Jasmine Roberts
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It was the beginning of my junior year in college, and it was a pretty challenging time for me because I was trying to figure out how I was going to pay the remaining balance of my tuition. So I confided in a friend of mine at the time. Her name is Lauren. And she asked, "Jasmine, not that I like these things, but why don't you apply to one of those minority student scholarships? That's an advantage that I wish I had as a white student." The word "advantage" really stuck out to me, and struck me as an odd way to describe what I felt like was just leveling the playing field. And that's exactly what I told Lauren. But she scoffed at that remark and proceeded to ask me a few more questions. She specifically asked, "When you applied to college, did you work really hard and receive good grades?" I said, "Yes, of course." She said, "So did I. And we're both here. We're examples of how the playing field has already been leveled." I was astonished by Lauren's ability to completely overlook the modern legacies of unfair policies that still affect people of color to this day. I even pleaded with her to come with just a little more humility and to realize that although we're here at the same place and at the same time, we certainly didn't get here the same way. There were issues along the way that I've had to deal with that she would never have to because of her race. But Lauren persisted in her argument, and even went on to say that through my support of minority student scholarships, I was also supporting reverse racism. I remember feeling so exhausted at the end of that conversation, as if I had run a marathon. And I wish I could say that was the only conversation I've had about race that left me feeling that way. But sadly, that's not the case. And I know I'm not alone in this sentiment. Some of you, all in the audience today, might feel the same way. There is indeed a growing sentiment in communities of color. Some of us are getting tired of talking about race because of some of the responses that we receive, that range from dismissiveness to colorblind rhetoric that's used to trivialize our experiences. I'd like to go into some of the reasons why I'm personally tired of talking about race. So, one of the reasons why I'm getting a little tired of talking about this topic is because I feel as though when we discuss it, we have a very simplistic definition of what exactly racism is. We think of segregation or treating someone else different because of the color of their skin, or even the KKK. Now, those are certainly examples of discrimination and prejudicial attitudes, but it also implies that all we have to do is just be nice to one another, and there'll be no more racism. However, that doesn't really account for the systemic inequalities that affect people of color. So instead, what I'd like us to do is reimagine racism as an umbrella term that not only addresses those particular situations that I just talked about, but also a system of advantages and disadvantages highly influenced by race. So this has to include both structural and institutional racism. Take, for instance, a current example of structural racism in our country, the racial wealth gap. White American families have on average $934,000 in wealth. Now, compare that to Hispanic families who have approximately $191,000; and African-American families are at $138,000 in wealth. Some of you might be asking, "How in the world did we get to this point in our country?" Well for this, we have to turn to history. Many people in this country acquire wealth through home ownership. However, historically, African-Americans have been left out of wealth-making opportunities through this avenue because of discrimination. My family was personally affected by this. My great-grandparents, they moved into predominantly white areas back in the late 1950s, early 1960s. However, when they and other African-American families moved into the neighborhood, property values went down, simply because of their race. You see, back during that time, racially and ethnically diverse areas were considered high risk, and to be honest with you, to a certain degree, that's still the case to this day. So, this not only affected their ability to accumulate wealth at the same rate as, let's say, a white family did during that time, but also their ability to pass down that wealth to their descendants in order to give them a head start in life. Another reason why I'm tired of talking about race is because individuals overwhelmingly turn to people of color to educate them about this topic, which can be emotionally exhausting. This expectation is perpetrated in the assumption of who is supposed to fulfill roles related to race in various institutions. Take, for instance, diversity and inclusion programs. People of color are frequently charged to lead some of these types of programs and initiatives. Now, I'm certainly not going to criticize a person of color who has a genuine interest in ensuring that these conversations are had and that these programs are implemented effectively. But what this does is it takes the responsibility off of white people to engage in these issues and places it mostly upon people of color who are actually dealing with racism every single day. It also creates this assumption that people of color are automatic experts on the topic of race. And I actually have a personal connection with this. So last October, I was presenting at an academic conference on a panel discussion, and there was a journalist who followed up with us in an email. So one of the panelists introduced me as "Jasmine Roberts, who specializes in the areas of race, diversity and inclusion." Yes, I teach communication. (Laughter) Whoops! So, I bring up that example to illustrate to you all how wrong it was for her to assume because I'm black, I'm an expert on the topic of race. And so now, this leads me to my last point of why I'm tired of talking about race. There are some white people who do not view themselves in a racial context. In other words, race is almost like an afterthought, incidental to their identity. There are some white people who struggle with this question: What does it mean to be white? That is because many are not put into a situation where they have to critically think about how their race affects their life. However, people of color are put into those situations, and quite frequently. So when you have a dynamic where there is a person of color who is aware of how race affects their life, engaging in a dialogue about race with a white person who is unaware of how race affects their life, this not only creates this imbalance in the dialogue, but can trigger what we call "white fragility." So, white fragility is a term coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo from the University of Washington, and she argues that essentially white people sometimes have negative reactions when they're talking about the topic of race. This includes anger, denial, guilt, and even resentment. Take, for instance, the issue of white privilege. Simply trying to get some white people to acknowledge that they have racial privilege can be very, very challenging. That is because some equate it to a feeling, which could lead to statements like this: "I'm White, but I don't feel privileged." However, white privilege doesn't imply that your life is easy, or that you haven't had any financial hardships, or that your life isn't challenging. However, race is not one of those factors that makes your life more challenging. White privilege means that your whiteness is affirmed and validated every single day, whether it's when you walk into a cafe or a classroom, or sit in the audience of a TED Talk and you're guaranteed that most people are going to look like you. It's when you turn on the television and you see diverse representations of white people in the media or representation in powerful institutions like Congress. So, it is critical to understand how whiteness operates in our society in order to truly gain productive conversations about race. All right, now I'm at the point where I'm wondering, How exactly can we realign our conversations about this complex, complicated, controversial topic called race? Number one, listen, and listen with empathy and humility. Try not to come from a place of defensiveness. Also speak up in critical ways. And I want to share with you all how easy that is to do. So, I typically begin my classes with a current events news discussion, which my students really like. And there was one time in particular a few years ago, we were discussing a topic that was very controversial. In fact, I noticed that the responses were divided across racial and gender lines. The debate got very heated, so I called on a student, Kevin, and this was Kevin's response. He said, "I understand that we are all entitled to our own opinion, but as a white man, I don't think it's my place to tell a person of color how they should feel about this issue." What Kevin said was so simple yet powerful. In fact, it almost made me want to cry. And I know that might sound dramatic to some people, you have to understand, up until that point in my life,

I had never heard a white person acknowledge their racial privilege out loud. You see, Kevin did what my college friend Lauren failed to do. Kevin knew that his whiteness means something. He understood that he didn't have the authority to project his reality onto people of color with different experiences. He had a level of racial literacy that allowed him to engage with others in a meaningful way. Kevin came from a place of self-awareness rather than just with the intent to respond. And that is the right thing to do. Thank you. (Applause)