Psychologist Derald Wang Sue has a wonderful word for a phenomenon that I’ve been trying to name for a long time.  It’s what happens when a white professor like me begins talking about affirmative action.  It’s what happens when a classroom has a majority of majority students and heads turn to the diverse body in the room.  It’s what happens when our conversations about Ferguson go off track and more than one person looks for a way to move on, escape, stop talking.  It’s what happens when a usually bored and placid face looks nervous and tense.  Race talk.  That’s Sue’s word for it.

“When topics of race or racism arise, they [whites] become anxious, constricted, and cautious in what they say. Remaining silent and consciously screening and censoring out anything they consider to be racially offensive become the hallmark of their communications.” (http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/68/8/663/)

One of the deep ironies of race talk is that whites’ anxious, constricted behavior can easily be interpreted as racist behavior.  Whites are so awkward when we talk about race that we come across as hiding something, as unable to cope, as making no sense.  The fear of appearing racist becomes a self-fulfilling act.

Sociologist Jonathan Patrick Schreiner (who wrote an MA thesis on the innovative Race Relations Project at Penn State) found that white students have a “nearly universal fear of stating their opinion or race.”  The most common response to why white students didn’t like race talk: they feared offending a member of the other race.  For many white students at Penn State, participation in an extra-curricular race dialogue program was their first experience with inter-race dialogue.

White’s don’t have a monopoly on awkwardness during race talk. But it does affect us differently. Now here’s an interesting thought: if race talk affects students of color differently, then do color-blind student learning outcomes make sense?

One of the hardest lessons of Sue’s work on race talk is that white professors are not good at spotting and dealing with racial micro-aggressions in the classroom.  If that hypothesis is correct, then we whites need to become more reflecting about when race talk is occurring in our classroom and how to effectively acknowledge it.

My field, that of Philosophy, prides itself on dialogue.  We take the idea of Socratic method seriously and try to engage in meaningful speech with our students.  And we pride ourselves on being able to talk about tough moral issues.  We also pride ourselves on teaching critical thinking.  The notion of race talk presents very blunt challenges to us–challenges about how ‘critical’ we’re being.  To paraphrase Nancy Fraser, the question is what’s critical about critical thinking?