Posted on April 12, 2005

The Truth About Teaching About Racism

Paul Lyons, Chronicle of Higher Education, Apr. 15

Several years ago I was asked to participate in a collegewide panel on racism. My initial reaction, based on innumerable experiences, was to decline. Too many such events are slanted in one direction: Members of minority groups talk about racism they have experienced; white participants are expected to respond with guilt, empathy, or something in between. Nevertheless, the organizers of the panel, both of whom I respected, argued that it was important that my voice be heard. So, with some reluctance, I agreed to participate.

My panel began with a white colleague delineating the racism within the criminal-justice system, followed by more-personal statements by black and Latina colleagues. Then it was my turn. I suggested that such dialogue worked best if we all agreed on several axioms. First, there is more racism in America than most white people are willing to admit. No controversy there; lots of uh-huhs and smiles. Second, over the past 40 years, since the civil-rights revolution, there has been considerable progress in diminishing racism; less uh-huhs, but no hostility. Then the third axiom: Some black people see racism when it doesn’t exist. Now the room, filled to capacity with more than 100 students and a few faculty and staff members, remained civil, but there were more furrowed brows and rolling eyes.

It was the fourth axiom that brought the house down on my head: Because of the progress noted in axiom two, and the complexities of axioms one and three, it is becoming increasingly difficult to assess when an allegation of racism is true. In fact, I added, because there are now so many divergent voices within the African-American community — a measure of the partial success of the civil-rights revolution — no one can claim to represent “the black voice” in defining racism. I gave lots of examples, bringing in the experience of women and a number of ethnic groups, to suggest that the dynamics addressed are inherent in a certain degree of progress.

Then came the last panelist, who expressed contempt for my argument, returning to what was clearly the dominant narrative of the conference: that racism is alive and well, indeed as bad as 40 years ago, perhaps even worse. Only now it is hidden, covered by a gloss of liberal sentiment.

The moderator opened the panel to questions from the floor. One undergraduate directed her query to me: If she felt that I had engaged in a racist act in my classroom and came to me to complain, what would I do? I told her I would take her allegation seriously, consider whether I thought it valid, and give her my most honest response. She was unhappy, even agitated, as were many in the room.

The student asked why I wouldn’t accept the truth of her allegation. Wouldn’t not doing so be racist? The atmosphere was getting heated, but I tried to answer her, believing her question sincere. I told her that I thought it harmful to automatically accept any allegation about my behavior, or anyone else’s. It risks corrupting people, since, given human behavior, it would lead to some false charges. True respect includes disagreement. If the student still wasn’t satisfied, she had other remedies, such as complaining to higher academic authorities. The session ended with several people, including one white colleague, screaming that I was being patronizing.