Recently, I took my classes to the library to hear a presentation from our librarian about books relating to Black History Month.
Immediately, I noticed that she was stumbling over her words, stammering, pausing and restarting, and overall, looked super nervous. She said “Black,” once.
When it was over, she came over to me, and asked worriedly, “Was that okay?”
“In what way?” I replied. I am never quite sure how to respond to this question. Are you asking because you think that I, as a person of color, am more susceptible to being offended when you, the white person, talks about other people of color? Are you asking because you know the equity and social justice are a huge priority of mine? Or, are you asking because at least five kids were nodding off during the presentation?
“Ugh,” she began, “I just don’t know how to talk about this stuff, you know? It’s such a sensitive subject.” She sighed. “I mean, I mentioned slavery.” She whispered that last word, as if she had said, “shit,” or “asshole.”
“I thought it was fine,” I said, keeping a close eye on some students inching far too close to outer limits of the library. “You are allowed to mention slavery. It did happen.”
“I know, but it’s so sad, you know? And we don’t really talk about that kind of stuff,” she responded. “Do you really think it was okay? I don’t want to sound too preachy or make them feel bad. It’s just so hard to talk about.” The librarian then patted my shoulder, sighed again (as if she had just achieved some sort of Herculean task) and said, “well, maybe they’ll check out a few books, at least.”
Why was it so difficult to talk about Black History Month? For my very Vanilla Latte of a librarian, it was akin to getting a root canal, but with the added risk of the removed molar calling her a racist.
The latter, I think, is what is at the heart of (some) white people’s hesitation to talk about Black History Month, or race in general. In my experience, even mentioning the topic of race will make V.L.s squirm in their chairs and start checking their Facebook messages on their phones. As soon as the topic comes up, so does their guilt. It’s like a little White Guilt Gnome climbs on their shoulders and whispers, “by the way, a piece of this is your fault. How does that feel, buddy?” There’s a definite fear there, spurred by guilt, that keeps the conversation from feeling genuine.
I don’t have a White Guilt Gnome, and that is why it is so much easier for me to talk about Black History Month. In fact, the day after my students met in the library, I had to give the presentation on my own because the librarian was out for the day. I book talked Lions of Little Rock, and explained that there was once something called segregation in schools. I talked about Malcolm X, and then I asked, “does anyone know why his last name was ‘X’?” When I got zero hands, I explained that he had denounced the last name he had been given, because it had been the last name of the person who had literally owned, beaten, and abused his ancestors. I talked about Clay, and how it had been illegal for slaves to learn how to read and write, and how in this book, one does learn, and he etches his stories on the bottoms of jars of clay. When put in a kiln, those messages were there forever.
“This was how he made his voice heard,”I told my students. “This was how he found his voice. This was his form of resistance, even when all the odds were stacked against him.”
It was because I didn’t have a White Guilt Gnome telling me how bad I should feel that I could engage fully in the discussion with my students. And that is a form of privilege. I have the privilege of understanding how difficult it is to have my voice heard, and I can glean the wisdom and strength of those who have fought before me and bring that to my students. I bring the Formally Oppressed Now Ready To Resist Gnome to the table. My gnome whispers urgently in my ear, “Yes! Tell them about Harriet Tubman and how brave she was! Yes! Tell them about Thurgood Marhall and how instrumental he was in ensuring education for all students! Yes! Tell them about how the fight continues to this day! Do it!”
My gnome kicks ass, and I do feel that it is a privilege that I as a person of color can claim (and goodness knows that we need to claim as much as we can). But, I also think that everyone should have their own version of my gnome by now. Honestly, I don’t think that the fully matured White Guilt Gnomes of adults can be changed a whole lot. I think the answer of how to exile the White Guilt Gnomes lies, quite literally, on the shoulders of our white students. Hopefully, by modeling how a conversation about race can sound, I can banish any guilt and instill in them an Advocate Gnome. Coupled with other Resistance Gnomes on the shoulders of my students of color, I would expect some amazing things to happen. And finally, those awkward library visits could finally come to an end.