As discussions about race percolate again in America, sometimes violently, we need to realize that we are always talking about race even when we are not talking about it. Omission is an essential part of the conversation.
We have been witnessing this resurgence in the media lately from all sectors of daily life, from local policing to higher education. I have been taken by the fact that even when we earnestly discuss race, usually in the context of yet another revelatory event, we are still avoiding the larger issue. This larger issue is rooted in the profound lack of education and consistent access to a complete version of our country’s history. This may well be the greatest contributing factor to our inability to communicate with one another in this vital American conversation. This is the omission of which I speak…
There are many educators who have identified this core problem and of course other issues preventing us from moving forward and we really need to pay attention to their ideas. I have had the privilege of experiencing, personally, several of these educators explain their understanding of our situation. This past semester in Tisch’s department of Art’s Politics – where we are fortunate enough to always be mindful of this conversation, we welcomed Claudia Rankine as guest speaker to our entire freshman class on the subject of her book Citizen. “Racism” she noted calmly “is not what white people do to black people – racism is what a system has done to all of us.” I’m not quite sure everyone in the room understood exactly what she meant when she said that and I have been repeating it to my students and colleagues to reinforce the fact that we are all in this together.
This elegantly stated fact should, I feel, be able to change the way we engage with one another on the subject but sadly, it seems it does not. Still we thrash about in a verbal cycle of blame and denial, accusation and rationalization, demands for inclusion and justification of the status quo or the one-off events that students say are not a solution. NYU’s Pamela Newkirk in her talk “Teaching Race in Our Challenging Times” noted that not all tensions on the subject of race arise from straight out racism, some emerge from what she calls a “mindless engagement with race.” Like Rankine she sees this as a matter concerning all of us. Newkirk insists that this conversation is central to us all and beseeched us to call on “our shared core humanity” to undertake this critical step. She encouraged us to think of it as something that we must all engage and engage “across racial lines.”
Where the rubber meets the road for me is in the classroom, with my students, many of whom are unprepared for these realities much less the necessary conversations. One concept that I offer all of my student is this from Edward Said’s book Culture and Imperialism – “Appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretations of the present. What animates such appeals is not only disagreement about what happened in the past and what the past was, but uncertainty about whether the past really is past, over and concluded, or whether it continues, albeit in different forms, perhaps. This problem animates all sorts of discussions – about influence, about blame and judgment, about present actualities and future priorities.” Newkirk attributes the problem to the teaching of an incomplete version of American history. I was struck by her statement and after the event would have that idea reinforced when I read this concise analysis of the problem on twitter from @la_Dolce_vita26 “White privilege is your history being taught as a core class and mine being taught as an elective. #BlackOnCampus.”
Given that conversations seem to get stuck in a whirlpool of blame and lack of acknowledgement or hinge on the need for some to take responsibility – how then do we move forward? It seems so simple if you extrapolate some of the solutions from the readily available critiques. Take this tweet from @_malawode “When I’m represented in every promotional brochure, but not in any syllabi, curriculums, faculties, boards of trustees… #BlackOnCampus.” Then let us put the subject of race in its rightful place – in our history classes, in all curriculum which also means including real diversity in our faculty and institutional leadership roles.
I manage to teach this history to my students who are constantly grappling with their identity in an ever changing world and make every effort to show how the topic at hand relates to our shared history and their work. I tend to use other students’ engagement with the conversation, particularly their films, as I find that it facilitates discussions when the anchor is someone else’s work. That seems to help us move the conversation away from the personal, from blame/denial, accusation/rationalization or the fight for inclusion met with status quo positioning which any teacher will tell you is difficult to manage. A powerful and complex project that has stood the test of time is Alrick Brown’s Familiar Fruit. This film draws a clear line from the historic fact of lynching in America, to the practice of photographing these events, to the showing of these photographs in cultural sites such as the New York Historical Society. There are so many details of our basic history, like the Japanese interment camps, that students don’t have knowledge of.
Another student film, animated, deals with the bombing of Hiroshima, Dan Blank’s Shadowplay. The film tells the story of a boy who is killed during the bombing of Hiroshima, but his shadow goes around the city, trying to figure out what happened. And the complex films that deal with matters of intersectionality. One such example, dealing with race and other intersecting social factors is Dee Rees‘ student film Pariah which combines race with gender and sexual identity. Those of us who have these conversations have them because they are necessary not because they are easy. Newkirk made it clear that “we will be made to feel uncomfortable” in these conversations and that “if we were not – we were not doing our job.”
A close friend once told me how she instructed her nephew to tell himself the truth, always. She explained to him in great detail that if you lie to yourself, that your decisions will be predicated on those lies and therefor ill formed. Thus, our incomplete history is a sort of lie, and often our decisions ill formed. This is precisely our challenge. Henry Kissinger is noted as saying that “It is not often that nations learn from the past, even rarer that they draw the correct conclusions from it.”
I invite all of you to join the conversation…