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April 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 7

"Shock Value" Is Overrated in Race Conversations

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"I am a sexist!"
Whenever his college courses engage race, African American philosopher George Yancy leads with this explosive declaration. He explains, in a 2018 book chapter titled Guidelines for Whites Teaching About Whiteness, that this controversial admission is meant to engage all of his students. Still, he adds, "I specifically have in mind my white students. I want to communicate to them the importance of vulnerability and the importance of accepting how social and historical structures impact our lives in ways that we didn't ask for and yet in terms of which we help to sustain and therefore for which we must take responsibility" (p. 28). Yancy follows with a gutsy suggestion for white professors: "… risk vulnerability, engage in frank speech—offer a gesture of trust in advance. Say it. 'I am a racist!'"
Likewise, in Teaching Whiteness in Predominantly White Classrooms, Susan Hadley writes:
I have found that being vulnerable myself is a necessary first step in opening up a space for greater risk taking by my white students. When I am perceived as not having mastered my own racism (as if such a thing were even possible!) students seem more prepared to share their experiences. Seeing the supposed expert apparently failing regularly communicates to students that getting it wrong comes with the territory of racial conversations. (2018)
The more that I engage current scholarship on anti-racist teaching, the more I encounter the challenge that we, as both educators and teacher leaders, should fan our proverbial racist cards onto the table at the first opportunity. Nobody is safe from this challenge, especially white progressives, defined in Robin DiAngelo's best-selling book White Fragility (2018) as "any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the 'choir,' or already 'gets it.'" These white progressives, according to DiAngelo and others, "cause the most daily damage to people of color" (p. 4). Since black and brown students interact with white teachers daily—in a culturally sanctioned subordinate relationship, no less—it follows that they are among society's most regular recipients of this "daily damage." It purportedly falls upon white teachers, then, to not only own their racism, but to push their white students to do the same.
DiAngelo describes those who, in her racial sensitivity workshops, have disagreed with this contention: "When I talk to white people about racism, their responses are so predictable I sometimes feel as though we are all reciting lines from a shared script. And on some level, we are, because we are actors in a shared culture" (p. 9). This culture relies on a "simplistic understanding of racism," where only villains who "hold conscious dislike of people because of race" qualify as racist. However, DiAngelo and other anti-racist scholars define racism as "a racial group's collective prejudice, backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control" (p. 20). Here again, we find clear connections to educational power dynamics. White teachers and administrators are bound to their race's collective prejudice and the many privileges (grading power, discipline, and so on) that make up their ultimate authority. According to these scholars' analysis, white teachers must consider themselves racist. Once having done so, they should be "vulnerable" enough to announce it to their students.

Toward Humility, Not Paralysis

While I deeply appreciate DiAngelo's scholarship, Hadley's humility, and Yancy's willingness to highlight meaningful links between sexism and racism, I am not sure that convincing all white teachers that they are "racist"—according to a definition that not all freely accept—is such an important first step. In fact, it seems quixotic. Definitions are fluid, and connotations matter; and the energy that it takes to be absolutist about this linguistic dispute is massive.
For example, I (a black teacher in Philadelphia) currently mentor a white student teacher in my 9th and 10th grade English classes. She is, by all measures, spectacular. Her blend of imaginative lesson planning, empathy, and approachability has led my diverse group of 9th graders to love her. They've trusted her to lead some of the most rigorous race conversations—this year they have already discussed the political racism directed at asylum seekers, cultural appropriation, and colonialism. In each of these conversations, she has led students to a richness of discourse that far outpaces anything we see from adults on cable news.
I wonder, then, what would have happened if instead of counseling her to hone her conversational style, watch her pacing, analyze and modify her activities, seek out appropriate and engaging outside sources, and reflect upon unanticipated confrontations among students, I had spent energy convincing her that—because she benefits from white privilege—she is a racist. Even more important, I wonder how her classroom race conversations would have gone if I had advised her to launch them with some version of, "I'm racist." How might that statement, even if introduced with a disclaimer about shifting definitions, have impacted our students' willingness to engage her in conversation? I have not yet met a student who would be his best scholarly self after hearing such a declaration. Many of my black students, in particular, have told me that they'd feel profoundly less safe following this pronouncement from their teacher.
This is not to say that my student teacher should not be constantly conscious of her white privilege and seek to actively dismantle it through her curriculum choices, her approach to classroom management, and her relationship building with students and colleagues. White teachers, in fact, consistently approach me after professional development sessions to ask whether they should still be nervous when discussing race. Many seem to be expecting an all-absolving "No." I quickly disappoint them. Of course well-meaning white teachers should be nervous. They should take into account all of their privileges and should never be flippant, careless, or impatient. They should lead with empathy, recognizing that students navigating our white supremacist society in brown skin are living an experience that white teachers will never fully understand. I draw a similar connection to Yancy's point in my book, Not Light, But Fire (Stenhouse, 2018). As a male teacher, I recognize that no matter how much I affirm my female students, they may feel uncomfortable sharing their anger, embarrassment, or shame with me. Some would rather discuss their frustrations with a woman, who might better understand their perspective.
I should be nervous talking about the female experience—as long as my nervousness inspires humility, not paralysis. As long as it drives me to be discerning in my speech, deliberate in my relationship building, and relentless in my pursuit of better ideas. So, too, should my student teacher be—and any white teacher, who wants to talk about race.

Rethinking "Shock Value"

However, in the insistence that white teachers own being racist (despite the clear incongruence between the term's "real" definition and its more commonly accepted connotations), I see a dangerous and ultimately overrated tendency to overvalue "shock" techniques. Movies like Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, and The Freedom Writers encouraged a generation of teachers to overvalue the big speech, the big moment—one that might drive students to rip pages from their textbooks or stand on their desks and recite, "O Captain! My Captain!" When leading conversations about race, teachers have been encouraged to swing for the fences. To jolt our students out of complacency and clear the bases in one conversation, one controversial activity, or one gutsy admission by a heroically "honest" educator. In this great drama, which is usually played out behind closed classroom doors, school leaders are often irrelevant. Administrators don't get to see the magic, because shock techniques are risky, off-script, or unpredictable, all of which might get a school in the newspapers for the wrong reasons.
There are multiple problems with overvaluing shock techniques in race conversations. First, and perhaps most important, they often damage classroom relationships. Shock encourages us to spend capital that we have not yet earned, or to be overfamiliar with our students. For example, a teacher who introduces himself as a racist might not know which brown students in the room have faced bullies who've used that label to harass and destroy them. He instead relies on his students to approach the term with the same academic distance that he does, to disengage their emotions and life experiences in the greater service of his "point." He expects his students, essentially, to cut him the same slack reserved for those they're close to, without doing the hard work of building strong relationships.
Second, when we overvalue shock moments, we give weight to a corrosive myth—that great discussion leaders have to be iconoclastic, brash extroverts. Most teachers will never label themselves as racists in front of students: It requires a certain personality type to take this sort of risk, someone with not only massive self-assurance, but also enough confidence that they won't catch hell from their administrators, their students' families, or the students themselves. If meaningful race conversations are limited to those who meet these criteria, we are in trouble. There are too many important race conversations to have for shy, introspective, or risk-averse teachers to sideline themselves. We need everyone on the job.

Seismic Change Comes in Steady Waves

Instead of swinging for home runs in race conversations, I would encourage my white student teacher (and every other teaching mentee) to be a singles hitter. To rely less on shock and more on steady relationship building. To examine the racist ideas that uphold education's harmful status quo, then methodically and deliberately attack them. This approach to teaching should be systemically anti-racist, from our book selection to our modes of assessment. From the way that we greet students to the way that we discipline them. Class discussions should pull back the veil between students of color and the mechanisms that so often confound them—from inequities in school funding to the pressures of tokenism.
While I am encouraged that teachers are engaging with DiAngelo's White Fragility (2018), the chapters in Teaching Race (2018), or any of the emerging scholarship on discussing race and privilege, I would urge them to spend equal energy developing relationships with their students of color. Mostly, I would warn them to treat race conversations not as a moment's theater, but as a goal worthy of careful, patient deliberation. We should do this, knowing that even singles hitters occasionally knock one out of the park. We still have the capacity to design conversations that inspire seismic change, but such change becomes more likely when our successes have been consistent, and when the public, ugly strikeouts that come from failed shock-and-awe campaigns are minimized.

Guiding Questions

➛ Do you agree with Kay's assertion that race conversations in the classroom are often reduced to "a moment's theater"? Why or why not?

➛ What "careful, deliberate" steps could you take to dismantle the racial status quo in your school or classroom?

➛ If a student were to ask, "Are you racist?" how would you respond?


DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it's so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Hadley, S. (2018). Teaching whiteness in predominantly white classrooms. In Stephen D. Brookfield & Associates (Eds.), Teaching race: How to help students unmask and challenge racism (pp. 43–62). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kay, M. (2018). Not light, but fire: How to lead meaningful race conversations in the classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse.

Yancy, G. (2018). Guidelines for whites teaching about whiteness: How to help students unmask and challenge racism. In Stephen D. Brookfield & Associates (Eds.), Teaching race: How to help students unmask and challenge racism (pp. 19–42). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Matthew R. Kay teaches students English at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and is the author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom (Stenhouse, 2018).

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