“Mr. Wright, are you racist?”
My West Philadelphia classroom, which had been filled with the sounds of shuffling papers, squeaking chairs, and the quintessential high-paced chatter of teenagers, got quiet. Students who had been in a hurry to get to their next period class suddenly found time to linger. Eyes found mine. Others looked at the brave soul who had asked such an important and necessary question. Other eyes looked down, eyes averted, but ears aquiver.
“Absolutely,” I said. “I’m a White man in America. What else could I be?”
I’ve told this story before and oftentimes people are not pleased with my answer, let alone the fact that I was asked such a question in the first place.
Some have even asked me whether I punished the student in some way, either with detention or a point deduction.
Of course not. That would be insane.
First off, children ask shocking questions all the time, it comes with the territory of being a teacher.
And secondly, this wasn’t a shocking question. It wasn’t shocking to the student of color who asked it while living in a nation defined by and founded upon principles of white supremacy, nor was it likely shocking to the classroom of students, all of whom students of color, who had spent nearly their entire school careers being taught by white people who may or may not have cared about them.
I’ve come to understand that the question is mostly shocking to white people and thanks to Robin DiAngelo and her absolutely necessary book, “White Fragility,” I think I’m beginning to understand why.
Among the many, many, many lessons to be found within her book, DiAngelo describes what she calls the good/bad binary that prevents White people from acknowledging their racism. Since the Civil Rights era, we have generally equated racism with being bad. Therefore, to be good, we cannot be racist(s).
DiAngelo explains that, from the White perspective, “To suggest that I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow—a kind of character assassination. Having received this blow, I must defend my character and that is where all my energy will go—to deflecting the charge, rather than reflecting on my behavior.”
That feeling of being morally attacked is real, viscerally so.
I remember the silence of the classroom when my student asked whether or not I was racist.
I remember feeling my heart quicken, my face redden, and the beads of sweat appearing on my brow.
I remember the instinctual defense posture kick-in and felt the words form on my lips, the words that would preserve my precious self image as a good person, a White person on the right side of history, able to smugly look down my nose on “those” racist people with their confederate flags and Trump stickers.
And then I remembered to breathe. I looked at the classroom of children who deserved nothing less than the truth. I couldn’t lie and tell them I wasn’t racist just so that I could preserve my supposed racial innocence.
Nor could I allow any student of mine to live with the false presumption that I was not racist simply because I taught in a nearly all-Black school.
As DiAngelo so bitingly lays bare, “If, as a white person, I conceptualize racism as a binary and I place myself on the ‘not racist’ side, what further action is required of me? No action is required, because I am not a racist. Therefore, racism is not my problem; it doesn’t concern me and there is nothing further I need to do.”
Had I lied and assured my students that no, their teacher was not a racist White person, then I would have been placing my self-worth above their right to justice and truth, ensnaring us all in the lie that I somehow had no racial work to do.
The student’s question, therefore, raises a frightening, true, and necessary paradox.
Am I racist?
If I answer yes, then I am.
If I answer no, then I am, but am also too cowardly to face it.
There is a lesson here, for White people generally, and White teachers specifically.
The first step in fighting for justice, equity, and antiracism in our classrooms and our societies, is admitting that we are, simply through our upbringing within American society, racist. White Fragility reminds us that “stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them. We do have them, and people of color already know we have them.”
That’s why the question wasn’t shocking.
Most of us in Room 103 already knew the answer.
What we didn’t know was whether or not I had the courage to admit it.