Please welcome back guest blogger, Trellace Lawrimore. In this piece, she reflects on a little something her mom taught her (and a few folks at Georgetown) about Race in America.
On April 9, 2015, Georgetown’s “Ignite the Dream: Race and Socioeconomic Class in America” series presented a panel conversation on privilege and oppression, “What is Race? What is Class?” The panel, moderated by Georgetown professor Marcia Chatelain, featured Vox.com journalist Jenée Desmond-Harris (biracial), the once undocumented immigrant and former VP at Goldman Sachs Julissa Arce (Mexican American), Senior Counsel of the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education Saba Bireda (black), and Georgetown Law student Ryan Wilson (black). Panelists reflected on the ways race and class have shaped their personal and professional lives, and how they have chosen to fight injustice. The ICC auditorium audience, about 1/3 white, challenged the speakers with questions on the media’s portrayal of black America and how to stay hopeful in the face of ever-present injustice.
When I was a child, my mom taught me the secret to spotting 21st century racists.
She had learned this herself working at a community college in an office in which she was the only white professional; her colleagues in the office were black. When white faculty or administrators had issues with black students in my mom’s department, they consulted her, rather than her black coworker across the desk.
“Aileen,” the speaker would start out in audible tones. “I’m having trouble with a student. She’s,” pausing to look around for listening ears and dropping her voice to a whisper, “blehck.” The single syllable adjective would be drawn out such that it sounded more like an expression of disgust than a descriptor.
At this point, mom would interrupt to say, “You can say the word aloud. It won’t come as a surprise to my student that she is a person of color.”
Blehck. Try sounding it out for yourself. Then start to notice how often people are uncomfortable using “black” or “white.” Sure, this habit may be easier to spot south of the Virginia border, but it’s not uncommon elsewhere. Of course, many college-educated liberals like to think that they understand the complexities of the race problem in America. But we’re often hesitant to talk about the daily realities of racial injustice with simple and accurate descriptors like “black” and “white.”
At the “What is Race? What is Class?” panel on April 9, 2015, journalist Jenée Desmond-Harris responded to the first question about race by reflecting on her experience with the anxieties surrounding race conversations. She said that although she grew up in a progressive community, she also “grew up thinking that mentioning race was a bad thing, that it was taboo. I found that one of my biggest challenges is that I still bump up against it with readers. Every time I write something I find myself anticipating the comments I’ll get, even if the piece isn’t polarizing.”* Her peers on the panel echoed this sentiment.
Without invoking the term, Desmond-Harris intimated the pervasiveness of “white fragility” in our country. Robin DiAngelo describes “white fragility” as the anxiety white people experience when approached with the reality of racial injustice. White fragility sustains itself through white privilege, as white people can opt when to engage with social ills and when to pretend like they don’t exist. In contrast, people of color don’t get to elect when to acknowledge injustice—they live it everyday. Oppressive institutions are perpetuated by this disconnect between the amount of race dialogue white people tolerate and the amount necessary to change the system.
Julissa Arce, former undocumented immigrant and VP at Goldman Sachs, affirmed the importance of white people overcoming this fragility and taking prominent roles in social justice efforts. She remarked that the audiences in these conversations are often people of color—the people who are already well acquainted with the struggles of non-white status in America. “We’re never going to get anywhere just complaining to ourselves,” she said. In response to a student’s question, “What gives you hope?”, Arce said that it was the number of white students in the audience.
Now, I’m not one to pet the egos of privileged white students (I being one of them, of course.) for their social justice efforts, but I agree with Arce. America’s minorities are not going to be able to overhaul oppressive institutions without help from the majority. So white leaders need to habituate themselves in the mechanisms of racial prejudice. That challenge begins with disregarding political correctness, manifested in our widespread sense that “mentioning race [is] a bad thing.” And the white population isn’t going to make any progress until it addresses how white fragility colors their language. White Americans must shake off their fear of the word “black” before the country can move in a more just direction. We need to get comfortable with the realities of the black—not “blehck” or African American—experience in America.
*This quote is not verbatim as I do not have a recording of the event. I did my best to maintain the integrity of her comments.
Trellace Lawrimore is a junior at Georgetown University in the School of Foreign Service, majoring in International Political Economy. She has an extraordinary mother. (Pictured here on the left with mom and younger sister.)
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