Friday, December 19, 2014

Why Do White People Tan?

A simple question changed my life forever. When I was a Resident Director in Mary Markley Hall at the University of Michigan, one of my Resident Assistants – an African-American woman named Angela – and I were part of a small group of residence life staff who got together every few weeks to ask each other unfiltered questions about our differences. No two of us were alike, and we came together as a kaleidoscope of racial, ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, and gender combinations.  It was the peak of the first wave of political correctness where none of us knew what to call each other in a new and emerging hyphenated social reality. 

One evening, Angela called me out to answer her question – “If white people have issues with some people because of dark skin color, then why do white people tan?” Wow – her question shocked me. It took me a long moment to respond, “I don’t know Angela, I really don’t tan because I just burn. Besides, how can you expect me to answer a question for all white people?” She quickly cut back – “Randy, do you know how many times EVERY DAY I’m asked to speak on behalf of all black people?”

The depth of her simple and clear statement set me on a course for a lifelong journey to understand race, diversity, stereotypes and intercultural relations. Like our society, I still have a long way to go.


The death of Michael Brown is the latest amplification of the racial tensions in our country. Diversity is what makes us who we are as a nation – like no other in the world. However, what happened in Ferguson is complex, yet it would be easier with simple answers that don’t require us to think too much about it. This is one piece of a much larger and tragic pattern that is not easily understood, even though evidence of the pattern is seen all around us.

History Worth Learning

A number of years ago, a colleague of mine named Cynthia and I were talking about music. Growing up so close to Flint and Detroit, my preferences tend to be more R&B with an appreciation for Motown and good stuff from the ’70s like the GAP Band.  Cynthia asked me if I knew what GAP stood for in the band’s name – I had no idea.  She went on to tell me to look up “Greenwood Archer and Pine Tulsa” (GAP) and learn about the race riot of 1921. When I read about the success of the thriving community called “Black America’s Wall Street” and how it was burned to the ground overnight, it had a profound effect on me. How did I get through high school, college, and graduate school and never hear of such a thing? Why did I love history and learn so much about the wars and presidents of our country, yet something as significant as what happened in Tulsa in 1921 was left for me to discover on my own?

One book that has recently added tremendous perspective for me on race in this country is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. She posits that the mass incarceration of African-American and Hispanic people in this country (the numbers don’t lie) equates to a third iteration of slavery here. She backs it up with plausible evidence. Additionally, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson provides three compelling case studies interspersed with remarkable census evidence to describe the great migration of more than 6 million African-Americans out of the south between 1916 and 1970. Her fascinating narrative and data provide context for the ways in which the nuances of laws in this country couple with covert and often indirect behavior to subtly shape and splinter our society along racial lines. Learning more about our collective past, together, gives us shared context to understand patterns that are otherwise too complex, too terrifying, and too divisive for us to work on together.

Framing the Conversation

I believe familiarity is the antidote to the cancer of stereotypes.  During my time as a Resident Director in graduate school, I worked with a fellow director named Joy.  She was a strong and bright African American woman – double major MBA and MPH at the University of Michigan. I consider Joy a great influence on my understanding of race and oppression in this country.  One day when I made an ignorant, uninformed statement based on a stereotype, she asked if I’d ever considered the confluence of issues and the struggle associated with being a woman in this country AND being African American – in many ways a “double minority.”  At the time, I’d never given it much thought.  Since then, it’s often on my radar screen - like many other insights and perspectives Joy shared with me.

Working my entire professional career in community colleges has provided me with the opportunity to experience countless trainings and workshops on diversity-related topics of all kinds. Academics have a reputation for overthinking things and playing with language too much, but when it comes to conversations about race, words matter. Think about the distinctions between diversity and inclusivity; tolerance and acceptance; support and respect; racism and bias. I sometimes hear people talk about “reverse racism” and wonder how much time they’ve spent exploring definitions of racism and the role of power. Can one be a racist from a powerless position or are such attitudes simply a defensive response to a culturally engrained, legally sanctioned, historically persistent, institutionally entrenched systemic bias?  Can reverse racism exist if the power structure in America is as it always has been? I subscribe to the notion that what most people think is reverse racism is better defined as racial bias – a small but important difference that recognizes the role of power.

Conversations about race often seem too uncomfortable and contradict too many stereotypes we have in our minds to simplify the world for ourselves.  Breaking down stereotypes requires those with societally provided power to willingly let go of that in order to learn and understand the dynamics at play when it comes to race.  It requires a default belief that we are all equal – all human in every sense of the word. And it requires exploring and understanding the outcomes that different humans and groups of humans experience.  Understanding comes through inquiry and that includes challenging our thinking and asking difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable questions to which the answers may not be readily available.  To this day, I’m not sure I fully understand why white people tan – maybe someday I will.

If you have any comments on this post, you can contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.