Request: “Can we talk about race?” Most People: “Can we not?”

I read a book in graduate school, one which probably should have been consumed sooner, called, “Can We Talk about Race?” If you’re in higher education or student affairs, you have probably read this book (which is usually accompanied by, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”), and it was more than likely part of your, “diversity class curriculum.” I hope this is resonating with some of you. For those who have read these books, re-read them – keep learning. For those who have not read or heard of these books, please borrow or order them today – you can benefit from this knowledge. They are so much more than curriculum for diversity class…they are essential in truly understanding the landscape of education, and how it impacts all students and all communities.

Addressing race relations and related issues in the American education system, Dr. Beverly Tatum’s book is a must-read for any person even remotely invested in education (or, simply, anyone who merely gives a damn). I read this specific book around the same time I was having the, color-blind-is-actually-not-a-thing-regarding-race, “ah-ha” moment. And the sentiments within still sit with me today, and especially anytime someone asks, “Can we talk about race?” As a result of social media’s sponsorship of creating dialogue for various groups and individuals, this question appears verbatim, as well as without specifically asking, “Can we talk about race?” Let’s pause here for a moment.

As I have previously shared, my job search is complete. Thankfully, I have found a phenomenal position which will require doing equity and justice work for a non-profit education association (and, of course, the thoughts and feelings in my blog and social media presence are all my own, and not a representative of my future employer). A few weeks back and during an interview for this particular position, I was asked, “Can you share with us your opinion on the current reality of race in the United Staes,” or something along these lines. I knew a question similar to this would be addressed, and I had somewhat prepared for what my answer would be when asked to disclose (of course, while remaining cautious about the fact that I can often come off as a bit too raw – interview etiquette, and all of that).

“Can you share with us your opinion on the current reality of race in the US?”

As soon as I opened up my mouth to answer the question, I started word-vomiting my thoughts on race, race relations, parenting, the perceived experience of young Black men, online micro-aggressions, neighborhood segregation, and the list went on and on. Oops, I thought, after I spent several minutes spewing my scattered thoughts and opinions all over the interview panel. Their response was coy, and they quickly moved on with more questions. Interviews, if done right, can be one big professional development opportunity for those who apply and for those who engage. In fact, during my first interview with this same job prospect, I had the opportunity to dig deep with the hiring manager, who blew my mind about the idea of allies identifying as, “color blind,” in reference to racial viewpoints. Specifically, she noted, “It seems, ‘color blind,’ is the one disability everyone wants to possess.” Now, imagine my reaction.

Yes, if you held your hands up to your head and did an explosion motion, you correctly guessed how I responded. It was brilliant, and I was inspired then and now by the real and raw approach this organization took in interviewing me. After all, if we want real and raw, we have to give raw and real. And learning was (is) occurring either way.

But I want to go back to this idea of “being color blind.” It’s happening a lot right now. Especially as it relates to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon moment at the University of Oklahoma, the, “I’m color blind,” moment is alive and well (in addition to, “My chapter has a Black member,” “I don’t see race,” “We’re not all racist,” “This is making every [historically white] Greek organization look bad,” and, “We do all sorts of other really great things for the community”). I get it.

But a door has been opened (…again, and again…), and if we (you) so choose, we (& you) have unique opportunity to acknowledge our privilege and engage thoughtfully and consciously. To move forward, I’m white. And, if you’ve subscribed to the reality that no one is actually color-blind when it comes to race, you already knew that. This fall, I published the piece on my blog, referencing the diversity of my high school, as well as the need to continue making Black students and Black student experiences matter. Shortly after, I had a piece published in Perspectives, a magazine for Fraternity and Sorority professionals through the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, called, “Because Race Matters.” Of course, both of these highlights came with a lot of questions, and even a few people asking me to stop dialoging about race (assumably because I am white). Specifically after the post about my high school, I received hundreds of messages, emails, and comments, all with stories and examples of how an individual agreed or disagreed with my sentiments. Dissonance for both myself and the readers. Dissonance which still exists today.

For the most part, people were pretty supportive of the piece, however there were a few individuals who took time to send (some, pretty lengthy) emails and messages filled with anger or hate. Seriously, some people were mad. Of course, I spent more time dwelling on these messages than celebrating the positive notes, however it did remind me that not every person in my social circle (or social media network, for that matter) was willing and open to the/a conversation about race. And many still are not. Sure, some do get it (despite my struggle with the term, “it,” and exactly what it is they are getting), however overall, the hope for dialogue still remains an area where, when asked, “Can we talk about race,” people respond with, “Can we not?” And this is why #BlackLivesMatter. And this is why #OUMatters. In these moments of high profile (and the truth is, this SAE-like incident occurs all the time, mostly when cameras are not around), people throw their opinions in – just as I am doing now – all in hopes that people will, “get ‘it.'”

I brought this up in that same interview a few weeks back,  the idea of, “it.” This happens a lot in education, our hope for individuals to get, “it.” In regard to race, or understanding related to any oppressed group for that matter, “it,” is a hard outcome to measure. And still, we do this a lot. We take our own version of, “it,” and then we project this, “it,” upon others as a standard to live up to. The idea of, “it,” and whatever the hell, “it,” actually means in the context of diversity and programming, is scarily subjective – we should pause more, reflect more, dialogue more, challenge more. More. People will take to social media. People will protest. People will march for some resolve – people will challenge. And this is all okay.

The title of this post alone reveals a pretty common rebuttal between friends and colleagues. More people are more comfortable not talking about race. Hell, I certainly had my own pause before answering the question in my interview. And this sucks. The dialogue has to happen. There are only so many times one can flip a channel or scroll through social media to avoid a message or instance regarding race. Race matters (this, not to be confused with or overshadowing, “#BlackLivesMatter”). And at the core, we need more people talking about race, and why and how it matters. We need more pausing, more dialoging, reflecting. Hell, we need more, “it.” And we can’t sit quietly. I was in my friend’s office the other day, and one of the students she supervises posed the question, “Why do we have a Miss Black,” in reference to a pageant on campus. My friend slid around her desk with quickness, and instantly engaged a conversation with the student. Why? Because, we have to keep engaging the conversation. We have to keep sliding around our desks with quickness, even if it feels tired, directionless, and frustrating. The conversation must continue. The learning must continue.

Eyes will roll. Assertions will be made. People will reveal ignorance. Videos will be made of racist students, only to provoke countless stories of similar hate and bias (which was more than likely not “caught” on camera). The difference between, “why would some idiot film this,” over, “why this is hate and threatening and so horrific,” is a real and accurate description between the conversations occurring in the days following the SAE incident. Keep talking.

I am lucky enough to work in education, and I will continue to advocate for more of this dialogue. People have to feel comfortable, valued, and welcomed in regard to race and culture. Just as we need more than just women fighting for women, more than gay people fighting for gay stuff, and specifically relevant to this post: those who are fighting for racial equality cannot solely be those persons of color who see ignorance and hate right in front of them (often directed at them). The list goes on and on, of course, including groups I am further oppressing by not including them in an example – needless to say, you get the point I am trying to make here.

We all have a part to play in hope to achieving progress. Stand up, make no assumptions, and engage the dialogue. Be uncomfortable. And while digging and diving, teaching and learning, challenge people to be and do better. Just because you assume something does not affect you does not mean it won’t impact you. And just because you have a circle of inclusion around you does not mean bias and hate are not still dripping in other aspects of your community. Trust me, most things that are, “not your problem,” are more your problem than you think.

Perhaps, you might actually be the problem. Are you reflecting, processing, dialoging? Are you allowing others to do the same?

Fighting,

Michael

PS – For some other relevant readings/opinions/perspectives, related to the SAE incident, please see the links below:

Facebook Status from Michelle Guobadia: “OK!!! FINE!!!!”

There Will Never Be Another Black S-A-E

Keith Garcia: “SAE at OU: My Response

Lindsay Ritenbaugh: “Hoping for Change: Sooner than Later”

Najah Hylton: “SAE Just Showed Us Why There’s Not Enough Love For All Of Us”

My previous post about my issues with Oklahoma: “Oklahoma (needs and up)Rising

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