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Universities should be a safe space to talk about race

How do we move beyond stereotypes concerning assumptions of assumed superiority or inferiority to more authentic knowledge of one another?

The answer lies right here on this campus [the University of the Free State]. Unlike the primary and secondary schools from which many students come, this university brings people of diverse backgrounds in close contact with one another — sharing classrooms, laboratories, residence halls, public spaces — providing a unique opportunity to engage with one another across lines of difference, to seek to understand each other's life experiences and unique perspectives. 

For many people, the university represents the first opportunity to have the kind of frequent and ongoing cross-racial interactions that might lead beyond the superficiality of mere acquaintanceship or the politeness of congenial collegiality to form genuine friendships. But that doesn't happen quickly.

Engaging in a meaningful way with those we have been socialised to mistrust requires some courage. Why? Because we have to be brave enough to have our assumptions challenged.

The reality is we all have misinformation about those "Others" — whoever they may be — perhaps defined by race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, physical or mental disability, and those "Others" have misinformation about us.

Being part of this process
We also have misinformation about people like ourselves. That misinformation has come to all of us from the way we heard our parents and teachers and friends talk about them and about us, and the way we saw those Others treated in comparison to how we ourselves were treated and talked about. Whether you are a part of a historically advantaged group or a disadvantaged group, you have been a part of this process. 

That misinformation is so common, so pervasive, it is like smog in the air, and none of us can avoid breathing it. And if you breathe in smog, you are sooner or later bound to breathe some out. This is why we have to be courageous enough to be willing to make mistakes. Because if you want to engage with people different from yourself, you are bound to make mistakes — you might inadvertently use offensive language (because that is the language you grew up with), or act on erroneous assumptions (because they are so deeply ingrained). 

If we are honest, I imagine that we can all think of a time when we said or did something that revealed our smog-breathing past. We can take comfort in knowing that everyone makes mistakes. But knowing you will make mistakes does not mean that you don't have to take responsibility for the mistakes you make. 

Ignorance is common, but in a learning environment it cannot be tolerated as a permanent condition — because we now have the opportunity to seek out new information and correct the misinformation we have internalised. When we do that, it increases our ability to truly see, hear and understand each other in our full humanity. 

We all want that affirmation — to be seen, heard and understood — for who we really are, not as the figment of someone's imagination shaped by years of incomplete or distorted information. If we don't challenge ourselves and each other about what we have learned in the past, we are destined to pass it on in the future. 

Without intervention, we teach what we were taught, and the cycle of socialisation — the cycle that perpetuates and reinforces the stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes that are so instrumental in the maintenance of oppression and inequality — goes uninterrupted.

The next generation of leaders
If we want a better society, one characterised by strength, trust and unity, we must interrupt the cycle and there is no better place to do it than at a university like this one, where the next generation of leaders is being prepared. But it requires intentionality. It takes practice.

Academic staff and administrators might ask how best we can facilitate this kind of practice. It is a good question — one that a 1993 study done at the University of California in Berkeley might shed some light on. Sociologist Troy Duster and his associates found that most undergraduate students at Berkeley expressed interest in having more interracial experiences, yet how that interest was expressed varied along racial lines. 

Although white students wanted to make friends with black students, they wanted to do so in informal settings, maybe just hanging out and having a beer together, and were less likely to want to participate in special programmes, courses or activities that structure cross-racial contacts. On the other hand, black students were far more likely to want special programmes and activities, such as the modules on social justice offered at the University of the Free State, and were less interested in hanging out in informal settings, in part because it was in those informal spaces where the casual yet offensive remarks were sometimes made — it was those places where the racist jokes might be told, especially after a few beers. 

The research showed that both groups wanted interracial experiences but they wanted them on different terms. Professor Duster concluded: "The task is to provide all students with a range of safe environments and options where they can explore and develop terms that they find comfortable. In the absence of such opportunities, the tendencies remain for each group to see the others from a distance, in terms of images, stereotypes, stories and myths that are not informed by direct contact and experience."

In other words, we need to create structured opportunities in classrooms, as well as casual conversations in cafés, for students to engage with each other in meaningful ways. I know that there are those who think that the way to interrupt the cycle is to ignore it. The logic of that argument is: "If I don't talk about it, maybe you won't notice it and it will just fade away by itself." 

Is there a need even to continue with this conversation?
This point of view was shared with me by a South African woman I met on my first trip to this country in 1995. I was travelling with a group of educators from the United States who had been invited to participate in a conference on school desegregation, sharing lessons learned in the US with educators in South Africa, where the process of school desegregation was just beginning. I led a workshop on interrupting the cycle of oppression, and one of the participants was a middle-aged white woman who said there was no longer a need to talk about race or racism because apartheid had ended. 

She asserted that South Africa was now a post-racial society and to talk about race was to fuel the flames of the past. But how can we move beyond it without talking about it, I asked her. The years of socialisation that have shaped everyone's behaviour in the apartheid era don't just disappear overnight, I said. Even for those born after apartheid was officially over, the attitudes and experiences of the parents and grandparents still shape the family narrative and how we view each other. That is worth talking about.

Cross-racial dialogue is especially necessary if we understand "reconcile" to mean "to settle or resolve" differences. Reconciliation of differences requires taking the time to understand what the differences are — and that means knowing one's history in its full complexity. We need to understand how what we experience today is still being shaped by that history. We cannot really know each other authentically without that understanding.

Especially if you were born after 1994, you might feel that this history has nothing to do with you. You might be thinking: "I don't want to sit in a class and be made to feel guilty or blamed for circumstances I did not create or control." Students of colour may want to avoid the topic too, maybe because it makes them feel too angry or depressed. My students of all backgrounds would ask me: "How do I get past my fear? How do I get past my anger? Am I willing to take the risk of speaking up? Can I trust that there will be others to listen and support me? Will it make a difference? Is it worth the effort?" 

Yes! If we commit to the process, there is a way to have these conversations without blaming or attacking each other. Will there be moments of discomfort for everyone? Yes, absolutely. Can you get past those moments to deeper understanding? Yes, guaranteed. It is not instant or easy. But when you do engage in honest dialogue, it is amazing how liberating that process can be.

For many years, before I was a college president, I did professional development with white teachers in a community that had a long history of segregated neighbourhoods and interracial animosity. Yet this group of white teachers was teaching in schools with black children and they found that they could not really work with their students effectively without taking into consideration the way negative racial attitudes and lowered expectations were affecting their students' daily lives. 

Look at your own lives
My role in that setting was to help these teachers begin to explore the meaning of race in their own lives — what it meant to have racial privilege, for example, as well as what racism meant in the lives of their students — both black and white. 

One of the most interesting and unexpected things I learned from that experience — which was often quite challenging — was how energised the teachers were when they began to have sustained conversations about this taboo topic.

Here's what some of them said about it: "The thing that's happened for me is that I'm no longer afraid to bring [race] up. I look to bring it up; I love bringing it up." This educator now brings these issues up regularly with her colleagues and they, like she, seem to feel liberated by the opportunity for dialogue. Describing a discussion group in which participants talked about racial issues, she said: "It was such a rich conversation and it just flowed the whole time. It was exciting to be a part of it. Everybody contributed and everybody felt the energy and the desire." Another participant described the process of sharing the new information she had learned with her adult son, and yet another described her own exploration of racial issues as "renewal at midlife". The benefits of self-discovery became available as the silence about racism was broken.

Why were these conversations so energising? I think the answer is because we use a lot of energy in silencing ourselves. Not speaking, not noticing that which is right before us takes up a lot of energy, energy that is released when we give ourselves the freedom to talk about what is really happening around us. We can't be reconciled — that is, settle or resolve differences — until we do.

Those of us in higher education must provide the tools of analysis so this generation can understand the political, economic and social structures that have shaped our reality and what we can do to bridge the gap between that reality and the ideals we hold for our democratic society.

I know I have mentioned several times the importance of knowing our history and understanding how it is still shaping our present. We need to know the way people were oppressed to understand current realities, but we also need to know the way subjugated peoples stood up for themselves and resisted their oppression. We need to know not just who the oppressors were, but also who among them stood up against the injustices they saw around them. Who were the allies and what inspired their just action? 

Learning more about both resistance to oppression and resistance to domination opens doors of possibility as we consider how we want to live our lives, how we want to reconcile with our present-day conditions. Because we know there is still work to do. The cycle is still operating.

Dr Beverly Daniel Tatum is president of Spelman College, the oldest college for African-American women in the US. This is an edited extract from the University of the Free State's second Annual Reconciliation Lecture, which she delivered earlier this month. Dr Tatum is the author of the books Can We Talk about Race? and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Her full UFS lecture can be found at

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