Learning racial truths doesn’t demoralize my NCSU students. It has another effect. | Opinion
“The truth will set you free.” People like saying that.
Yet, today, we live in an America where some people do not want the truth of America’s racial history to be taught in schools. Too many Americans want their children held in bondage to a history those children do not know, but they feel its handcuffs. Since they feel the cuffs, though, lots of those children are curious to know what has passed that will help them understand what is really going on now with racial matters in this country.
As I have since 2006, I continue to teach my upper-level “Psychology of Interpersonal Relationships and Race” course at North Carolina State University. Typically, a racial, gender, ethnic mix of NCSU students enroll in that elective course — 80 of them this (Zoom) semester.
Not all enroll because they care about racial history or racial justice. Some enroll only because they liked what I taught and my style of teaching in my lower-level, general social psychology course.
No matter their motivation, being in my “Interpersonal Relationships and Race” course means that for background on America’s racial history, they will read Tim Tyson’s historical-memoir, “Blood Done Sign My Name,” which explores the 1970 murder of a Black man in Oxford, N.C., the author’s hometown. I never lecture on the book. Students read and then submit their one-page “personal gut reaction” to what they have read. Whatever their reaction, they get full credit.
This spring semester, my students have just read and reacted to the first five chapters of “Blood.” As happens every semester, my racial/gender/ethnic mix of students opened up in their reaction papers about their shock at what they didn’t know. This semester they said:
“Wow!” “…deeply saddened and irritated…”disgust, shock, and shame” “…chilling” “…got goosebumps” “…heartbreaking” “…makes me want to cry…” “…shocked and disturbed…” “…I was furious” “…I feel anger and frustration.”
It’s tough for me to read the hurt and anger these young people express about the way the truth has been kept from them by their parents and their schools. I do it though, because I also get to see their growth from being confronted with, and then wrestling with, the truth.
You see, my students do not just write about being shocked. They also write about the intense, emotional insights they develop about their past ignorance of the truth. One stunning example from this semester is the white student who wrote:
“When Tim Tyson talks about bigotry being a virus that infected him slowly and reared its ugly head in unexpected ways, I genuinely teared up. I used to be someone who highly supported the All-Lives-Matter group. I justified racist systems in this country and scoffed at Black people who claimed that racism was still rampant. I didn’t classify myself as racist and therefore reacted defensively when White as people were being called out for our ignorance and passive behavior toward an unjust society. Tyson referenced Martin Luther King’s Letter-From-A-Birmingham-Jail which speaks about the dangers of the ‘White moderate.’ I have fallen into this category time and time again. Because I am not personally victimized by systemic racism, I don’t feel the same sense of urgency that many people of color feel and it’s reflected in my actions and words.”
Beginning to learn the truth of America’s racial history did not demoralize this young white man. In fact, that learning put him in a frame of mind to evaluate how his past beliefs were based in his past lack of historical information. With new learning, he was able to freely confess what he now sees as his past mistakes.
Now he is free. The truth has set him free.
Rupert Nacoste is a professor of Psychology at N.C. State University.