Baltimore Sun Sunday
Can a white man teach about racism? I did my best for 44 years
Although I am a privileged, white male, I don’t feel guilty about the sordid history of racism in the United States. I do, however, feel responsible for fighting against injustice and trying to prevent it from continuing in the future.
In my actions, I try to be an ally to people of color — an anti-racist. I taught about racism at UMBC for 44 years before my retirement. I’ve written five books and dozens of articles on these topics. I’ve attended countless demonstrations and given thousands of dollars to local and national organizations that confront racism.
In short, I’m one of those academics the right-wing would like to ban from teaching. Recognizing how systemic racism is built into our history, economy and culture can be difficult to take in. Realizing that some of our basic beliefs are oversimplified, if not incorrect, can be painful. But it’s essential to get to the truth.
I still remember in the 1950s when my fourth-grade teacher said, “The Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery.” I went home and told my progressive parents. They flipped out and told me my teacher was wrong. This left me confused since this was the first time that I remember questioning something a teacher said. Of course, it wasn’t the last time.
When I started teaching race relations to undergraduates in the tumultuous year of 1968, I learned that I had to teach them the material but also bring students along gradually when things got touchy. If a white student would refer to “colored” people rather than “Black” people, I would gently try to explain how racial labels had changed. One of the biggest fears of white students at the time was to be called a racist. “Don’t feel guilty,” I’d say. “Learn from your mistakes.”
A Black male student once denounced me in front of the class saying that I, as a white person, had no right teaching about race relations to either white or Black students. Stunned, I tried to explain, but he would have none of it. I didn’t want to be seen as a racist either.
The student also refused to turn in an important assignment toward the end of the semester. I didn’t want to give him an F since he was a good student. Also, how would it look to fail an outspoken Black student in a race relations class? After asking a Black administrator to intervene, he finally turned in the assignment. I was relieved.
Eventually I learned to create safe spaces for students to discuss contentious racial issues. Since the course was an elective, I had very few conservative or overtly racist students, so it wasn’t difficult to keep the discussions civil. “Remember,” I’d say,
“you can disagree with what someone says without attacking them as a person.”
Several decades into my teaching career, I told my class that prejudiced people use pejorative terms like the “N-word,” except that I said the word. A female Black student, said “You should never say that word.” Stunned again, I said, “I was only trying to say that prejudiced people say things like [N-word].” “See, you said it again even after I asked you not to,” she said.
I had no idea what to say, so I used my fallback position: “What does the rest of the class think?” We had a stimulating discussion of pejorative racial terms until I told them that I’d have to think about this and I’d let them know in the next class.
After much soul searching and discussions with colleagues, I realized I could make all the important points that I wanted to make without saying the actual word. I also wondered how many students over the past 25 years had the same feelings as this student but never said anything.
Later in my career, I started teaching graduate and undergraduate courses on diversity, adding the issues of gender, class and sexual orientation. Many students were horrified about what they learned and felt deeply troubled.
“You’re not responsible for what happened in the past,” I’d remind them, “but you are responsible for what you do or don’t do now.” This tone helped many students to learn painful truths.
Challenging students, both intellectually and emotionally, is a good thing if it’s done properly. Guilt and discomfort can be teachable moments — for the teachers, too — that lead to new ways of thinking and acting. The right-wing attempt to ban teaching about these issues will only permit miseducation to continue. It’s time to face the past so that we can make a better future.