Letter to the Editor: A reply to Integrity for Guilford

“In your classes, do you naturally view your black, male students as future doctors, bankers or lawyers? If not, what do you see?”

I still recall the sinking feeling as Dr. Eddie Moore asked these questions in a workshop. Even today, these questions knot my stomach and generate feelings of shame, self-doubt and anger.

Yet, reflecting on these questions has triggered important learning and growth. I’ve realized I’m largely a product of our culture, one that abounds in racial and ethnic, and other, stereotypes. Scarce are the images of black doctors, lawyers, and professionals; much more prevalent are the images of athletes and thugs. When walking at night and I see a young, black male coming my way, I know my pulse quickens and my heart races. This happens despite my gender and size that would discourage most people from messing with me.

Yes, I’m aware of the implicit bias literature. I now understand how unconscious messages and involuntary physiological reactions influence my interpersonal interactions.

I know I can express, verbally and nonverbally, racially offensive messages — what we now call micro and macro aggressions — without having a conscious thought about race or prejudice. When I last asked one of my male black students “What sport do you play here at the College,” it never occurred to me then that I was simply acting out my racial stereotypes. I shudder to consider all of the times I’ve dampened my students’ aspirations when I’ve acted unthinkingly.

I can’t undo the past, but I can affect the present and future. I don’t believe I can ever eliminate the vast number of racial stereotypes that comprise my unconscious being. However, I’ve learned I can override my automatic impulses with intentional thinking. Rather than view my black, male students as simply athletes trying to pass my classes, I remind myself that all of my students, no matter their gender, race or ethnicity embody the same range of aspirations. I’ve developed this skill through my experiences in anti-racism workshops and other community forums as well as from listening to my students of color themselves.

I encourage my colleagues to consider how you’d answer these questions posed to me three years ago. I trust you’ll find them as provocative as I have. I’d like to hear your thoughts as you answer these questions or describe your struggles in overcoming systemic racism in your work. Last semester our students invited us to have this conversation. I hope you’ll join me in response.