As I shared with one of my classes the other night, over my years in academia, on a fairly regular basis, white students have said to me, “I am afraid of black people,” or even,”I don’t like black people.”
When this happens, I usually start by gently but firmly reminding such students that I am actually a black person, and that their comments offend me. I think that my familiarity with many of the cultural touchstones that are parts of their lives causes them to forget a little bit. Or rather, I’m not sure if they forget that I am black, it’s just that they think that I am a “safe” black person to whom to say these things. Or they think that as a professor, I must be there for them, a neutral, unfeeling service provider whose job is to be stern, caring, instructive, sin-absolving, and healing all at once. The casting directions for my job call for a combination of a butt-spanking black mammy, an avuncular, scholarly parish priest, and a disease-eating magic Negro à la Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile.
These “I am afraid of black people” students are not wrong in some respects about who I am to them. While I certainly do have feelings and am subject to the hurts of racial insults like anyone else, to be successful (aka to remain in and survive the job) in my line of work has often meant tempering those hurt feelings. Indeed, I frequently take on a “post-racial” pose with such students just to draw out their anti-black feelings. It’s not a trap. I do it because I sincerely want to help.
While I am neither therapist nor racial healer by any means, I think that the world is improved if people confront what are often irrational prejudices. If I don’t know that students bear such feelings, I can’t begin to talk it through with them. I am actually encouraged that white students even engage in these conversations with me. What I find sad about such conversations is that I sometimes learn in the course of them that I am one of the few (or only) black people with whom they have ever had an ongoing relationship–academic, professional, social or otherwise.
My gender becomes a salient factor here because while some of these students have known or interacted with black male athletes during high school or college (“Yay, team!”), they have had almost no corresponding need or desire to interact with black girls or women. It is this raced and gendered interaction gap that causes situations like the recent public verbal assaults on journalist April Ryan, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and former national security adviser Susan Rice. The very public sallies against these women are no doubt politically inspired. But just as the personal is political, the personal and the political are at all times both raced and gendered. The hashtag #Blackwomenatwork is an important mechanism for focusing attention on the race-gender lacuna that often leaves black women in a space apart.
(cross-post from Ain’t I a Feminist Legal Scholar, Too?)