Noliwe Rooks

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

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Why Can’t We Talk About Race?

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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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