As a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, I am given an inordinate amount of respect. A bit of that respect is earned, as some students enjoy my particular teaching style or who I am as a person. Most of the respect, though, is part of an enormous system of learning. I grade papers. And so it is in students’ best interest to freely give, or at least acquiesce, their respect.
It’s hard not to take advantage of respect so easily given. And this system of respect has rather quickly atrophied any efforts I would normally put into earning respect.
Racism in the Classroom
Students’ trust in the educational system, and my expectation for respect, sets a particular tone for professor–student meetings. Students are the learners, ready to listen, and I am (assumed to be) the wise sage, doling out sound advice. I love having these meetings. They are an incredible privilege and have enormous potential for changing lives.
The day Wilton entered my office, however, I was fearful. I feared the tension that had built up between us.
Wilton met with me at the beginning of the previous semester and brought up concerns about me not listening to another student—more specifically, not allowing her non-Western, non-white, non-male voice to have space in my classroom. I couldn’t hear him at the time. I thought other stuff was going on, and I told him so. I hardly heard from Wilton the rest of the semester. He was silent in class, his assignments expressed only enough to try to get the grade.
And so at the beginning of the next semester, when I saw him enter my office, I feared the absence of respect that normally makes meetings with students so easy. Or perhaps I had never earned his respect in the first place.
We sat in my office awkwardly while he requested that someone else grade his papers that semester. I pushed back, not liking the implication. He then dropped a bomb on me with the kind of precision that requires a great deal of patience. “You’ve exhibited patterns of bias.”
He was saying I am racist.
We sat in a painful silence for a minute or two as his words stood defiant against my defenses, and my defenses became a fortress. I wanted to be respectful and listen, but really? I prided myself on talking about issues of race. I set aside a day or two in each of my classes to explore the racial tension in America. I taught Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved in one of my classes. How could he think this of me?
With my heart pounding, I stumbled into some words. “You’re right. I am. I was born into, educated in, and do education from a place of white privilege. Fully stepping outside of that privilege is impossible for me, so I need your help. What can I do better?”
I think I expected him to offer me forgiveness and a path forward. I think I expected a return of the respect whose absence had set me adrift. He didn’t. Instead he began a litany of examples from the previous semester. Actions I had done. Inactions. Words I had spoken. And my silence.
Then he stopped suddenly. I didn’t know what to say. His tone broadened out to include a much larger picture as he explained that he was doing research.
Research? Research on me? . . . Why? . . . I fumbled in this abyss for something steady to grasp. Eventually, I took a deep breath and then repeated my question. “What can I do better?” He smiled. He said he didn’t want me to do anything differently. He wanted to continue his research. I took another breath, a painful one. And another. I didn’t know how to say what was in my head. “I feel like you’re asking me to continue to be racist.” He laughed, “Yes, exactly. That’s what I want.” I lost my tentative grip and fell. There was nothing to hold onto. I struggled even for air. “I don’t think that’s fair to ask.”
I can’t remember how we got to the next part of the conversation. Perhaps he mustered enough grace to set me free a bit, or perhaps he heard in my pain that I may actually listen. I’m not sure, but the further removed I get from that moment the more I am struck by my complete lack of insight. Wilton saw and named white supremacy—in me. Experience told him I couldn’t change, and so, before he ever entered my office, I was not his concern. He was hunting bigger game. He wanted to take down (or at least defy) the system that made me. I was, therefore, a test subject. I was the model white person that considered myself an ally but still operated in and benefited from a system of white supremacy. How would my power play itself out in a classroom? Would I ignore marginalized voices, make excuses for why they did not measure up?
Our second semester together was considerably better than the first. One of the reasons, I think, was because Wilton saw I was trying. Another was that I began to recognize my complicity in systemic racism, not just conceptually but practically.
When Wilton told me none of the course’s required or suggested texts were written by people of color, my defense was that our field of study (theology and the arts) was relatively young and was mostly white (and even mostly Reformed) theologians. I realized as I was saying it that this was no excuse—that I should be the expert and able to bring other voices into the conversation: artists, theologians, philosophers, sociologists, etc.
I later realized some more sinister implications of my defense: I was telling Wilton that black people were not speaking into this academic field. Of course, they actually are, but I’m not educated in and wasn’t searching for their voices. What black people were not doing was speaking about the arts in a way that fit my class, fit my myopic vision.
Additionally, the whole educational system at my school, and at most schools in the United States, was created in a white system that learns and teaches in a particular, Western way.
Wilton used words like “Afrocentric” thought and learning to destabilize my assumptions about how people learn. It took a semester of me trying to understand this in order to even begin seeing it in my classes. Not only was my teaching methodology white, success in school required a kind of passing, a kind of thinking in my white ways. Wilton called it a “double consciousness,” which he got from W. E. B. Dubois. I expected students of many backgrounds—racial, economic, and more—to assimilate and perform in a particular way in order to pass. And yet I claimed to be anti-racist.
The largest change for me, though, is likely a matter of pride. I prided myself in addressing issues of race in my classroom. I brought in guest speakers, so it wouldn’t just be my white voice in the discussion. But Wilton saw through it and called me out. He leaned in and asked why I was so interested in issues of race. What was I getting out of it?
He was right. I liked being known as a person on campus talking about race. I liked the feeling that I was doing good. I began to question my motives. Was I loving people of color in my classes, or just loving me?
Wilton saw “progressives” like myself as more dangerous than those ignoring the issue of race. Progressives think they are helping solve the problem while lacking recognition of racism’s systemic nature and their participation in it. In other words, progressives use the issue of race to assuage their guilt. Progressives use race to gain recognition and give themselves a platform. Wilton’s next statement that day has stuck in my head ever since: “Whiteness can do no other than to use black bodies for its own gain.”
Again, it took me a semester of stewing to even begin seeing this truth. Success within a white system (systemic racism, white privilege, white supremacy, whatever you name it) means thinking and acting in white ways that necessarily exclude other ways of being. I had a day set aside in my classes to discuss race because I wanted to show I was empathetic, or worse I wanted to be that guy on campus that discusses race in his classes. Sometimes, I even wanted to give space for black voices to be heard, but really only in this limited space, with a limited purpose that served my ends as the teacher.
A week or a month of the year set aside to honor African-American achievement is different than inviting black theology to challenge my assumptions about who God is. One celebrates ways black people have added texture and color to the things I already like as a white person. The other challenges my standing in society, begins to question my underlying, hidden, shameful belief that I’m better than others.
Racism in the Classroom
I have and continue to make changes in my classes concerning issues of race. One is doing away with a set-aside day to talk about race and instead finding ways to weave black and other voices into the fabric of our study. Mostly, though, my giving examples of changes will do others little good. Suggestions or techniques divorced from relational involvement are doomed to perpetuate the racist system they intend to dismantle.
My humbling experience has led to one very different technique. I am now trying to come alongside students, sit next to them with us both looking forward, and ask them what they see—and what they’d like to see.
In the year and a half since that painful meeting, my fear of Wilton has turned into real love. We now message one another somewhat frequently with resources or just thoughts and encouragement. When he stops by my office, he brightens it up like no other. The single most difficult moment of my career has probably become the most transformative. It’s not a transformation I earned, or even deserved. But God’s grace . . .