How does race matter?

pedagogical investigations
University of Massachusetts Amherst

It is a brilliant question.

Not “why” does race matter, but how?

Nearly 400 undergraduates have participated in three dialogues on race this fall.  I was fortunate to be invited in as a last-minute substitute for one of the final sessions. Some of the facilitators met for an hour in advance to try and anticipate challenges with delivering the curricular design (see the facilitator’s blog). We engaged the thorny problem of how to teach about whiteness without contributing to self-fulfilling prophecies about the presence/absence of racism.

Two tensions emerged in the discourse dynamics among the facilitators. One involved the tension between supporting/embracing students ‘where they are’ and the need to intervene when ‘where they are’ is patently offensive or otherwise misinformed.  We are teaching, after all, but if we fall into rote instruction we lose the students’ attention (if not also their respect), yet if we don’t trust students to find their own way through the confusing process of coming to grips with uncomfortable knowledge then we’re simply trapped in the communication paradox: if we don’t talk about race we ensure structural inequality is never addressed, but if we keep talking about race then we risk never being able to move beyond it.

What struck me the most was – not competition, that reduces the complexity way too much – but the desire of facilitators to exert control over how the process will unfold.  Energy in the room increased significantly while brainstorming strategies for moving students from new learning into the remaining task of application.  What action can students take, using hard-won new knowledge in ways that really make a difference?  For perspective, realize we are not talking about revolutionary change, but the immediate implications for individual identity and the kinds of relationships possible with others.

Differences in pedagogical philosophy, the use of tactics, and long-term strategies were on display as facilitators advocated for ‘this’ or ‘that’ approach, sharing examples of successful interventions (when the usual pitfalls were avoided) and also describing missed opportunities (those moments that always happen when one is caught off-guard or events are moving too quickly to formulate an appropriate response). The mix of generosity and humility among this group of dedicated educator/activists was impressive. I learned a lot in a very short time!

14 thoughts on “How does race matter?”

  1. I just came across this and it struck a chord…

    “[the American] cultural belief system has influenced all of us, we are all racists. At the same time, most of us are unaware of our racism. We do not recognise the ways in which our cultural experience has influenced our beliefs about race or the occasions on which those beliefs affect our actions. In other words, a large part of the behaviour that produces racial discrimination is influenced by unconscious racial motivation.

    Racism is irrational in the sense that we are not fully aware of the meanings we attach to race or why we have made race significant. It is also arguably dysfunctional to the extent that its irrationality prevents the optimal use of human resources… But unlike other forms of irrational and dysfunctional behaviour, which we think of as deviant or abnormal, racism is “normal”. It is a malady that we all share, because we have all been scarred by a common history. Racism’s universality renders it normal.”

    Lawrence, Charles R. III “The Id, the Ego, and Equal Protection: Reckoning with Unconscious Racism” 39 Stanford Law Review 317 (1986-1987)

  2. That is a great quote!

    And an impressive source, the Stanford Law Review carries the weight of structural authority – if LAW acknowledges it, then there must be something there, right?

    But, do you mind if I deconstruct the quote just a little bit? Because doing so will help me explain the big learning that I gained from actually doing the facilitation. (Offered here with a big nod of appreciation to a colleague whose de-briefing enhanced my clarity.)

    What I witnessed and struggled with, during and after the dialogues, is how terribly hard it is to change paradigms. I do not mean the process of learning itself, of changing from a state of ‘not knowing’ about structural inequality to ‘knowing’ about it. That is a natural process that can happen without any actual changes in behavior or attitudes. A paradigm is ‘a step above’ the learning process: it is a container for the process of learning which helps one decide if the things being learned are important (or not), and if they are, how so? Paradigms are sets of ideas based on values about how things should be, or how a person thinks things actually are. The paradigm shift regarding structural inequality is away from the traditional social justice model of teaching about racism, toward a rhetorical model premised upon refocusing attention from the individual level to the structural level of teaching about whiteness.


    Most of the students in the group I helped co-facilitate could not get out of the mindset of racism. Now, I am not saying ‘there is no racism’ (structural inequality based on race and ethnicity is real and pervasive) – but what these young people understand “racism” to mean is having bad thoughts or doing bad things toward people with a different bodily appearance than their own. In other words, they orient to the concept on an individual level. What is “unconscious” (to refer to the quote by Lawrence in Michelle’s comment) is comprehension of the structural level – which is where the problems of discrimination and prejudice have their roots.

    The problem with students remaining fixated at this individually-based perspective of race is dialectical. That is a fancy word to describe a subtle and powerful interaction between different things that happen between and among people (especially people in groups such as cultures, nationalities, religions, or levels of socioeconomic class). An oversimplification is to say that a dialectical relationship works in a way that is kind of like cause-effect. It is not a simple formula one can apply like a foolproof equation, ‘if this, then that’ – a dialectic is more circular (like a repeating cycle one cannot escape): the ‘effect’ leads back to the ‘cause’ which ‘causes’ the same ‘effect’ which reinforces the ‘cause’ and so on and so forth for ever and yon. White people become sensitized, but the overall system is not altered in any particularly significant ways – certainly not in any immediate sense.


    So, what I witnessed happening during the dialogue is many (most?) students responding on personal, emotional levels as if racism is an interpersonal problem. The dialectic is this use of the word “racism” (or any words that trigger the established idea of “racism”) and the reinforcement of the ‘location’ (if you will) of racism in individual white people. So, my critique of the quote by Lawrence is that it was appropriate for its time (middle of the 1980s), but to use it now (twenty years later!) keeps racism placed in the psyche by reinforcing the accusation that it is “in….our beliefs,” is “unconscious” and “irrational,” and “dysfunctional.”

    I am not overlooking Lawrence’s references to the influence of cultural experience and sharing a common history, but what I am suggesting is that the logic of his argument (the paradigm) puts the individual first and the common, shared structure of experience second. This paradigm is what is now being challenged by the discourse of whiteness. And there is a lot of resistance to it! Students could not seem to catch themselves referring back to racism even as they seemed to grasp the concept of structural privilege. It seemed to me that most of them ‘got it’ at the intellectual level, but only in fleeting moments that were whisked away by the powerful emotions (guilt, grief, defensiveness, insecurity, frustration, even anger) accompanying the realization that the US system (i.e., freedom, democracy, meritocracy) really does not treat everybody the same, really does not allow everyone the same chances, and thus actually is not essentially fair.

    My Learning:

    The humbling factor for me was coming out the dialogue with a sense of achievement for recognizing the dialectical forces at play, and then falling into the exact same inertia within a single day. (damn)

    The insight is that the discourse of racism is fighting for survival, and white people are the ones keeping it alive! They (we) are doing this by continuing to insist that “racism” is something that happens on a personal level (in attitudes and beliefs) and in relationships with friends, classmates, co-workers, teammates, etc. And (now I take another leap), it seems to me that many educators working in the social justice tradition are comfortable working with this paradigm, because talking about racism is what they know and value – they’ve seen its effectiveness, have reconciled themselves to the long-term struggle, and have experimented with various responses over the years, developing a flexible and resilient discourse that is geared to deflecting denial.

    The paradigm shift is to (what my colleague calls) a rhetorical model. With this strategy, one adapts the discourse to the realities on the ground. In short, we change the language, recalibrating a new discourse that redirects attention away from personal ‘racists’ to target the unfair residue, the leftovers of racism, in institutionalized structural whiteness. This does not mean letting individuals off the hook. It does mean putting the structure first (essentially, framing the pedagogical lesson in reverse order to Lawrence). This move is rhetorical because it is based in language use. Talking about whiteness means:

    1) confirming the culture of white people (which is neutral in the same sense as any group’s culture is their own), and
    2) distinguishing the structural privileging of whiteness as distinct from the cultural values and ways-of-being.

    Talking in this way – about whiteness instead of about racism – opens an entire new range of possibilities for being an ally. The new discourse of whiteness has a better chance of connecting with young people who are growing up in this time – the 21st century – which is not the same time in which the social justice discourse of racism was the rhetorical tool with effective power.

    Still, it isn’t easy for old dogs (whether we lived the traditional model in its heyday or learned it from those who did) to change our own established grooves of talking. As I said, barely 24 hours after having my own insight I was speaking with a bright young woman about her gorgeous and inspiring project on black women in Cuba. Her video presentation of portraits featuring natural hairstyles was shown in tandem with a film about being Deaf in Cuba. The audience for this event at Hampshire College was incredibly diverse: members of the local Deaf community (all white), students from the Five Colleges (various ethnicities, not deaf), ASL/English interpreters, ASL students, and faculty from different departments at Hampshire (roughly Sign Language, Cuban Studies, Political Science). The discussion ranged widely, from brainstorming about getting technology to the Deaf Community in Cuba and using the Deaf Community – and their unique Cuban Sign Language – to foment activism in Cuba, to the different levels of awareness and critique about structural inequality in Cuba on the basis of race or one’s reliance on sight not sound for communication, intelligence, and sociality.

    Some comments were made about the different picture given about the presence/absence of racism in Cuba by the Deaf community and by the black women talking about cultural standards of beauty. What was not named – just like with the undergraduate students in the dialogue group the day before – was anything about the structural privileges of whiteness. And – even though I was thinking it, aware of this omission – rather than naming our inability to recognize whiteness, I lamely ended up saying something about relative degrees of knowledge about race and ethnicity. I, too, still failed to make the shift! Dang those slow-changing neural pathways in this established brain!

  3. Steph, really appreciated your points on this.

    The argument to be made on whiteness is a strong one and speaks to many of the issues of shame, guilt and burden of a society that has enslaved people for centuries who are not of the same kind. It also speaks to the fear of the ‘other’ as a threat to our whiteness, and thus, consciously or not, there is division that is frequently unspoken. One of the greatest omissions in ‘white’ society is the lack of knowledge of the cultures and mores of the ‘other’ whatever their designation. Since ‘Whitey’ rules, it is perhaps seen as irrelevant to know the ‘other’ in any deep and meaningful way. I approach this subject from a layperson’s viewpoint, having lived in many different Western countries, and seen many of the same behavior throughout. It is not a distinctly American issue, but can be seen in any country where ‘whiteness’ prevails. I have said many times that we are all racist, and appreciate that point above. To have an open and honest discussion about our inherent beliefs, whether they be conscious or unconscious, is becoming essential in our shrinking world. Race matters, insofar as we can all learn how to get along without designating the other as enemy. I hope this made sense.

  4. Hi Jacqueline,

    You really caught my attention during our breakfast conversation at Womensphere’s Global Summit when Debera asked your opinion about diversity training in the workplace. I don’t recall the form of her question, but your answer went directly to the core: “it is a complicated and dishonest conversation.”

    Such a diagnosis begs the question: How can we become more candid? My pedagogical philosophy supposes that the first step is getting people to realize there are patterns (norms) that create the basic shape of these conversations. Usually (in my experience), people comprehend patterning on the abstract, generalized level before they can recognize how their own thoughts and words fit into one or another theme. Metaphorically, each theme composes a ‘side’ of the overall complex shape (imagine a polygon or a blob, not a simple cube or sphere).

    Maybe there are four or five typical ways of talking about “race” and “racism,” and only one or two ways of talking about “whiteness.” As long as we keep talking about race/racism, we keep those old ways of talking alive (so to speak), which inhibits social/structural change. The more we can shift to talking about whiteness, and expand the range of ways in which we can talk about it, the more we improve the chances of stimulating awareness at the social level, which is a necessary precursor to institutional level changes.

    What I especially appreciate about your comment above is your statement that whiteness is not a distinctly American issue, but one that pervades Western countries. By Western (just to clarify), do you refer specifically to the countries of Western Europe or also to countries previously colonized by the UK, France, Portugal, Spain, etc?

  5. I believe inherently, we are all racists. In fact, I thought it would be a good idea if everyone wore t-shirts declaring ‘I’m a Racist’ and see what kind of discussion that would generate. Of course, you have to have a lot of courage to do that, and be open to the complicated conversation that will ensue.

    To be more candid means we must openly admit that we are confused and ashamed to have that honest conversation, and we must also develop a spirit of curiosity and exploration. I admit I’m a racist. I see people who are not of my race as different, and I hear the stereotypical messages that have pervaded my entire life through the media and the people I grew up with when I am in conversation, or engaging with others who are not like me. I hear these messages of separation when I’m interacting with others of another race or culture. I hear myself saying things that are so obviously culture biased and yes, racist, and I feel a deep shame that I am even going there because it is contrary to how I like to see myself as a citizen of the world.Removing the deep discomfort of this conditioned thinking means to be more conscious of what I say and do, without being hypocritical, or biased. I’m not even sure I’m describing this adequately, but it’s a start.

    When we speak about “whiteness” we are speaking of privilege, or domination. How do we remove the barriers that exist and have that open conversation. We first of all admit our sense of superiority, and then seek to change it by being open to conversations that will include shame, anger, guilt and anger. All of which may, or may not be justified, none of which is particularly personal, but is definitely societal and cultural.

    The Western notion of “whiteness” is particular to Western Europe, but can also be translated to the previously held colonies by virtue of the fact that there would appear to be a need to emulate many of the traits and habits of their colonizers. However, I think that has changed over the last 30 years or so, as more colonized cultures return to their own homogenous roots, which of course, are complicated because it also involves a mixing of races and cultures, and thus divisions.

    There is no simple answer to this, but if we can at least start the conversation, as you are doing here, then perhaps we can start to shift the limited and destructive patterns of separation that are currently killing our world.

  6. Jacqueline, you’ve made a tremendous start! We have, together, by opening up this conversation to public scrutiny.

    When I first read your last response, I was surprised that you so strongly asserted the racist claim, since my argument (in prior comments) involves shifting the discourse from an identity-based logic (“I am this,” “You are that,”) to a logic of co-construction: “We are participating in structures of whiteness.” My gut reaction was of being un-heard; it seemed you had missed my point. The emotions associated with that perception are old and familiar. However – unlike most times when an inappropriate response wells up in me, this time I recognized and was able to interrupt my conditioned reaction. This is a small miracle that I want to share!

    Last summer I participated in an event and made a fool of myself on several occasions by telling another person something supposedly about them but really about me. For instance, I used to be a really lousy listener, and was pained when I recognized myself in a co-participant. I had always wished someone had had the oomph to get in my face and demand that I pay better attention, so I projected that wish of mine onto someone who I perceived to be in a similar position. Another time I asked someone to watch the weather – and luckily she did, because a storm was brewing that I hadn’t noticed! In both cases, I found myself full of an urge to tell somebody else the exact thing that I needed to be aware of for myself. Neither of them (I’m pretty sure) benefited from these interactions with me. (Ouch.)

    Maybe I learned something? This time, instead of writing back to you right away, I recognized the pattern and made myself pause. If what I wanted to say to you was “you missed the point,” maybe the message for me is that I was missing yours! You wrote,

    “To be more candid means we must openly admit that we are confused and ashamed to have that honest conversation, and we must also develop a spirit of curiosity and exploration.”

    It is embarrassing to admit that I am not sure if we are talking about different things (racism vs whiteness) or the same thing with different labels! I am a professional interpreter, after all! And white – through and through. I’m struggling a bit in the classroom with my students right now because the norms of whiteness – especially that sense of entitlement which justifies individualism, challenges to authority, even blatant disrespect – is totally on display. But they are innocent to their situatedness, and I have to find a way to ease them into this knowledge such that they want to stick with the learning curve rather than reject it out-of-hand. Yet the whiteness sticks to me, too, because I know it: I have lived (acted, behaved, thought about, reacted to) things in the world and other people in essentially the same ways as they are living now. These norms have barely changed in the decades since I was their age, despite obvious institutional improvements.

    Where you and I definitely agree regards the conditioning to think of others as different, and not neutrally so, but obscurely – in a way that separates, stereotypes, thereby instilling discomfort and bias. While all these thoughts were muddling around in my brain, my colleague James and I had a workdate. He was preparing to leave and we were exchanging some lingering thoughts on various matters that we routinely consider. Suddenly he popped out with, “Do you think the unconscious is racist?”

    I think he’s nailed it!

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