Letter to the Editor: “The Best Class I Ever Had: Why Understanding Racism is Hard”

In spring of 2010, as part of my education at UMD to be a math teacher, I took a course called “Teaching in a Diverse Society.” I went into the class, as I’m sure many others did, with low expectations. I’m a white male, in a class full of other white students, preparing to become a math teacher: Why should I care about this, and how much could I really learn about diversity? Quite a bit, it turned out.

Intellectually, this class was the most challenging course I took as an undergraduate—even beyond the graduate level math courses I had to take while also majoring in math. This class taught me how to teach and live in the diverse, global culture of the 21st century. At its core, it taught me how to be a well-adjusted human being.

One of the biggest challenges in this class was learning about the complexities of racism, white privilege, and my own personal biases. An assignment I particularly remember was reading “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh. McIntosh posits in her essay that implicit racial bias and white privilege definitely exist, but they can be a very difficult thing to see as a white person. After reading the article, our professor had to deal with a class of white students, myself included, who had felt attacked and offended. The message and reaction were a small scale version of the response to the “Un-Fair Campaign” that stirred up Duluth recently with their provocative billboards.

This message, whether received by essay or billboard, is provocative for a reason: it challenges us to examine our own beliefs. We spend much of our life on autopilot, not thinking about why we believe what we do but simply believing it. When we encounter conflicting evidence to our beliefs, often the first thing we do is feel attacked or offended. Usually this emotional response is powerful enough that we feel that initial dissonance, then continue to block out further exploration as if nothing ever happened. It’s much easier to live without thinking about an idea that might throw our worldview into disorder.

This is an aspect of one of the most powerful human biases, known as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to look for or prefer information that confirms our current beliefs. We do this in small ways all the time. For example, your day might start on a sour note: you wake up late, the barista screws up your coffee (even after you’ve waited forever in line), your car won’t start again. If you mentally set yourself up to say “This is a bad day,” you will look for further evidence to support that notion throughout your day, potentially ignoring evidence that it’s a day like any other or maybe even a good day overall.

I would wager that most people whose initial response to the idea of racism and white privilege was “but I’m not racist” employed some sort of confirmation bias. This could be done either by providing evidence of times that they were sensitive to race or thought of the absence of incidents where they had experienced racism. Being white, racial bias and white privilege is a hard thing to see—akin to a fish trying to understand that they are swimming in water. For some perspective, according to the 2010 census, Duluth’s population is 92.7% white. Comparatively, Minnesota’s population is 85.3% white and the United States population is 72.4% white. Duluth’s homogenous racial demographics can make it harder to see and understand white privilege.

There are some public, explicit incidents that do allow us to talk about the racism that we do see. I feel like we’re on repeat with racial incidents at UMD and the failure of people to personally examine the issue is more evident than ever. Recently, a racist video featuring two white females, at least one of whom a UMD student, surfaced on YouTube (it has since been taken down). This seems like a shadow of the racist Facebook conversation at UMD that was publicized in April of 2010. On top of this there is Rod Raymond’s attorney, through his open letter to UMD, comparing Mr. Raymond’s situation to the lynching of three African Americans in the 1920s. I believe these are all examples of racial insensitivity, intentional or not.

When discussing any form of insensitive and offensive behavior, including racism, there are two important parts to examine. One part is the harasser’s intent, which is the easy part to focus on. I don’t think it was the females’ intent in creating and uploading the video to show the world what they thought of black stereotypes. I also don’t think it was the intent of the two girls in the Facebook incident to publicize their thoughts on an African American student nor was it was Rod Raymond’s attorney’s intent to show his racial insensitivity and misunderstanding in his comparison.

But the other part, the perception and interpretation of the victim, is the more intricate aspect. It’s also the part that we naturally tend to ignore or misinterpret. What we are really failing to do is to understand other people. When we fail to be sensitive to people’s prior experiences and emotions, we fail to be human. This is what we do when we tell people they need to “grow a thick skin,” “get over it,” or tell ourselves “I’m not racist” because we’ve never made a video mocking black culture. These thoughts are a defense mechanism we employ to avoid thinking about our own beliefs as well as the perspectives of others. These ideas serve our biases well—we get to keep thinking we’re right, as we’ve always been, and our brain remains happy and free of dissonance.

However, personally deciding what should and should not be offensive to another person is a dangerous game, and one I believe is not worth playing. When I say something harmful, intentional or not, I give the other party a favorable judgment because I do not have all the evidence. I understand that there is no possible way I could understand the complexity of the series of moments in a person’s life that has led them to take offense at my comment. If I know this person well, I ask for an explanation on what of my comment was offensive. If I do not know them well or they prefer not to answer, then I understand that I do not have the full story and I cannot possibly make a call on the harm of my comment. I encourage you to adopt this stance as well when you think about intricate and serious ideas such as racism, white privilege, and racial bias.

I’d like to end with a quote that summarizes my thesis. It’s an idea that you won’t learn in any single class at UMD. It is something that you’ll learn as you continue to interact with people, regardless of skin color or other differences:

”But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over.” – David Foster Wallace

Challenging your beliefs appears to be a sacrifice at first, but the reward is understanding and compassion for your fellow human beings—a reward well worth the cost.

by Peter Baumgartner UMD Alumni – Class of 2011 baum0354@d.umn.edu   Suggested Reading:

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh (1988) You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself by David McRaney (2012) “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace - Commencement Speech at Kenyon College (2005)

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