Last summer I wrote a column discussing a conversation that I had with a student in my introductory history course. The discussion concerned affirmative action and how he viewed the policy as unfair and discriminatory against Whites. The exchange went back and forth for several minutes, captivating some students and amusing others. I concluded the discussion by informing the student that I would be more than willing to continue the conversation after class. He did not take me up on my offer.
In November 2013, Shannon Gibney, a professor of English and Africana Studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College in Minnesota, was reprimanded by her institution for offending the sensibilities of three White male students who were enrolled in her course. According to media reports, the three students claimed that she always portrayed White men as “the bad guys” and filed a grievance against her.
In some ways, Professor Gibney’s saga reminded me of my situation. We both were confronted with young White men who acted as a result of their perception that they were the victims of discrimination or unfair scapegoating. Professor Gibney’s male students felt under siege by a supposedly “angry race-baiting” Black woman. In the case of my student, the culprit was the larger society that had supposedly “declared war” on White men. So much for White male privilege, I guess.
Such encounters (and many others) that have undoubtedly taken place between a number of Black and other non-White academic and staff members and White students confirm the fact that the topic of race is one that far too many Americans are still reluctant to confront in an honest and direct manner. Such a dilemma reminds me of when W.E.B. Du Bois argued: that “the problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line …” Du Bois’ prophetic message was right on target and has journeyed into the culture and fabric of the 21st century.
For a segment of people, just the mere mentioning of race is enough for them to resort to defensive posturing and, in a number of cases, outright denial of the fact that race is an issue in our society and abroad. These are the men and women who believe that racism is an issue that is either non-existent or a benign factor in American society at best. Indeed, a number of these individuals believe that, if anything, “reverse racism” and “reverse discrimination” against Whites is a more serious problem in our nation today.
A 2011 study conducted by researchers at Tufts University and Harvard University surveyed both White and Black Americans about their perspectives on the current racial climate in America. The results revealed that the majority of Whites interviewed were under the assumption that they had now become the primary victims of racial discrimination in the 21st century. Moreover, many of these participants say they believed that anti-White prejudice was more of a “bigger problem” than the prejudice that Black Americans face. This despite the fact that all indicators ― economic, educational, health, etc. ― clearly demonstrate that Black Americans (and a large number of Latinos), disproportionately suffer from widespread and chronic disparities far greater than the majority of Whites.
The fact is that here have been a number of studies that have exposed and verified the economic, psychological and spiritual demoralization that many people of color, and, in particular, Black Americans, suffer from, due to the rampant levels of structured racial inequality. Such opinions on the part of certain Whites would be laughable if they were not so serious, due to the fact such misguided beliefs often result in dangerously precarious predicaments and further marginalizes people and communities of color.
We have been socialized to believe that discussing race and racism is impolite, taboo and off limits. It is certainly not a topic that one should discuss with members of other races. Too often, the topic is avoided at all cost regardless of consequences.
The truth is that race is a factor in our society that has been with us since the beginning. It has remained a searing topic and it is not one that is not going to absolve itself from the public discourse simply because there are too many people who are afraid to confront the issue. As our nation becomes blacker and browner everyday, it is a subject that will demand honest and candid discussion.