My Reflection: It’s Time to Talk About Race

by Heather Shea Gasser

My overall philosophy in serving as a host of Student Affairs Live is to bring to the forefront the topics and issues that we as student affairs educators, need to have open conversations about in order to better serve our students and the profession. Late last fall in the wake of the non-indictments in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, it was clear to me that we needed to host a conversation about Ferguson and confronting racism on campus.

As soon as an opening in the schedule was available, I scheduled the episode and began looking for panelists to address the topic “#BlackLivesMatter: Confronting Racism on Campus” which aired yesterday on the Higher Ed Live network (a recording of the show is available here). Supporting this endeavor was my co-host, Tony Doody, and several other individuals off line who looked over initial drafts of questions and suggested possible panelists. I was utterly thrilled when I was able to get Dr. Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, Dr. Larry Roper, Dr. Paul Porter, and Dr. Stacey Pearson-Wharton, four colleagues and friends, to join the discussion. If you tuned in yesterday, you saw them each speak with emotion and passion, share their wisdom, and bring their whole selves to the show. I’m deeply grateful for the time they invested in preparation, their openness to working with me on the script and questions, and their honest and direct communication about their needs for the show while we were still in the planning stages. The resulting episode is one I am incredibly proud to have been a part. Thank you, Larry, Dafina-Lazarus, Stacey, and Paul.

After each show, I do a number of technical things to get the show posted in the correct place and I review the #HigherEdLive backchannel and respond to any direct comments/questions. I also spend time in silent reflection. What went well? What could have gone better? What’s next?

When I scheduled this episode, I knew this topic would be challenging, partially because I show up in this conversation as an openly identified white woman. I recognized and acknowledged at the beginning of the show that my positionality in the conversation comes from a place of privilege and that this changes the lens through which I see the world and interpret these events. I was fearful that I might say the wrong thing and I admitted that, and asked for grace during my intro.

Regardless of what fear I might have felt, I wasn’t going to let that fear of “saying the wrong thing” keep us from having the conversation on Higher Ed Live. I am not going to contribute to the silence.

Upon reflecting (now that the episode is over) one aspect of the show isn’t settling well with me. I wish I could go back and offer this direct response when, during the episode I received positive feedback from the panelist and on the #HigherEdLive backchannel for admitting my fear but pushing through it. What I should have said was “Inviting this topic was not heroic. I did what all people, regardless of skin color, should do within their spheres of control… challenge themselves by opening a space to have a conversation. Show up with vulnerability and be seen. Be willing to acknowledge and apologize for (as Stacey said) ‘stepping in the poop.’ And then don’t step in it again.” In the moment, I took the praise and accepted the positive regard for putting this topic up on Higher Ed Live and left this sentiment unaddressed. What I have learned through this experience is that if I am in this situation again, I will choose a path that will allow me to have different response.

I recognize that one way privilege manifests is when those who have it keep the attention on themselves and do not refocus it back on others (male feminists are often accused of this as the author of this piece directly discusses). Perhaps I didn’t say it because I didn’t want to turn the attention away from the panelists and their stories and back to me as the host. But, I ask you to consider the implications of why in this case a white woman (in a position of power as host of the show) received praise for providing a forum for the conversation and is this even necessary in today’s society? Again, what I did was not heroic.

Perhaps one of the reasons why I received some praise was that some white people might be afraid to enter an honest dialogue about race. I have admitted that this fear was very real for me as well. Participating in a conversation requires that we acknowledge and own unearned privilege that we bring to the table simply by being white. It requires that we share airtime and invite all people to speak and be willing to truly hear what they have to say, feeling the depth of the emotion with which they say it. In my experience, when I approach a conversation with openness, vulnerability, and genuine desire to hear all voices, a real dialogue can begin. Ultimately, this can result in the origin of an open and inclusive community that fosters healing and growth.

So, regardless of fear, silence is not the answer. What I learned from yesterday’s conversation was that opening up and talking is essential. This is different from staying quiet because we are actively listening and processing what the other person is saying. Actively choosing silence inhibits our ability to enter into authentic and open dialogue with one another. This is also different that being intentionally silenced. On the show I raised this question with the panelists:

“How we can assist those who may feel unable to engage, for what ever reason – race being one – to enter this important conversation? How can we help people understand that if they have been invited to a conversation and actively choose silence, they are still taking a course of action that has implications?”

But again in retrospect, I’m not sure this was a fair question to ask of my panelists – one more burden to add to their plate – asking them to assist the reluctant white people in coming to the table to talk about race. The onus is on us as whites to show that we’re ready to enter the conversation and talk openly with all members of our community.

So when you are afforded the opportunity to engage in a conversation, take it. Put your fears aside… show up and be seen as you are… and let’s talk.


4 thoughts on “My Reflection: It’s Time to Talk About Race

  1. Heather, thank you for posting this. I was at a conference yesterday and haven’t had the chance to watch Higher Ed Live yet but have shared it with colleagues on my campus and plan to watch the archive later today. This is really timely because we’re working on planning a campus conversation when students return and your thoughts resonate with me. Thanks for giving me more to think about before we host the event and continue to create space for conversations about race here for students and for colleagues.

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