The classroom ought not to be disconnected from the real world. For those of us who study American politics the election of President Barack Obama has provided a neat laboratory for proving much of our theorizing both correct (the institutional constraints on the office; Obama's continuation of the Imperial Presidency) and wrong or outmoded (say bye bye to the Bradley Effect). If you teach courses on racial politics, President Obama has made for boom times. His inauguration unleashed all of the worst elements of the white racial id and reminded us once more that for all of the heady glow of "post racial this" and "post racial that," race (to borrow a phrase from Cornel West) does indeed still matter.
Ultimately, race, and its associated language of "oppression," has and continues to be an American obsession. The language through which race is made real also continues to be abused and misapplied. As we have seen in our recent discussions of black
To point, one of my favorite exercises in my classes on race and ethnicity involves asking folks to define terms. When we talk about "race" what do we mean? How is "ethnicity" different from or complementary to race? What is nationality? How is personal agency important, but also contextualized by social norms, values, institutions, and structures?
The responses always vary. They are colored by one's own investment in theses categories, allegiance to flat narratives of "colorblind politics," and exposure to the literature on the subject. Because for many students these are normative and personal constructs, they are often loathe to acknowledge that 1) there are actual definitions for these terms; 2) said definitions may upset their deeply held priors about the nature of the world; and 3) that privilege and power are real. Thus, some have an unfair advantage by mere luck of birth and not because of innate talent or ability.
In one of my favorite potentially productive pedagogical moments, I invite my students to take the Implicit Association Test. We then discuss their results and watch the Dateline NBC special on the psychological origins of racial attitudes. Inevitably, when we get to the section on Black Pride (at having a positive self-image in the face of, and despite living in a society where whiteness is normalized) and White Shame (in having a strong affinity for other white people) the class splits. Many white students want to construct a parallel narrative where these results are envisioned as morally, ethically, and politically equivalent. Black students stumble in explaining that pride does not necessarily equal dislike or prejudice for those not of the tribe.
My answer is simple. It is also one that I repeat often: These discussions of race and racial inequality are about power and not about color. That is the central paradox. In this country, at this time, and as a function of its history, it is Whiteness and white folks with the unique institutional, social, economic, and historical power to be racists. Black and brown folks can be prejudiced jerks. But they cannot be racists.
As I am quick to offer, "Sorry Suzy Snowflake, racism is your unique cross to bear and the historical burden of your people to negotiate and make right."
I am curious as to your thoughts on the IAT test, as well as the bigger question of what distinguishes black pride from white prejudice? Are they the same? Are they different? Do they both spring from the same tainted origins? Do both black pride and white prejudice result in the same socially deleterious outcomes?
This should be a fun conversation. And if I play my cards right, each example will further muddy the waters just a little bit.