White fragility as resistance on university campuses
Francis Kendall, who writes about the need to examine white privilege, wrote a semi-autobiographical book about her own privilege which I use in my classes. Often it is eye opening for my students, who are majority white, to surface the ways in which they benefit from privilege. I use the book so that they can begin to understand their own identities, how they are impacted, and how power has been inequitably distributed as a result. They do indeed begin to understand their own privilege, but this sets them on a course of racial identity development which can lead to real road blocks.
I teach at a predominantly white institution, and there are very limited opportunities to address race and racism, until there is an incident of racism. Without these ongoing opportunities to talk about race, race becomes something unusual to discuss– both exciting and taboo. This is not only true in my classes, among students, but with colleagues and administration as well.
Among students, as I said, they are usually animated by the discussion of race, but often express in evaluations that their professor brings a liberal politics that make them uncomfortable. Among colleagues, a conversation about race is challenging as well. When our new vice president of diversity addressed our education faculty, she talked about the importance of creating a more tolerant campus, but what people remembered was an off-handed remark she made about her unhappiness with the Trump administration’s influence on the climate on schools and college campuses. Faculty members balked at her being too political.
Another example comes from my own experience of planning a conference on equity and education. The conference will focus on race and the need to address it at all levels of education in order for us to more effectively and equitably educate young people. The focus on race was met with surprise and anxiety from administrators. I was asked numerous times if I was sure this was a good idea to focus so narrowly, if I was sure we should use the terms Black and Brown youth, and if I was sure that the focus would make enough people feel included in the discussion. One white faculty member was suspicious of the single focus on race, and wondered if it was “promoting an agenda” and was “exclusionary.” I argued that this was an opportunity to engage directly with race and racism, which has been a major problem since we have not fully grappled with it as faculty or as a society. This was met by silence. The message was clear, there was real resistance to focusing on race and racism.
This year, I had a white colleague call me, at home, out of the blue. Someone with whom I had never really spoken. She told me that she felt that the climate for faculty of color, and anti-racist faculty was inhospitable and they were feeling vulnerable in a time of Trump. This and all of the examples I mention is worrying because we cannot expect our students to be comfortable talking about race if we are not. It is these set of experiences that cumulatively have shown me how the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the reproduction of white domination continues, leaving campuses like mine inhospitable to the experiences of Black and Brown students as well as faculty.
If directly confronted, I am sure that white students, teachers, faculty and administrators I know would say that they are interested in dismantling racism on campus. They would reiterate their support for inclusivity and would celebrate diversity. But celebrations will not get us to where we need to be. If we cannot have open discussions about racism, then it is clear the university cannot create a welcoming space. Of course, there is always the possibility that things will improve. The university hired a new administrator to focus exclusively on diversity. She immediately identified the problem of silence around race and racism on campus among faculty. I don’t know how successful she will be, but the alternative is that the campus cannot engage fully in the work of changing its culture.
Still, I cannot shake the worry that white people cannot handle the conversation about race, their fragility and discomfort is problematic at best. I do not have the answer for how to proceed, other than to keep on talking about race and confronting racism when I encounter it.