Commentary

Commentary: We cannot address racism if we can’t talk about race

March 3, 2022 6:30 am
(Photo illustration by John Partipilo)

(Photo illustration by John Partipilo)

Lawmakers in Tennessee are pushing some bills that would ease the removal of books from school libraries, limit diversity initiatives in higher education, and restrict the teaching of diversity and equity concepts at the college level (the so-called ban on Critical Race Theory). 

These bills represent an effort to legislate away uncomfortable truths and bend reality into some desired, yet false, outcome. They are the product of two opposing narratives about the world colliding in a way that can no longer be ignored.

The dominant Post-Race Narrative posits that race is not all that important anymore in understanding American society. Race certainly played a significant role at key moments in American history—such as slavery and Jim Crow segregation—but since the Civil Rights Movement these unfortunate moments are all behind us now. 

Sure, there are a few individual bad apples out there thinking and doing racist things, but they are the exception, not the rule. Most Americans are decent people, and decent people simply aren’t racist. We elected a Black president, after all—twice! Surely American society has now moved beyond race.

The Stay Woke Narrative stands in direct contrast to this perspective. In this paradigm, racial inequality and even racial oppression continue to have a significant impact on people’s lives—especially Black people’s lives. The phrase “stay woke”—originally a reminder used in Black communities to stay aware of what was going on around you —has morphed through a Twitter hashtag to Merriam-Webster defining it in 2017 as being “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” 

One particularly salient pattern supporting this theory is the continued death of Black Americans, especially young Black men, and the lack of accountability for the typically  white people responsible. Over the last decade, the Black Lives Matter movement has called attention to this pattern.

For those who have fully bought into the Post-Race perspective, finding out that race is still important to understanding American society is a hard pill to swallow. When faced with intense cognitive dissonance, many people choose simply to ignore whatever is causing the discomfort.

Nationwide protests in the summer of 2020 over the death of George Floyd forced Americans to grapple with the possibility that race may still be a salient factor in our society. For those who have fully bought into the Post-Race perspective, that’s a hard pill to swallow. When faced with intense cognitive dissonance, many people choose simply to ignore whatever is causing the discomfort.

That is basically what these bills are about. Thinking about racism makes a lot of people, particularly white ones, uncomfortable. To be aware of such a problem is to call into question an entire way of viewing the world. Such paradigm-altering shifts require a lot of hard work, and I can understand why some may be incredibly resistant to facing that possibility. 

The solution, then, is to shut down the conversation altogether, to ban teaching these concepts, and for good measure, let’s also make it easier to get rid of books that may even spark such ideas. We don’t want to be “aware of…important facts and issues…of racial justice”—far better for everyone to just stay in the dark. What makes it more dangerous is that it is being promoted under the guise of protecting people’s rights and freedoms.

What rights and freedoms would these bills actually protect? The freedom to follow intellectual curiosity wherever it may lead? The right of non-White students to see themselves and their experiences reflected in the array of educational materials before them? The right and freedom to understand history and society honestly and fully? While none of these things are forbidden in these bills, neither do these bills protect any of those things.

The only freedom being protected in these bills is the freedom from uncomfortable truths. And the only right being granted is the right of those in power to shape how others are allowed to think.

Don’t be deceived: laws that restrict what can be taught in schools or that allow for the removal of “objectionable” books from libraries are patently anti-democratic. Such bills represent a form of thought policing by conservatives more concerned with protecting their fragile egos than addressing very real inequalities with us today. 

The phrase “stay woke”—originally a reminder used in Black communities to stay aware of what was going on around you —has been defined by Merriam-Webster as being “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”

Despite how they may be gussied up in the language of protecting rights and freedoms, they are tools to further erode such liberties. If your choices go beyond what those in power want you to pick, your freedom to choose can be denied. These are the actions of authoritarian regimes. By limiting our exposure to diverse ideas and to well-documented facts, we lessen our ability to think critically and effectively and therefore to engage in a robust and fruitful democracy. People then become more compliant to the will of those in power.

Being aware of racial inequalities —and further, actively combatting racism —does not mean we must assume White people are inherently evil or racist. While such individuals surely exist, they are not really the root of the problem anyway. 

Plus, such a White-guilt takeaway misses the point: Being a good person does not mean an absence of racist views. Being a good person means working through our often-complicated views of race, recognizing that we are all implicated in the systems that produce racially unequal outcomes, and doing the work necessary to fix those outcomes. 

Recognizing these truths is not un-American; rather, it is how we tell our country: I love you, I know you can do better, and I will work tirelessly to help you do better. What is more American than that?

 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Shawn Trivette, Ph.D.
Shawn Trivette, Ph.D.

Dr. Shawn Trivette has been a Tennessean most of his life, growing up outside of Knoxville, attending college in Cookeville, and now residing in the Chattanooga area. He earned his PhD in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst in 2012 and has previously held faculty appointments in Louisiana and at UTC. He currently works remotely as a data scientist for a non-profit based in Washington, DC. In his spare time, he has been analyzing Tennessee voting patterns from 2008-2020; more on this project can be found at https://sites.google.com/view/tn-gerrymandering/.

MORE FROM AUTHOR