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Racism in the Classroom

You have exhibited patterns of bias.

Published on:
September 11, 2018
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8 min.
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Seven out of ten. That was my first grade for the Spring semester in Dr. B.’s class. I’m not a C student but I would have let that one go. I wouldn’t have minded except the 7/10 according to my school’s grading curve, is a D. 

My professor informed me that I “did not stick with the assignment and put [my] reflections into dialogue with the historical context.” I returned the message, explaining that the question “didn’t ask me to dialogue with the historical context.” So, I didn’t. He didn’t respond to my note for weeks. I didn’t ask him if I could redo the assignment. I wouldn’t have accepted the favor even if he offered.

Race in the Classroom

Read the companion piece on the professors point of view.

This was my second class with the same professor and the previous semester hadn’t gone so well. During the fall, an initial tension between us had grown, for reasons I could not well explain at the time. But he was still my professor so I trusted him, and in confidence I went to him that first semester with my concerns. Surely he’d listen. After all, he was one of the few white professors on campus who publicized his passion for diversity and inclusivity.

Nancy, a Chinese student, was in our class too. She was my concern. She had a much more difficult time, partly as a result of the English language and the dense reading. Toiling to understand the material and the class discussions, she frequently asked questions, and I enjoyed them. Her interrogations were laced with narratives of her experience, Chinese history, culture, and thought, with a pinch of artistic flavor that resonated with me. It seemed befitting for a Media Arts & Worship class, but it seemed Dr. B. thought otherwise.

In that meeting with him, I shared my discomfort for the way Nancy was being talked over and dismissed in class. So much so that she became discouraged and lost interest. It was clear to me that Dr. B. had a vision for the course, but the apparent intrusion of a nuanced idea from a student apart of the “diverse” population modified his vision.

His response was in line with the typical whitewashed narrative the dominant culture maintains, especially in education. My professor argued that she “wasn’t trying hard enough.” Nancy did not participate as much and eventually ceased asking questions altogether.

My discomfort quickly developed into something worse. I was disgusted by him.

I was disgusted by him.

How could anyone think that of Nancy? If anything, she is the most hardworking student in class, reading and rereading sentences three to eight times just to comprehend.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I likened his words to what has been said of slaves ever since they stopped working for “free.” He thought Nancy was lazy.

That meeting ended without a resolution.

Like Nancy, I lost interest. I only came to class to get the attendance points. My earphones were constantly in. I watched Facebook videos and listened to Ms. Lauryn Hill to remind myself that “we’re [not] always gonna be disadvantaged.” I didn’t give him my voice, a perspective he had prided himself on creating a space for. It was my insurgent protest.

However, I was paying attention to everything he and the other students said and did. I didn’t know why I was taking notes, but I knew sometime they would come in handy. And so I needed to do it.

After that semester ended, I was free to read and explore what I wanted. That quest led me to an emerging discipline: the study of whiteness. “What is racism and its effects on those who perpetuate it?” became the foundation of my inquiry.

Another Meeting

When that Spring semester came around—the one that started with a seven out of ten—I took another required course with Dr. B. This time, however, I walked into that room feeling prepared. Prepared to pass the course, obviously, and, more importantly, prepared because I had a new vocabulary, a more developed foundation.

See, there is nothing more frustrating than not having the language to express your own struggles. But now, I had the vocabulary. Sitting in that classroom, I felt refreshed, in a sense, to be able to identify where bias was demonstrated so much so, that I could explain that bias to myself, and perhaps others. Which is exactly what I would have to do.

“You have exhibited patterns of bias.”

Prof. B, and my white colleagues, behaved over the course of that semester in ways that I had and hadn’t expected. This decolonizing knowledge of my experience charmed my ego. I thought that the results of my research were so profound they could impact the future of theological education and ministry. The semester away from school moved the fiction I entertained into more productive outlets.

When I met with him again in the Spring, that research would come in handy.

“You have exhibited patterns of bias, Dr. B., so I prefer the teaching assistant grade my work for the remainder of the semester.”
He pried into the heart of the matter—I knew he would. I denied his every plea for me to explain.

“You want me to continue to be ‘racist.’ I don’t think that’s fair,” he argued. Was the way Nancy was treated fair? Or me, fair? Or any other student of color who came before me, fair?

I don’t know if it was compassion or frustration, but I was moved to tell him the truth. My research between semesters concluded that there was a disconnect between his conscious intentions and his unconscious judgments and actions. His antiracist advocacy rhetoric didn’t translate into anything practical.

Silence filled the air. It wasn’t an absence of noise but a stillness so thick that it nearly choked the both of us, him more than me, I assume.

I don’t know if it was compassion or frustration, but I was moved to tell him the truth.

I observed the sorrow in his eyes, a sorrow to which I felt indifferent. After all, what had he suffered compared to Nancy? Emotional anxiety as a result of my claims? My prognosis of his treatment toward students of color was the result of his own actions. Just like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”[1]

And, thus, whiteness is an infection that dehumanizes those who practice racism. How else does someone explain one entering into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and riddling its worshipers with bullets? Whiteness deprives them—the white population—of their humanity. “There is something distorted about the psyche,” for “if you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem.”[2]

However, in the classroom, demonstrations of whiteness are significantly more subtle. Whiteness, in the classroom, looks like a transmission of dominant culture that marginalizes people of color and, likewise, their interests to reinforce white identity as the reference point. It is a murder of a different sense that preserves white superiority.

I had begun to understand the convolutions and vexations of oppression and activism in the context of the classroom: there is no paradigm. In my efforts to comprehend the relationship between whiteness and education, I was undeniably seeking answers, formulas, prescriptions to sever, what seems to be, an unyielding marriage of the two. No ultimate strategy exists except that one that is customized for the individuals involved.

Where is the love?

Yet, on the one hand, deep in the back of my mind, I thought I didn’t need an answer. My research allowed me to diagnose Dr. B.’s illness, but I am not the one with the treatment.

One day, Dr. B. asked me, “What can I do better?”

I laughed in his face.

Toni Morrison said, “White people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they can do about it.”

I am not a doctor, nor the son of a doctor. Dr. B. and others who practice racism need to resolve their own issue.

When did love stop with me?

In the months following, I thought about these events, and I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Where is the love?”

My petty self rebutted, “What’s love got to do with it?”

But for real, where was the love? Did I love Dr. B.? Did I love myself?

Perhaps, but when did love stop with me? When did I become a person who could receive and not freely give?

As you can see, I had a little bit of an identity crisis, amusing but my reflections steered me on a journey into a new understanding and experience of love.

Becoming an Agent of Change

Nearly a year after avoiding Dr. B., we met. Including the company of a friend, I shared with them my experiences. I told them, “Love has no conditions.” The problem with the language of allyship is that trust becomes the foundation of relationship. My black presence on a predominantly white campus mentally, emotionally, and physically preempts me to ask the question Who can I trust? Unable to find many candidates in one of the most conservative Bible-belt states in America, fear flourished in every area of my experience. This place is an ecosystem of paranoia and anxiety for persons of color. I came to the end of myself many times, until one day I said, “That’s enough. I’m done living in fear.” I went to counseling.

Race in the Classroom

Don’t miss “Dr. B’s” reflection on how his interactions changed the way he approaches students.

I’m still going through counseling. And this healing process has helped me do something I wasn’t able to do before: love. Trust was the condition of every relationship. The more I asked that question Who can I trust? the more paranoid I became of my surroundings, for good historical reasons of course. My healing helped me understand that my identity was not ultimately dependent or comparative to any of my colleagues. Anew I understood God loves me. As a result, the question changed. I began to ask myself if I trusted God. My relocation of trust in God freed me to love others. This is why I believe practicing faith means practicing the daily work of love.
And it doesn’t make sense.

One of my favorite quotes is from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “Darkness cannot put out darkness, only light can do that. And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems.” Dr. Martin Luther King was a leader and the face of a movement founded on this principle: Love your enemies. It doesn’t make sense, but it works!

I don’t remember how the conversation ended, but I remember telling myself, “Love is great, but love also requires the lover to be humble.” I took a deep breath and after exhaling asked, “How can an oppressed group of people, the most humbled social status in the country, go any lower?”

I believe it’s not of white people to ask that humility of anyone. Honestly, nor can I ask that of any person of color. I simply know it’s the transformative work of God in the lives of believers to impact history with the power of love. Like King, I’ve decided to be that example. The beauty is that anyone can do it because anyone can serve. The question is—Who are you loving?

What’s helped me is realizing I am not the only one. Hundreds of thousands of students of color experience these subtle demonstrations of racism in the classroom. These whitewashed environments adversely impact their lives. Only in love was I able to escape these insidious structures of oppression and fear and become an agent of transformation in my environment.

Wilton Howard
Wilton Howard is a contributor for Fathom Magazine, where he writes about culture and social issues.

[1] King, Martin Luther Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” April 16, 1963.

[2] Toni Morrison on The Charlie Rose Show. https://charlierose.com/videos/18778

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