“Mr. Wright, are you racist?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “I’m a White man in America. What else could I be?”
So began a piece I wrote recently that has garnered some fascinating, helpful and necessary feedback.
I am humbled and deeply thankful for the feedback people have given.
Before I go on, I must name that I am not an expert on this topic.
I have no advanced degrees in race, racism, race theory or the like.
I am, first and foremost, a teacher and a learner and while I do have experience and expertise in teaching, specifically in teaching high school-level English and empowering students in their abilities to read and write, I do not write to tell others how to be, feel or think.
I write to share my own experiences, such as they are.
I want to thank Matthew Kay for his salient insight. He correctly wrote, “Imagining well-meaning people implementing this shock move and mismanaging this moment gives me nightmares.”
Let me be crystal clear: If you are a new teacher and/or have not worked very hard to create a classroom space founded upon genuine respect, honesty, safety and coded rules of engagement, do not do what I did.
While I wouldn’t necessarily classify my answer to my student’s quest as a “shock move,” what I should have made clear to readers was that I had been in that school community for nearly a decade. I had, to that point, taught nearly every 12th-grader the school had ever had. I was known. Furthermore, I was incredibly intentional in constructing a classroom wherein my answer would empower, encourage and validate, rather than shock or harm.
My classroom was fast-paced, urgent and rigorous. It was specifically scaffolded and supportive. Lessons were geared to build reading, writing and critical thinking skills and used high-level, engaging texts to do so. I constructed questions aimed to get students to connect our studies to their individual experiences. I worked to present lessons in such a way that students would have a hard time deciphering my specific politics, while at the same time questioning their own by considering alternative viewpoints.
I taught my students to embrace struggle, find opportunity in mistakes and value growth.
I shared parts of my life with my students. They knew I was married with two children. They knew my oldest child has autism and knew many of the struggles I had raising a child with special needs.
It took months and months of intentional work to allow that student to have the courage to ask her question.
And, for clarity, this was not an isolated experience.
For years, I’ve taught canonical texts like “Macbeth,” “Hamlet,” “Frankenstein,” “The Stranger,” “Crime & Punishment,” “Brave New World,” “Oedipus Rex,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Beloved,” “The Street,” “New Jim Crow,” “The Bluest Eye,” “Passing,” “Recitatif,” “Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and countless excerpts from Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and other philosophers.
So, for lack of a better way to say it, our class discussions got real.
What Does It Mean to Be Racist?
Being asked if, as a White man, I thought I was racist, was not only an experience that happened almost every year, it was a topic that resurfaced again and again.
Why? Aside from the fact that I’m sure there was something valuable for students seeing their teacher demonstrate vulnerability, most of students vehemently disagreed with me.
My answer led to deeper conversations and investigations.
And very often, our conversations came down to what a lot of my readers asked in response to my last piece. What exactly do we mean when we say racism? What does it actually mean to be racist?
Again, I am no expert. I defer to the likes of Robin Diangelo, Michelle Alexander and others.
Here’s what Robin Diangelo has to say on the similarities and differences of the terms “prejudice,” “discrimination” and “racism.”
According to Diangelo, “Prejudice is pre-judgment about another person based on social groups to which that person belongs…All humans have prejudice; we cannot avoid it.”
We all do this. It is a part of our hard-wiring as human beings to classify people and things into categories. It is a mental process that happens almost automatically, and is often used for good.
Discrimination is what happens when we turn our prejudice into actions. “These actions include ignoring, exclusion, threats, ridicule, slander and violence.”
And, particularly as teachers, discrimination arises in far more subtle, yet no less impactful ways.
Discrimination occurs when my prejudice impacts my choices on what texts to assign, what expectations to hold for my students, how I engage with families and not least how I understand and respond to student behaviors.
So what, therefore, is racism?
The transformation of discrimination into racism, again according to Diangelo, comes with the addition of societal power. “When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individuals.”
This analogy can help.
Whereas Whiteness in America has used its power to legislate and codify its collective prejudice into law (think the Three Fifths Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act, Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, et. al), a person of color cannot do this. “A person of color may refuse to wait on me if I enter a shop, but people of color cannot pass legislation that prohibits me and everyone like me from buying a home in a certain neighborhood.”
So, back to the original question.
“Mr. Wright, are you racist?”
Well, I am a human, so I know I am prejudiced.
I also know that my prejudices can and oftentimes do, despite my best efforts, translate into action.
My choice of where I live and where I send my children to school, for example, are actions founded, at least in part, upon prejudices. Thus, those are discriminatory choices.
So, am I racist? I don’t know.
But here’s what I know for sure. I have and continue to benefit from the privileges afforded to Whiteness.
My life may have struggles and complications, but my Whiteness does not exacerbate or cause those struggles and challenges.
I also know that many choices I make contribute to the maintaining of racist systemic structures, perhaps none more so than choosing to buy a home in a neighborhood aligned to my prejudices of quality schooling for my children, a system rooted in racism and exclusionary access.
So what can we do?
I don’t know. Again, I’m not an expert.
But I’m learning. I refuse to let my supposed ignorance pose as an excuse for sitting on the sidelines of the conversation.
Diangelo here makes another thoughtful analogy.
Imagine you were sick and didn’t know anything about your illness. What would you do? You would learn about it. “You would care enough to get informed. So consider racism a matter of life and death (as it is for people of color), and do your homework.”
But learning feels ineffectual.
I want solutions. I crave next steps. If there’s a problem, then let’s solve it.
But, as was pointed out to me recently, that is the privileged stance of someone who has yet to confront problems for which there is no fix.
This frustrates me greatly, which tells me that I, of course, have more to learn.
Thank you all for engaging in this conversation. That, at least, is a start.