As teachers, there are times when we find ourselves frustrated at the lack of flow in the discussion in a class–we realize that there are many reasons for why discussions can be difficult (e.g. students have difficulty understanding the materials; they might not have done all the readings; they’re feeling overwhelmed by all they have to get done; they’re sick, etc.) but we also suspect that sometimes conversations falter because students are worried about saying the wrong thing, and this kind of worry usually centers on discussions about social identities, power, and privilege. While we try to assure students that the classroom is a space for learning, and that learning means making mistakes sometimes, we understand why students can be reluctant to take risks. Later, we hear in emails or end-of-term evaluations all of the questions that they hesitated to bring up with their peers.
But of course, it’s not just our students who might feel inhibited to ask questions about what they don’t understand or about what they might perceive as “politically incorrect.” Faculty and staff–including us, sometimes–also hesitate and fumble with questions that intersect issues of race, because these kinds of worries are commonplace in a society where we often conflate saying things like “race” and “Black” and “Latinx” with being racist. As Beverly Tatum notes in her book on racial identity development, White adults “struggle with embarrassment about the topic [of race], the social awkwardness that can result if the ‘wrong’ words are used, the discomfort that comes from breaking a social taboo, the painful possibility of being perceived as a racist” (xvi).
Pop culture satirizes these socially awkward moments in uncomfortably hilarious scenes like when on 30 Rock Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) tells Elisa (played by Salma Hayek) that his mother doesn’t like any of the women he dates; it’s not that she’s… what does she call herself? She answers him: “Puerto Rican.” He replies, “I know you can call yourself that, but what should I call you?” Similarly, on The Office episode “Diversity Day,” notoriously clumsy and insensitive Michael Scott tries to get to know Oscar:
Michael: Um, let me ask you, is there a term besides Mexican that you prefer?Something less offensive?
Oscar: Mexican isn’t offensive.
Michael: Well, it has certain connotations.
Oscar: Like what?
Michael: Like… I don’t… I don’t know.
Oscar: What connotations, Michael? You meant something.
Michael: No. Now, remember that honesty…
Oscar: I’m just curious.
We believe in allowing space for awkward (anonymous, if necessary!) questions and thoughtful, generous, but also blunt answers. We’ve seen this done in a few spaces. You might have already come across the web show Ask a Slave. This series started on youtube and features the actress Azie Dungey portraying the actual questions she received when she worked at the popular historic site, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. In the less satirical vein, one of our favorite podcasts, Code Switch, recently had an episode where they answered “listeners’ most burning questions.” The Code Switch team is now planning to have an advice column (and you can submit questions right here!), suggesting that they’ve discovered–and we’re not surprised–that there’s a lot of desire for guidance when it comes to diverse, complex intercultural and interracial spaces and relationships. And we can’t forget Gustavo Arellano’s Ask a Mexican column in the OC Weekly, which fields questions from non Mexicans, but also from Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Chicanx, ‘cause sometimes we have questions we’re afraid to ask our own communities too.
Long story short, we both love advice columns and we know that y’all have got to be simmering with lots of awkward (and thus edifying) questions about race, particularly as they relate to learning, teaching, living, and working on college campuses. So if you’ve got a question that you’ve been hesitant to speak, you can ask us here –anonymously!–and we’ll plan on doing a post next term where we attempt to answer some of your questions.
P.S. For more edification, you should check out Beverly Tatum’s book “Why are the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” and other conversations about race.