What do we talk about when we talk about whiteness? That was the subject put before a group of about 60 parents and teachers who attended a talk and workshop at the Campus Center on Thursday, May 9, led by diversity educator and consultant Jenna Chandler-Ward. The well-attended event was the most recent in Rivers’s parent diversity speaker series, launched this year with the goal of encouraging and supporting conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Chandler-Ward, who is white, first spoke of her own experiences growing up in Charlottesville. Raised by liberal parents who supported social justice aims, she was taught that merely to speak of and acknowledge whiteness was racist. That reticence, dressed as politeness, kept Chandler-Ward from acknowledging the far-reaching impact of being white until she was well into adulthood, she said.
For those who identify as white, she said, the experience is so pervasive that its influence is hard to see. Chandler-Ward shared a cartoon of a rhino painter in his studio, whose paintings were all dominated by the horn on his snout blocking his view. She gradually came to understand, she said, that her whiteness “was like a rhino horn, preventing me from seeing everything I could or should be seeing.”
Chandler-Ward is part of an organization called Teaching While White, which aims to support teachers and students as they work to become racially literate in and out of the classroom. At the Rivers talk, she clarified terms that are sometimes tossed around in schools without being fully understood, such as diversity versus multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, she said, is a quality that makes “students feel like it’s their school, like they belong there and aren’t being hosted as guests,” while diversity may simply apply to the makeup of the student body; a school can be diverse without being multicultural, and vice-versa, she noted.
She told the audience that the “mainstream definition of a racist” as a person who blatantly dislikes people of other races “silences the conversation about race” by taking away the broader social, systemic context and blaming individuals. And she pointed out that certain ways in which white people seek to distance themselves from racism—by declaring their own color blindness, by pointing to their friendships with people of color, by flaunting their social-justice credentials—also serve as ways to deflect and avoid challenging conversations. At various moments throughout the evening, Chandler-Ward asked audience members to turn to their neighbors and discuss what they’d just heard. The conversation was lively as parents and faculty members wrestled with their own thoughts and attitudes.
After the talk, parents stayed on for more discussion with Chandler-Ward while faculty and staff split off. Those who identify as white attended an interactive student-run workshop, while faculty and staff of color met as an affinity group.
In the student-led workshop, faculty members were asked to confront their own stereotyping around race, to ponder their participation in propping up white culture, and to consider how they might confront racism in the classroom and become more racially literate themselves. Perhaps most challenging, students shared a list of examples they’d compiled of white culture at Rivers—among them that no student government representatives for next year are people of color; that students of color are assumed to be on financial aid; that for the past seven years, student graduation speakers have been white males. The list, which extended to 18 items, prompted conversation and self-examination.
At the program’s end, the students also shared some of the lessons they’ve taken away from their work in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Cecily Bua ’21 said, “For me, it’s about being ok with being uncomfortable.”
Added Zoë Brown ’19, “I’ve learned the skill of embracing challenge.”