The killings of unarmed black men in recent months have provided a tragic opportunity to begin a national conversation about racism. It was not the election of a black president nor the prominence of Black Americans on the national stage, but the videos of murder that have pushed us to try to see the bruises on the face of America.
Because I am a black man and a teacher, I have been asked many times over the last year how we might teach our young people to understand, and begin to remedy, the miasma of contempt that takes black lives. While it’s important to study our country’s history, I have come to believe that this may not be enough.
Why? The way we talk and learn about racism suffers from an array of bankrupt definitions that all the facts we might learn about racial injustice remain inert and useless.
One example is the word diversity. Today, this word has become meaningless and obfuscatory. I think it’s important to explain why.
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The way I view it, there are two types of diversity: decorative and substantive. Decorative diversity is the type we are most familiar with. It is the pleasing safari that allows just enough people of color into a situation that allows those on the safari to avoid critical self-reflection, and absolve themselves of racism of any kind. It is the ethnic holidays, potlucks and “months” of history that are common to schools, workplaces, and other public spaces. Its primary concern is with the development of a pleasing mosaic that hides more than it reveals. Simply put, decorative diversity is a real (and poorly understood) barrier to progress.
On the other hand, substantive diversity is, in the words of University of Washington Law Professor Louis Wolcher, “not about gonads and skin color, but about power, having a share of the power that governs your life.”
It is difficult to find any diversity initiative that has power as a focus and seemingly even rarer to find people who define diversity in this way. Racism involves the power to make prejudices into policy, and substantive diversity focuses on this power nexus.
Thinking about racial justice in this way would ideally focus study and dialogue on how power is shared (or not), but our idea of racism is still generally too anemic to make this happen. This is because we too often tend to think of racism as a mistake rather than a design.
Many of us are familiar with the common narrative about racism: once upon a time, in the bad old days, America had some “problems” with race. It is a narrative that assumes at the outset that this is not who we are any more. More importantly, it assumes that racism is a monkey wrench and not the machine.
When working with other teachers, this is what I call The Shark Theory of Racism. We tend to think of racism as the shark; the dangerous and scary creature who sneaks up, sows terror and violence, and leaves bloody, but calming waters in his wake. This idea avoids the crucial question: What makes the shark possible?
My answer is that racism is the water, not the shark. The water is the medium that nurtures the shark and brings him to us. The water is so prevalent, so normal, that it is unremarkable it’s there, and we cannot remember a time when it wasn’t. I would argue that focusing on the water allows us to see both the scope of the problem and any possible remedies. Racism’s common narrative asks us to produce better shark hunters as the ocean breeds sharks continually.
A common frustration in education from middle school to graduate school is that conversations and curricula about racism never get beyond the basic 101 level. This level repeats facts from the bad past ad nauseam without ever explaining how racism works or why it persists.
It could be that we need to begin asking where the sharks come from, and teaching students how to filter the water. Real diversity demands a robust ecosystem with millions of little filters, creating spaces where sharks fear to swim.
Drego Little teaches Literature/Writing for The Rainier Scholars Program and Matteo Ricci College, Seattle University.