You might say it’s generalized paranoia or an unusually heightened sensitivity to slights, but if you were born Black in the American South like I was, seeing the indignities of Jim Crow laws heaped upon one’s parents and grandparents day in and day out, every word and gesture of White people would be filtered through the cheesecloth of racism leaving a residue of threat. Racism is not only about skin color: I see it as using perceived power to deny other humans their rights, dignity, and respect.
Recently, a friend and I were on a small intimate tour of a man-made lake in the Southwest. We were the only people of color among the tour group; the tour guides also were White. For the tour, we were all seated at tables inside the boat. To begin, one of the two tour guides visited each table to find out where everyone was from. For easy reference, the guide wrote the various places down. Using a microphone, the guide recognized each table by saying where everyone was from and who came the furthest for the tour and who was the closest to home.
When the guide did not point to our table or call out our state, I raised my hand and, with a smile, proudly said, “We’re from Maryland!” Rather than apologizing for leaving our table off the list or making a self-effacing comment to account for the omission, the guide said, in what I thought was a begrudging or dismissive tone, “Maryland wants to be recognized.” Hmm, I thought. I see you.
The tour was just beginning and I was not going to dwell on what probably was just an innocent omission. The guide might have been having a bad day, as we all do at one time or another. I willed myself to be upbeat and told myself to remember the prevailing racist refrain, “Everything is not about race.”
There was a table with two elderly couples directly behind the table where my friend and I sat. While not intentionally listening to their conversation, our tables were close enough for me to hear bits and pieces of what they said. Some of the conversation was about unwelcome people in their neighborhood, such as folks who liked to ride motorcycles and the influx of gangs in nearby areas.
As the conversation progressed, one of the men said that he used to work with a Black man who did not have a car, and he would drive the man to a place to get his check cashed and then drive him home. I don’t recall his exact words, but he conveyed that he was uneasy at first about going into a Black neighborhood. He ended the story by saying that no one bothered him and nothing ever happened to him. Hmm, I thought. I see you.
My back was to the man, so I never saw his face, but I knew that the person telling this next story was the same person who spoke of his experience of going into a Black neighborhood. In this story, he and his girlfriend, many years ago, were in a crowd of Black people at some entertainment event and a riot started. He talked about how the Black people surrounded him and his girlfriend and got them to safety. As I sat there, I was wondering why this man was talking about his experiences with Black people. Was my friend’s and my proximity a trigger for these memories? Hmm, I thought. I see you.
As the tour progressed, the guides gave interesting facts about our location. When there was a negative fact about some blunder or catastrophic event that occurred near the site we were viewing, a woman at the same table of four directly behind us would say in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “It must have been a Democrat!” I was shocked that she would do this during these times that are so politically polarized. Why was this woman making this comment? Hmm, I thought. I see you.
As I worked it out in my mind, I concluded without much effort that this woman was making the assumption that my African American friend and I were Democrats, and she was heckling us. My first instinct was to turn around and give the rude woman a look that I hoped she would interpret as my calling her an “idiot!” As she kept up the harangue about incompetence being equated with being a Democrat, I wanted to engage the woman in dialogue about why she had this opinion about Democrats, and why she thought it was necessary to comment out loud in this setting. I resisted the urge to turn around or say anything.
After the tour, my friend and I talked about what happened on the boat. I said that I felt as if I had been psychically assaulted because, whether I wanted to or not, I gave energy to thoughts about whether or not my experience on the tour had anything to do with race. I felt singled out and harassed, but mostly I felt impotent and powerless to even use my words.
In the September 3, 2017, The Chronicle Review, assistant professor Jason N. Blum wrote an article titled, “Don’t Bow to Blowhards: It’s worthy speech, not free speech, that matters most.” Thinking about this experience on the boat, his words resonated powerfully with me:
Political preferences now function powerfully as identities, driving divisions that can be deeper than those defined by religion or race. The demarcation between words and actions has blurred, as psychologists and activists argue that language itself can be a form of violence.
Students are being assaulted daily by antagonistic rhetoric fomented by the current divisive political environment. They have to use brain space and energy to decipher if their negative experiences are acts of racism and, more importantly, whether they should react or not.
After the boat experience, I found an outlet for my feelings when I talked with my friend. And when I write about experiences such as this, I have an opportunity to do more processing and critical self-talk. Students also need a place to talk about what is happening to them, how they feel about it, and what, if any, actions they might take.
Listening groups, or whatever name fits the culture of your institution, are essential support services for students’ mental health. In addition to providing a place to be heard, such groups offer students an opportunity to practice skills that lead to effective interpersonal communications and intercultural competence. These groups can be built into classroom time as a laboratory or they can be part of the cocurriculum outside of class. If students are to maximize their learning and experience, they will need a way to attend to their emotional disruptions and psychic wounds caused, in part, by the current complex climate.