Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Raise Your Hand If You Are Racist": Sitting with Discomfort

It's the hardest but best thing white students can do: not fleeing conversations about race.

Last night, the multiracial/biracial student group put on an event about race, identity, and our personal responsibility around issues of race. The students began by putting two questions to the crowd of 50+ people, which included students, administrators and faculty:

"Raise your hand if you are racist." About a quarter of the room raised their hand.

"Raise your hand if you believe we live in a racist society." Everyone raised their hand.

The student facilitator explained that this disconnect is what the discussion was meant to investigate: why is it that people are comfortable talking about racism when it's at a structural or institutional level, but less willing to look at our own role in perpetuating racism?

It was a fantastic discussion because we were encouraged to sit through and look at our discomfort, our prejudices, and for the white people in the room, our racism.* The double-edged sword of such an authentic, raw and revealing conversation like the one we had was that it was a hard pill to swallow for some. About 5-7 students left early, and almost all were white.

I could relate to their feelings of discomfort and fear. In my undergrad years, I never took a class that was explicitly about race. In graduate school, I signed up to take a course on Critical Race Theory, but dropped the class after going once. I told myself it was because the first class was disorganized, because I already had four other classes, and that I'd just join the student CRT group and learn about the critical race frame through that context.

Some of those things might have been true. But if I'm being really honest with myself, I was also scared. Scared because there would be a lot of people in the class who would know more than me. Scared because I'd really have to look racism is the face, non-stop, for a whole semester. Scared because I might find out how I was racist.

Since then, my fears have been morphing into something more productive, thanks to all I've learned from the Harvard CRT student group, from incredible colleagues and students at MIT and Vassar, from the Creating Change conference put on by the Gay and Lesbian Task Force (in particular the session I posted about last year), from Adrienne Keene's blog Native Appropriations, and from my own self-education (shout-out to bell hooks). I more actively seek out topics that scare me and try to let myself be okay with being uncomfortable.

I so admire the students who can do this in college--even those who can't yet stay for the full length of a difficult conversation on race--because it took me until I was 26 to start these baby steps towards racial consciousness.

*I don't believe people of color can be racist. People of color could potentially be prejudiced against other racial groups, but racism consists of both prejudice and power. Since white people as a group can and do exert power over other racial groups in this country (hellooo prison industrial complex, the state of public schools which educate the majority of black and brown students, generations of oppression which affect current chances, etc. etc. etc.), and people of color do not systematically oppress white people, I believe the word racist can only be applied to white people. Check out Tim Wise, Will Shetterly and an interview with Beverly Tatum for more on these topics.

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