On Your Marks, Get Set, Race!

On Your Marks, Get Set, Race!
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After learning about social class and inequality, we will now learn about race and inequality. Before talking about race specifically, recall the unit on how to have a sociological perspective. We learned that sociology sometimes “makes the familiar strangeIt sheds light on areas of our life that we never questioned before. This can be an eye-opening experience that is sometimes difficult to accept. Learning about race everyday may be eye-opening and may make you think about life in a new way that might be uncomfortable. We also learned that society constructs a reality for how we feel and experience the world. Learning about race may challenge the previous feelings that we have had. And, finally, remember that we are like fish in water never having to question or notice the water. Race is one of those cultural constructions that we have never questioned. Please begin by reflecting on what you have already come to understand about race by answering numbers 1-3 below.

On your marks…

Prior Knowledge Questions:

Answer the following questions off the top of your head. Use what you have learned until now to answer.

1. What is a race? Define it. What determines what race a person is?

1b. Is race scientific?

2. How many races are there? Name them (or as many as you can).

2b. What race are you?

3. Before today’s class, when was the last time you remember specifically discussing race? What was the context of the discussion? If you do not know or remember, that’s ok, just say that.

3b. What do you think might be difficult about discussing race during this unit?

Get set…

The Difficulty of Race

Before we begin our study, I want to acknowledge that the topic of race can be a difficult topic to discuss.

First, as evidenced by the student responses to questions 1 and 2 above, race is difficult to define. Even though race has a long history in the United States (over 400 years, as the 1619 Project highlighted), and was written into the US Constitution, we have difficulty defining “race.” If I asked you about race, you would know what I meant. However, when asked to define a race, students have difficulty agreeing on a definition. We don’t learn about race in anatomy class or biology class or even in US history. Despite not learning about race, there is a hegemonic acceptance of what race is; Americans learn about it from a young age so they assume that they know what it is and they never question it. However, because we don’t learn about it, we don’t have the language to talk about it. That limits our understanding even more and contributes to racial anxiety when talking about it.

For question number 3 above, not only do we seem to accept the idea of ​​race without truly understanding it, but for many Americans, they do not have to think about race in their daily lives. Because America has been a predominantly white country, whites have traditionally been able to safely be considered the norm. They can avoid discussing race, except when learning about it in relation to a particular situation – like in history class or when the protesters marched for George Floyd. Because of that, whites do not have to think about being white. They do not worry about being judged for being white. They are able to focus much more on their identity as an individual and not as a member of a racial group. So, when the race becomes the topic of discussion among whites, it can be uncomfortable as something they are not used to discussing.

Finally, a third reason that race is difficult to learn about is because many whites think of racist based on the way racism became a part of the national consciousness in the 1960s. During that time, racists were seen as violent and extreme, like the KKK. Racists were people who consciously hated minorities. This was a very basic definition of racism that often reduced people to being either not racist or racist: either good or bad. This label became a really awful label for Americans who are white. As we have learned, people have complex identities and they are multifaceted. They are not simply either racist or not. Instead, it is important to acknowledge that we all live in a society that has been historically racist and so, therefore, we are all capable and even likely to exhibit behaviors and attitudes that are racist. That might be uncomfortable to acknowledge but it should not define us. Not only are people complex and multi-faceted, but racism is as well. It can be institutional and unintentional and explicit or implicit. As we talk about racism, try to see how people of different races are treated unequally. Try not to feel defensive or accused. This is a learning process that takes time. It was a long road for me to understand this as well. There is a good chance that everyone in this class has said something or done something that was racist. But that does not mean that you should have your entire identity defined as “racist” – as Bryan Stevenson says in his book Just Mercy, “Each of us is better than the worst thing we have ever done.” So as we move forward, in terms of racism, focus on the words and actions and not on identity. In other words, things that we say and do may be racist, but try to refrain from defining each other’s identity as “racist.” Say, “talking like that is racist” or “doing that is racist” rather than saying, “if you do xyz then you are racist.”

4. Do you understand why race might be difficult to discuss? Which of the three might make it most difficult for you? Do you think you will have difficulty discussing race?

In my own experiences, as a young sociology student in undergrad, I felt uncomfortable talking about race and racism because of all of the above reasons. It was really hard for me to learn about racism without feeling accused of something wrong. I felt guilty and that made me defensive and obstinate. However, as my academic journey continued, I learned more about race and gradually I became more comfortable teaching about it. However, over the last 20 years, I have noticed some of the same resistance to learning about race in the students that I teach. It was not until I read Robin Diangelo’s work that I had a name for the feelings that I originally had about race and the feelings that I now experience with my own students: Whit fragility. I want to acknowledge those feelings to help students understand the discomfort that you or your classmates might feel. Hopefully in recognizing this discomfort and understanding it, makes it easier to learn about race throughout this unit and your life.


And White Fragility

One author who has written extensively about race is Robin DiAngelo who has been teaching about race and racism for over 20 years. During that time, she observed that many people have difficulty in discussing race and racism. In a 2011 journal article, DiAngelo explained the difficulty in discussing racism with Whites. She called the difficulty “White fragility” and expanded on the idea that whites have difficulty in discussing race and racism in a book titled the same.

Please watch DiAngelo explain her work in the 6-minute Youtube video from NBC news and also available at The Guardian.

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress. Although white racial insulation is somewhat mediated by social class (with poor and working class urban whites being generally less racially insulated than suburban or rural whites), the larger social environment insulates and protects whites as a group through institutions, cultural representations, media, school textbooks, movies, advertising, and dominant discourses. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar. In turn, whites are often at a loss for how to respond in constructive ways., as we have not had to build the cognitive or affective skills or develop the stamina that would allow for constructive engagement across racial divides. leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. This book explicates the dynamics of White Fragility and how we might build our capacity in the on-going work towards racial justice.

5. Do you understand what DiAngelo means by “white fragility”?

In conclusion, as we begin this unit, I want to acknowledge the difficulty of discussing race and helping you to frame it so that you can be open to learning about race going forward. While the topic of race can be difficult and emotional, I want you to know that I am willing to help you understand and I want our classroom to be a safe space for understanding. Trust me and trust the process, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be curious, not judgemental.

Watch these two humorous takes on white fragility:

From Al Jazeera, this Newsbroke sketch is a public service announcement called “White Fragility Training: Raising Racial Awareness of White Discomfort with Racial Awareness”

In Sum:

  • Race and Racism is part of American society
  • Acknowledge these and be willing to talk about them even though they are uncomfortable topics.
  • It is okay to talk about Americans who are identified as “White”, “Black”, “Asian”, “American Indian” or “Hispanic/Latin” especially in the context of race.
    • However, some people will have personal preferences about the terms they identify with and that’s okay. It is always best to talk about individuals as specifically as you can.
    • If you are anxious about other terms that can be offensive, see this website from Dr. Pam Oliver, UW Madison professor. A few notable pieces of information:
      • Don’t use the term “colored” but you can use the term “people of color” to mean non-white people.
  • If you talk about racism, try to refer to actions or words as racist (as opposed to people).


Here are some more resources as we begin to learn about race and about DiAngelo’s work:

DiAngelo’s book, What Does It Mean to Be White? is a terrific book for anyone wanting to be more racially literate. Racism and Specific Racial Groups, Chapter 17 of her book, is all about the different histories and discriminations against specific racial groups. She does a great job of succinctly explaining the social, historical and political contexts that affect each group. While I teach much of what she explains in her book, it is a valuable resource and I recommend it.

NBC has a brief 3 min video with DiAngelo here.

Here is an 80 min video of DiAngelo at a book talk:

If there is still time, move on to lesson 2 to see what the answers are to questions 1 and 2 above.

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