“To Be White is to Be Racist”

The amount of white people who are too engulfed in their white privilege to see the prevalence of racism is frightening. Whether that racism is on a blatant, subtle, individualized or institutionalized level, it’s there, and people need to start realizing it so that we can work towards decreasing it.

Just the other day I opened up Facebook to see that someone had posted a news article about a high school teacher in Norman, Oklahoma teaching his students about racism. He captioned this post, “Lol this is a joke. I would’ve punched that teacher right in the jaw.” Based on past posts from this Facebook user, I knew I was in for some extreme jaw clenching and frustration. The big quote of this article was, “To be White is to be Racist.”  Basically, this incident was publicized because many of this teacher’s white students were very offended by his words, and one even started recording him. This girl who recorded him said that she “felt like he was encouraging people to kind of pick on people for being white,” and wanted him to apologize. Even her father said, “Why is it okay to demonize one race to children that you are supposed to be teaching a curriculum to.” Other students, whose voices didn’t make it into most representations of the story, supported the teacher, saying that his words got taken out of context, and that they think it’s important to have discussions about institutional racism in school.

There are so many issues with what these people are saying, I don’t even know where to start. The way that people have responded to this reminds me a lot of one of the chapters from Sue’s Race Talk. He talks about how taboo of a subject white people make race into, and that people are so hesitant with it, often being very superficial when they talk about it. Essentially, they use a politeness protocol, but when a white person breaks this politeness protocol, they’re seen as deviant. This is shown in the way that everyone has been demonizing this teacher for his blunt words that lack any sort of sugar coating, without actually looking at the implications of his words. Sue also describes how race talk is filtered through a lens of European norms, and if a white person starts to feel bad, then that becomes the central issue. This is exemplified in this story about how the entire thing essentially becomes about this white girl’s experience, and how offended she was. No one is talking about the racial implications anymore; she just wants an apology. The media contributes to this as well, focusing their headlines on this “shocking” quote from the teacher, how out of line he was, and how terribly the girl feels because of it. This master narrative perpetuates this idea that racism is a taboo subject, overshadowing the counter narrative that this teacher actually had something important to say.

Notably, this teacher definitely could have gone about this lecture a bit differently, since the students clearly weren’t ready for it. His blunt phrasing was not the right strategy with this group as a starting point. However, the fact that some of the students got his message shows that it was not this big demonization of white people that the media is making it into. He wasn’t trying to say that every individual is blatantly racist or a bigot, as some seem to exclusively associate with racism. He was talking about factors bigger than any individual, that are built into the institutions of society. But even so, many people are on the defensive, outraged at the teacher and claiming that his lecture was such “a joke” and complete “BS,” as one Facebook commenter so eloquently stated. In general, the responses to this story completely deny that there is any truth to this teacher’s words. This is one huge microinvalidation. While some of the responder’s words are a bit aggressive, these people genuinely believe that what he is saying is untrue and feel attacked because of it. They do not intend to invalidate the presence and experience of institutional racism, but they just don’t see it or understand it, so they respond by attacking the source of the threat to their preferred idealistic perception of white people.

It is quite ironic how these people are accusing the teacher of demonizing white people or “picking on” them, seeing as that is something Blacks have to experience their entire lives. The point of the teacher’s lecture was not to pick on anyone, but to inform them on the societal factors that stand in their favor, and that disadvantage people of color. But they don’t want to hear that. The response to this classroom lesson just goes to show how badly people need to have these race talks and hear the sad truth of the societal structures that are inherently tipped in their favor. But evidentially, when the pushback on these race talks is so strong, there needs to be very careful thought put into the way racism is addressed, so that it can be the most effective in promoting comprehension of it and change. How could this teacher, if at all, have gone about this talk about race and institutional racism in a way that was more effective on the majority of the students, without making them feel attacked?

2 thoughts on ““To Be White is to Be Racist”

  1. I find it very interesting to see that the other teachers were supporting this behavior and comments by saying that it got taken out of context. Situations like this do not just get taken out of context. That is just an excuse to not talk about race. I think that this teacher needs to be taught a lesson or two about racism. Additionally, to answer your ending question, I think that the teacher needs a lesson about institutional race before he can go ahead and talk to his students about it.

  2. This sounds like a classic case of white fragility, which is unfortunate because it’s already so rare that educators build the courage and gain the awareness necessary to even address issues of race to their students and there’s nothing more discouraging than being shut down so definitively.

    A suggestion I would make to educators who would like to dedicate class time to discussions about race is to do just that: create a discussion. Of course people are going to immediately shut down and create defenses against an idea 1. if that idea goes against everything they’ve learned up until this point, but more importantly 2. if they don’t come to that idea at least partially on their own. I looked this article up online and the first quote mentioned – the quote meant to summarize in essence what was being lectured about in that classroom – was “To be white is to be racist, period.” Even knowing what we know, knowing that there is some truth to that statement, we also know that the problem is more complicated than that and deserves an explanation. We also know why so many people were outraged when hearing this and it’s because it was declared so bluntly without warming anyone up to why that could be true. All everyone heard was “you’re white, you’re racist, and you deserve to be reprimanded simply because of the color of your skin.”

    That’s why I think race talk might be best as an organic discussion where students realize the injustice, their own conscious or unconscious participation in the injustice, and changes they can make within themselves to help eradicate these injustices on their own with the teacher as a moderator, fact checker, and maybe they will even take part in introducing more specific subjects. There will still be discomfort and pain but there might not be a wall of defense against the topic, especially if classrooms can dedicate time to creating ground rules about discussion like the ones we have in our own class.

What do you think? Join the conversation!