So I just saw another meme urging me to beware my attitude because “the primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but thoughts about it.” I totally get this from the Buddhist perspective, so no letters please, but it is thrown about so much on the Internet that it has started to grate on me. And after watching the events in Baltimore this week and the nonstop, uninformed opinion spouting about it, that grating feels like a massive open wound because I’m pretty damn sure the primary cause of unhappiness in West Baltimore is most definitely the situation. And that is the only thing I know because as Janelle Hanchett says so much better than I ever could, I don’t know shit about Baltimore.
Look, I don’t have anything eloquent to say on this issue. All I can think about every time this kind of thing happens (and it happens with maddening regularity) is that we are incapable of understanding people in crisis. And by we, I mean the white middle and upper classes. And by people in crisis, I don’t mean the earthquake victims in Nepal. They are definitely people in crisis, but white folks in America are quite good at empathizing with those in crisis on distant shores. (And yes, I know there is no shore in Nepal. It’s an expression. Stay with me, folks.) The people in crisis we can’t readily empathize with are those in our own country who are the victims of income inequality and structural racism.
I won’t try to prove my point with statistics or a history lesson. I’ll leave that side of the argument to those smarter and better informed than I. Instead I’ll do what I do best and tell a story.
When I was a PhD student at the University of Illinois, I taught basic writing. These are courses for underprepared freshmen, and at Illinois this population was comprised of Black and Hispanic students from Chicago and white farm kids from small towns downstate. This was an interesting mix of students, and I adored them. But class discussions were not always easy.
In general, the white students were quiet and passive. I don’t know for sure, but I interpreted their quietude as a mixture of small town respect for authority and discomfort with the multiracial classroom environment. They were always on time. They followed directions. What teacher doesn’t love that.
My Chicago students were not quiet. They were were boisterous, sometimes loud, and they questioned things I said. They weren’t taking anything this white lady said at face value. They made me up my game. They made me proud.
I can say two things that were true about both groups: they worked hard because they wanted to learn, and they didn’t talk to one another even though they were in the same room together three days a week.
I tried to get the students to interact more. I assigned them to work in mixed groups, but as soon as the activity was over they went back to their segregated seats. I cold called on the quiet white students to force them into the class discussion, but got short, utilitarian answers and crossed arms. Then one day when we were discussing racial and economic inequality in the American education system, I tried my tactic again. After many minutes of lively and insightful discussion from the Chicago side of the room, I said, “Let’s take a minute to get the perspective of some of the students who haven’t spoken yet today.” We all sat silently for what seemed like an eternity, but was more like 60 seconds (which is a really loooooong time to sit in group silence). Finally one of the downstate students spoke up.
He turned not to me but to the Black and Brown side of the room. “I want to talk. I want to give my opinion, but I don’t want to offend anyone either. I just don’t know how to talk to you all because this class is the first time I’ve ever been in the same room with people who aren’t white.”
The other students on his side of the room nodded in agreement. The Chicago students sat quietly for a moment and then one replied. “If you want to know what’s offensive, you’ve got to ask. Just ask us. We’ll tell you. If you sit there, not saying anything, we assume you don’t like us or that you’re racist. We don’t get to talk with white people much either.”
I was stunned. Then overcome with emotion. I almost cried.
After that, discussion was more integrated and interactive. The classroom became a space for them to learn about each other’s lives. And it was a necessary space because when class was over, the white students and students of color went their separate ways again. Our classroom was an alternative space, a space where they could safely ask question of one another that could not be asked on the university quad or in the dormitories. I take no credit for this. The students’ bravery and honesty that day created the space. Instead, I learned from them. I didn’t know anything about life on the south side of Chicago or life growing up on a farm in central Illinois.
Things don’t always go as well when race becomes a classroom issue. I had a white student in another class at a different school who quietly held extremely racist views and was so disturbed by being in class with people of color he wrote his educational policy paper about why we should reinstate formal school segregation. I was not able to help this student engage or reconsider his views, and I wonder where he is now and what he’s saying and posting on Facebook about Baltimore. And I worry.
But I am also heartened by the students in my majority white rhetorical theory class who engaged thoughtfully with critical race theory and the work of Patricia Williams, and who opened up in class about their own previously unexamined racism. And I was honored that two students in the same class shared their painful stories of racism with us: a biracial student who grew up watching his father try to maintain his dignity in the face of racism while the student was able to hide from it by passing as white, and a white woman from an all white town who struggles daily to shield her biracial daughter from the stares and dirty looks they get when they go to the grocery store.
What I have learned from all these students is that racial politics in this country is complex and difficult, and we don’t stand a chance if we aren’t willing to listen and to tell our stories. And right now I want to listen, need to listen. This post is the first thing I have said publicly about the events in Baltimore, and it comes after a week of listening. And now I will go back to listening, and I hope that if you are white like me you will listen to the stories of Black America with me. Start here, and then when you are ready for more, go here. It’s the least we can do, and maybe the most important thing right now.