whiteness in the classroom

During our Communication class today, Maria and Alborz, who are working on a documentary that portrays the experiences of queer people in diaspora, shared part of an interview they had shot of Mellissa, who is also in our class. In this interview, Mellissa touches upon the pressure she has felt to assimilate to whiteness at the cost of her own cultural roots, as part of a larger discussion on how identities are fragmented by forceful migrations and a complex of oppressions. There were so many important questions that their project provoked, but we never got to them because the entire conversation was derailed by a white woman whose feelings had been hurt by Mellissa’s mention of whiteness. Through her tears, she even accused the entire class of being racist against white people because no one had wanted to be her project partner.

Unlike most classrooms in the US, our class is made up of a majority of students of color, and our professor is a black woman. Clearly, this atypical demographic has been a very disturbing experience for this white woman. I have sensed her discomfort building throughout the quarter in response to the “dominance” of people of color and racial consciousness in the classroom, and had a feeling all that seething white supremacist anxiety would erupt at some point. Today was that day.

Her outburst was rather unremarkable in and of itself, considering the frequency with which white people flip the fuck out whenever whiteness is merely pointed out. The collective response from the classroom that followed, however, was one of the more beautiful academic moments I’ve witnessed. A black woman from the Communication department quickly challenged this white girl’s attempt to center herself, validating Mellissa’s choice and manner of voicing her experience. I told the white woman that she was feeling, for one second of her life, the marginality that people of color experience at every moment, and asked her to reconsider the amount of space she was taking up. Alborz patiently explained that Mellissa’s mention of whiteness was a critique of institutional racism rather than an attack on any individuals. And Yessica spoke to the overwhelming white dominance that defines every other facet of our lives, and the ways that this default whiteness normally silences her as a Latina. Mellissa also responded, reclaiming what she had chosen to express in the interview, and powerfully reminding this white woman that she could never understand the context of a biracial woman in the US struggling with the visceral pressure to assimilate to whiteness. Through verbal and nonverbal means, the students of color collectively expressed the reality that they face in a white-dominant society and a refusal to have our experiences silenced.

The white girl responded with painful predictability, repeatedly crying, “But I love everyone!” and talking about how she had gone to a school in New Mexico that was mostly “Hispanic.” (How is it statistically possible that every white person accused of racism seems to have grown up as a minority?) She even threw in some bizarre comment about how she used to teach “beautiful black children,” repeatedly exclaiming, “They were so beautiful!” Grasping at random examples of what she clearly considered her admirable ability to regard people of color as homosapiens, she performed the “racist-white-person-justifying-their racism-in-a-racist-way” routine to a tee. When white people are ever challenged about race, they go through a list of predictably racist reactions but always think they’re saying something novel and profound.

If that classroom had been taught by a white professor, or attended by mostly white students, as most classrooms are, how differently would this scenario have played out? Our own experiences tell us that the classroom would have moved to collectively encourage and validate this woman’s clueless, racist monologue. People of color would have been promptly silenced, if we dared to speak at all in spite of the torrent of retribution we have come to expect. There’s no telling the collective extent to which people of color have suffered our constant and casual dehumanization in silence.

White supremacy and white universality are present like the air we breathe, and white people have become so dependent upon these forces for their sense of self that the moment they are prevented from casually enjoying these privileges, they react like they’re dying. As they flail around like wounded animals, they reveal a telling picture of the white supremacist ideologies and dehumanizing logics that foreground their existence. Perhaps because of the neoliberal, colorblind doctrines of our time, even self-proclaimed progressives and anti-racists erase the fact that racism is an actively enjoyed system of domination. 

In spite of this annoying outburst, it became an opportunity for us, as students of color, to speak out and address the racist anxieties that had been boiling under the surface. It was a moment of solidarity against the ways in which we are usually silenced, invalidated, and made to feel crazy every time we assert our full humanity.

I’m excited to announce that the Second Edition of my booklet, Applying to Graduate School in Art History, is now available! The Second Edition has been revised and updated and it introduces two new features: printable worksheets and checklists designed to help you navigate the applications process. Download the new booklet for free here, and if you like it, please share this post with your friends.
When you decide to go to grad school and work at the same time

Relax. Keep studying.

We will get through this.