Frances Brady is the Public Services Librarian at Adler University’s Harold and Birdie Mosak Library. She assists students with their research as they grapple with questions about individuals and society, and what can be done to effect meaningful change.
A few months ago I wrote a blog post calling on our community to reject ‘safe spaces’ when it comes to discussing race. My point was that we should engage each other in an authentic dialogue, rather than hiding behind pleasantries that keep us from addressing deep problems in our society.
Since then, I’ve witnessed some interactions that make me want to clarify that position: A lack of safe spaces does not mean a lack of respect for others’ opinions, even if we believe their opinions to be misinformed or even wrong.
Interrupting and talking over someone will not make that person reconsider his or her position; it only makes them feel marginalized and shamed. And, after that, dialogue simply is not possible.
In my last post, I said white people must be able to listen to black anger without reacting with tears or defensiveness. It is also true that black people must be willing to hear a white person’s point of view on race, even if it’s partially blinded by that person’s privilege.
I’m not saying that black people should be affirming or deferential. However, offering a counter point should be done in the interest of educating, rather than shaming and silencing. In order to learn and grow, people need room to be wrong.
I realize that is a big ask. Black people have been oppressed and marginalized for centuries in this country. I can only imagine how hard it is to listen as privileged white people voice opinions and perspectives that are ignorant of the full breadth and depth of our nation’s racial disparities.
Still, when people enter into a dialogue in genuine good faith, they should seek to understand other’s points of view as well as express their own. To do so requires patience and respect—which is difficult—but it’s the only way we can understand each other and become closer as a community.
In these conversations, it is particularly important that we as faculty are keenly aware of our privilege over students. While these discussions might be emotionally difficult, faculty have a responsibility to ensure that we extend our respect to all sides of the discussion. We should be able to voice our opinions; but given our status, it can be easy to shut down students’ voices if we react too quickly, too emotionally to those with whom we disagree.
The first step towards this respectful conversation is for faculty, staff, and leadership team to be present. Our participation in this conversation sends a strong message to students about our commitment to social justice. Importantly, it also give us the opportunity to demonstrate how to engage in difficult conversations authentically and respectfully.