As journalism educators, we talk about a lot of uncomfortable subjects with our students. Media law and ethics alone are just packed with lessons that lead us to reevaluate our ways of thinking. And, then there is the news we advise them through covering. I’ll never forget when our university president was diagnosed with prostate cancer. We all knew generally what that meant, but we had some interesting lessons that day, complete with a call to an expert and Googling diagrams.
There is one topic of conversation that still makes me nervous, even after two decades as an educator. Conversations about race are difficult for me as a white person, mostly because I’m afraid I’ll accidentally say something stupid or offense.
I would almost guarantee we’re going to end up talking with our students about COVID-19 and race this academic year. I wouldn’t even be surprised if these issues come up on the first day of class. They certainly are two separate things that are constantly on my mind right now.
Because of this knowledge, I was thrilled to learn from NPR’s Eric Deggans during Poynter’s recent Teachapalooza conference. Deggans, a Black journalist, joined the educators’ conference to help us learn how to talk more comfortably about race in the classroom. He said:
This is a cultural conversation that’s never going to end.”
Conversations about race need to happen because they mean we’re all working to better understand each other, Deggans said. His ground rules about race-related conversations made me feel better. Deggans said, when talking about race, we must remember:
- We’re having a conversation,
- Mistakes don’t make you a racist and
- Talking about race and gender isn’t racist or sexist.
In other words, Deggans said we have to stop being so concerned about the conversation itself that we avoid having it.
When talking with students about race, Deggans said we need to remember:
- Students are less willing to accept the inequities our generation lived with, which is a good thing.
- Students often feel they have to be aggressive and insistent about issues related to race because administrators have a tendency to try to put them off, hoping they’ll graduate or lose interest and the issue will go away.
- Students need to have agency in discussions related to race and see real changes, not just talk.
- Administrators and those in authority should have the courage to serve as honest brokers in debates, ensuring all sides get to express themselves.
Deggans also spoke about different types of racism, including unspoken benefits of being white. They were:
- being the generic,
- being the objective standard for beauty (fair skin, blue eyes, etc.)
- being a symbol only of yourself, not your race, and
- being presumed innocent, not automatically labeled a “criminal,” “affirmative action beneficiary” or “troublemaker.”
These stereotypes are important to consider when talking about race, especially for someone like myself who falls into the “girl next door” stereotype.
I’ve said things about race-related issues in the past that I no longer believe. I’m sure this will be the case in the future too. But, instead of being afraid to have these important discussions, my reading as of late and Deggans’s presentation have taught me to adopt a new mantra when it comes to talking and thinking about race:
Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”Maya Angelou
I’m learning about how to be a better ally and do my part to stop racial injustice. I hope you are too. These conversations are key to that education. I hope we have them together.