"Raise your hand if you're a racist"

October 11, 2011

"White people don't make
it easy for each other to talk about race," says writer Eula Biss. Instead, "we punish
each other and police each other."

One white person who tries
to improve this state of things is Jen Graves, who covers art for Seattle
alt-weekly the Stranger. Graves also
teaches art history, and in a recent article she begins with an anecdote from
class:

I was focusing on James
Baldwin and Glenn Ligon, both gay men, both African American, and it hit me
that because there wasn't a black person in the room, things were getting abstract.
This art is valuable and has to be taught-there really is no arguing against
Baldwin, and Ligon's painting Black Like
Me #2
was one of the first President Obama brought to the White House-but
how do you teach someone to have a relationship to it?

So I throw it out there:
Raise your hand if you're a racist.

As my students do that
thing where they sort of just look at you, perplexed, I raise my own hand. I am
deeply embarrassed, but I feel I have to be honest if I am asking them to be.

"You've never had a
negative thought based on racial bias?" I ask.

Very slowly, arms begin to
rise. I understand their confusion. Theirs is a generation in which we have
elected a mixed-race president, but affirmative action has been struck down for
being racist.

Read it all.