Thursday, March 12, 2009

What We Can't Talk About

In my grad class last night, we discussed African American's "racial uplift" approach to challenging discrimination in the early twentieth century. One of my grad students caught me in the hall during break to ask, "Do you feel comfortable talking about race with black students in the class?"

I was taken aback. This white student is older than me by 15 years or so and a veteran high school history teacher.

"Of course," I say and then I ask, "Are all your students white?"

"Yes, and I don't think I could talk about race if they weren't."

Once I recognized her hesitancy, I started to see several others who were holding themselves back. A wave of inspiration would pass over their faces, their mouths might open, they would sit up a little taller, only to slump back down. I finally had to stop them and remind them that intellectual exploration and debate was the whole point of the course. And then I still had to pull ideas out of several of them, white and black alike, so hesitant were they to criticize African American leaders from a century ago -- lest they look racist (white students' fear) or reveal that a form of racism might have been at work in the black community (black students' fear).

So it fell to me to stir the pot... to ask outrageously provocative questions, to take ideas to extreme ends until the students felt compelled to jump in and wrestle their ideas away from me lest I do them more harm.

I do this all the time on all sorts of issues in my undergrad classes. What was striking about last night was that I felt I had to do it in my grad class. This is a class (of eleven women and one man who says nothing) that is happy to tell you how awful women are to each other, what crimes "all men" (yes, yes, I challenge them on this) have committed against women... but they apparently seize up on the issue of race and the possibility that they might say something "wrong" about (insert whispery voice here) black people.