|Image from University of Wisconsin Duluth-Superior‘s Un-fair Campaign*|
I was reminded of this attending NCORE (the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education) in New Orleans this month. In a session on the experiences of African American women in higher education, a young black professional E shared that her white supervisor frequently interrupts her and laughs at her serious observations or suggestions. E went to speak with her supervisor privately to constructively discuss how she felt belittled when her supervisor behaved in this manner. Her supervisor became defensive and asked E to leave. As she opened the door to show E out, she became weepy, saying "how could you do this to me?" in earshot of other employees.
In that weepy moment, the supervisor became the victim, further de-legitimizing E and her valid feedback.
Now in that situation, the supervisor was being actively manipulative with her crocodile tears. But even authentic tears--like those of students in the aforementioned professor's class--can be an effective silencer of the experiences and perspectives of people of color. For white people, the pull to be defensive when faced with race-related critiques of any kind is very strong. We have to actively resist our selfish impulse to protest, "not me! I'm not racist!" because that can plug up our ears to the truth and validity of people of color's experiences in a racist society.
Take for example, what happened to me at the LGBTQ Caucus at NCORE. That session ended up being one of the most raw, intense and amazing conversations about race and the LGBTQ community I have ever been a part of. The organizers had us first split us up into a people of color group and a white group to have two separate, intragroup conversations. We then reconvened for an intergroup conversation, sharing what we had discussed and digging into some of the painful truths that frequently do not get discussed in mixed race LGBTQ groups: that many white LGBTQ people incorrectly believe that their LGBTQ identity gives them insight into what being a racial minority is like and that we give ourselves credit for being allies to communities of color without doing the work.
And let me tell you, my white person reflex to get defensive came on so strong! But I resisted it. I let the group's frustration and sharp critiques wash over me, thinking "okay," "yes," and "thank you." I want to be called out. I want to know what I am doing wrong. I want to know how to do better in being a true ally to my LGBTQ POC family. And I won't be able to get there unless I am ready to handle the painful truth that I am not doing nearly enough in either my professional or personal life to truly listen to and support LGBTQ people of color.
All white people who work in higher education should seriously consider attending NCORE, especially those of us who work in predominately white institutions. We white people who have had the privilege of not having to think about our race on a daily basis can gain so much from having extended conversations about race and ethnicity and how they play out in higher education, as well as in our own lives. I hope I'll see you there next year!
*I was searching around for an image to go with this post and found this arresting campaign--will have to learn more and perhaps the Un-fair campaign will need a post of itself... More info and images from the campaign here if you want to check them out.