Yesterday I talked about a This American Life podcast, Tell Me I’m Fat, but the buzzer went off and I did not really explain how it related to our topic of teaching white people about racism. I felt uncomfortable talking about this podcast because I felt like it might be offensive to some people but, I also felt like the story really illustrated how blind we can be to the effects of prejudice and racism.
We see the world through our own personal filter, which is colored by our limited background and experiences. After Elna lost weight it was like she was able to experience a completely different reality. She was suddenly able to step into this parallel universe where doors that were usually closed to her were now open. People that ignored or criticized her now openly embraced her.
Similarly, White people have no clue that there really is this parallel universe where the rules that govern their life –the social constructs that allow for their upward mobility and smile favorably upon them- do not apply.
I listened to another podcast about what it takes to change people’s minds on controversial subjects like same sex marriage or abortion. What they found was that going door-to-door inundating people with information did not work at all. What really got people to change their minds was an open dialogue. The canvasser would ask a person about their opinion on abortion or same sex marriage and then they would listen- not passing judgment or trying to counter with statistics or reason, but instead asking probing questions, encouraging the person to explore and actually articulate their own thinking. The responses they got were overwhelming. Most of the people that they engaged in this way had changed their minds by the end of the conversation. And even months later, had not gone back to their old opinions.
So how do we teach white people about racism? We need to get them to articulate their thinking. Going through this metacognitive process is not an easy task. It takes a lot of time and patience. But as teachers, we can find ways to start these conversations within our classrooms and our communities. We just need to be wary of complacency. As many of our classmates mentioned in their presentations, if you get to a point where you think you’re done, you’ve got a problem.