Words and Whiteness

Words and Whiteness

It’s been a week that I experienced the “full range of human emotions.”  A new phrase I’ve coined to express exactly what it says, but more often a sadness, out of sortness, and an uneasiness.  Hopeful, yet cautious; optimistic, yet practical; also, angry, frustrated, disappointed, all of that, poorly packaged inside my heart, mind, and spirit. Why? A reflection on Words and Whiteness.

This week, Virginia Tech held its Advancing Diversity Workshop. 

Started in 2004, the NSF-funded AdvanceVT hosted annual “Advancing Women at Virginia Tech” workshops. Since 2008, the scope of the workshop has broadened to include all aspects of diversity, and the event is now entitled “Advancing Diversity at Virginia Tech.”

My day started with a quiet, somber, and solemn perusing of a huge poster on microaggressions – a reflection of phrases said in meetings and in the classroom that marginalized, demeaned, dehumanized, disenfranchised, excluded, and silenced. 

The exhibit was basically words in bubbles, with faded images of individuals and groups. The words:

“Makes me NOT want to contribute”
“I stopped contributing”
“Left Out”
“Taken aback”
“I didn’t say anything”
“Prove ancestry”
“not called by your birth name”

The Words: “not contribute, not called, silenced.” All the effects of words and identity. There’s pain and deep emotion often that doesn’t have words, but the effects linger long past the sound waves of words. The identities are often racial and ethnic, not always, but also gender, class, and other easily identifiable markers of difference (caste in India)– often a difference that is not White, male, and middle-class.

As the room begins to fill to the capacity of 400 people, I get to see the anticipation, excitement, and commitment of Virginia Tech. It feels wonderful, really, to be in a place with so many are willing to be part of a conversation about words and Whiteness. I see so many leaders — deans, vice presidents, vice provosts, and department heads. It is encouraging.

And then, our Provost, a South African who grew up during Apartheid, shared some opening remarks.  His key message:   “Diversity is not just a good idea. It is a necessary commitment.”   He has an interesting lens on diversity, from a complicated racist culture of apartheid South Africa that disenfranchised the 80% Black population and provided the small White majority of 9%  with wealth, power, and land.  That’s his background, socialization, and perspective.  He foreshadowed the program and panel on White men by acknowledging that he, himself, was a White man. It is rare, really, for White people to acknowledge and refer to themselves as White. I appreciated that he used his words to acknowledge Whiteness.

Because of his life experience, he has words to talk about diversity, as his experience in America in education was impacted by diverse racial and social friendship in graduate school.  Like apartheid, Virginia Tech was a product of legalized racial segregation. It was founded, as a land grant after the Civil War as an all White male military institute in the Commonwealth of Virginia, with a separate school for Blacks founded at Hampton University (later the land grant designation was given to Virginia State University). Histories and legacies of Whiteness.

The Provost, Cyril Clarke, has the words. His last name, Clarke, like my married name, suggests some related legacy of British colonization in the Bahamas, and around the world — a legacy of racism and oppression playing out in Brexit like a cancer aimlessly spreading through a country, consuming, without consciousness or conscience. His first name, Cyril, is one of my father’s middle names. My father — from Sierra Leone in West Africa — a country also impacted by the legacy of British rule. Legacies of Whiteness.

He finishes and I introduced the keynote speaker.

Our keynote was Dr. Jean Zu, Dean of the School of Engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology.  She shared her personal story of overcoming obstacles as a female Chinese immigrant to becoming a dean of engineering. Her talk — inspirational and informative. She shared the challenges in academia based on her identities. She shared how she, as a graduate student, returned to teach with a walker just days after giving birth, in the absence of a maternal leave policy, because she had said she would. She shared the need for persistence and perseverance; dedication and determination. She shared, though, the difference in her journey.

There was a different standard for her. She had to be even more excellent. Her path much more difficult. Why? Her identity. Race, gender, ethnicity, language, accents, and motherhood. They matter. And, our journeys in the academy are impacted with moments of utter despair, nervous breakdowns, isolation, and pain. Must we (the answer, must be yes), be strong, persistent, and persevere? Must we be dedicated and determined? Yes, but what about when we are not?  Can we afford not to be?  Who will catch us?  Where is the safety net?  Does everyone need a safety net?  What if she hadn’t persevered?

These thoughts run through my mind.   And the program shifts…

Her keynote was followed by a panel of faculty women in science talking about their efforts to institute systemic change in courses and teaching through a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant focused on inclusive pedagogy.  Do we care how students learn?  If they learn?  Can we design classes that promote the success of all students?  I liked the conversation. 

It was going to the root and to the core of the academy experience:  how classes are taught and who is teaching them, and what is their preparation to teach?  This type of initiative can create systemic transformational change.  The panel was four White women. I thought, are there any people of color involved? Are men, who are 70% of the professors at Virginia Tech, part of this initiative?  I want to believe that men are involved. I just don’t know for sure. They weren’t part of the panel, but it was important to see women and to hear their words. Words and Whiteness. Twelve departments are involved. There is room for a few more to participate in the program. I want all departments — over 100 — is that too ambitious? I hope not. Systemic transformation has to change the system and the system is all.

My thoughts are racing, but there is little time for reflection.
I have many questions, but the program keeps moving.

We transition to a panel on White Men as Full Diversity Partners. 

The panel started with a video — A Conversation with White People on Race:

I took pictures of some of the images from the video. They tell a story of words and Whiteness.

“Feeling apprehensive”
“Touchy subject”
“I don’t want to say anything”
“Sense of shame”
“guilt about what racism has done”
“How racism was built by White people”
“I’ve never said anything”
“I’ve never spoken up”
“I don’t know”
“Maybe I am racist”
“I don’t think about being White”
“I really did not know”
“I’m White”

And I’m exhausted, slightly anxious, unclear what emotions have been provoked in my jumbled-up spirit, wondering how this conversation is going to unfold in a room of 400 predominantly White people, and, knowing that my colleague, an African-American woman, was going to moderate a panel with White men on Whiteness and maleness.

As an aside, while I was looking for the video link on YouTube, I met virtually with Renni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I No Longer Talk to White People. Words and Whiteness

She shares that at the age of 4 she turned to her mother and said, “Ok, when am I going to become White?” She realized all the good things and good people on TV, cartoons, were White. She says, “to be White is to be human.” A Black British (Brexit again, and race and Whiteness) woman, she shares the challenges of frustrating conversations with British feminism and shares a final take away:

“You can’t ask me why I haven’t been invited to the party?  Ask the host.”

I wonder, what parties are we not invited to?  What committees? What meetings? What social events?  Who is in?  Who is out? 

A Latino colleague said to me that if he is going to socialize with his White colleagues, he has to be prepared to get a beer.  If he is going to socialize with Latino colleagues, he will be in their homes for dinner. What about me? What about women of color? Men of color? White women? Asian women? Do we even get invited? And if invited to the dance, are we asked to dance, or do we glide along the sidelines and periphery, almost invisible, but hyper visible — all at the same time? Are we there wishing all along to be home, in the comfort of silence and familiarity and not Whiteness?

So, the panel of White men. Words and Whiteness. The panel discusses a three-day “Massive shock” experience at the White Men as Full Diversity Partners training program.   White men as full diversity partners interrogates white privilege, whiteness, and maleness.  Our colleagues who went were courageous, to go and to return and share their experience with words in a room of 400 colleagues.  I wonder before the event how often they even said White, and acknowledged they were White men. My colleague did a great job facilitating, asking provoking, yet reflective questions. Three days can create shifts, but not systemic transformation. I value shifts. As the panel drew to a close, there were two impactful comments during Q&A:

One department head simply and eloquently stated that although most people have challenges to overcome, White privilege means that race is not one of those challenges.


“White Privilege means I don’t have to overcome race”

Equally important, he talked about the necessity for White men to be full partners in academia on diversity. It was a powerful statement with words of a genuine desire to be engaged for change:


See also: .https://drive.google.com/open?id=1VRrMiFeTUv4ffLjjz5GyHSproZde_SRs

And then, the final comment. One of the female faculty members from the earlier session went to the microphone and looking at and speaking directly to the White men in Engineering on the panel told them they they (maybe literally, maybe symbolically, or both) were they reason she ran screaming from the College of Engineering in the 1980s as a first generation female college student.  And she reminded all of us that our words matter and that there is urgency. 


She said: “All it takes is one comment from one professor. That’s all it takes to either build up or destroy. It’s urgent. We gotta do stuff.”

This is why I like Virginia Tech.  I know that there are very few institutions across the United States that can have a campus-wide conversation about White Men.  There are few campuses where the president is willing to participate in a Town Hall on Diversity.  There are few campuses where 400 people – all the deans, most vice presidents and vice provosts, many department heads, and leadership of the university will allocate time to be in a difficult space. 

I’m grateful that we have evolved as a campus to this space and to these examples of conversations. 

So, the full range of human emotions. Words and Whiteness. I’m often sad when I reflect on the generational legacy of race.  Race, in America, in South Africa, in Britain, around the world. Race will always matter. Gender will always matter.  These are visible markers that enable a sorting and a judgment.

And we have to keep talking and we have to talk to White people who want to know and to learn and to listen and to shift. We need them in this journey of humanity.   

That is ultimately what matters.  Our humanity.   Our words.  Our conversations and our comments.

May we find more ways to use words with one another.

2 thoughts on “Words and Whiteness”

  1. Thank you so very much for giving of yourself in this powerful reflection. I also very much appreciate your leadership in making this week’s conference possible. It was very different from other diversity discussions and that was awesome! I know of one white male faculty member who is already having conversations with colleagues about trying to attend the White Men experience.

  2. Thank you, Dr. Pratt-Clarke. I loved your talk at UVA today and wanted to hear more. I’m reading your blog—thanks for the chance to listen and learn from you. What a description of this conference!

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