Many nights this week I felt choked up and emotional. Beyond the global issues we are currently facing- the attacks in Paris and many states refusing Syrian refugees- many of us are witnessing racism on our campuses. One of the students on my campus posted some provocative words on social media that resulted in strong emotional responses from both students and faculty.
Teaching Students of Color as a White Woman
Two years ago in my Sociology of Health Care class most of the students were women of color. When we studied health disparities and the impact of racism, the students were not surprised by what they read, specifically about the impact of racism on birth outcomes and mental health. I remember the day I showed a video on how racism affects birth outcomes, and the meaningful class discussion we had afterwards. As a white woman (and one in the South with credentials behind her name), I didn’t want to be “that” professor who talks about inequality based only on on data, with students assuming I am the expert, or that I might be trying to marginalize their experience and put it into categories, or that I knew what it felt like to be a person of color. Instead I told them I could share the sociological research and evidence, but as a white woman I was not going to pretend I had shared their experience, and that their voices were critically important in this discussion.
My beloved copy of Patricia Hill Collins book Black Feminist Thought is no longer on my bookshelf. I gave it to a student, a woman of color, who through tears, told me about the racism and discrimination she has faced in her life and on campus. Another student, a queer woman of color, waited a week during a break to come talk to me about a painful experience, where the intersections of race, gender, and sexual identities collide. I feel honored that these students trusted me and shared their painful stories. In saying this, I am not asking for an award for being an ally that my students trust. Instead, I am advocating that we let our students know we support them as allies. In doing so, we must listen to their experiences. Racism and social justice are issues we should all be working on and not just on the backs of those who already oppressed.
Free Speech? Social Media, Racism, and Threatening Language
Monday evening after arriving home from an event with my daughter, a post by a student I do not know at our institution made its rounds on Face Book (FB). The post critiqued the Black Lives Matter movement and associated protests in Missouri. This student didn’t just express their disdain for these protests; they made what some perceived as threatening claims about what would result if this happened on our campus. To add fuel to the fire, this student also expressed their severe dislike for those who are Muslim or Islamic, in response to the tragedy in Paris.
To their credit, our administration responded through Facebook, as well as with a letter from our current president, acknowledging the importance of free speech as a constitutional right, and also saying that threatening comments violate our student code of conduct. The original post by the student has since been taken down. Unfortunately, too many people had taken screen shots of the post for it to be truly deleted.
As I was reading various responses via comments to the different Facebook posts about the incident and what students, alumni, and parents were writing, I was upset, angry, and sad. One set of comments ran the gamut, from the expression that God loves everyone, to the belief people were over-reacting, and that we can’t control free speech. Other comments pointed out the threats, the racism, historical legacies of racism, and emotions such as anger and fear. I felt a mixture of emotions as I read about how students of color feel on campus – many of them students I know personally. How do we advocate for social justice and ending oppression of our students while enabling free speech?
Our administration did respond, as I noted above, and I believe the incident is being taken seriously. Our NAACP chapter and minority students on campus also spoke out in regards to the incident. (Here is one story.)
I decided that this was an opportunity for my students to discuss these real life issues in one of my classes, where all but one of my students is a person of color. We discussed the Facebook messages, both in regard to racism on campus and also in relation to the Syrian refugee issues (as we live in state in which our Governor and leaders stated we would not allow them due “security” issues).
Students’ Voices on the Issues
I told my students this blog would be about these issues and they gave me permission to share with you part of our discussion. To preface this, I told them it was their time to talk. I wanted to know how they felt, what racism they have seen or experienced, and what solutions they thought might help. Not all the students agreed on solutions, but it was a fruitful discussion, and I wanted to share some of its highlights.
I admit it is difficult to put this in writing, as I do not want to misrepresent what students said nor just put their words into categories. To present important components of this conversation, here are summaries and a few quotes from the students, which is not in any particular order:
Whites are afraid of African Americans and when we (African Americans) speak it’s seen as riot comparable to the KKK.
Look around at us… 1 in 4 of us (as black) will end up in jail.
If a black student posted something with this hatred and threats they would be in jail.
Specific events have happened in the past on campus involving symbols of racism and slavery, which caused fear among students of color.
Children are socialized to be racist.
Greek residences on campus resemble plantations. Students of color feel uncomfortable with the whiteness in this space.
Things are not going to change until the system changes. We have to start with children and teach them what matters.
The Black Lives Matter movement can be seen in different ways in terms of it is going to work. “We are fed up” and “our people are dying” were stated.
Why are there mandatory classes on drinking and sexual assault on campus, but not about diversity issues relating to people of color? Why are we required to take math, but not a class on dealing with diversity? Even if classes are intended to be about diversity for incoming students, they may not really deal with the issues.
A student of color talked about a class she took on race issues, in which there were only two white students. One of these students was honest in the class and noted she wanted to learn more about diversity issues, but was afraid to ask questions as she might be labeled as racist in doing so.
Why is there a lack of diversity, more specifically people of color, as faculty and administrators on campus?
In summary, the conversation had many directions and I don’t think any of what my students said will surprise many people. Some of the conversation was hard as some students felt hopeless and angry. Others were more positive about change occurring and much of this was about kids and education. So, is presenting what the students said going to change things? I hope that it can lead to more conversations, but this is only a starting point. I feel that what I can do is listen, reinforce that their voices matter, and encourage them to talk to faculty and administrators on campus who do care. I take their words seriously and continue to think about through my role as an educator.
Understanding & Compassion vs. Violence & Fear
As I told my students, their voices are important, but it is not just their job to have these discussions on our campus (and all campuses) or in society. We can’t put the burden only on students of color and those who are oppressed, to do all the work. As part of systematic racism and oppression, we are all part of the problem and solutions. As sociologists who study and know that racism in all forms still exists, we can listen to our students and let them know their voices and concerns are legitimate.
We are not allies unless we are willing to listen. And in my eyes, this requires empathy and compassion. It’s also about acknowledging that for some of us, we benefit from and contribute to these systems of oppression, because of our own privileges. We need to have humility to take a step back. Even though we might be “experts” as professors and researchers, we need to listen. In doing so, we need to let our students, colleagues, and friends know our empathy is not just, “I’m sorry for how you feel”, but it’s also, “Please tell me how you feel and how do we work together to solve this.”
Black lives matter. My students’ lives matter. Let’s be there for them by standing up for social justice, enabling conversations to happen, voices to be heard, and recognizing our own parts in systems of oppression. I thank my former and current students for having these discussions.
In our society, within our local environments, within our country, and globally, it is evident we all do not all agree with each other or even understand each other. Because the root of many of these issues are structural, we are not going to solve all our social problems immediately. However, I believe we can try to understand with compassion, not fear or hate. In terms of all the current issues we are facing in society, with historical components, compassion and empathy is going to get us farther than threats of violence or actions based on fear.