Tiptoeing Around the "S" Word

Lenora Blakely, Stone Ridge '18

Why students may feel too ashamed or embarrassed to participate in conversations about slavery or race. (Published: 2018)

Illustration by Jazzmin Cox-Caceres, Georgetown Day '19

As an African American girl at a predominantly white Catholic school, I have always glanced around the English classroom in search of another African American classmate. During courses like American Literature that are often filled with racially charged and overtly prejudiced texts, it is reassuring to have someone to relate to. Otherwise, I feel like a reserved outsider whose ancestors’ history of oppression is examined and scrutinized before all of my classmates.

Let us be honest: our country was built on systematic oppression of minorities through institutions such as slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and mass incarceration. America is notorious for racial injustice, so the topic of race makes people nervous. White individuals are afraid of saying the wrong thing or simply do not know what to say. Do they acknowledge the mistakes of their ancestors and apologize, or are they too overcome with white guilt to talk about their ancestors’ oppressive actions? With eyes glued to the floor and held tongues, nobody wants to say the “s” word. No, I am not talking about the word you say when you stub your toe on the edge of a sharp corner, or when you like an Instagram photo from 62 weeks ago. I am referring to slavery.

Class discussions about slavery can be uncomfortable, and I often find myself watching the hands of the clock, nervous about an insensitive comment that might be said. The embarrassment that I feel is not because of my ancestors’ struggle with the institution of slavery, but a feeling of obligation to eloquently speak on the issue as if I am an expert. The truth is, I do not have personal experience with the original slavery, and my being black does not mean I have a groundbreaking perspective about slavery to share with the world. I can only look to previous slaves’ experiences, drawn from information in history books, literature, and museums. The connection to slavery that I have is not through experience but through emotion. The grief I feel for my ancestors does not ensure my expertise about the institution, yet the conversations so often follow the same pattern: slavery and its enforcers are openly condemned. I have nothing to add, yet feel pressured to do so. I am anxious that even if I try to add new insight, I will only get blank stares. When I choose to stay silent, the conversation ends with only the past mistakes of the white majority being addressed.

The anxiety that I experience, and the silence of my community are issues because they do not promote the steps needed to create a diverse community. My classroom is afraid to have uncomfortable conversations, which avoids creating a classroom that respects the struggles of all students. Without an environment of open conversation, white fragility (the reactions of deflection or display of defensiveness when confronted about racism) will go unnoticed.

Furthermore, class discussions fail to include that slavery has not ended but evolved. In my experience, nobody knows what to say about how it has evolved into the systems of our present society. Modern-day slavery can go unnoticed if we fail to look outside of the secure bubbles we live in. I propose that we evolve our classroom conversations about slavery to match this change in society. Let us shift our conversation to slavery in the form of mass incarceration; specifically, African American men becoming victims of America’s corrupt justice system. According to The Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go prison in their lifetime. An examination of this modern injustice would serve as a substitute to another repetitive conversation about original slavery. In doing this, I hope to relieve some of the tension and silence in your and my class discussions. Do not resort to staring at the clock like I do.