Is Racism Curable?

What do we do with the Roseanne Barrs, Michael Richards, Donald Sterlings of the world? The race to condemn them and the impulse to ostracize them is understandable, but we shouldn’t expect either of those responses to help racists overcome racism.

Another way of asking the question is how do we create less racist communities? More specifically, can the obviously racist—the Roseanne Barrs, the Michael Richards, the Donald Sterlings of the world—be rehabilitated? Can they learn to tolerate cultural diversity, let alone appreciate, value, embrace it?

The educator in me believes so. An integral part of anti-racism work is found three-fourths of the way through yesterday’s New York Times essay, “Sex and Gender on the Christian Campus”.

Molly Worten explains that an increasing number of evangelical Christian college students are beginning to question their conservative parents’ and professors’ theological and political assumptions. For example, Ashley Brimmage at Biola University. Worten writes:

“Ms. Brimmage is not a typical Biola student, but she is not unusual either. There is a small but increasingly vocal progressive community on campus, including L.G.B.T. organizations. When Biola applied for an exemption from the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX in 2016, students protested.

I asked Ms. Brimmage how she came to her views on gender and racial justice. Did she encounter a new theological argument in a book or a class? ‘The biggest answer is relationships with others, not working through these things on paper,’ she said. Female mentors and friendships with gay and nonwhite students compelled her to revise her theology (almost half of Biola’s students are now nonwhite or international).

Ashley’s “biggest answer” jives with my experience of learning to embrace cultural pluralism and with my helping young adults learn to interact smartly and sensitively with diverse people. It’s about close, interpersonal relationships with people different than oneself. Only then do negative preconceived notions that are a byproduct of implicit biases begin fading away.

Yes, let’s take away racists’ public platforms which are privileges—whether television shows, comedy club gigs, or professional sports teams—but let’s not completely ostracize them; instead, let’s surround them with diverse people whose life stories are our best hope to begin changing their hearts and expanding their minds.

Can You Will Yourself to be More Humble?

Friday I found myself in a day long diversity training workshop. The first of six days spread throughout the academic year.

It was a good experience only in the sense it made me much more empathetic towards teachers who routinely complain about ill-conceived professional development.

Organized in small groups of four, we were repeatedly given two minutes to discuss complex questions and topics that required paragraph-long responses. But since there was only time for a sentence or two, I mentally checked-out. On top of that, the facilitators didn’t provide an overview for the day which proved frustrating.

We did lots of activities, but too often the purposes of each weren’t clear enough. Even more confounding was the fact that the sum of the activities did not equal more than the individual parts.

The whole experience was repeatedly described as a “training”. “Training” works well when talking about labradoodles learning to stop at street corners, but when it comes to human beings and human diversity, it masks the subject’s inherent complexity. In frustration I wrote to myself, “I don’t want to be trained. I would like to be more aware, more understanding, more caring when it comes to colleague’s and students’ whose life experiences are markedly different than my own.”

My biggest problem was thinking I knew more about the subject than the facilitators because I’ve been teaching in culturally diverse settings for most of three decades, I’ve read extensively on multiculturalism, taught multicultural education courses several times, and published essays on the challenges and rewards of multiculturalism.

Of course I have a lot more to learn, but the facilitator’s assumptions about how adults learn made it nearly impossible for me to benefit from their efforts. In short, they seemed to think adults learn through small group activity after small group activity.

I would have liked to have learned more about diversity and equity through extended, open, and honest conversation with people different than myself. As in a graduate seminar. I don’t know whether my fellow participants felt similarly. Or whether you would have. Maybe I’m an outlier, in which case, never mind.