What does a community college campus do when a racial slur is used in a meeting? This occurred at my place of employment, and for the past week, we have come face-to-face with the structural racism that exists on my campus and within American society.
These are troubling and challenging times we are experiencing. To directly experience structural racism on our campus, immediately on the heals an amazing Facing Race conference, has forced me to apply what I have learned right away. A racial slur was said out loud during a Gender Equity meeting in which I was present. That experience has solidified how little our society has the fundamental framework to engage and navigate anti-racism work. I include myself in that “society” as I sat quietly as the n-word was said out loud into the room. And again, remained silent by not immediately reaching out to black colleague whom I had just spent a few days in Detroit.
As a white American, I don’t want to let fear, shame, and embarrassment prevent me from engaging in the work of justice and equity. Doing the work will include making mistakes. We need to own our mistakes, name the injustice, and most importantly, listen. Listen to understand. And then speak up.
Our colleagues who are people of color have been injured and have been disregarded for their lived experiences on this campus. Time and time again they have not been heard because we (collectively) don’t know how to listen and seek to understand. I have watched myself tune out when a voice is raised or an “angry” voice is made by a person of color as I allow “civility” to block out centuries of abuse and injustice. As a colleague shared with me recently, “We forget that all white people are associated with racism and systemic white supremacy. We all support a culture of racism in that we have all been socialized into it, benefit from it, and are complicit in supporting systems that keep it in place.” And I’ve learned that left-wing, progressive people (myself included) often have the hardest time seeing our own racism. This last year I read two books that deeply influenced my thinking around this topic – What Does it Mean to be White? and White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, both by Robin DiAngelo. I highly recommend both these titles.
I’ve found this work to be challenging and painful. It’s very easy to feel hurt and defensive when I perceive an attack on my character or my intention. At times, I can’t even see the impact of my words or actions until someone says something. What I’m learning to do is to listen and simply say thank you. These are gifts being offered by my colleagues to help me break down inherent racism and white supremacy. And to take responsibility to speak up. I don’t have the answers, but I do know what practices have helped me cultivate trusted and respected relationships with people of color.
This anti-racism and equity work must be extended to the board of trustees, the faculty, the staff, the administrators, and the students. We can take a deep dive into structural racism and gender inequality and forge a path forward that amplifies and channels those voices that have not been heard. Let’s raise up these voices so all might hear.