- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
By Meridith E. Rode, Ph.D., University of District of Columbia,
When I hear the cries for “going back to the real America” or “taking the country back” I wonder where back is and how far away it is from now. I fear “back” is white reveries of a mythical past which was in reality racist and exclusionary, and that the urge to go back reveals a desperate need to undo much of what I consider progress. I grew up, a white girl, in those good old days, and was largely unaware and complicit with ideas and actions I now regret and reject.
I do not wish to return to the segregated public schools I attended in the capital city of this country, where my white teachers did not deal with the offensive existence of Division I (white) and Division II (black) schools. If I went back to those days, I would have to ignore the fallacies of race, and the horrible illogical treatment of people whose ancestry in this country often predates mine. Carter Woodson wrote The Mis-education of the Negro, first published in 1933, lamenting the lack of knowledge which African-Americans had about their history. In my experience as an educator, the problem he described still exists, but cannot be considered separately from the more systemic and toxic mis-education of the Caucasian. Ignorance may be bliss for some, but its impact on others can be, and has been, disastrous.
In 1955, the first year of school desegregation in D.C., I won the Voice of Democracy contest for the city. I gave the speech on television, won a watch and a TV and a free trip to Williamsburg, Virginia (this at the time that the state was massively resisting desegregation). The additional irony of my speech is that it was made in the nation’s capital which had no vote at all at the time, and, of course, still has only a non-voting delegate in Congress, and taxation without representation.
My winning speech was a glorious tribute to freedom and equality, making specific reference to the wonder of the different races and backgrounds represented in our great land of opportunity. The trip to Williamsburg was exciting for me, and I enjoyed my time with the state winners, all of whom were white. Seated at dinner in a historic tavern, we were introduced to Williamsburg’s Voice of Democracy winner whose job was to welcome us. I remember her, a young black girl with braids standing in her coat in the doorway of the room where we were eating. She did not join us, and no one, including myself, questioned this. She spoke softly and briefly and left. We continued with our dinner.
While I recognize that awkward scene seems a long time ago, it is very distressing to recall. It reflects a past I do not wish to revisit except by critical analysis and as a reminder of the power of denial in the face of glaring paradox. I have replayed the scene since then, casting myself as the person with the courage to point out the tragic absurdity in which we were all participating. It is my fantasy. The truth is as I’ve told it. No one spoke. Silence served as a protective shield.
I recognize that things have changed, but I am chagrined that there is often a self-congratulatory aspect when white people say “we’ve” come so far. I believe that if the inclusive “we” statement also openly acknowledged slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and continuing racial inequality as the real “white man’s burden,” the celebration of progress would become more meaningful. Black people in America have come so far because white people finally, after a very long and torturous time, began to acknowledge the cruelty they had practiced, and began to remove the barriers that bigotry had built. I don’t think white guilt is always a bad thing. There is much to be guilty about both in the past and in the present. If guilt serves as stimulus to change, it can be a useful instrument, transformed into responsibility and action. It is of no use as self-flagellation.
I grew up lower middle-class in a primarily socially conservative family. I was told that while everyone was equal, everyone wanted to be with their own kind. Despite my winning speech, I did not challenge that, and I was not challenged personally until my college years. My focus was much more on my own place and status with a greater focus on cheerleading than on the rights and wrongs of others. Fortunately, I met thoughtful people with strong ideas. I changed my mind and became a small part of the movements which worked to expand the meaning of equal rights beyond the boundaries with which I grew up.
Today, I teach studio art and art history at the University of the District of Columbia, the city’s only public university. I have been doing this for many years, and I know that the work of correcting mis-education is not finished for anyone. Facing a student body with many African Americans, as well as international students from such diverse countries as India, Sweden, Ethiopia, Poland, Mexico, Egypt, Brazil, Germany, Iran and many others, I had to recognize how my ignorance limited me as a teacher. I undertook and continue my own remedial education as I try to build curriculum more inclusive and reflective of the visual traditions of the world. It has not been easy, seeking new information and re-framing my own narrowly-referenced education. I am not alone. Many others have been struggling with the same challenge. Why would we go back after doing so much important work? Who do we want to take the country back from? Somehow I don’t think it’s just Wall Street and Big Government.
If we are to truly come to grips with the realities of a world literally and electronically intertwined, none of us can afford “the privilege of not knowing,” or pretending that the past provided the same good life for everyone. We live and work moving gingerly over the minefields of a past we try to bury, acting as if “we” are now healed. Our task is to use that past history to help us deal honestly with the present. We need to revisit the past, but I don’t want to live there.
Dr. Rode is a Professor of Art and Chair of the Department of Mass Media, Visual and Performing Arts at the University of the District of Columbia. She’s worked on expanding the curriculum, especially in World Art History. She is working on a book –both a personal and professional memoir– “The Mis-Education of the Caucasian: Learning and Unlearning Race.” Dr. Rode is also an exhibiting artist and have also done some improvisational and stand up comedy.