How Many of “us”
are Asymptomatic Racists?
In an interview with D.L. Hughley over the weekend, the comedian, author, and activist discussed his bout with Covid-19. He noted that he was asymptomatic and it took a positive test result for him to realize he had the disease. Clever, as he is, Hughley made the leap from the pandemic to the sustained protests following George Floyd’s murder --- noting that he believed a lot of White people were asymptomatic racists and would, in fact, “test positive” if there was a test. I think Hughley is on to something. I have written about race quite a bit on this Blog, particularly about issues like white privilege, removal of Confederate statues, and systemic racism. Hughley’s observations about asymptomatic racism struck a highly responsive chord in my white privileged consciousness.
Part of my self-image--- to this day --- has been constructed around the notion that I am some kind of Social Justice “warrior.” Starting high school in the fall of 1963, on the heels of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I was very supportive of the Civil Rights movement --- to the point of working for the NAACP (by way of the local Methodist minister) to register (Black) voters across Long Island. I was unaware of the notion of “white privilege” in those years --- although I did recognize that it was pretty great to be a blue-eyed White kid named “Johnson.” My awareness of White and Male privilege slowly crept into my consciousness as I became a more mature thinker and as experiences broadened my worldview. Involvement in politics at Yale and in New Haven between 1967 and 1971 certainly helped move my thinking. Regarding Male privilege, I got my come-uppance during my Junior year at Yale, when the school co-educated. One of my Bay Shore High classmates (Laura Steel) transferred in from the University of Michigan --- and I realized that if I had applied to a co-educated Yale in the fall of 1966 --- and if Laura had, too --- I probably would never have gotten in!
Since I was also deeply involved in protesting against the Vietnam War, was an avid supporter of Muhammad Ali’s draft resistance, and an organizer in the protests supporting the Black Panthers (particularly Bobby Seale) in New Haven that Spring, my awareness of my White privilege expanded. Certainly my friendship with members of the Black Student Alliance (particularly Kurt Schmoke, my Yale football and lacrosse teammate and a natural leader/teacher) began opening my eyes to the depth of systemic racism all around us. In much the same way, while working for the Yale Council on Community Affairs that summer, I was assisting a Black community leader cataloguing resources for the newly-proposed New Haven High School-in-the-Community. One evening, after work, Freddy said he was going to take us out to dinner (there were three of us --- young, white, naïve, “dedicated”). We headed up to “the Hill” (one of the two New Haven ghettoes) and followed Freddy into a Bar & Grill. Upon entering, the place fell silent. All the patrons were Black folks and seeing three white kids walking in must have been quite a sight for them. My reaction, based on my asymptomatic racism, was a literal gut-wrench – a flutter, a sinking, a fear. Once the crowd saw we were with Freddy, they descended upon us, glad-handing, back-patting, and “you don’t have to pay for anything if you’re Freddy’s friend.” What struck me at that moment was, “Oh, my God, is this how Black people feel every day as they walk into all-White environments?” It was revelatory and definitely speaks to Hughley’s notion of asymptomatic racism.
As I began “Humanities” teaching in a nice, White New York City suburb in 1973, I did so with the notion that I would (at least try to) raise awareness among my students, who were privileged in much the way I was. Equipped with my background in African-American history & literature (Yale had created the first Af-Am Department in the nation in 1968), as well as having read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (raising my awareness of Native American history), I did my best to introduce my students to “alternative” narratives of United States history and literature --- as I would throughout my teaching career. There was an element of “changing the tire on a car going 60 miles an hour” to all of this, as I was still learning, thinking, and reflecting on my own development --- as a teacher and a citizen. I distinctly remember playing a vinyl copy of Richard Pryor’s “That N*g*er’s Crazy” album to my AP U.S. History class in the fall of 1978, making them swear they wouldn’t tell anyone we listened to the “x-rated” content (offensive language). With only a handful of African-American students at our school, Pryor presented my class with a point of view they might not otherwise be aware of.
In 1984 I left Westchester and moved to Boston, where I worked at another suburban high school --- although this one was larger (1600 students) and a bit more “diverse” (though still overwhelmingly White). I was teaching in the English Department and was able to introduce my students to some of the ideas and writing I had learned from Michael Cooke, the Jamaican Yale Professor I spent the summer of 1983 working with in New Haven (a National Endowment of the Humanities Seminar program). By 1987 I was back in New York, living on the Upper West Side and teaching in Bronxville, another very White Westchester suburb. Working with the Coalition of Essential Schools now, I was more and more focused on the idea of equity and continued “crusading” at Bronxville, while also working with the Children’s Aid Society in NYC, particularly with kids at a welfare hotel --- which led to the connection to my “adopted” God son, Antoine Robinson --- an experience that definitely opened my eyes to the severity of the inequity around us.
Nonetheless, I would say I was still exhibiting asymptomatic racism, as I’m pretty sure there was a level of “White Savior” being played out in my mind/actions. Not that I was ill-intentioned, but I believe I was still unconsciously accepting assumptions about “white superiority.” It was also at this time I began working closely with Linda Darling-Hammond at Columbia Teachers College and that clearly contributed to my growth as an “ally” in the equity struggle. By 1994 I was headed to Providence, Rhode Island, to begin teaching in Brown University’s Education Department which accelerated my development as a better, more conscious thinker about diversity and equity.
In my years at Brown I was determined to help make the Teacher Preparation Program as diverse as possible and actively recruited students of color, hoping not only to create a more diverse national teaching force, but also recognizing I always had a lot to learn from all of my students. I was determined to make sure my Education 101 course (The Craft of Teaching) also focused on Equity in Education and its reading list featured texts that spoke not only to the crucial issues facing (particularly urban) education but also our own situation at Brown. It was during these years that Brown, as a University, had to face its own history --- the Brown family had made a fortune supplying ships that imported slaves and owning mills that produced the rough-hewn cloth for slave attire. I served as a consultant to the University Committee working on Justice and Reconciliation, whose work, for better or worse, continues to this day.
All of this proved to be a prelude for my final years of teaching in the heart of New York City. After a dismal first year working in a madhouse of a school on the Lower East Side, I moved to the Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction (UASDC) on West 50th Street. With a classic “minority majority” population, I found myself confronted daily with my own privilege and the challenge of making education meaningful to my students. Often referring to myself as “the old, fat White guy” (always getting a laugh from my students), I emphasized to them that our society was skewed against them and our watchword became: “You can play into their hands or beat them at their own game.” My students liked that notion and, to this day, I am extremely gratified seeing their accomplishments on Facebook.
I won’t claim that I’ve overcome my asymptomatic racism but I will say that I think I’m always trying to recognize where I might be testing positive --- and rectify the situation. When White people try to deny their privilege or point out what they think are “incorrect” or “unfair” complaints/demands by people of color, I simply ask them to consider one question: “Would you be a Black person in this country?” To me, the answer (for a White person) is obvious --- and I believe that if you answer “Yes” you are either a liar or a fool. To not come to grips with our asymptomatic racism means we can’t really tackle the problem of systemic racism and I honestly believe most White people want to do the right thing (thanks, Spike Lee). That means admitting we live in a society which privileges one group over another, it means we recognize our privilege, and it means we probe the possibilities of our own asymptomatic racism, every day.