In the classroom, instructors tell us to ask questions if we don’t understand the material. We may ask these questions in class, but how often are we asking meaningful questions outside of the classroom? How often do you find yourself questioning a social construct like racism, and then doing the work to find the answers to these questions?
The Pleiad sat down with Dominick Quinney, PhD, assistant professor of ethnic studies at Albion College, and asked him to provide his thoughts on real-world accounts of racism that high school or college students have experienced. The stories that follow are from Pleiad staff members and their observations in high school or at Albion College.
A girl in my FYE class asked why African-Americans can use the N-word with each other, but white people can’t use it with them in the same context. She started by saying she does not condone anyone using the word, but she wants to understand why there is that “double standard.” The question was never answered during the class. Instead, our class turned into everyone pointing fingers at each other. The conversation continued in Baldwin and a lot of rumors were started due to this question that arose in class.
I definitely think that particular conversation around the N-word is one of the most charged conversations in terms of having dialogue on race and racism. I think that it’s one of those conversations that folks should build up to, not jump straight into. That’s one of the things that when we talk about race or racism: often times we jump straight to the heavy stuff. It’s kind of like [rather], we can get there, but let’s talk or ease toward that. This is one of those conversations that starts off super-heavy. As far as getting to the basis of, or answer to that question, I really don’t know if I could answer that question, in that, that word carries weight and has a history, and by seeing the black community reclaiming that word, that’s exactly what folks are doing. But at the same time, there are folks who use that word negatively as well. So there’s how people may use or reclaim that word, and then I would also ask the question of why would someone want to say that word? I can see why folks have reclaimed that word, but I would also wonder why folks would want to use that word knowing the historical weight that it’s carried with some groups. Like I said, I don’t even know if I could answer that fully, but those would be some of the questions I would ask.
My friend, who is white, tried to get into Baldwin during the planned protest on Sept. 25, and an African-American girl yelled, “You white people are trying to kill me.” My friend responded, “I don’t know you, why would I want to kill you?” The other student responded, “Well, most white people want to kill me.” My friend then said, “I don’t understand why you think people want to kill you. Until you provide me with some concrete details on people trying to kill you, I need you to let me into Baldwin so I can eat.” (Paraphrased.)
In hearing just that example, I think that there is a lot more context that could be understood on both sides. No, I don’t think that person was trying to kill them in terms of trying to walk in and have lunch in Baldwin, and at the same time I would wonder perhaps what that person who said that, what led them to say that. Might they have had an experience at home where this happened, or on campus? Also, might it be how they’re feeling in that space? When it comes to discussing racism, it’s oftentimes emotionally charged. With it becoming emotionally charged, that means people are personally invested in it. The minute someone says or makes a claim, it becomes a personal thing. With that, it becomes very personal, and so let’s pause and understand where this is coming from and how this might be understood by the other person hearing this. It’s not to say that hearing that, you should be like, “Just brush it off your shoulder.” But in understanding why might this person have said this, let me see where this is coming from and the context behind this matters, and then we should be asking more questions.
Sometimes that’s what happens in talks about racism. Folks will say something, and rather than peeling back layers to understand what was said, we just say, “That person said this” and make a generalization and write that off. That’s where dialogue doesn’t happen. It becomes “They said it, they believe that, I don’t like what they thought about what I believe, and I’m going to write them off,” and we’re not getting anywhere. I think that’s one of those moments where you can have a teachable moment or conversation to get to the understanding of it. You may not necessarily come to an answer right then and there, but at least if you begin to try to understand the other person’s point of view or the other side of things, you might provide a little more context into what that person actually said or what they meant behind what they said.
I know a girl who asked my white friend what made him want to room with “those kind of people,” referring to the fact his roommate and suitemate are black.
I would ask why they thought that. What is your reason for thinking “those type of people” or “that type of person”? What brought you to that thinking? Was it history, personal experience, your family, culture, TV? And then why do you believe those things are true? Whatever those things that led you to believe that those people should be referred to as “that” or “other.” Asking how or why, and then how are you changing that perception of whatever you’re thinking; or are you? Are you working towards actively changing it? If not, why? If you are, how are you doing that? Again, asking questions and having those conversations, and even when having those conversations, feeling uncomfortable when having those conversations.
You don’t even have to bring in the other parties who are involved. It’s just, let’s stop here and have a conversation with you and say, “How did you arrive at this?” If you’re strongly holding onto those ideas, that’s one thing, but that also lets me know that you’re not willing to be open to understand. Like I said, you haven’t even encountered them and you’ve already made up your mind and you have a decision as to who these folks are. But if you can actually begin to have a conversation and push yourself beyond what you think is comfortable, I guarantee you that your perception could positively change, but only if you willingly allow yourself to make those changes.
My hometown is super white, like the town is 93 percent, and my high school was 97 percent. I remember some of the guys saying one of the black guys at our school was “basically white” because of the way he acted.
Again, I would ask that question of “What does it mean to act white?” Is there a book on it? What is this understanding of being white or whatever? If someone says, “You act black,” what does that mean? Is it based on stereotypes? So then you could say, “Ah, stereotypically, this is how you act,” which is then problematic. I would ask what that actually means, and then also are you actually seeing the person that’s in front of you? Again, you have preconceived notions as to what or how people should act or behave. If that is true, how did you arrive at this? I would say changing your perspective on things and getting a new perspective on how you’re thinking about things — what does it mean to “act”? What does it mean to “be” white or black? That’s a loaded question and a heavy question for someone to try and attempt to answer. It’s one of those moments of, “I’m going to ask this not to trip you up but to truly have you think about the weight of what you’re saying and how you’re thinking about something.”
Like I said, actively work towards changing how you’re thinking about it. It’s one thing to think about it in a moment and let it go over elsewhere. But to actively say, “I’m going to change my perception on something” or, “I’m going to actively work to understand this person’s point of view” takes work. With it taking work means doing your homework, asking those questions, feeling uncomfortable. That means working to push out of whatever boundaries you have in your own mind. Boundaries are comfortable in our mind. They’re very safe and warm and cozy. So if we push out of those, it’s a wake-up call and it’s jolting, and that’s OK. In that space of you being uncomfortable, that’s some of the best learning that can take place, when you’re not comfortable but you’re actually on edge. You can have some of your best learning experiences in that space of being uncomfortable.
At our core, we’re all human beings. If we can all work to understand those layers that make us who we are, but at the same time recognize that there’s these layers to who we are, but at the core we’re all human beings — if we can keep those two things in our mind when we engage with someone, who knows how the conversation could look positively.
Photo courtesy of Dominick Quinney