Empowerment Starts Here

This site is dedicated to the professional and academic work of Dr. Angela Dye.

Why We Can’t Talk About Racism

When the world went up in arms after the no bill indictment surrounding Darren Wilson (the officer charged but exonerated in the slaying of Michael Brown), I noticed two reactions.  The first was a movement requesting America to “finally” start talking about race (as if we haven’t been trying to talk about it all along); and second, there was strong pushback, reducing any meaningful conversations to deflections, projections, and ad hominems.  As a result of the request for and the resistance against race-centered talks, I wrote a piece for the local paper entitled, “To Talk or Not to Talk” (11/29/14).

In light of the heightened racial tensions we are experiencing today (7/10/16) and the failed attempts to talk and learn more about old and new racial wounds, I felt the need to recycle what I offered two years ago.


When I was a senior in college, my last education class required us to read a book by Lisa Delpit that critically examined white teachers’ capacity to teach black students. As the instructor talked about the content of the book, a discussion emerged where my classmates each took turns sharing their ideas.

Somewhere in what could have been considered the middle of the conversation, one of my classmates erupted. Talking directly to the teacher, she said, “I want to know why Angela isn’t saying anything!” In what I perceived to be an intentionally leveled response, the teacher replied, “I don’t know. Ask her. She is sitting right here.” In a huff, the young lady turned to me and restated her question.

Even in my exhaustion of regularly being expected to serve as a cultural tour guide or translator, I found myself intrigued. While it was obvious that my classmate was frustrated, I was not really sure that she was frustrated with me… even though she had singled me out. I could only imagine that the book, or its content which forced teachers to think about their whiteness, had disrupted her sense of order. In many teacher training contexts, teachers are trained to consider black students as the other—somehow comparing their (the teacher’s) existence to a universal standard that had been assumed… or at least unspoken (to learn more about the othering of black students, read Lewis et al., Milner and Ware). This book had somehow turned the tables and forced my classmates (all of whom were white) to consider themselves as the other. If I am correct, that they did in fact feel otherized, I can certainly understand the frustration. To go from being in the center of a universal standard to having no universal standard at all can be quite disconcerting.

I am not sure if I, at 21, could identify what was at work here but I knew that there was more to her emotions besides my silence.

A Rationale of Silence
In hindsight, I can now better understand why I was silent.

In my younger years, I thought the political chasm that existed between different groups of people was the result of simply not talking and listening. So, in my naïve self, being optimistic and hopeful, I was eager to share. But in that class, I grew weary. For some reason, my mind drew upon a growing observation that I had made in recent years. You see, education was my minor but my major was social science. Students in my social science classes did not rely so heavily on their own world views. While I am sure we were each influenced by our own personal, cultural and political experiences, we came to class open. We came to class curious. We came to class seeking. As social scientists in training, we were hungry to explore the world and learn about the experiences of others all while properly recognizing and treating our own biases in the process.

Students in my education classes were drastically different. Like me, they looked at teaching as some form of mission—a ministry of sort. While this mission evoked a level of commitment and passion, it, if not careful, also put us dangerously close to spaces of colonialism. So, unlike me, in that I am a social scientist and aware of the insidious nature of undisclosed imperialism, this ministry-type mission was sometimes poisoned with what appeared to be a hidden need to dominate.  When in domination mode, you impose your world view onto others. When you empower, you respect and celebrate the world view of others. When in domination mode, there is one right—one right way of knowing, one right way of thinking, and one right of being. When you empower, you accept that there are multiple ways of knowing, thinking and being—even while acknowledging a single set of standards prescribed by a majority. When in domination mode, a single mindset exists. When you empower, a critical mindset is a must!

So on that day, when my classmates felt challenged by the question, can white teachers teach black students, I did not feel compelled to speak. It was not that I thought the topic was unworthy. I simply did not see an environment for sharing. In the venting and yes even in the tears expressed by the young women in that specific class, I did not detect a readiness for multiple world views, for alternative ways of knowing, seeing and being, for critical thinking beyond the emotions.

Conclusion and Considerations
Every time an event occurs that makes us deal with race and social justice, such as what happened over this past week (remember, this was originally posted on 11/29/14), a common comment surfaces. Many feel that Americans need to start talking to each other about race and racism. While noteworthy, assuming that talking is ultimately about listening and sharing, I just don’t think America at large is ready.

And here is why. To do so, we would need to understand and/or agree that 1) we live in different political spaces that create different political realities; 2) that multiple world views and alternate ways of knowing, seeing and being are of value; and 3) that critical thinking is a skill found at higher levels of cognition that goes beyond emotional outburst of anger, pain and confusion. So, until these conditions are laid and accepted as our foundation, I am not sure “talking” about racism is, as Edward de Bono puts it, our first important priority.

And if talking about racism is not our first important priority, what actually is?? I’ll have to come back at a later time to offer (and explain) how creating a shared political reality (or at least, one that is no so polarized) is our access point to better understanding race, racism, and a whole list of other types of injustices.

Until then, you might want to think twice before joining conversations for which participants have very little capacity for true, sincere, and meaningful engagement.


One comment on “Why We Can’t Talk About Racism

  1. teachezwell
    September 24, 2016

    Insightful and powerful description of being a white teacher. I’ve seen this dynamic operate repeatedly and it is exhausting. I could give so many examples of “i’ve suffered, too,” and “Black kids just don’t come to school adequately prepared.” Really?

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This entry was posted on July 10, 2016 by in News Commentaries, Race, Class, and Gender and tagged , .
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