A Note to My Fellow White People

I haven’t talked openly about race or racial difference on this blog before, but I actually think about it a lot. One of the most damning legacies of our racist history has been systematic libel against the minds of black and brown children (and adults for that matter). Meanwhile, in our culture, math is the ultimate signifier of intelligence. So the math classroom has heightened power, both to inflict injustice and to rectify it. Given this, plus the diversity of teachers and students, a comfortable cross-race conversation about racial matters is a must for the profession. In the spirit of contributing to that conversation, I offer

A Note to My Fellow White People

Guys, we have to chill out a little. It has to be possible for somebody to say to you, “that was ignorant,” or “that was racially offensive,” or even “that was racist,” without you flipping out, getting offended or defensive, or needing to be reassured you are not a horrible person. It’s not a good look, on any level: it’s not dignified, and it makes it impossible to have a productive conversation about race across racial lines.

I was at a cafe a couple months back trying to get some schoolwork done when I found myself distracted by a profoundly uncomfortable conversation at the next table. There was a white man in his early 50s and two black women, one close to his age and one closer to mine. They seemed to be sharing a familiar and friendly meal. Things started to go south when the man admitted to being afraid of a young black man on the street. The younger of the women said something to the effect of, “you might have work to do on that.”

Her tone was warm: she wasn’t being accusatory but rather seemed to be offering her words in the spirit of holding her friend to a high standard. But the man immediately became anxious, although his face and words were all smiles and jokes. His first response was that white people make him more uncomfortable than black people, as though he could re-establish his lost racial coolness with sufficiently loud declamations of prejudice against white people.

The women weren’t having it. “You’re being ignorant against white people now.” I interpreted their response as saying, “you can’t get off the hook with this diversionary tactic.” But he kept trying. His anxiety was as audible to me as a fire alarm, even when he wasn’t talking. I tried to concentrate on my math but I couldn’t get anything done.

Things stayed in this state, a tense, anxious impasse overlaid by a thin layer of too-eager conviviality and jokes, for about 20 minutes, till they got up to leave, no noticeable progress having been made in the conversation. At this point the man, in that same overly-eager joking tone, almost-but-not-quite-explicitly asked for reassurance that everybody was still his friend. They gave him the reassurance. On their way out, the younger woman leaned over to my table and apologized for her “ignorant friend.”

I’m not telling you this story to put the man down or call him ignorant. I don’t remember the context of the conversation and I don’t have my own opinion about it. Also, I think in all likelihood he’s a completely nice and decent person, and so are the women.

The point of the story is the man’s intense anxiety at being put on the spot racially, and the way that anxiety dominated both the conversation and its goals (so that what started as an attempt to raise consciousness was aborted, and turned into a reassurance fest), and the social and public space (so that the younger woman felt the need to apologize to a neighboring table).

Now I don’t fail to have empathy for him. If you are a white person with a modicum of sense and decency, you know that you are the beneficiary of an unjust history. (Shout out to Louis CK.) Just knowing that you’re benefiting is already a little uncomfortable to begin with. Feeling like you might be participating in that injustice can make the discomfort acute. I’ve been there many times.

But, guys, we’ve got to get it together! It is necessary to learn how to be with that discomfort and still function. First of all, the story I just told you is about a grown-a** man! Trying to prove how un-racist you are, and then needing to be coddled and preened so that you know the trouble is past, is unbefitting of the dignity of an adult. So is any other response aimed at removing the source of your discomfort rather than tolerating it – throwing a fit, acting defensive or offended, etc. Shouldn’t we aspire to some grace here?

Secondly, it makes it impossible for the conversation to advance! If we want to avoid participating in injustice we have to be willing to tolerate the possibility that we already are participating. Otherwise how will we learn what to avoid? In the anecdote I’ve recounted here, the man’s anxiety shut down the ability of the conversation to make any progress. He was blessed with friends who were willing to hold him to a higher standard and he was too busy freaking out to get the benefit of that! The bottom line question is, would you rather spend your time and energy proving how un-racist you are, or would you actually like to learn how to make the world better?

All of this puts me in mind of a much more public incident. In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech at the Dept. of Justice Black History Month program in which he said that Americans are afraid to talk about race and called upon us to do better. Multiple commentators immediately jumped down his throat.

Thereby proving his point.

The Attorney General made an effort to hold the nation to a higher standard. At the time, we didn’t react with grace or manifest any interest in growing.

How about now?

Featured comment

Aiza:

IMO the best thing white teachers, or any teachers who find themselves teaching classes of black/brown students can do is to constantly hold their students to the same high standards they would hold their own biological children to. Giving these kids a high standard education is one of the few ways to equip these kids to deal with racism.

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14 thoughts on “A Note to My Fellow White People

    1. I heartily second the book recommendation to anyone reading. It’s a beautiful articulation of math education for black and brown children as a civil rights struggle analogous to the voter registration struggle of the 60s. But since one of my goals in this post was to be a little challenging to my audience, let me challenge you a little – it’s not actually “on the subject” at all. The subject is white people getting comfortable with the discomfort of serious conversation about race. Would it be presumptuous of me to wonder if that very discomfort might be why you’re changing the topic?

      (By the way, I just had a look around your blog and really enjoyed it.)

  1. Ben Blum-Smith, you’re a dear. Do you have any stories of opening up this sort of conversation in math class? I try to let my students know that I’m aware of race as an issue, and that I care about it. Sometimes I see them being glad about it. But we haven’t had much in the way of conversation about it.

    1. You know, to be honest Sue, to my shame I don’t! During my years 2000-2007 as a full-time classroom teacher, my (very few) attempts to explicitly bring my civil rights consciousness into class were awkward and ambivalent on my part. I feel much better equipped to do it now, but I don’t have a classroom anymore!

  2. I am usually able to talk about it in the classroom when it does come up. On the other hand, I haven’t been able to have in depth conversations with students. It is such a complex topic that a few general statements aren’t helpful enough. A short discussion also doesn’t serve the purpose, since opinions (especially student opinions) need to be heard, so those can be discussed.

    It’s a tough one. I don’t have any fantastic ideas for it either.

  3. “If we want to avoid participating in injustice we have to be willing to tolerate the possibility that we already are participating.”

    I think this is the hardest part, because the act invariably attempts to make the white person feel like a jerk, which is something, we humans attempt to avoid.

    I’ve been able to have some good conversations about race with my students. I think they feel like they’re letting me in on a secret when we talk about it.

    Thanks for posting the conversation!

  4. Thanks for this post Ben. I have had many frank discussions about race with Asian friends and coworkers and I think that’s because they don’t feel like their answers will be grounds for future lawsuits nor do they feel the burden of history a.k.a “white guilt.” I learned a lot from them because they were very frank and honest. I’ve only had one frank discussion with race with a white person and he was a close European friend. IMO the best thing white teachers, or any teachers who find themselves teaching classes of black/brown students can do is to constantly hold their students to the same high standards they would hold their own biological children to. Giving these kids a high standard education is one of the few ways to equip these kids to deal with racism.

  5. Beautiful post. I’m excited that you’ve raised these issues here, also because I see it as a precursor of your future career and all the amazing good you can do in the world, with your powers and sensibilities.

    I do have a classroom right now (one in “theatre” and another in “acting”), and in one of them I will be teaching some materials that will make race more explicit than before. As part of the fabric of US culture, race is always present in the classroom. Several years ago, when I was just starting to teach, I tried to tackle a subject that was explicitly about race, and I have to say I did it poorly. I’m going to try again now and, like you, I hope and think I am better equipped to do it. The one major lesson I took from my previous attempt, and from thinking and talking and reading since then, is to use the narrowness of the specific materials presented to ground and insulate the conversation.

    In a course that’s on something allegedly independent of race, like math or theatre, the explicit appearance of race opens up a potentially enormous area of discussion, laced with intense feelings. This can be overwhelming and I think my main goal this time around is to avoid being overwhelmed, and protect my students from being overwhelmed, by keeping the discussion focused on the materials presented—just as I do with other topics. In other words, we are not discussing “race in the US” today—that would be absurd. We are discussing two plays and comparing how they present and deal with race onstage.

    It’s great to draw connections between the materials and our own lives, or with pop culture, etc.—but this can backfire if the conversation opens up too rapidly and loses focus. I’m posting this because I’d love to hear thoughts or advice from others who have successfully fostered conversations about race in the classroom—especially in disciplines like math and theatre that historically have avoided dealing with race. (I hope and imagine that the conversation would be further along in history or sociology.)

    But I really wanted to respond to something else you wrote: “One of the most damning legacies of our racist history has been systematic libel against the minds of black and brown children (and adults for that matter). Meanwhile, in our culture, math is the ultimate signifier of intelligence.”

    I see the relationship between these two points as a kind of dilemma for activism—one that I’ve been pondering a lot recently. Obviously, one crucial task is to fight the libel mentioned in the first sentence. But if we do that through, for example, an argument to expand and improve math education, then we don’t question the assumptions described by the second sentence. As someone invested in subjugated knowledges, I don’t feel it’s sufficient to make dominant knowledges like math available to subjugated populations. I also want to overturn the epistemology that says math is more important (or more epistemic) than, for example, song and dance. But here is the dilemma for epistemic activists: If one argues for the intelligence of subjugated populations on the basis of subjugated knowledges, then those who accept the primacy of math will think that one is simply continuing the libel of the first sentence!

    Was that clear? The example I’ve been pondering is the link between domesticity and femininity. It seems clear that the historical association of women with home life was oppressive. Let’s overturn it. But how? Surely not by continuing the marginalization and disrespect of home-making by adopting a feminism that equates liberation with getting out of the home and into the capitalist workforce and political office… The point that women should not be assumed to prefer domestic labor must not not displace the point that domestic labor is valid and important! But again, if one argues for the value and importance of domestic labor, one can easily sound as if one is defending sexism. As in: “There’s nothing wrong with being confined to the home because the home is a great place.” The home *is* a great place—and also, one should not be confined to it. Both points are essential.

    Any thoughts?

    1. Thanks for this lengthy engagement! I look forward to hearing how your plan to engage race through focus on specific materials develops. (You might be interested in the book High Schools, Race, and America’s Future by Lawrence Blum. I reviewed this book in a recent post, which should get a trackback here.)

      Regarding the “dilemma for activism” you describe, I resist the idea that there is a programmatic concern here, though I want to acknowledge your dilemma, see below. For me, how to proceed is totally clear. I’m going for democratizing access to the “privileged knowledge” and I’m also going for challenging its mystique. That’s my field of engagement and there’s no tension: I love math and I think it’s badass and I want black and brown kids to know how to use it to make people think they’re badass and I want everybody to understand that it doesn’t mean you’re some kind of Chosen One, but it does make you badass. I think serious theater accomplishment also makes you badass, but making people understand this is not my project. However, I think my project is complementary to it: because if everybody understands what math badassness is really made of, then it’s easy to see that theater badassness is made of the same stuff: devotion, passion, and serious effing technique developed over years of study and self-development.

      Reading between the lines, I have a guess that the domesticity/femininity question you’re struggling with has personal relevance, and in that context I’m sure there’s something serious to contend with. What it makes me think of is the uncomfortable position I sometimes find myself in as a man and a feminist, when for example a good female friend of mine takes her husband’s name upon marriage (which happens a lot). I never like it, I feel like somebody I love is absorbing herself into patriarchy! But being a man telling a woman what to do with her name is not a good look either! So, yeah, I think I feel you. But I don’t like to think of it as a “dilemma for activism.” I think I prefer to look at it as a dilemma that sometimes shows up in privileged people when we engage with justice issues.

  6. Very nicely written article, but there is one thing I disagree with. You say “If you are a white person with a modicum of sense and decency, you know that you are the beneficiary of an unjust history. (Shout out to Louis CK.) Just knowing that you’re benefiting is already a little uncomfortable to begin with. Feeling like you might be participating in that injustice can make the discomfort acute. I’ve been there many times.” I would say that this is not the case for me! I am Eastern European- from Romania- and I would say that in this part of Europe, the slavery problem never existed. It’s simply not something I would generalize all white people as having engaged in. I don’t feel like I’m the beneficiary of an unjust history- if anything, my people were enslaved by Turks, Austrians, Hungarians, what you will (but I don’t hold it against them, as many of my people do; that would be silly). Just a thought. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the engagement Paul. With due respect to the international differences in racial dynamics, I’d like to press on your thinking a little. I claim that because you recognize yourself as “white” at all, you are a beneficiary of the history I’m referring to. I’d like to expand your understanding both of this history (A) and of what it means to benefit from it (B).

      (A) The history in question is not only the American institution of slavery, but also the entire international slave trade and all the economic relationships that supported it, which spanned Europe, Africa and the Americas; and also the history of European colonialism (the reason we’re having this conversation in English), which spanned Asia as well. But it goes beyond that too, to include the racial concepts and hierarchies that grew out of these economic and political institutions. If slavery and colonialism had never happened, there would not be an international concept of “white people” to which you as a Romanian and I as an American could both identify. (Histories of the concept of race show that racial concepts did not predate slavery and colonialism but grew out of them; see Audrey Smedley’s wonderful book Race in North America for example, which has international scope despite the title.)

      (B) When I say that we benefit from this history, I don’t mean that we are necessarily the direct inheritors of the mantle of privilege and power that racial ideology was created in order to uphold. You’re Romanian; I’m Jewish. Let me tell you that when the British and American white privilege structures were being set up, I don’t think they had me in mind. That said, I’m also white, which means I’m seen and treated as white, and since you’re identifying as white in this discussion, I assume you are too. Because of this, in most of the world’s most prosperous and powerful nations (whether majority white or not), both of us are at an advantage over our nonwhite peers in terms of what people will assume about us, our intellectual competence, our moral uprightness, etc. as white folks, and it’s the international history of slavery and colonialism that created this condition. That’s what I mean when I say we benefit from an unjust history.

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