On White Guilt in the Classroom

By Sung Yim

Photo Courtesy of The Conversation

Photo Courtesy of The Conversation

So I’m sitting in class, minding my business, when the teacher brings up racism without any prompting. Let’s call him Prof. H—, for what I like to call the hard H in White.

It’s a writing class and Prof. H— is apologizing for the severe dead-white-maleness of his reading list. I’ll admit I had some feelings, but nobody had challenged it. Nobody had questioned it. That’s kind of the typical experience for a lot of non-white students.

Prof. H—’s eyes are darting from mine to my classmates’ to papers in his lap. His voice is a hoarse vibrato.  He’s mixing up tenses, he’s mixing up names and dates. At one point he refers to Sandra Bland’s passing as an indisputable suicide, unaware that the Waller County DA’s office had declared investigations of her death as that of a possible homicide—weeks and weeks ago, in the wake of dodgy circumstances and their resulting public outcry. When I correct him, he goes on about how calling it a murder robs Bland of her personal agency. Oh, never mind the suspicious conduct of the police department! Never mind the triumph this declaration symbolized for countless weary people.

Fact deflected with philosophy, a hallmark of fragile dominance.

At another point Prof. H— quotes Attorney General Eric Holder and calls him, repeatedly, Eric Garner. When he realizes his mistake, Prof. H— says I’m not good at talking about race through a jittery correction. He says we are not good at talking about race and proclaims how important it is to keep the dialog of racism in America going. He says Eric Garner and victims like him are killed because people like us in classrooms like this, we dodge the questions and fail to linger on the answers. Because we’re not good at talking about race.

He’s saying we, we, we in a room occupied by several students of color who are exchanging tense glances and negotiating whether to let it go, like so many small feats of discomfort throughout our days, or to say something because bless this nervous son-of-a-gun for trying, but this discomfort in a classroom environment, let me tell you, is some bullshit.

Look, racism, anti-blackness, police violence, these are more than crucial subjects for all citizens to engage with. Especially those of us who interact regularly with the Chicago landscape of urban living and injustice—whether in the form of community segregation or gentrification or yes, police brutality, the cover-ups and protests thereof. I firmly believe that artists must be up-to-date and in-touch. Artists must be conscious cultural critics, must engage with the world around us and the times we live in not only to stay relevant, but to dig out what good purpose our work can serve for the world.

But this white dude with a PhD is stammering through matters of race with the kind of shakiness and manic unease you see from a kid who broke their mom’s favorite vase playing catch inside. Y’know, there’s this feeling like they’re trying to do the right thing by apologizing and addressing the issue, but they’re trying to cover some shit up at the same time. Like, I didn’t mean to. Like, please don’t be mad. Like, I swear I wasn’t throwing that ball inside.

Y’know like nobody asked for an explanation, but they just keep rattling one off.

That’s what white guilt looks like to me. It’s a grown man with an education behind him struggling through explanations nobody asked for.

It looks like a lot of other things, too. It looks like me handing in an essay that challenges the woefully dead-white-male academic canon that I know is far from finished and receiving no notes of criticism. Page after page of clipped comments like good, or nice, or great. It looks like the acerbic all-nighter taste of acid reflux from too much coffee and not enough breakfast while I bust my ass trying to work something out, and all the satisfaction of turning that shit in dissolving the minute I flip through pages of nothing useful for my next round of revisions. It looks like self-doubt, it looks like me questioning Prof. H—’s motives and my own credibility because maybe the work unpacked too sore a subject for him to argue or engage with as a crafted object. It looks like impostor syndrome through a racial lens. Like I’m drifting through academia trying to school myself because people are too afraid of looking racist for schooling me.

Here’s the thing, I don’t have a concrete solution to that. This isn’t something I can outline in a bulleted list of demands and submit to every white educator. Not with the expectation of success or even peaceful discourse. Because so often, the alternative is a flurry of whitesplaining and overt racism. I’ve had teachers do far worse than Prof. H—. One white teacher felt so threatened when I pointed something out that had never occurred to him as racist before, he told me people of color were inherently too biased and sensitive to credibly identify racism. That same teacher tried to resolve the conversation by saying he’s married to an Asian woman, so he gets it all the time.

Another white teacher of mine consistently bowed and said thank you in butchered Korean every single time I left a conference.

Another white teacher rolled her eyes and demanded I repeat myself in terse hisses any time I spoke or asked a question throughout my ESL years. I was nine years old. She once shouted at me for asking how to pronounce something—like, everybody knows that. Like, figure it out yourself. Like, I don’t have time for you people.

Look, as much as I throw the word white around and as much as the fragility that word evokes might make the average white feel vilified, I love me some whites. How can I not and expect to survive life in the Midwest? Midwestern America whose mascot may as well be a Minnesota white boy with an Eminem poster on his wall and good table manners.

I won’t apologize on behalf of whites and I refuse to pardon whiteness so simply. But for me, for my own personal growth, I hold that there’s value in diving deeper than the surface of whiteness. This in itself is survival. This in itself is my meditation, my reconciliation, and yes, I love my white husband, white friends, white teachers, but I will never forgive whiteness as a social construct.  Whiteness as a tool of oppression and cultural dominance. Those feelings and ideas aren’t necessarily at odds.

Prof. H— might embody all these fragile, defensive, clueless splinters of whiteness, but he’s also a brilliant linguist. A class-act nerd with more intuitive knowledge about the craft of writing than most anybody I’ve ever met. I have loads of respect for him. It may be tempting to frame his nervous, tactless, imposing whiteness as separate from his more commendable qualities, but this is oversimplification at its worst. Just as he rattles off an explanation of racism and his complicity without anybody having asked, fingers shaking, the quake in his voice beseeching our approval, he will rattle off an explanation of ekphrasis, modular essay forms, onomastics, and the love he has for such compartments of language with that same desperate quake and shake.

We’re all the best and worst of ourselves. Not as self-contained segments and sound-bytes running in perfect sequence, but at the same time. All the conflicting versions of ourselves run parallel to one another, a loud and cacophonous chorus of personhood.

But all that? How do I articulate all that in a room full of people on a fixed schedule? How do I challenge his anxious expression of whiteness physically in the face of his anxiety? I might be so bold as to write, but I’m not cruel. I don’t want to be the bad guy. I don’t want to shout kill whitey in his own classroom, and that’s something left largely unspoken too—the power dynamic not just between white and non-white, but also between an educator and a student.

So where does that leave me when, in a room full of people, a white dude with a PhD mixes up names and dates as if Black Lives Matter is just a catch-all catchphrase?

Where does that leave me when, on a draft full of room for improvement, I read nothing constructively critical? Where does that leave me when the same white dude who so eagerly wants everyone to know he’s one of the good guys hands me nothing nuanced beyond static praise? When I wonder if that desperate apprehension and guilt also skews his response to my work?

Where does that leave me, when in a room full of people, Prof. H— says we but the W stands for white?

What I want is for him to know I have many warm, tender feelings for him and what he’s about.

I want for him to know I’m a dedicated worker who cares about more than the buttress of ideology in their work.

I want for him to know nobody asked him to explain his whiteness and giving an explanation apropos of nothing is a self-service that falls short of true accountability. I want for Prof. H— and all the Professors W, I, T, E, et al. to do the good work of racial justice in the classroom quietly. Instead of telling us how much you give a shit, give a shit. Instead of bemoaning how white your reading list is, build a better one. Rest in knowing that students of color will take notice. Realize the tragedy in the fact that we will, the tragedy in how those silent acts of simply leveling the playing field are actually so loud and remarkable to us.

Don’t guilt us into absolving your complicity for nothing but words.