I left this workshop, which I facilitated with Emad Mirmotahiri, simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted. The turn-out was amazing; the conversation insightful and committed. But I openly acknowledged that our session would only scratch the surface and I continue to wonder whether that scratch will have any real effect. As Allie’s and Rachel’s posts already suggest, talking about race is hard, personal, emotional work. I do believe, though, that this work can transform a scratch in the surface to a dent in the structure. I want to highlight here some of the strategies that emerged through the workshop. My hope is that words evolve into work that causes dents, and that our communal dent-making can loosen the structures that impede productive dialogues about race.
One of the top strategies was that of telling your own story, which might mean sharing an anecdote about a pivotal event that shifted your way of thinking about race or positioning yourself racially in terms of your scholarship. As Allie’s post captures, the amazing thing about stories is that they offer a vehicle to model strategies for engaging in race talk. To open the session, for example, Emad told the story of a white friend who wondered, after attending a Persian wedding, why Persians tended to befriend and marry only other Persians. When Emad questioned this observation, pointing to the way that white people also tend to befriend and marry only white people, the friend’s observation was telling: “But it’s different.” The response is telling because, as Emad explains, “it evidences one of the most challenging and beguiling problems of race these days, which is no longer […] racism; it is, rather, the spectrality (invisibility is not precise, actually) of whiteness. Whiteness–as a formation, not a community–has come to characterize itself as innocent of race, outside of it, over it, beyond it, immune to its torments, exempt from its responsibilities. It doesn’t see itself as a term in the structure of race.” Emad’s story illuminated the necessity of including whiteness in discussions of race—even if, or perhaps precisely because, it might make people uncomfortable.
During the workshop several participants talked about the growth that can come with discomfort. But situating students at this learning edge can be tricky. Many of the session’s participants talked about the delicate balance of creating a safe space while also challenging students to examine their own assumptions. Like others at the workshop noted, creating a space in which we’re allowed to be vulnerable by admitting to our own mistakes (and acknowledging that our conversation will likely lead to more) can ease some of the discomfort. As a white woman studying and teaching multi-ethnic literature about the Vietnam War, I talk with my students about how I struggle with my positionality: what right do I have to be making claims about how literature represents the war, the minority-group soldiers who fought it, or the way in which our national culture represents—or fails to represent—them? I’ve been afforded opportunities to talk about my work with diverse groups of people in and out of the academy. It can be intimidating, and sometimes I overgeneralize so that I won’t have to engage too deeply and stick my foot in my mouth. But lately I’ve been more direct and I’ve learned so much more from the conversations that follow. Sharing these experiences models for students a productive vulnerability.
To emphasize that our conversation is a shared learning experience, I use a concrete comparison that addresses my students’ desires to be “politically correct” and also helps them overcome the fear of appearing racist. When we begin a conversation about race I say,
“We’re going to have a complex conversation today/this week/this semester because we’re talking about race, identity, and privilege. Often these conversations might feel like we’re walking on a carton of eggs, choosing our words carefully so as not to break any. Well, I’m probably going to break some eggs because the complexity involved in race dialogues doesn’t go away. If I break some eggs today, I hope you’ll help me clean up the mess. Breaking the eggs doesn’t mean we’ve failed—it just means we have more work to do, and I want us to work together.”
Using this metaphor helps me to remain in a mindset that focuses on facilitating rather than fixing students’ conversations about race. Students can become resistant and defensive if they think that their words or actions are being judged, devalued, or viewed as offensive. This type of resistance can shut down conversations or relegate them to the superficial or non-productive. Approaching students empathetically helps to keep the lines of communication open. When conversations reach a sticking point or the room becomes too quiet, I can focus our attention by raising the question, “do we have some eggs to clean up?”
Raising the question about my role in the field of multiethnic literature of the Vietnam War also illuminates the complexity and value of both intra-racial and inter-racial dialogues and it enables me to be empathetic to their fears and hesitations. I talk with my students about the difficulty of choosing words, especially those that refer to groups of people, and I model for them the careful, critical thought that goes into those decisions. This was described by workshop participants as providing context and equipping students with a lexicon for talking about race in a productive and informed manner. Prefacing Linda Alcoff’s idea of “speaking with” and not “speaking for” marginalized groups and then historicizing the importance of not letting the work of race dialogues fall on people of color helps centralize whiteness as a subject position that needs to be examined. I describe how reading the fiction of those who are not white isn’t about being a passive observer of the world of an “other” but about how the text is speaking to us as an individual whose actions and reactions can effect change. How, in other words, does the reading implicate us in the very systems it works to dislodge?
Being implicated can arouse feelings of shame and guilt, but it also signals that there’s room for growth, change, and action. In other words, being part of a system means we can also be part of the change. As was articulated in the workshop, the goal is to implicate, not incriminate. Stories can help students (especially in predominantly white classrooms) understand the intersections between their lives and those of others and to see more clearly their potential as change agents in their communities.
Perhaps you’re not sure that storytelling will work for you. Here are some other strategies that emerged from the workshop:
- Ask students what challenges they face when talking about race. Share their answers (anonymously) and work together to develop some solutions.
- Be thoughtful and intentional when planning your reading lists. Don’t simply include diverse authors. Integrate identity into the conversation through historical context, current events, etc. Remember, discussing whiteness is discussing race.
- Make material relevant, personal, and engaging by taking advantage of events happening on or around campus (e.g., film screenings, guest speakers, arts exhibits, and other excursions)
- Reach out to others, especially outside your field. Cross-disciplinary conversation provides fresh perspectives and can work to build confidence in engaging difficult dialogues.
Part of the reason that the workshop was draining is that for as many solutions as it illuminated, it also raised a lot of questions. As we often urge our students, though, asking questions leads to learning. New questions create energy that inspires dent-making. So…what questions remain for you?