In one of the racism discussion sessions recently at work, we were talking about the different levels of awareness and understanding we all bring to these sort of discussions, and to the broader experience of our graduate school. We were discussing how we often have to slow down or “soften” a discussion about racism or privilege so that White students will feel comfortable participating. A Black, female student was asking why we have to do so much “hand holding” when it comes to these topics. A White male student responded. (I’m about to paraphrase):
“I come from an area that isn’t diverse at all. I had zero knowledge about diversity before I moved to Chicago to go to school here. So when I get here, start school, it’s overwhelming. I’m faced with learning about things I didn’t know existed, things I didn’t know were problems. As I learn more, it’s really hard. I feel guilt, I think about things I’ve said or done in the past. It’s emotional. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t learn about them, I’m just saying – when you come from where I come from, it’s overwhelming. That’s why I think you get a better response when you don’t come at it so hard. When it’s in your face, when people are pushing at you, you just shut down and stop listening. That’s just the way people work. If you want them to listen you can’t shove it in their face.”
The Black female student responded (again, I’m paraphrasing). “I think what you’re saying is evidence of your White privilege. When I’m out in the world, and when I come here and am sometimes the only student of color in my classes, when I’m the only African American student in my Diversity class, no one slows down for me. I don’t get to say, ‘Wait, this is too much for me. This is emotional for me and I’m not ready to deal with this yet. Please slow down.’ I don’t get to say those things, and the world doesn’t care. They just throw it in my face. You have the luxury of asking the people around you to slow down on a difficult topic because you’re not used to it, it causes you pain, you feel guilt, you need to process, it’s overwhelming. I don’t get any of that. This is in my face all the time and there is no slowing down for me so I can learn how to handle it at my own pace. I just have to deal with it.”
The students really listened to each other and considered what each other were saying. That gives me hope.