Today I facilitated a dialogue between a group of first-years regarding very basic race and ethnicity issues. We discussed diversity and inclusion, and overall it was a good talk. There were a lot of different identities and perspectives present. Yet, there was a single phenomenon I noticed during the entirety of the conversation- none of the white students there said a word the entire time.
The black and Asian students carried the conversation mostly, and one girl spoke up to share her experience as a Latina woman who passes as white. But the white students stayed absolutely silent. This is something that was interesting for me to consider, as our class is very vocal and engaged with these issues although we are all white. We have people of all ages and backgrounds in our class, much like the discussion today, but the only different factor was that there was racial diversity in the dialogue. For some reason, this made all of the white people in the room silent.
I think this is interesting to consider because it relates to a conversation that I was having with a friend the other day. She discussed how she really wanted to spend time in minority communities as a white ally but was scared to enter certain communities out of fear that she would say the wrong thing and be disregarded by everyone. She was scared to speak because she did not know enough, and did not want to upset anyone. This relates somewhat to the conversation we had in class the other day when someone brought up that their friend was afraid to speak in the African American and Diaspora studies class they were in for fear of backlash from the black students in the class.
The main argument here is that people do not always know to respond in these situations, so they remain quiet. That is very much how the white students in my session today responded. They could not identify with the systems of oppression, micro aggressions, and overt racism that the students of color in the room had seen so many times. Therefore, they just listened. As they left, they were talking amongst themselves about how they now understood many things that they did not know about before.
I think this brings up an important point. Sometimes, the best way to learn is to listen. You cannot ask a black student to tell you all about why black people act in certain ways and do certain things because they should not be asked to speak for their entire race. People do not always want to answer questions about their lives and experiences. Hence, sometimes sitting and listening when they openly choose to share their experiences is the best way to learn. Although it may have been an uncomfortable experience for the white students that took part in the discussion today, the intentions were good and it was great to see them take the initiative to come to the event. They learned the rhetoric and forms of micro aggressions that they should avoid for the next time they are in a situation along those lines so that they can actually speak their minds without the fear of offending someone that they very obviously had today.