Overcoming the Fear of Being Called a Racist: White Student Affairs Professionals Working for Racial Liberation

The ACPA18 Convention team reached out to colleagues to share their experiences with whiteness and engaging white supremacy in higher education and the field of student affairs. This post is part of a series of reflections and narratives engaging this topic as part of ACPA’s Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice & Decolonization.

“The lights are too bright. Why are the lights in hotel conference rooms always so damn bright? I am already feeling exposed,” I thought. The last thing I wanted was a spotlight chandelier hanging over my head. I felt a cold sweat building on the brow of my forehead. All eyes were on me after the facilitator of the white caucus group, Dr. Kathy Obear, pulled her chair in front of me, sat down, looked me right in the eye and asked me a question. “Kyle, you’ve been really quiet for the entire institute. What is holding you back,” she asked.

The Social Justice Training Institute (SJTI) is week-long race immersion, where a racially mixed group of about fifty people gather to critically explore the topic of race. I attended SJTI in 2010 and it was the first time in my life I truly began to understand what it means to be white. I heard painful stories from People of Color about their experiences with racism. I learned about the insidious nature of white supremacy and the ways in which it systemically benefits white people while oppressing People of Color in the United States. Most importantly, I was challenged to consider the ways in which racism impacts my life as a white person.

Kathy’s question hung in the air as I sat sweating. “Why have you been so quiet,” she asked again. I knew the answer, but I was afraid to say it out loud. I took a deep breath and swallowed hard. “I guess I’m afraid… I’m afraid of being called a racist,” I whispered. Kathy allowed a moment of silence to let the weight of my words sink in. “Whoosh! Yeah, I know that feeling,” she finally replied. Getting it off my chest and hearing her validate my fear put me at ease. She continued, “So, why are you so afraid of being called a racist?”

Honestly, I had never thought about this question. As a white person in the field of student affairs, it was understood being called a racist was the worst thing that could happen. I had spent much of my professional career trying to demonstrate a strong commitment and passion for social justice. Being called a racist would be proof that I was a fraud. It would mean that I was yet another problematic privileged white man, fulfilling the one-dimensional stereotype that I had worked so hard to refute. It would be a heartbreaking reminder I am no different than family members back in rural Michigan who still ignorantly spout racist slurs. I desperately wanted to be affirmed as a “good white person” and being called a racist challenged that image.

“I guess I’m afraid of being called a racist because it would mean that I’m a bad person,” I said. Kathy’s eyes lit up. “Ah-ha! So, for you, being called a racist is the same as being called a bad person. I get that. But, think about it for a minute,” she replied. “If one of your students makes a mistake, like drinking or saying something offensive, do we kick them off campus and condemn them for life? No. We have educational opportunities in place to help them learn and grow. So, how are you any different,” she asked.

She was right. Being called a racist doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person, it means that I said or did something racist. Being held accountable for racist words and actions isn’t a life sentence. Rather, it can be an opportunity to learn and grow. In fact, if I am really committed to racial justice as a white person, being open to feedback and working to do better is a requirement. Trying to avoid accountability for my racist actions through silence does nothing to combat racism. It does nothing to help me unlearn the racist lessons I’ve been taught throughout my life. It only serves to protect my comfort as a white person.

Processing with Kathy at SJTI, I felt something I had never felt during a conversation about race. I felt free. The pit in my stomach disappeared. Rather than constantly trying to prove myself as a non-racist white person, I could just listen and focus on learning. I felt liberated from deep insecurities, guilt, and shame. The gripping fear of being called a racist caused me to stay silent during conversations about race. This fear prevented me from receiving important feedback about how I can be a better racial justice ally. Submitting to the idea that I might be racist, simply because I am white and I live in a racist society, didn’t add to my feelings of guilt and shame. In fact, it felt liberating.

That day at SJTI, I learned the ways in which racism and white supremacy negatively impact me as a white person. I realized that I have a personal stake in dismantling white supremacy. I accepted that I am no better and no different from any other white person socialized in white supremacy. Despite the countless privileges that my white skin affords me, my soul will never heal as long as my life is dictated by racism. I’m not suggesting that white people experience the same trauma and violence from racism as People of Color. That being said, white people need to understand that they too are hurt by white supremacy. I recognized that in addition to fighting for the liberation of People of Color, I must challenge white supremacy for my own liberation.

Audre Lorde once said, “Your silence will not protect you.” It’s true, silence will not protect us from white supremacy. Our only hope for healing and liberation lies in recognizing the ways in which we as white people uphold systemic racism. There is healing in racial justice and we as white student affairs professionals must embrace the hard truth of our own participation in racism if we are to start that process of healing. Being held accountable for our racist words and actions is not an indictment. It can be a gift. If we are willing to acknowledge the ways we as white people have made mistakes by intentionally or unintentionally oppressing People of Color, we no longer have to prove that we are “good white people”. We can show that we are responsible white people by owning our racist actions and taking steps to change. As white student affairs professionals, we can change the conversation about race in higher education by overcoming the fear of being called a racist.

I understand that what I’m proposing is not a simple shift in mindset. Facing our own participation in white supremacy as white student affairs professionals can have real consequences, some of which might significantly impact our personal and professional lives. In my experience, however, the benefits far outweigh any costs. Openly addressing my role in white supremacy has led to less racist behavior and better relationships with People of Color. It has resulted in more productive conversations with other white people about racial justice, including friends, family, and students. Most importantly, it has allowed me to start healing from the wounds of insecurity bestowed upon me as a white person living in white supremacy.

Rather than reacting defensively when others identify our racist actions, imagine if we as white student affairs professionals humbly appreciated being held accountable when we perpetuate racism. Rather than staying silent in order to feel comfortable, imagine if we as white student affairs professionals openly acknowledged and contested our participation in white supremacy. Rather than staying out of racial justice efforts, imagine if we as white student affairs professionals had no choice but to fight against racism because our very healing and liberation depends on it.

Question to ponder: Have you ever felt or witnessed the fear of being called a racist? How did this feeling of fear impact the effort to dismantle white supremacy in higher education? Did the fear result in silence? Did the fear result in resistance? Brainstorm a list of outcomes that might result if white student affairs professionals overcame the fear of being called a racist.

Kyle Ashlee is a doctoral candidate in the Student Affairs in Higher Education Program at Miami University. Kyle focuses on developing tools for educators with dominant identities to effectively engage in anti-oppression work. He and his wife, Aeriel, are the “Social Justice Couple” and co-founders of Ashlee Consulting, a firm dedicated to building critically engaged communities that strive to dismantle systems of oppression. Kyle received his B.A. in Philosophy and Political Science at the University of Michigan and his M.S. in Student Affairs in Higher Education at Colorado State University. His research interests include critical approaches to student affairs graduate preparation, Critical Whiteness Studies in higher education, and critical perspectives on college men and masculinities.

Contact: [email protected]
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Twitter: @theSJcouple
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