On February 23, Angel Christian, Herb Adams and I sponsored the event “If You Don’t Know, Now You Know”. The moderated panel discussion, which was immediately followed by audience reaction and comment, was the culmination of a number of cooperative campus-wide efforts to engage Sea Wolves in thinking, talking and learning about the issue of race throughout Black History Month.
All in all, it has to be qualified as a success. The turnout was wonderful! During a Tuesday lunchtime, nearly 70 members of the SMCC community chose to attend – students, faculty and administration. The discussion could have easily continued for an hour or more beyond the allotted 90 minutes. The event would not have been possible without the dedication of Angel and Herb as well as many SMCC staffers.
However, for some of the attendees, the event was decidedly frustrating. I couldn’t help but notice that the goals of growth and learning had missed their mark. I am not writing to The Beacon so that this event can be fondly remembered as another self-proclaimed victory for race relations in academia. This letter is not the equivalent of a collective pat-on-the-back for a job well done. If anything, I would hope it serves more as cannon fire across the bow of this and every institution – and every individual – who would rather exert energy in the hopes that they be portrayed as forward-thinking and enlightened, rather than persist in the incisive and strenuous work of following through on ideological promises of social justice.
A funny thing happens when a small array of people get together to talk about race. The conversation often develops into a microcosm of society, reflecting the narratives and dynamics of the dominant group, namely, us white folks taking over and the voices and identities of people of color becoming largely invisible. When provocative or mildly controversial ideas are expressed, some of us invariably feel the need to offer up an anecdote that steers the good ship U.S.S. Privilege back onto its much safer, plotted course.
“If You Don’t Know, Now You Know” turned out to be a lot less about soberly facing the ugliness in a full-length mirror than a visit to the hot tub to dip our toes. To be perfectly honest, I did not want people to leave feeling good. Even though it was a short event, I wanted to produce some evidence that participants had taken in so much food for thought, that they were going to be digesting for days – furrowed brows, pursed mouths and raw hearts. I wanted white attendees to shut up and listen hard enough to the other perspectives in the room so that they could walk out with new prescriptions for their racial lenses, and be forced to view themselves and their worlds in a markedly new way.
Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, maintains that “whites have developed powerful explanations – that have ultimately become justifications – for contemporary racial inequality that exculpate them from any responsibility for the status of people of color”. This concept was echoed by a SMCC literature instructor, who expressed to me that she was “deeply troubled… that many of the white people used the time to congratulate themselves on being an ally, or to complain about how difficult and uncomfortable it is talking about race”.
While “If you don’t know, now you know” certainly yielded some positive – even constructive – discussion, it provided glaring reminders that even the most “progressive” within our community can be totally tone-deaf when it comes to the kind of notes that must be struck for true and lasting racial harmony. I’m not playing a blame game; a deep ignorance of the infra- and intrastructural realities of racism has plagued white Americans since, well, the founding fathers first penned that bit about the universality of “unalienable rights” – excepting the natives and the negroes, of course. The United States was quite literally built through a concerted campaign of racist annihilation and exploitation. Undeniably, everything and everyone has since been steeped in that cruel legacy.
The modern American, though, knows it’s not hip to be a bigot. We have mostly elected to cast off our grandparents’ overt, Jim Crow racism in exchange for a kinder, gentler “color-blind racism”. A perfect example is the work of Lee Atwater, a brilliant political mind responsible for much of the Republican Party’s successes throughout the 80’s. To paraphrase a description of the infamous “Southern Strategy” he once gave in an interview, he said, “Nowadays, you cannot just come out and say ‘Nigger, nigger’. You have to use abstract terms like ‘forced busing’, ‘states’ rights’, ‘cutting taxes’ – subtly encode the language within economic issues. Of course, we know the policies hurt blacks more than whites, but you’re not saying ‘nigger’, which would hurt the campaign.”
Whether or not the average citizen – or SMCC student – is aware at all of who has shaped the ideologies that dominate the public discourse, the time for white defensiveness, distraction and delay is OVER. When we have rich and regular opportunities to challenge our rote learning and to dismantle the narratives handed us, we must embrace them, and realize that the movement for justice is called a struggle for good reason.