Learning about Racism from Students

For several years I have taught an undergraduate course at Boston College, titled The History and Development of Racism in the United States of America. Teaching is always a mutual exchange, so it is no surprise that each semester students teach me about racism. The lessons are seldom new, but each time they come with a freshness defined by the particular personalities of the persons involved in the class. Here are some of the things I have learned, each of which carries for me the images of particular students, and are therefore recalled with the affection I feel for them, my mentors.

Each semester I am reminded that many white students are products of homogeneous white environments, and their understanding of racism and of racial dynamics is very limited. When students of color begin telling of personal encounters with racism on an every-day basis, many whites are shocked into a new sensitivity which opens to them an ugly world they have not seen before. That ugly world has a history, and so we begin to trace the origins of racism in our national life. That history reveals a nation founded on two contradictory convictions, one of equality, and the other affirming white superiority. Students begin for the first time to understand the complex dimensions of our national problem. Problems encountered today are rooted in a history which lives in us.

White students, with a new sensitivity, begin to report an awareness of racial prejudice and discrimination taking place all around them. They tell me that it is “like having blinders suddenly removed from my eyes,” … “it is not facts being drilled into my head to be memorized; it is human beings, it’s our world, and it’s life.” Much of this new awareness reveals a social reality which becomes particularly tough when students begin to see the results of racism in their own beliefs, attitudes, and actions.

White students very often find themselves in danger of being trapped in guilt. Seeing what whites have done and continue to do to people of color, both personally and through institutions, guilt becomes a common response. Feelings of guilt cause some white students to become fearful of expressing themselves in class. So we have to work together to accept a kind of societal guilt without personalizing it, and to move beyond guilt over the past to a sense of responsibility for the present. That is often a painful period for white students, but it is a period which poses the student on the threshold of liberation and growth.

Students of color find it very hard to believe that some of the white students have no idea of how present, pervasive, and harsh racism is. When their own experience of racism is so continuous, it is hard at first to accept at face value that many whites simply have no idea about the reality of racism today. Privately, students of color often express their conviction that some of the white students are not being truthful.

Across this gulf of “knowing” and “not-knowing”, there is need for a lot of patient and empathic listening, on the part of both whites and people of color.

Most students I encounter in this class are open and eager to learn. They discover negative racist feelings within themselves, and they plead for help in “un-learning” those feelings. Students see T.V. programs and commercials from a perspective which critiques them for racial stereotypes. Campus life and relationships offer new opportunities for exploring issues of racism. Laughing at racist jokes is no longer fun for them, and they begin to experiment with the most effective ways of countering their friends who still engage in those jokes. They report lengthy discussions with roommates after each of our weekly classes, and after semester “break” comes serious reflection on how to deal with racist attitudes they may now recognize in their parents and best friends at home. A frequent question is, “How can I share my new insight and concerns without judging my parents or losing a life-long friend?”

Each semester I am taught once again that racist behavior may be intentional or it may be unintentional. It is tough for students of color to accept as unintentional those things which are so hurtful to them. We read a history which shows us a massive amount of racist laws passed, racist judicial decisions announced, racist constitutional provisions enacted, all of which were clearly intended. In that light it is easy to assume that present acts are also intentionally racist. For white students, who may not know of the racist effect of their actions, it is hard to realize that sometimes their actions produce an effect contrary to what they intend. When they discover that dynamic, we then explore the power they have to change their actions. What is needed next is the will to make those changes. Students discover themselves at decision points which are similar to those experienced by many other people in the past; history teaches us the reality that only a few in each class will make the harder decisions necessary to change. In those few I rejoice and from them I gain strength.

Students do not easily see the institutional dimensions of racism. That is also true of most people whom I know. Becoming aware of the one-on-one dynamics of personal encounters between people of different races is relatively easy, but the institutional aspects are harder to see. Many simply do not think in institutional terms, do not have understandings which equip them to see the ways in which institutional policies, procedures, and practices may have racist effects. Without this understanding the picture of racism will always be incomplete, so we have to begin to provide some of the tools for this new exploration. I am reminded once again of the importance of educating people to identify the impact of individual institutions, and of the intersection of systems of institutions which may be racist.

What students have taught me most of all is not something I can summarize as a “learning” or an insight into racism, or even as an understanding. Mainly what they teach me is an attitude toward the future. They give me that great gift of hope…

–     A student who describes how he has confronted a bank teller who uses racist language, gives me hope.

–     A student who says that every evening after our class is filled with discussions with her roommates, gives me hope.

–     A student who seeks supervision in a field placement in a civil rights organization, gives me hope.

–     A student who says, “I have begun to change my behaviors, convictions, and outlook on life and people,” gives me hope.

–     A student who writes, “I have a long way to go in overcoming my prejudices … my goal this semester is to accept people for what they are, not for what I think they should be …” gives me hope.

–     A student who goes to graduate school and returns to seek help with a major paper on institutional forms of racism, gives me hope.

Hope in this long struggle against racism is the essence of sustaining power. What a magnificent gift I am given each semester! I share that gift now, with you.