White People’s Work

By Anne Dueweke, K’84, Director of Faculty Grants and Institutional Research

I recently attended the Black Male Summit at the University of Akron with Associate Dean of Students, Karen Joshua-Wathel, and four students from the Young Men of Color organization. The summit focused on issues facing African-American males in higher education.

Since our return, I’ve been processing the experience. What I’ve come away with is this: for communities of color, issues of race and the effects of discrimination are a regular part of life, while most white people remain oblivious to the pernicious role that race continues to play in American society. I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King when he warned not just about the “violent actions of the bad people” but also the “appalling silence and indifference of the good people.” For those of us who are white, a decision not to engage in these issues is not innocuous because it allows us to be unwitting perpetrators of biased and hurtful practices, behaviors, and thinking.

My own engagement with issues of race began when I was nine and there was court-ordered desegregation of the Kalamazoo Public Schools. The schools were neighborhood-based, and because neighborhoods were segregated due to years of housing discrimination, the schools were segregated too. As I was leaving the house on the first day of fourth grade, my mother looked at me and said, “Be nice to the black children.” While it was a kind thing to say, it was quite inadequate preparation for what I was about to experience.

I think the adults thought that as children we were unbiased and we’d be able to work it out. No. Our heads were full of stereotypes and misinformation we had absorbed from the media, books, TV, and people around us. My parents supported the Civil Rights movement and believed in school integration, but they did not fully understand structural and institutional racism. And, because they knew very few people of color and had almost no direct experience with race, there was little guidance they could offer.

The kids at school did eventually work things out. To a point. At first, there were racially-charged fights and knifings in the high schools. In the elementary schools there were fist fights, name-calling, and lots of misunderstanding. After a few years, these overt manifestations of racial tension subsided, and we learned to coexist at school more or less peacefully, but we continued to segregate ourselves in the cafeteria and on the playground. Tension remained just under the surface and sometimes bubbled up.

We made friends across racial lines, but these friendships were largely limited to school. In fifth grade I became close to an African-American girl in my class. We had a lot in common, both of us middle class kids whose fathers were professors. We moved our desks next to each other, passed notes back and forth, and laughed until our sides ached about silly things. But, neither of us ever asked the other home to play. We didn’t even discuss it. It wasn’t that our families would not have been welcoming. For me, the biggest barrier was the bus ride home, either on an all white bus back to my neighborhood or on an all black bus back to hers, and the teasing I imagined we would have to endure.

My point in recounting my school experiences is that the educational system failed us. Regardless of our race, my classmates and I needed instruction on the history of race and racism in the United States and how years of racial discrimination had created structures and systems that were acting upon and through us. But our teachers and parents seemed not to understand these things either. Incredibly, more than 40 years later, we still do not address these issues in K-12 curricula. And although many colleges offer courses on race and racism, they are usually electives and easily avoided.

I grew more personally and intellectually by attending diverse schools than I would have in a predominantly white environment. But it could have been so much better. My K-12 years were fraught with tension and confusion, and when I graduated from high school there was still so much that I didn’t understand. Uncomfortable situations have the potential to transform us, but learning can be lost and wrong ideas reinforced if the discomfort is not accompanied by relevant information and opportunities to process difficult experiences.

It feels to me like a version of what I experienced in grade school is playing out on our campus.  We have been successful in recruiting a diverse student body, essentially integrating what had been a mostly white institution. There is now a fair amount of racial tension on campus, which is not necessarily a bad thing if students can learn and grow through that tension. However, it’s not clear to me that students are growing. It is clear that students are struggling, and I think faculty and staff could do more to provide support and guidance.

The move to develop an Ethnic Studies program is positive and necessary, but it’s not enough. To fundamentally change dynamics on campus and make Kalamazoo College truly inclusive, we, especially those of us who are white, need to educate ourselves. We need to read articles and books and watch movies and documentaries. We must learn to examine our assumptions and become more aware of how unconscious biases we may harbor affect our thinking.

When I say “educate ourselves,” I do not mean asking friends and acquaintances of color to explain things. These questions can be offensive and invasive and often focus on superficial differences and stereotypes. The good news is that we know how to educate ourselves. We’re a community of scholars. If there’s one thing we excel at it’s researching a subject we need to learn more about.

There is great potential in our diversity. To make the most of it we need to step out of our comfort zones, learn more about ourselves and the society we live in, and get to know each other better, ideally beginning with what we have in common. Most people of color are in the thick of this work, whether they want to be or not. Most of us who are white think we have a choice. In fact, we really don’t.


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