Noliwe Rooks

Associate Professor, Africana Studies and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Contributor at Cornell University

Why Can’t We Talk About Race?


Last November Shannon Gibney, a professor of English and African-diaspora studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, was formally reprimanded for making three white male students in her class uncomfortable during a conversation about contemporary instances of structural racism.

Reportedly, one of those students broke into Gibney’s lecture to ask why white men were always portrayed as “the bad guys.” Gibney says she asked them not to interrupt her lecture and pointed out that she never said white men were at fault. But the exchanges continued, and she eventually told the three students that they were free to leave the class and file a complaint if they were uncomfortable. They did, and the reprimand was the result.

When I heard Professor Gibney’s story, I couldn’t help remembering an incident that happened to me in the office of an African-American studies department some years ago. That day, as I looked out the window at the parade of tour groups on campus, I said: “It looks like a literal sea of white people out there. I wonder if there is any correlation between the racial makeup of the tour groups and the percentages of people of color who enroll the next year.”

An African-American staff member in the office took offense and said that it was inappropriate for me to talk specifically about “white people” because that might make white staff members in the office uncomfortable. I asked each staff member if I had offended them in any way—they all assured me I had not—but over the next few weeks, the employee tried really hard to get someone on campus to force me to attend diversity sensitivity training. Unlike in Gibney’s situation, no one thought corrective or disciplinary action was necessary.

What I learned from that experience is something I also recognize in Gibney’s reprimand. Far too many of us consider the act of talking about structural racism—analyzing it, discussing it, or just pointing out that it exists—to be racist in and of itself. That’s especially true when we feel that the topic is going to make whites uncomfortable. Surprisingly, this belief crosses racial boundaries.

Do we really now live in an age when many of us believe that whites are the main victims of racial aggression? Do we feel that their comfort or discomfort with the topic should govern how and when we talk about race?

As a matter of fact, some white Americans do. In 2011, researchers at Tufts and Harvard universities surveyed African Americans and whites about their views on racism. They found that a majority of whites now believes they have “replaced blacks” as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America. A majority also believes that anti-white prejudice is a “bigger problem” than the prejudice that African Americans face.

It should go without saying that this is inaccurate, and that there are moral and economic consequences to this misguided view. “The Business Case for Racial Equity,” a W.K. Kellogg Foundation study released this past October, found that while racism costs the country $1.9-trillion dollars each year, whites are not on the receiving end. The report noted that the adjusted earnings of people of color are a whopping 30 percent lower than those of non-Hispanic whites, and it showed how “race, class, residential segregation, and income levels all work together to hamper access to opportunity” for people of color. Feeling uncomfortable because race or racism is mentioned in your presence just doesn’t compare to the economic, psychological, and spiritual consequences of structured racial inequality.

Surely this means that we need to find better, more productive ways of talking about race, not fewer.

Of course, the problem is that many of us—black and white alike—have been taught that race and racism, like politics and money, are impolite topics best left unexplored with strangers. By the time we’ve entered the academy, many of us have already absorbed this truism. We are simply uncomfortable talking about race. Because of that discomfort and because we haven’t learned the skills necessary to engage in deep discussions on the topic, we avoid them at all costs.

And when we look for excuses to close off those discussions, we allow misperceptions to spread. When I ask my students how they broached the topic of racism in their high-school classrooms, many often respond, as my then-seven-year-old once told me, that “Martin Luther King freed the slaves and since then we have had no more racism.” That’s a myth that is as damaging and simplistic as it is comforting. It advances the wrongheaded beliefs that structural inequality and racial bias no longer exist—they do—and that talking about them is an attack on whites. It isn’t.

To quote the always insightful James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” For reasons of finance, morals, and ethics, we can no longer afford to let the discomfort of a few keep us from change for the many.

Image: Shannon Gibney (fourth from left) with members of Gazillion Voices, an online magazine covering race, identity, and adoption. (Kim Jackson/Gazillion Voices)

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  • Starting in the 70's, the reverse discrimination ploy became a useful and sometimes successful tool to use in order to avoid making the necessary systemic policy changes which needed to be made in many areas. Today, it is a tool which has cleverly and insidiously been implemented as political rhetoric intended to silence discussions of racism and to somehow make insignificant the reality of racism in today's America. But, we must have these discussions -- we must keep the dialogues going and ferret out and expose racism wherever it exists!

    Bettie V Beard Bettie V Beard
  • I appreciate very much Dr. Rooks essay and the points she makes. I agree, the conversation about structural racism is not one in which our society is willing to engage. However, I think that it may be related more than we realize to the overall structural inequality in our society in which the 1% continue to gain while the 99% struggle to maintain. I think back to when John Edwards (before he disgraced himself personally) talked about the Two America's and how that was characterized as class warfare; similar efforts to address this structural inequity continue to be mis-characterized in similar ways. Then there was Mitt Romney's "47%" statement recorded secretly during his campaign for the presidency. Of course, Michelle Alexander's exposition of how racism can function in a "color-blind" society in terms of mass incarceration has provided a clearer analysis than perhaps we are willing, as a society, to face.

    For my part, while I endorse the call for further dialogue, I believe it must be dialogue intended to produce action, dialogue that can strengthen organization among the 99% to shift the political and economic landscape towards equity.

    Rick DeJesus-Rueff Rick DeJesus-Rueff
  • "Race and racism...are impolite topics best left unexplored with strangers." See the post in CHE from 2 days ago, about the censorship of an artwork on a campus museum,

    Deborah Smith Deborah Smith
  • I literally had this incident happen yesterday. A student noted in her class journal that she felt that her school was too white and not supportive of people of color. The person reading her journal entry (the class TA, who presents herself as a white female) presented it as a "racist and inappropriate comment" to the professor (who presents himself as a white male) during the meeting. I couldn't stay to hear the entire discussion and to see how the professor addressed the matter, but just from what I did hear, I was literally blown away...just speechless.

    Marie Nubia-Feliciano Marie Nubia-Feliciano
  • I would like to learn how a conversation is conducted in which attendees are instructed not to interrupt the lecturer. This article follows the standard feminist "argument," which is to take a general aspect of history or society and assign it personally to a population that (1) had absolutely nothing to do with the development of that history, and (2) are largely unable to defend themselves against the unwarranted and unjust accusations. Neither Rooks, nor any other faculty member for that matter, has any knowledge of how students, of whatever race, ethnicity or gender came to be in her class, yet still she feels empowered to assert "privilege" to a particular group based solely on ascriptive characteristics. If indeed the intent is to have a discussion on structural or institutionalized bias then straight, white, male students have every right to claim that they are being singled out and held liable for phenomena for which they bear no responsibility whatsoever. Otherwise, the "conversation" as Rooks describes constitutes nothing more than simple hectoring.

    Seth Kellam Seth Kellam
  • If you want to understand more fully why we can't discuss race, check out the comments following the article in the CHE about students of color at Harvard:

    Jeffrey Luftig Jeffrey Luftig
  • "who presents himself as a white male" ???
    This is the language physicians use when describing symptoms of a disease.
    Sorry, but if somebody is a white male or female just say so.

    Paul Johnson Paul Johnson
  • Just yesterday I was at a Historical Presentation for the Urbanization of Chicago in the 1930's and What It Means Today. There was a man [white man] in the audience who completely disagreed with the presenter in that he grew up and went to school in the Hyde Park area in the late 1950's, early 1960's and he did not see any racial segregation. His comment was the Black Panther's and the People of Power did not exist in this area. I was speechless and extremely concerned. I live in a popular town where racism definitely exists and kept quiet. Sometimes it feels like the issue has a generating energy which if not funneled properly may explode. There is a white class in this area which holds All of the Planning, Development and Managing of Resources for the area which refuses to give up any part of their cushy existence. I did not know what to say to this man last night without seeming confrontational and yet I know the conversations must be had. In the past I have been socially ostracized and poo-pooed for my social views. I do voice my opinions when I can. One part of the racial conversation I feel we [Americans] seem to miss and I am concerned because unless the action is for the Good of All to create an opportunity which retains the American high standard of living and human well-being I believe society might fail in this goal is that racism is not a black/white debate. This is a white/minority debate on the segregation of resources. Yes, Black youths are held back and away from opportunities but so are Hispanic [ and I do not mean only Mexican; there are Puerto Rican, Portuguese, Equador, Columbian and name a few] any minority is fair game. I believe the racial conversation must be reviewed at an inclusive level for the God of All. Thank you for this thoughtful and informative piece. I agree with you ' every little bit helps'. I am also astounded how educators, the supposedly 'smart bunch', has so very much difficulty finding fair play in structural discrimination. Keep up the Good writing!!

    Lourdes Armas Lourdes Armas
  • Just to clear up some dangling threads:
    Paul, I think Marie uses the phrase "presents as a white man" in order to leave space for someone's agency and also to admit her own ignorance. It may be that he identifies as some other ethnicity. We don't know. And it may also be that though the outside observer may not see it, the professor may be of mixed heritage. It seems a long way around the barn, but then it is less presumptive.

    Seth Kallam, I'm not sure that you understand what institutionalized racism is. You have conflated it, or at least arguments that support a critical view of institutionalized privilege with arguments for a critical view of structural gendered bias. This is not a "feminist" argument. It's a social construction argument. There is quite a bit mistaken in what you write, but perhaps the key mistake is in the notion that students should NOT be made uncomfortable in the process of education. I don't see why this assumption is made. The overturning of fundamental ways of seeing the world in favor of deeper critical perspectives is and should be uncomfortable. And the power dynamic of having the professor speak without interruption is standard pedagogical practice at the college level. There is a time to listen. And lastly, those students who complained likely benefit everyday from their privilege, which yes, is inherited and which they did nothing to earn. Accepting those privileges, they must also accept that this privilege is critiqued and that a college class is precisely the place where such critique is rightly carried out.

    Seph Rodney Seph Rodney
  • its the need of an hour to start such discussions among ourselves. This is the way to sensitize people about caste, class, racial discrimination. It is for every one to think about it seriously and to try to avoid this practice in social milieu. Hope, change will happen in the near future...

    Nitin Kabir Nitin Kabir
  • Thank you for keeping this discussion going. Colleges from Harvard to Michigan to Cali have students of color driving the conversation about their and the experience of faculty of color, on historically white campuses. As a white faculty member trying to work on my own and my institution's ongoing privilege, Thandeka's *Learning to be White; Money, Race, and God in America* has been hugely helpful. There she argues racial identity formation in white families is a kind of abuse - I know white folks, this can be hard to hear, but hold onto the idea for a minute- because we as children have our natural affinities for all people thwarted either "passively" through neighborhood and school segregation, or actively in homes where white separatism/ privilege are actively taught, we learn whiteness as separate/ better. Because we are usually not allowed to talk of this - that impoliteness of discussing race - we as adults find race talk a trigger leading to feelings of anxiety, fear, flight. We feel "attacked," "bullied," and that folks of color naming their experiences - often of actual exclusion and bullying - are angry and attacking. We gotta get through this. Read Thandeka, watch y/our own anxiety/ anger rise and really watch where it comes from. We gotta deal with our sh** as things will not change until we do. Thank you.

    Kath DeVore Kath DeVore
  • In the example given, it appears that the young white boys were trying to have a conversation about structural racism, but they were being shut down by the dominant person in the classroom. Challenging assumptions taken as founding truths are not permitted? Seems like a closed discussion to me. I'm only commenting because I have desperately been trying to get my name removed from the Chronicle's mailing list--tired of the harassment from the mouthpiece of a corrupted industry--but to no avail, so here I am! Please, stifle my voice! Remove me from the mailing list!

    Dane Dowling Dane Dowling
  • The basic problem is that people do not fit into boxes.
    I am an Australian of inderterminant origin. What am I? Frankly I do not care.
    Years ago I was a post-doc in the USA and at both universities I was racially reclassified without my say-so.
    On the forms I accurately described myself as "Australian" under the heading "Other".
    In both universities without consulting me that was crossed out and I became an "Asian/Pacific Islander". Very poor geography because Australia is a continent not an island and at least as far as I know I have no asian or pacific islander descent. But that made me "minority faculty".

    Raymond Ritchie Raymond Ritchie
  • I completely agree with this and understand it well as a minority and former college student, however as non-black minority I have to wonder why these discussions are almost always about whites and black people only, or whites, blacks and hispanics only. It is very bothersome to me that my people - First Nations/American Indians (more specifically, I am Lipan Apache) - are almost always left out of the discussion, as well as other minorities. Or we are treated as though our issues, our sufferings, our oppression, etc - is not as bad or as prominent as blacks and that we have no say in this discussion.

    Kelly Tudor Kelly Tudor