Leading Conversations About Racism on Predominantly White Campuses

On the subject of racism, there is plenty to talk about on college campuses. From the noose photo response to President Barack Obama’s first tweets as president, to racist fraternity chants, to the numerous deaths of unarmed black men by police — including the incident this summer when a University of Cincinnati police officer was indicted on murder charges. Even with this extensive list of topics, the silence can be palpable on predominantly white campuses. Campus student, faculty, and staff leaders are struggling to start, as well as stay in, the conversation.

On our campus at Elon University, we have been wrestling with how to best set up conversations so that students and colleagues can become more aware of individual and structural racism and build the skills to dismantle it.

But there are a few things that make this endeavor difficult.

People of majority identities don’t talk enough about racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, or other forms of oppression. It’s time people of majority identities talk about diversity as much as people with less dominant identities are forced to. It is a luxury to not have to think or talk about these issues, but it’s one we can no longer afford if we want a better campus climate and society.

Talking is difficult because we all have deeply held beliefs and lack multiple perspectives. For example, polls show that white people see racism as less prevalent than do black people, despite stark evidence to the contrary. Our own experiences have shown us that white and black families talk about race in very different ways. Black children are generally made aware of race and racism at an early age by people outside their homes, and so many black families are faced with placing the topic front and center to prepare children for the injustices they may encounter out in the world. Many white families either tend to avoid the topic altogether or tell their children that everyone is equal, suggesting a post-racial society.

Perhaps white families worry that introducing these topics to children will be scary or will cause them to see differences they might not have noticed before. When we do have conversations across racial groups, rarely do the discussions move beyond individual acts of racism. Too often, we view racism as an aberration rather than an accumulation of bigoted beliefs, usually resulting in white oppression of black communities. So when a racist murders nine African Americans in a Charleston church, black and white Americans respond in vastly different ways. Almost all of us see a tragic loss of life — but we all need to talk about race within and across racial identities.

At Elon, we have been thinking a lot about how to replace the silence with productive dialogue on predominantly white campuses. We think an approach that focuses on people at various stages of understanding and readiness will yield the best results.

Students (and faculty) at Siena College speak out about their experiences with racism on campus. (Photo by Beverly Yuen Thompson via Flickr)
Students (and faculty) at Siena College speak out about their experiences with racism on campus. (Photo by Beverly Yuen Thompson via Flickr)

On all of our campuses, students represent a wide spectrum. Some students will be tired of talking and may be frustrated at how far we still have to go. Others may think racism is not alive and well today and may be reluctant to acknowledge it’s in our midst. Determine ways to meet students where they are, and find spaces for productive conversations.

Also, do not forget the opportunity for colleague-only discussions. Students leave our campuses after a relatively short time, but colleagues might stay for their entire careers. Invest in their learning and growth to make your campus more inclusive. As we were beginning to plan for fall programming this summer, the shooting in Charleston occurred. Our Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity Education hosted four lunch series to discuss racism. One hundred ten colleagues attended — in the summer, during prime vacation time.

This fall, we are planning a variety of on-campus programs and initiatives to encourage conversations on racism. Our common reading is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s book Why We Can’t Wait. Every first year student will have read this book before arriving on campus and will discuss it as part of his or her first-year foundation classes.

A week after classes start, we will host a Community Connections conversation in partnership with the Burlington Times News, during which community members and students will come together for a discussion on race relations. In addition, a discussion series of Leonard Pitt’s columns will tie the historical, racial civil rights movement to ways students can become involved in addressing current issues, such as voter suppression, educational disparities, the prison industrial complex, and poverty.

Our discussions last spring and this summer illustrate how difficult discussing racism on predominantly white campuses can be. Students and colleagues of color were often frustrated with some of the comments they heard in these conversations. When one person talked about the way she grew up and said, “I don’t see color,” this usually provocative statement prompted a lively 45-minute discussion. Others became frustrated when they talked about racial discrimination and someone followed up with, “I understand. I’m not white, I am Italian-American,” or, “My parents grew up poor (or insert some other hardship other than racism), and so I get it.”

Our challenge is to stay in the conversation while being open to considering multiple realities, despite frustrations. Although some of us have heard these comments repeatedly, the person saying them has not gained an awareness of how such statements are interpreted and experienced by others.

Our next challenge will be continuing these discussions and finding ways to build on them. We are actively seeking ways to create an ongoing, sustained, and progressive conversation, to graduate students who are better prepared to talk about and address racism, and to prepare faculty and staff to create a more inclusive classroom and campus experience for a whole new group of students each fall. This is a challenge that campuses all across the country are facing.

Brooke Barnett, PhD, is associate provost for inclusive community and professor of communications at Elon University; she is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. Randy Williams Jr., PhD, is a presidential fellow and special assistant to the president, as well as dean of multicultural affairs at Elon.