Thursday, September 14, 2006

Why Talking about Race with White Students is Painful

Talking about race, and particularly about racism, is one of the most emotionally draining aspects of teaching for me. I almost always start with discussing structural racism when I teach Women's Studies. Those of us who have learned well the lessons from the 2nd Wave, and in particular, the way in which the movement was structured by the concerns of white women, strive to prevent that from happening again. But, it is not easy. First, my colleague and I started off with the first two chapters of From Margin to Center, by bell hooks. This is powerful. She makes it abundantly clear how 2nd wavers were unwilling to interrogate their own racist assumptions and/or their own privileged location in U.S. culture. Students often are stunned by this piece, but it doesn't anger them quite as much as Peggy McIntosh's piece does.

The reason why is clear. When they read hooks, they can chalk up her anger to the failures of white women from the past. After all, she wrote this in the early 80s, and we have come a long way baby. McIntosh, however, doesn't let them off the hook. She has internalized criticisms of the 2nd wave, like hooks', and done the painful work of looking at how she has unearned advantages because she has white skin. If you look at McIntosh's piece (click on the link above) you'll get a sense of what she means, in very concrete terms, by white privilege. What is brilliant about this piece is that she illustrates why many white people, who are NOT overt racists of the Klan mold, but well-meaning, moral, Church-going people, tend to perpetuate racism. This happens because their own lived experience suggests that hard work means the world is open to you. If you look at the list in toto, it becomes clear that white skin means : you don't have to earn respect (no one blames your speech on your race, nor praises you as a credit to your race); you don't feel limited in where you can go (where you can buy, no one follows you around in stores . . .); and you don't have to worry about how you carry yourself (what you wear, how you speak, whether or not you tend to be a few minutes late). Hence, the world feels open to you.

If white people grow up in a world where they have that kind of freedom--where the world literally seems wide open to them--then it is nearly impossible to realize that one's freedom is the result of persistent structural racism. If you can buy in a house in any neighborhood--granted you have the money--that is because of red lining or because your parents got federally guaranteed loans that were not available to people of color.

Reading McIntosh's piece and watching part of the documentary called The Color of Fear almost always has the effect of angering my students. Yesterday, a young woman, who seems so at home in this course, raised her hand and said "these articles basically tell you to hate yourself if your white. It's not my fault that I am white." I was taken aback, but I should have known better. It is true. To take McIntosh seriously, which I think she was doing, is to have to confront some very scary emotional stuff. And, when we do, we have a choice--deal with it or deny it. Most of us work hard to deny painful truths about ourself--and in this case that the conditions of the lives of people of color is not the same as our own, and that in fact they suffer precisely because they do not have white skin. It takes intense ego strength to take seriously this criticism without being sickened or hating yourself.

But, hating yourself only fuels the racism. It fuels it by denying it. It fuels it by denying, once again, the bitter truth that to not be white in the U.S. is to confront insidious and daily acts of racism. By forcing students to look at this, I walk a very fine line of losing them for the rest of the seminar. If they can find anything that opposes the truth of McIntosh, they will cling to it. For example, we have an African American man in our class who simply denies that racism happens. When he says this, it gives a lot of comfort to many of the students in that fragile emotional place. They can say, yeah, that's right. Hey, look at Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice, or Oprah. Tokenism. Ah, how tokenism allays the pain of white guilt. Never mind that at least four other students in the class (and by the way the only four students of color besides our African American male) insist that they experience all of the insidious racism that is the flip side of McIntosh's piece. Or, nevermind that there are hardly any students of color on this campus, not to mention faculty of color. To figure out why is to have to be in a really uncomfortable place where white people have to look at themselves in profoundly different ways.

I go through this painful trek with students alot, and no matter how many times I teach this and consciously choose to force them to confront what it means to be white, I am surprised when they resist. So, I spent some time this morning thinking about why I am surprised. And, I think I have a clue: class privilege.

I came from money, like many of my students. I went to private schools, lived in exclusive neighborhoods, and wore nice clothes. I became very aware of my class status when I decided to transfer to public school, at the protest of my parents, when I entered high school. I got a real lesson in class when I made that switch. If I drove my father's expensive car to school, I could be assured of many fellow students saying shit about me: "Man, she thinks she is really important." "Look at how she flaunts her money." At first, I tried to hide all outward signs of money, but after I tired of that, I just spent time trying to understand where they anger came from. I got to escape it once I went to college, a private school very much like the one where I teach. However, that experience in high school paved the way for me to be more sensitive to social inequality and the Jesuit college I attended was committed to social justice.

The fact is, growing up rich made me aware that the world was a lot better for me than it was for most people. I knew I got things that others didn't. But, if you grow up white and working class or white and lower middle class, then I think it is a lot harder to swallow what McIntosh is saying. And, if I think back on which students protested her the loudest over the years, it was the white students who didn't come from a high socio-economic status. They were in public school with Black kids or Latinos. They didn't get any breaks, so why should they hate themselves for being white?

When I lived on Long Island I saw this kind of anger toward any attempt to talk about racism or fight racist institutions alot. My students were either working class or middle class white kids, whose family had moved out from Queens, or they were as multi-cultural as you can get: from all five boroughs. Race relations were intense. I dated a guy who lived out in Rocky Point. This neighborhood was almost all Italian Americans whose families had bought houses cheap in the depression and then subsequent generations moved out to Long Island. This was one racist neighborhood, and I mean the overt kind. When my black friend bought a house and moved into that neighborhood, my boyfriend was stunned. He asked if he was getting hassled by people in the neighborhood.

I remember spending a Christmas down the street from where my friend lived and listened to the men of this family (and there were like 8 kids) make racist jokes, the kind I had never heard in my privileged world. If I try to make a guess where this anger came from, I would say it came from being in the crappy schools in Queens with black kids and forming beliefs that these kids were lazy, unwilling to work, or criminal. These working class Italian men didn't think life gave them any breaks and they made it; they worked hard, paid their taxes, and supported their families.

I don't know if this analysis makes sense or if I am off base. But, I appreciate any comments or insights here.

UPDATE: Before too many people start accusing me of "hating white people," like PD just did (in jest), let me clarify I don't think that white people should hate themselves because of privilege (Thanks to IsThatLatin for raising this point in the comments). In fact, it is the worse possible outcome and only fuels structural racism. I think they need to confront that fear and move through it toward action. But, here I am focusing on why it might be more of a leap for working class white people to even swallow the view that whiteness creates unearned advantages.