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5:47 AM / Thursday January 28, 2021

10 Sep 2020

The Cultural Coach: The correct way to argue with a teacher about race

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September 10, 2020 Category: Commentary Posted by:

By Linda S. Wallace

Linda S. Wallace

Dear Cultural Coach: 

I have a white professor in graduate school who attempts to incorporate “diversity” instruction into his subjects. He starts each and every class emphasizing that all of the non-minority students view race alike, that we’re all inherently racist and that we all perceive “others” (his word) as inferior. I asked him how it was that he had the authority to speak for all non-minorities. How can we work to be culturally competent when we have to wade through this kind of nonsense? 

– Culturally Frustrated

Dear Frustrated: 

You are right to be very suspicious of those who speak for large numbers of people they don’t know and will never meet.

Your frustration is understandable, but you probably have noticed that life is not fair. As this is the case, we must be careful how we act on our suspicions, modifying them ever so slightly for workplaces and universities where bosses and professors wield the power to punish dissenters.

At work, disagreeing with the boss can cost you a promotion, a corner office with a window or, worst-case scenario, a career.  In college, arguments with the professor can get you thrown out of class or downsize your grade point average.

So, the better course is to ask thoughtful, insightful questions. It would be very difficult for any professor to explain why he threw a student out of class for raising his, her or their hand too often or making sound arguments.

Let’s say Professor Smith walks into history class and informs us that all whites are racist. We might raise our hands and ask: “Where did you get your information from? Who is your source? I would appreciate it if you could share the scientific data with us? This is fascinating stuff.”

People who make broad and sweeping generalizations about race, ethnicity or gender are often giving us opinions that are drawn from personal experiences rather than scientific investigation. 

This question opens the door to dialog a bit wider.  We can draw distinctions between bias and racism. In my experience, not all European Americans are racist, although they are biased, as am I and other minorities as well.

 If the professor cites an academic expert as his source, we might propose that we could broaden the discussion further by writing a paper for extra credit examining an opposing view. This is the foundation of academic scholarship. 

There is one final step we should take –visit: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatestv2.html and select a test that measures implicit racial biases or hidden beliefs. 

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These tests are not infallible, but they do offer a glimpse of the beliefs we hold on an unconscious level. 

I learned a lot about myself by taking this test; you may as well.

Afterward, go back to the professor to share what it is like to examine personal biases. Change the conversation. Challenge everyone in the room to take the test and share his,her or their results. Then you will  have a basis for life-changing conversations. 

Now that we are aware of our biases, what can we do about them?

If there is one takeaway from the recent Black Lives Matters protests, it is that talk and dialogues alone will not dismantle systemic racism. 

We also have to do the hard work. 

Each of us must look within and examine the beliefs that direct our daily decisions.  

In the end, real power comes to us as we lead by example, like Barack and Michelle Obama. Our objective is to become powerful. 

Dear Cultural Coach: 

I cannot understand people such as Angry and Upset who don’t like diversity. I am just thankful that I do not feel that way. One message every young person should learn no matter the color of their skin: Get an education, and you reduce your chances of being poor. 

– Thankful and Wise

Dear Thankful: 

That is good advice, indeed. When we focus solely on people who do not appreciate America’s growing diversity, we miss opportunities to imagine the world we want to create.  Even worse, we give ourselves permission not to do anything about the problem. 

You see, while those other people are the problem, we are the solution.  So it’s time for all of us to get to work. 

Linda S. Wallace develops cross-cultural messages for the workplace and the media. Readers can submit questions related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical differences to: [email protected]

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