Baltimore Sun Sunday

Can a white man teach about racism? I did my best for 44 years

- By Fred L. Pincus Fred L. Pincus ( is an Emeritus Professor of Sociology at UMBC and the author of “Confession­s of a Radical Academic: A Memoir.”

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.

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