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.)
You might also enjoy these pieces on Race in America:
Another Guest Blogger: My own daughter Trellace. She made this speech for an awards ceremony; ACRHS does not recognize valedictorians at all at their graduation, so this was her pseudo-valedictory speech. It was awesome. And I'm not one bit biased.
During my Wake Forest interview this past summer, my interviewer asked me about the culture of my high school. “Well,” I told the woman, “we think we’re the best, and…we are the best.” Now, this might not have been the most humble or tactful way to tell an interviewer about the atmosphere of Reynolds, but I think you’ll agree that it’s pretty accurate. I went on to talk about our expectation for excellence in everything we do, whether it be in academics, athletics, or the arts. If you’re in our school and community, you are proud to call yourself a Reynolds Rocket.
Sure, from state championship rings, to award-winning publications, to widely-acclaimed musicals, we have a lot to be proud of. But more than our shiny resume, we should take pride in our fantastic teaching staff.
As I began to write this speech, I wondered how I could choose just one teacher to praise. All of mine have been amazing. Mrs. Love is fun and creative. Mrs. Kuster is dedicated and caring. Mr. Hutchinson is crazy and engaging. Ms. White is generous and kind.
But in particular, my AP teachers have shaped my education in profound ways.
My sophomore year, I took AP U.S. history with Coach Goode, where I learned that it is possible for someone to grade 200 essays in one night. In addition to speedy grading, Coach Goode demonstrated his passion for his students by working many late hours on History Day projects, amusing us with pick-up lines and the creative use of stuffed animals and other toys, distributing candy before the AP exam and encouraging us to touch the “staff of knowledge” for good luck. But we didn’t need any extra luck to help us succeed on the AP exam. Coach Goode had taught us well—we knew practically everything about America from 1700-present. He also gave us the tools to assess information analytically, laying the groundwork for the things that Marcia Hudzik would teach us in AP World the following year.
Through thesis-writing, short answers, document analysis, and class discussions, Mrs. Hudzik taught us a new way of thinking. When Mrs. Hudzik gets into a lecture, it is evident how passionate she is about her history. She loves her world history, and she loves her students. She has written many of our college recommendations and given us advice on everything from what we should get our parents for Christmas to how we should spend the next four years of our lives. In fact, it is not uncommon to find non-World or Civics students hanging out in her room before school, after school, or during lunch.
And though I love her dearly, I am not often one of Hudzik’s groupies, because I am spending many of my afternoons in the newspaper office with Ms. Cooper. If Ms. Cooper had a dollar for every extra hour she has spent at school with her newspaper editors, she could retire. As one of her editors this year, I know how thankful her staffs are for her unrelenting devotion to the school newspaper. She makes it possible for us to be proud of our successful publication. This year, Ms. Cooper has also served as my AP English teacher, where she has taught our class how to interpret and appreciate, if very rarely, the literary genius of Faulkner, Dunn, Keats, Dickens, and many others. Yes, we certainly respect the literature knowledge we have gained this year, but I think we enjoy more the pot of hot tea she keeps in her back office and the periodic breakfast treats she brings us.
And while those surprise breakfast mornings may be delightfully frequent, I have probably eaten just as much in Mrs. Wheeler’s class this year, between many food days and the bag of candy she gave us before our AP exam. Mrs. Wheeler, lover of fun and calculus, has given me a surprising appreciation for advanced mathematics. If you had asked me as a freshman about my senior schedule, it would not, over my dead and forlorn body, have included calculus. But after enjoying the teaching brilliance of Mrs. Wheeler in Pre-Cal, I decided that a year of calculus might not be too bad. In an engaging classroom setting, learning calculus has been almost enjoyable this year. Thanks to Mrs. Wheeler, I have realized that I should further my knowledge of math, and so in the fall I will be combining my love of the humanities and mathematics as an International Political Economy major.
As many of you know, I will be pursuing that major at Georgetown University. But let me tell you, I was not Georgetown material when I came to Reynolds as a freshman. I believe that it is the result of my teachers’ efforts, not any innate intelligence of mine, that has allowed me to enroll at a prestigious university like Georgetown. My teachers have shaped me into the well-informed scholar that I am today. Without their guidance and instruction, I would drown in the academic challenges that Georgetown presents its students. But thanks to the ways that my high school teachers have already pushed me, I know that I am ready to participate in analytical and intelligent conversations there. Now that I’ve completed hundreds of IDs, 40 minute speed essays, 15 minute free response questions, and hours and hours of late-night homework, I am so grateful for the energy that my teachers have put into my education. So, thank you, not only to my teachers, but to the entire Reynolds faculty, for making all of us the successful student we are today and will be in the future.
Trellace graduates in June 2012 and starts at Georgetown in the fall. She likes church, tennis, and Just Dance 3. We call her Queen.