To the student in my race and ethnicity class who doesn't want to talk about race:
I feel we've come to a bad place in the semester. There are four weeks left. We're exhausted. We're bruised. We're hurt. We've hurt each other. I wish I could have prevented that. Maybe I could have. Or maybe there's no way for us to even approach an honest conversation about race without hurting each other. I don't know. I'm sorry, either way.
I've been reading your papers and a lot of you are upset about some of the anonymous comments that were made in class a few weeks ago. I am, too. At least one person in the class said that they think racism isn't a problem in the United States. They said we shouldn't talk about race. They said that they think talking about race only makes the situation worse.
It made some of you angry. It made me angry, too. It feels like nothing short of a slap in the face. It is a slap in the face to the experiences I've had, watching racism hurt and damage people I love. It is a slap in the face to my belief that we can only get better by talking about race–by being compassionately honest with each other.
I want to say to the person who wrote that, I'm sorry you're here. I don't understand why you're here. I don't know why you took a class on race and ethnicity if you felt that way. I wish it wasn't too late for you to drop. It must be painful for you to listen to a conversation that you believe is making things worse. You believe you are making the problem worse by being in this class. That must be a difficult situation to be in.
You're not alone in thinking this, of course. Morgan Freeman, the voice of God, no less, backs you up. He also said we should stop obsessing over race. Being black doesn't make him any more right. Being Morgan Freeman doesn't make him any more right. Both you and Morgan Freeman are wrong.
I'm not going to argue with you about whether racism is still a problem in the United States and around the world. We're over halfway through the semester and if what you've learned so far hasn't convinced you, nothing will. I've told you that though wealth is the great leveler in this country, the gap between the average wealth of white families and black families is not shrinking, but growing. Currently, a typical black household accumulates one-tenth the wealth of a typical white household. You know that Native Americans, with higher rates of suicide, alcoholism and diabetes, live on average five years less than other Americans, just one of the ways racism steals lives away. You've read that African-Americans are discriminated against in job hiring before anyone ever sees their face, just on the basis of having a name like Aisha or Jamal, instead of Emily or John. And if the studies and the numbers don't sway you, you've heard the stories firsthand from your fellow students. But you're still not convinced.
My only real hope for you at this point is that there's a lag effect happening here. This is the hope that many of us as teachers cling to in the face of occasional despair. Maybe someday in the future something will happen to you that will change your mind. Maybe eventually you will hear these conversations through more receptive ears. Maybe you will love someone who's hurt by racism. Maybe you will be hurt in some way yourself. I am not wishing this on you. But as a teacher, there's nothing else I can do for you now.
I don't know if any of you have noticed, but I am a white person. I am a white person in the most ordinary of ways. There is nothing that makes me particularly special or extraordinary as a white person. Nothing that makes me any less privileged in my whiteness.
Like many of you, I grew up in a small town with very few people who weren't white. I didn't grow up with a black president, but in many other ways our situations were the same. I saw black people when we drove into the city and I was taught to be afraid of them. There was an Asian-American girl in my school, and the only time we really much noticed she was different was when we made fun of her last name, because it sounded foreign and weird. No one stopped us from doing that, not even our parents. Native Americans were people with feathers in their hair or faces on the tub of butter. They may as well not have existed as real people at all. Hispanics were the men who were backside taking care of the horses at the racetrack where my mother worked. They were hard to understand. I learned Spanish in high school, but not really with any intention of being able to talk to those people.
That's where I come from. That's my legacy. So you might wonder why I'm here, feeling angry at some of you because you don't want to see your white privilege. Because you are clinging to it with so much energy that if you just let go, I feel we could power the whole of the planet for decades.
You might wonder, so let me tell you that there are a lot of reasons I'm here. James Baldwin is the one I want to talk about. None of you really read the syllabus, I know, but there's a quote from him on the first page. He was a writer and a civil rights activist. He was a master of the essay. He understood better than anyone what race is doing to us as Americans–to all of us. White people are not safe from its damages. It is not good for any of us. That is why I am here.
Partly because of James Baldwin, I believe racism is my problem. My problem. I claim it. It is not my problem because I am guilty. It is my problem because I am responsible. I didn't create racism. It's not my fault. But if I do nothing, I become a part of it. And it is not something I want to be a part of. I can make that decision. You can make that decision. We can all make that decision.
I know that it can be hard as a white person to read and talk about racism. It's hard for everyone to read and talk about racism, because it is an ugly thing. When we confront racism, we commit to staring into the face of something both repellant and familiar. It's hard for all of us, but what I know most about is what it's like to be white and I can understand the temptation of defensiveness for us white folks. Of resentment. Of feeling accused. I understand the lure of clinging to all the ways in which you, too, don't have it so good. I am more than familiar with the temptation to demonstrate your own oppression.
But it's time to grow up. Children make excuses. Children engage in competitions to one-up each other. You're not a child anymore. It's time to do better.
I saw Jesse Williamson tweeting about Ferguson on Twitter the other day and I want to tell you one of the things he said: "White people have played a crucial role in nearly every social justice movement in this country. Indifference is not your duty or heritage." I want to ask you, the white people in the class, what is your duty or heritage?
The way I see it, as a white person confronted with the history and continuing legacy of racial inequality in the world, there are two directions you can go. You can deny that reality. You can pretend to be color blind. You can argue that the Dallas Cowboys mascot is equally as offensive as the Washington Redskins. You can explain the fact that a black man has a one in three chance of ending up in prison compared to a white man's one in seventeen chance by saying that black men are more violent or more likely to use drugs, even in the face of contradictory evidence. To your classmate who was told by her white gran-pal at a local nursing home that she didn't even want to talk to her because she was Latina you might suggest to get over it. It's just an isolated incident. The fading racism of the older generation. If we just wait it out, you might say to her, it'll all go away.
There's no denying that's part of our heritage as white people. You'd be stepping right into the shoes of Bull Connor and others who fought against the civil rights movement with violence and brutality. You can ally yourself with those today who talk about the "race card" and believe that everything bad that's happened to them is attributable to affirmative action. You could pick up that torch. It's fairly easy. There are consequences–unpleasant ones–but they're harder to see. It certainly feels like a safe and comfortable way to go.
Or you can pick another legacy. A different heritage. That of John Brown, crazy as he may have been, who was willing to die to end slavery even though he was white. You can follow in the footsteps of Walter Francis White–a white man–who led the NAACP for over twenty years and helped hasten the end of segregation by raising the money that funded Brown v. Board of Education. You can look to the example of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who along with James Chaney, were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964 because they were working to secure black people's right to vote. You can decide that indifference is not your duty or heritage.
The second path isn't easy. It can be fairly dangerous. It's not comfortable. It means you will have hard conversations. It means you will often be exhausted and discouraged. It looks on the surface to be a fairly simple choice. Easy versus hard. Comfortable versus dangerous. It looks like a no-brainer, I know.
But then there's James Baldwin, whispering in my ear: "Whoever debases other is debasing himself." When you deny the suffering of others, you end up diminished yourself. Like everything else I've said, you can believe that or not. I am certain it is truth.
So, those are the stakes and that's the question we're left with–what is our legacy going to be? After you've sat in this class for fourteen weeks, the excuses are gone. Maybe as a white person, you didn't know before. You really did believe the struggle was over. But from here on out, to go on believing that is a choice, and not a default position. What are you going to choose?
Think about it. There's still some time left in the semester. Take a look at the syllabus. Decide whether you're going to claim racism as your problem. Your responsibility. Try it on for size. Think about what it might mean. Contemplate your legacy, the heritage you'll leave for your children. Your grandchildren.
It's a hard thing we're doing here together. There are dangers and risks. But maybe it can still be worth it in the end.
"Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world."
— James Baldwin, "The Fire Next Time"
Robyn Ryle is a writer who also teaches sociology at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. She thinks the world would be a better place if more people read James Baldwin. You can find her on Twitter, @RobynRyle.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]