race, per se; they hold the privilege to opt-out because issues of race and racism rarely hamper their qualities of life.

As such, critical race scholars such as Julie A. Helling, an associate professor and director of the Law and Diversity program at Western Washington University, believe that it is unlikely that courageous conversations about race will occur in White homes and White homogeneous settings without public pressure and public space. And though Helling maintains, “We need to talk about the effects of racism in this country, the rac-ing of people in general, and affirm the positive and plentiful contributions of all cultures to this country,” questions remain as to where these important conversations should take place?

Advancing Conversations of Race in Classrooms

In March 2015, Starbucks Corp Chief Executive Howard Schultz made national news when he offered his coffee chain as a site for initiating a critical dialogue on race in the U.S., and a firestorm ensued. Aptly called “The Race Together” campaign, Starbucks employees (baristas) were given the option of writing “Race Together” on customers’ coffee cups to help start the dialogue. While some people appreciated the company’s effort, many others objected, arguing that Starbucks was the wrong venue to host race conversation and that its baristas were unqualified to lead the national discussion on race.

Some critics of “The Race Together” campaign suggested that classrooms, as opposed to Starbucks, were more appropriate (and safer) venues to discuss race. In a new book Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms, H. Richard Milner, director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh, suggests that the classroom serves as a tool for educators who want to talk about race. To his credit, Milner offers comprehensive, evidence-based approaches and practical classroom tips for introducing race dialogues into classrooms, though he warns “such conversations require planning and administrative support.”

In spite of efforts such as Milner’s, there remain skeptics who affirm that classroom time should be devoted to learning core academic skills, such as learning how to read, write, and calculate. However, Mercer Hall and Gina Sipley point out, race is a construct of social status and identity, critical to the development of all American youth. They maintain that as scenes of racialized violence chase our eyes and whispers of hate propaganda haunt our ears, we can no longer pretend that young people are immune to the effects of race because racial stressors exist in the minds and daily experiences of students. Accordingly, they argue, we would be remiss to pretend that student learning is not affected by their social and emotional states. Therefore, teaching tolerance, as Helling has maintained, is perhaps more important than teaching traditional subjects, whereas conversations of “race need [sic] to exist more, not less in classrooms.”

Talking Race in Classrooms . . . We Do We Go From Here?

Talking race in classrooms is about more than issues of black and white. It is about developing and nurturing better human beings. And, while race dialogues in classrooms might give White people an important space to engage in deep deliberations about racial bias in the U.S., the discussion itself will give all people a chance to inhabit a greater humanity.

In her 1992 article published in the Harvard Educational Review, Beverly Daniel Tatum writes about how all students can benefit from exploring race and that teachers should provide “a forum where this discussion can take place safely over . . . a time period that allows personal and group development to unfold.” In keeping with Tatum’s call, organizations such as Teaching Tolerance have created real models to help teachers advance conversations on race in their classrooms. One example they offer is a unit for teaching Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. The unit begins by asking, what is needed to participate in an open and honest conversation about race. What ensues is pedagogical magic.

Of course, there are other resources available, such as Jane Bolgatz’s book Talking Race in the Classroom, which demonstrates ways in which “good conversations are not simply a matter of speaking and listening.” According to Bolgatz, “one must view racial issues through a critical lens that attends to current and institutional aspects of racism” in ways that help students understand that various forms of racism have developed historically and can be contested.

Researchers from the University of Michigan offer a dialogic model for engaging courageous conversations about race. Their Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) is “a social justice education program” that “blends theory and experiential learning to facilitate students’ learning about social group identity, social inequity, and intergroup relations.” According to the group’s website, IGR offers youth dialogues on race and ethnicity as a way of fostering a more inclusive world.

While many models exist, there is no one single approach for discussing race. However, creating space in classrooms for such discussions do help. Regardless of race or ethnicity, we know, too, that discussing race and racism takes courage. “Courage,” as Winston Churchill said, “is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” And there may be no better to place today in which to enact courage than classrooms.

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David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the incoming Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

#Ask Rachel: What does it really mean to “act” Black?

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The day Rachel Dolezal, the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, decided to play loose with her own race, the day she complained about a “hate crime” that would later expose her as a liar, the day she took the minstrel show off the backstages of history, the day she reasoned that being Black was just another privilege of being White, the day she checked the Black box and stained her skin to matched the dark dye she spilled on the truth, on the day she declared that she was Black (not African American–she hates that term), Rachel Dolezal murdered any attempt that she might make to find solidarity with and in the Black community. She–no better than vigilantes or wayward cops, than hooded mobs and the overseer culture that produced them-lynched another Black body.

The type of lynching Rachel Dolezal performed deals less with physical violence than with the cosmetic apparatus of erasure. It is the same motive force operative in gentrification and other physical acts of removal, where folks of privilege invade and otherwise overtake spaces not belonging to them. In Dolezal’s case, the stolen space is the Black body–a body that is sun-bit though not hers, that bears scars of struggle from which history has thus far protected Dolezal.

Acting Black is not the same as being Black. Instead, it is a way of skimming the surface of Blackness, merely performing flesh without having to reconcile the bruises that lie beneath it. Indeed, it is a type of erasure, and what follows from this act of erasing can only be viewed as twisted and sick.

We have seen this kind of erasure play out over and again in history. In the heartbreaking case of First Nations’ people, not only were lands stolen, bodies also fell subject to this cruel carnival of theft. Hollywood, for example, has given us a history of White actors playing indigenous, and beyond the movie screen exists a dark and regrettable tradition of Whites claiming First Nations status.

Beneath these examples is a sordid tale of people who subjugate, occupy, and otherwise delete other people from history and then reinvent themselves in their place. The final injury of erasure, of fatal cultural appropriation, is viler than the first.

Some would find my characterization of Dolezal’s Black pose as extreme or harsh, considering instead Dolezal as a kind of cultural opportunists, someone benefitting from being Black. In this light, the story of Mindy Kaling’s brother, Vijay Chokal-Ingam, comes to mind. Ingam, who is the son of Indian immigrants, posed Black to take advantage of affirmative action policies to gain admittance into medical school.

In so doing, Chokal-Ingam sought to dramatized a silent narrative in American mainstream consciousness, that of “Black privilege.” Black privilege is the belief that Black Americans gain social advantages through policies such as affirmative action. Individuals like Chokal-Ingam, whose deep belief in Black privilege led him to pose as a Black medical school applicant named Jo-Jo, maintain that being Black can play a significant and positive role in the social advancement of otherwise unexceptional non-Blacks who might pass as Black.

However, there is an irretrievable flaw in the logic of “Black privilege.” Programs such as affirmative action, in fact, benefit non-Blacks as much as, if not more (especially in the case of White women), than they do Blacks. Another problem with the logic of Black privilege is the lofty, but statistically unsubstantiated, idea that Blacks are privileged. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

Black mortality rates around the globe are among the world’s highest. Unemployment, mass incarceration, poverty, employment and educational discrimination, racial profiling, and so on (in what feels like a never-ending list of constraints) suggest that, more likely than not, Blacks sit on the side opposite privilege. That is, in many (if not in most) indicators associated with social success, Blacks occupy the bottom. And among indicators associated with social failure, Blacks tend to sit atop. This isn’t what privilege looks like.

Programs such as affirmative actions are crumbs swept off the main table, given to the historically disfranchised, like pig intestines once were tossed to slaves to grovel over. So what Dolezal has done–in posturing herself as a Black woman to gain influence and perhaps even a job–can be compared to a privileged person who, though having access to the main table and the hearty course it affords, squats over and steals the crumbs (and even the chit’lins) from the less fortunate.

Let me put this in perspective: Dolezal’s story is little different than the story of Alicia Esteve Head, a Spanish woman operating under the alias Tania Head. Head claimed to be a survivor of the World Trade Center September 11 attacks and joined the support group World Trade Center Survivors’ Network. She later became a spokesperson and president of the group and was regularly mentioned in media reports of the attacks.

In 2007, the world learned that Head’s story was fabricated. She was not in the towers at the time of the September 11 attacks but had traveled to the U.S. for the first time in 2003. Once discovered, Head disappeared, only to resurface in 2010 at the White Plains, NY memorial. This time, she posed as Ester DiNardo, a supposed victim’s mother. Survivors and family members of those who perished in the September 11 attacks who knew Head personally speak of the incredible pain and sense of betrayal they felt when they learned Head was in imposter.

While the comparison might seem a reach to some, the sentiments of survivors and family members of those who perished in the September 11 attacks help to put the Dolezal scandal in perspective. Black Americans are, themselves, survivors of historic and continuing trauma. Therefore, the incredible pain and sense of betrayal stemming from Dolezal’s decision to act Black cannot be understated.

Even still, many people remain baffled over the immediate and deeply personal responses to Dolezal’s betrayal of both her race and mine. They wonder, what’s the big deal? If Dolezal wants to pose as Black, then let her. They reason that we live in a post-racial world where the so-called exaggeration of race as a static reality lends itself less to new and fluid imaginings than to the old, stale realities of race. There are some who even take this logic to the extreme, suggesting that Dolezal has perhaps set us on a course for new racializations–where we are not only post-racial but magically transracial, whatever that means.

Dolezal, and perhaps her defenders, will never fully get that being Black means having to carry the full weight of a history that daily scars you, pins you in hard-to-beat corners, and presses against your unyielding back the immensity of inequity. She’ll never understand that being Black means having to bandage and manage a thousand little cuts endured each day for simply being Black. She’ll never understand how being Black means convincing yourself (and too often the rest of the world) that you are good enough (i.e., Black lives matter) because you live in a world that constantly tells and actively teaches you the opposite.

Unlike acting Black, being Black means endurance. It means enduring the tragedies of loss–of sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, mothers and fathers and friends, who are sometimes literally and often prematurely snatched from your life. It means enduring the long journey to freedom, which you have heard about and, thus, still believe, though this place is mystical, set on the other side of some ecclesiastical horizon that you cannot always see.

It means being forced to live small in a big but stolen land, rich from the wealth of your people’s sweat and blood–their free but involuntary labor. It means being restricted to laws you never had a chance to make–laws that where, in fact, never made for you or to benefit you but to protect others from you while elevating them above you. It means dealing with the feelings of being trapped, the unsettling helplessness that sits violently in the soul after being violated, ripped off, and robbed.

Dolezal must know she isn’t Black. According to her adopted brother, “She puts dark makeup on her face and says she Black. . . . It’s basically blackface.” Hence, seeing Dolezal in blackface, knowing the painful history behind her familiar act, is like witnessing again the theft of Black culture. It’s like being forced to believe the story I was told as a child that the people who erected the pyramids at Giza were White. It’s like being forced to believe that Black musical art forms such as jazz and rock roll (and perhaps soon even hip hop) were invented and pioneered by Whites.

It’s what Black musicians prior to the 1970s must have felt when they wrote songs for Black artists only to hear them performed by others, or when they released albums only to see White faces glossing their album covers. It’s what Kendrick Lamar must have felt when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won the 2014 Grammy for Best Rap Album. It’s what Azealia Banks must have felt when she appeared on NYC’s Hot 97 and blasted Iggy Azalea for cultural appropriation (did she really “do dat”). It’s what so many of us feel when we know that some things just aren’t right, yet they happen anyway–and usually without consequence.

What feels most reprehensible about Dolezal’s act is that she has been close up; she’s been in my kitchen, so to speak. She’s had a proximity to Black struggles that most Whites will never have. This proximity must have given her some deep sense of our struggles. She attended Howard University (an HBCU) and presides over the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP. She teaches The Black Woman’s Struggle, African and African American Art History, African History, and African American Culture, and Intro to Africana Studies as a part-time instructor at Eastern Washington University. She must have become intimately familiar with the history of violations against Black bodies. She must have understood the damage that Whites posing as Black does to our people. She must have witnessed first hand the relentless pain of our people in its rawest and realest forms. She must have known.

Her actions–as deliberate as they may or may not have been–feel even more egregious in this light. Her being close to Black people, to the Black community, must have shown her that her actions were not okay but potentially harmful. In knowing us, one must ask, did she plan to hurt us? And if she did, how sad and how utterly sadistic was her acting Black.

Having spent considerable time in the Black community, she would also have known how forgiving we are. While being Black entails a kind of suffering, it also involves a permission to rise (i.e., a gift–or curse–to forgive). While it may take a few days or a few weeks or even a few years, we will forgive her.

So let’s pull back our stones so that she might go away . . . and act Black no more.
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David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the incoming Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.