Friday, February 24, 2012

Thoughts on Being White | Teaching Race at Texas A&M University

This is a cartoon I use to demonstrate the logic of
what we consider to be true about race
The conversations this week around the WUW? office have been all about the reality of race and the most effective way to discuss it. In January, I started teaching Introduction to Sociology - you know nurture instead of nature, critical thinking, C. Wright Mills, Weber, norms, culture and society.... blah blah blah. 
Cheesy picture about
race from the textbook

The conversations we have had in the class have been great - even better when you consider there are 110 students (As the semester goes on that number dwindles). This week we have been discussing race and ethnicity and it has been challenging but rewarding. 

From the time we enter elementary school we are explicitly taught that everyone is equal and that people are all the same no matter what color they are. But the real lessons are implicit.
In everyday conversations we are taught what it means to be American, moral, normal, and acceptable. Indeed, recently an ex VP of Proctor & Gamble reaffirmed the collective conscious of what it is to be considered a "real America" as he attacked President Obama in a recent blog post:
"You scare me because you did not spend the formative years of youth Growing up in America and culturally you are not an American." - Lou Pritchett, Former VP at P&G
Click here to read the rest of the article. 
The consequences of these implicit (or as they seem to becoming more explicit) lessons play out in our conversations about politics and economics. How we talk about education, poverty, affirmative action, government, voting rights, sports, and family are all part of the discourse that reinforces racial and ethnic stereotypes, prejudices, and racism. 

The problem is that we, "white" "Americans" in this case, have an inability to see the structural or systematic nature of racism in America that constrains our ability to speak about race. Steeped in the language of American exceptionalism, equality, hard work, the market, political correctness, and morality we have a hard time connecting the explicit lessons about how racism is bad and the implicit language that reflects a history of racial devastation. 
Indeed ,…, many Whites will deny the evidence even as it is presented to them, in part because they have never heard it before. Truths are difficult to face when they are as bloody as this countries deepest racial truths. - Joe Feagin 

As Joe Feagin says here, even in the face of statistics, after watching the disaster of Katrina, Jenna 6, Treyvon Martin, and even after James Byrd was dragged behind a truck in Jasper, Texas it remains difficult for whites to see or admit the existence of racism and inequality in America. Further, we lack the ability to connect contemporary events to the bloody history of race in America. More important, we lack the ability to connect the racist structure of American language, politics, economics, religion, and education  to income, crime, education, autonomy, and economic inequality.

Let's think of it this way:
1788 - The Constitution was ratified
1964 - The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed ending legal segregation

We are now in 2012 (captain of the obvious) which means the nation is 224 years old. Let's do some math here - 176 years or 78.6% of the life of America has been lived under slavery or legal segregation. 

It is 48 year since the Civil Rights Act was passed. 

- I am going to make a leap in my argument here but this is just a blog so I can do whatever I want -

Recognizing our history, we are forced to face the fact that we do not live in a post-racial society and that racism is just as alive today as it was in 1964. The difference is we don't kill black kids for looking at a white women (well... i guess now it is for wearing a hoodie or just for looking black), instead we segregate black kids into inferior schools, enforce mandatory minimums, and come up with clever economic terms like trickle down economics and talk about how in America you get what you deserve. Racism reveals itself everyday in regular conversation:

Lecturing about race is hard. It is hard to not be cheesy. It is hard to talk about it in a way that is honest but not insulting. It is hard to  step back and see how I perpetuate racism even as I teach it. It is hard to get white students to look at race and think about their subject position. It is hard to not alienate minorities in the class room. It is hard to teach because it is hard to talk about. 

In a previous blog, we asked whether or not whites are capable of creating a better world in regards to race. We still ask this question at the WUW? office and don't have an answer. What we have determined, is that in order to discuss anything about race we have to redefine terms, recognize what lies beneath the surface, and be honest with ourselves. 

In the end, by teaching race as a white male, I probably perpetuate racism as much as I fight it. But I think it is still important for whites to fight racism. I think it is more important to recognize the futility of our language and to recognize the damage that we do in the name of doing good. But we must still talk about these things because through these tough discussions we are able to move forward and grow as individuals and as a nation.

From our white perspective,


Luke Lockhart said...

I still find these conversations really difficult to have due to the fear that students can make accusations of "liberal bias."

Ryan Poehl said...

The WUW staff has done it again. Well done guys (or girls). Great article. Glad you're getting to guide young minds in this discourse.