During our first class devoted to issues of race, we wrote reactions, feelings, and musings on sticky notes. While we wrote, Professor Kucinskas lined the wall with the sticky notes from years prior, providing the opportunity to see how other students felt about race. Though each piece of yellow paper held the thoughts of different people from different years and different backgrounds, the sentiments were the same. Race is hard. Race is scary. Race makes us uncomfortable.
This is a familiar song, one we’ve sung for decades (and will likely continue to sing). But why? Markus and Moya, in their book Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century, boil discomfort about race down to two factors: the view of race as a biological thing, and the assumption that the individual is the “source of all thought, feeling and action” (59). According to Markus and Moya, the idea that individuals may not themselves have the power to overcome racial barriers or remove themselves from racial associations similarly contributes to this discomfort.
These factors do play into the widespread unwillingness to address issues of race, but so too does fear of insult. When talking about race, we often tread upon eggshells. In doing so, words come protected, guarded, and therefore lose the ability to yield honest and meaningful conversations. This dynamic comes from the fact that racial differences stand rooted in long histories of hurt and abuse. For some, race is more than just an identity, but exists as a connection to other and to those who have come before.
The fear of insult comes also from the heightened push for political correctness. With attempts at full inclusivity and equality, humanitarian groups and social movements influence patterns of speech by constantly changing terms and labels, updating what is and what is not appropriate. The unintended effect, however, is that people fear using the incorrect term and therefore avoid discussion altogether (this is not only limited to race…a perfect example is sexuality, and how people struggle to know/remember the correct words for transgender individuals). There is an easy solution, though. We must create spaces where mistakes are allowed, where open discussions about difficult issues thrive and where, if a mistake is made, it is politely corrected so that everyone learns.
I firmly believe that hate speech comes largely from a place of fear. By signing up for “Race, Class, Gender,” we all took a step towards eliminating such intolerance and fear, creating the exact type of space where people can take risks, where they can speak and be heard. Unfortunately, the world is very different from our classroom. A mere glance at YikYak shows that our campus is even different from our classroom. We therefore all have an obligation to take this semester out of our notebooks and into the world, using what we have learned and discussed as fuel to fight the racist structures and sentiments around us. As educated and informed individuals made aware of prevalent systems of inequality, the charge falls on us. This class and the experiences we have shared will light our path forward, so together, let us now lead the way. The semester is ending, but our work is just beginning.