Practical Ways We Can Stop Centering Everything Around White People’s Feelings

Last year, I had the opportunity to attend a conference and take a class that educated the hell out of me. I learned that the modern and subtle methods of racism (denial of work and/or education, lower wages, healthcare discrimination, daily microaggressions, lack of representation in media, etc. etc.) are often denied in their severity and impact.

I learned that when the word “racism” is used, white people think of lynchings and the n-word and the KKK, and they get angry because they support none of those and yet are being told that they are participating in and benefiting from an inherently racist system.

And I learned about the laws, the research, the history, and the current, ongoing systems of discrimination which make it very, very clear that racism is still a thing that is happening, all around us. Sometimes blatant and ugly, like the n-word and lynching and beating; but more often subtle and insidious, like refusing to acknowledge systems of disparate impact and blaming people of color for being defensive, or claiming that poc are lazy.

This year, I had the opportunity to take a class with a student body that was about 45 – 50 percent people of color. This is unusual in the area I live. Where I live, 83.7 percent of the population is “white” according to the 2010 census. The remaining 16.3 percent of the population breaks down as 2.0 percent Black persons, 1.1 percent Native persons, 6.0 percent Asian, 0.4 percent Pacific Islander, 1.8 percent “other”, 5.0 percent from two or more races, and 6.3 percent Latino persons.

In other words, I live in a very white-washed area. It is also a very liberal/progressive area. These two realities combine to create not only a space where subtle racism persists through unconscious or internalized bias, but where many attempts to address this sort of subtle racism are met with offended denial — because we are progressive, racially conscious liberals. We would not do things like be racist or engage in cultural appropriation.

During the course of this quarter, I have dealt with an internal struggle. How do I, as a white ally, help make this classroom a safer space? There are so many angry white voices in these classroom discussions. Despite the fact that people of color make up half the classroom demographic, their voices make up only a tenth of the discussion. They are drowned out by white allies arguing with white deniers.

As a white ally in a classroom of voices silencing and speaking over the people of color, is it my place to speak up and against the systems of oppression and racism, or is it my place to be quiet and try to provide a place for voices of color to step forward? How can my silence achieve anything when more white voices step into my silence? How can I make a supportive space for voices of color, and how can I encourage my professors to make such a space?

This post I am reblogging offers me hope. It offers some solutions. Ultimately, it’s up to my professors to navigate this classroom dynamic, but at this point it feels very much as though the hurt feelings of the white people in the room are being considered more than those of people of color.

Opine Season

Fun fact: white people’s feelings are magic. They can bring any conversation, meeting or movement to a halt. In a debate, they can outweigh even the most credible, concrete evidence. They can threaten someone’s job. They can even kill. White people’s feelings are one of this country’s most abundant natural resources and important exports.

Because of all this, any conversation about social justice, power, or history is going to naturally settle into orbit around white people’s feelings. And I get it: if we want to really do something about racism in this country, it’s white people who need to change the most, and it’s white people who often have the longest political/spiritual/emotional journey to undertake.

But when social justice education and/or media focuses solely on understanding racism through a white privilege framework, that can recreate the same oppressive structures we’re trying to destroy. When the conversation has such…

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3 thoughts on “Practical Ways We Can Stop Centering Everything Around White People’s Feelings

  1. I think this sort of thing can definitely be hard in a classroom setting where you are not the one facilitating the discussion. As you said, it is ultimately the responsibility of your professor to make sure that white people aren’t controlling all of the conversations. I know that in some classes I’ve taken, professors had a habit of saying, “How about someone we haven’t heard from yet today?” or something like that when the same few people are the ones dominating each topic. Although, it is a huge concern that, from what you said, it doesn’t sound like your classroom is a particularly safe space for people of color to speak out. It can take a lot of emotional energy to deal with these kinds of topics and it could be that your classmates are making a conscious decision not to engage with the ignorant/confident white people in your class. It couldn’t hurt to shoot your professor an email saying something about the fact that you’ve observed this pattern and it seems like the classroom environment is getting uncomfortable because of it.

    However, I also think that there are ways that you could contribute without speaking for your classmates or crowding the space. I’ve found that sometimes just shutting a domineering white person down can be an act of solidarity – i.e. “Hey guys, it seems like some of the white folks in the room are being pretty aggressive, maybe it’s time for us to step back and listen and think about what we’re being told.”

    • You’re definitely right about a few voices dominating the topic. The (two) professors are not unaware of the problem, they just have no idea how to address it. First off, we’re a large class, and we’re split into two separate groups for reading discussions. Each group is led by one of the professors. One professor is black, the other is white. Generally, the professors try to stay hands-off in reading seminar and not really lead the discussion or call on people to speak. They might propose questions or discussion topics, and in past reading discussions for other classes, I’ve seen professors actively moderate the discussion. I was assigned to the reading seminar of the white professor, so I can’t speak at all to how the other reading seminar is conducted. In talking to my classmates, though, it sounds like it is also dominated by a few aggressively angry voices of white privilege.

      The professors are well aware of the issue. Mine has tried to directly address it in class, and has spoken in frustration of the issue to some of the students privately. I suspect they just don’t really know how to deal with it, because it’s such a rare situation in our location. I don’t really know why the other seminar is dominated by white voices — I understand this is the other professor’s first year teaching, so the disarray there may come from inexperience or unfamiliarity with how the class is conducted.

      The other really problematic issue is that the white voices are divided three ways: There are the actual racists (about 2 per group), the outspoken white ally progressives (about 2 per group), and the white people who do not agree with racism, but also think it’s a thing of the past and are getting their minds uncomfortably blown by historical material they’re resistant to (about 10 per room). Each group has about 25 ppl in it, so the remainder of each group is students of color.

      The progressive whites usually end up arguing with the racist whites. Occasionally a few of the people of color speak up, but (in my group, anyway) there is one particular white ally who is very dogged about arguing/ speaking against any hint of racism, to the point that they speak over poc, lecture white allies on perceived slips of the tongue (for instance, a white ally who was quoting a historical text with the term, “colored,” in it was read the riot act by the aggressive progressive), and start arguments with anyone who doesn’t have the same grasp on the history/ racism in America as they do — whether or not that student is white. (There are a few people of color who don’t know a lot about the history of race in America, some due to lack of interest in history and some because they’re exchange students from Africa).

      So basically, all the mid-ground students — the ones who are neither blatantly racist or outspoken historically-versed progressives — are silent, because they don’t want to get yelled at. And the teachers have no idea how to handle the dynamic, because they want everyone to feel “safe,” and in the early part of the semester (aware that most people in this area tend to be progressive/ liberal) balanced that “safety” toward protecting the few conservative (and, as it happens, racist) voices from gang-up attack. That set a precedent that they don’t know how to move back on, and now the classes are awkwardly silent and dominated by two white camps arguing with each other.

      On the plus side, next quarter a few of the more outspoken voices transferred out of the class in disgust. Hopefully the conversation will be more balanced, and with the ideas in this blog and your comment, I might be able to suggest some solutions to the professors.

      Anyway. I don’t know

      • I’m sorry to hear that your professors are handling this situation so irresponsibly. Maintaining safety in a classroom means making sure that *everyone* feels safe, which is impossible if members of the culturally dominant group (in this case, whites) are talking over everyone else. If I were one of your professors, I’d probably tell the racist students that their contributions to the class are making others feel unsafe and to meet with them during their office hours if they need to sort their feelings out. It’s so disappointing to see these sorts of things mishandled, even at the university level. Good luck with your class. :\

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