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Talking about Race at Stanford

Jun 15 2014

“I don't know what's worse,” wrote a user of the popular Facebook page, Stanford Race Confessions, “the actual racism that I experience whenever I'm home…or coming to Stanford and being told that we live in a post-racial society and that we should stop talking about race.”

As over 200 anonymous race-based “confessions” accumulated on the page, where students were invited to share their thoughts and experiences with race at Stanford, it became clear that plenty of students were eager to keep the discussion going. So undergraduate students Jackie Fielder, Emma Hartung, Kyle Neil, and Celina Jackson decided to organize an event to move the discussion from anonymous to personal, to teach students how to begin conversations about race, and to introduce the topic to students who are unfamiliar with it.

Glenn Singleton engages students in "Courageous Conversations" about race

One goal of the event, “Courageous Conversations,” was to draw a wider audience into discussions about race. Fielder points out that while there are many active discussions of these topics on campus, they are often hosted and attended by ethnic and cultural groups. According to Fielder, “This tends to attract people that already know how to talk about race, even though race affects everyone on this campus.”

It was a common sentiment in the audience. When asked why she thought there was such a strong turnout, attendee Hope Burke said that after the Race Confessions page gained popularity, “A lot of people wanted to talk about it but they didn’t know how.”

In order to address this gap in knowledge, the organizers decided to invite Glenn Singleton, an alumni from the Graduate School of Education. A former Director of Admissions at UPENN, Mr. Singleton is also the author of the award-winning books Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools, and More Courageous Conversations About Race. His presentation actively engaged the audience, encouraging students to talk about personal encounters with racism.

One student shared her experiences as a biracial student who often “passes” as a member of only one race—she looks white, so those around her often assume she is white. She therefore finds herself in situations where people who would censor themselves around other racial groups, not knowing that she is biracial, make racist statements or jokes. In groups that appear homogeneous, she said, nobody tends to notice or protest that racism.

Singleton shared stories from his time as an admissions officer at UPENN, describing how universities seek to diversify their incoming classes across various populations, such as students' home states. "Every year I had to go find one kid from Alaska," he joked.

Singleton went on to make the more serious point that while all sorts of factors admissions officers look at could be considered “affirmative action,” we only see lawsuits about race-based affirmative action. These silences—nobody speaking up against racism in homogeneous groups, for example, and few people asking why race-based affirmative action is the only one that is widely protested—are the kinds of silence that Singleton hoped students would break by starting conversations about race.

Breaking down barriers of fear

A knowledgeable, energetic and engaging internationally-recognized educator, Singleton taught students how to begin dialogues about race and encouraged student initiatives for further action. As the name of the talk suggests, Singleton emphasized that it requires courage to open conversations about race, and encouraged students to face their fears about engaging in the topic.

Burke said that one of her major takeaways from the event was that breaking down barriers of fear was vital to begin and continue these conversations. Only by tackling that fear together, she said, are students “going to make conversations about race actually happen and be effective on campus.”

Once that initial barrier was broken and the conversation started, Singleton focused on how to make the discussions meaningful and productive. Major principles included staying engaged, being open to experiencing discomfort, sharing personal truths, and expecting and accepting nondisclosure.

Although the discussion focused on race, Singleton believes that his principles are easily applied to other uncomfortable topics about inequality—gender included. Noting that there are sensitive issues that can make it hard to engage a wider audience in discussions of gender, Singleton said, “You cannot talk about gender equality without talking about the crazy males…and how we walk around with our privilege and don’t notice it.”

'With All Deliberate Speed'

The subtitle that Singleton gave his talk was, “With All Deliberate Speed.” Keeping with the theme of audience engagement, he asked the attendees what they thought it meant. One student answered that it was from the Brown v. Board of EducationSupreme Court ruling that ordered desegregation in public schools. Another added that the phrase “deliberate speed” was an intentionally vague clause in the ruling, leaving it up to policymakers to decide whether to carry it out quickly or with lengthy deliberation.

In 1954, when the Brown v. Board decision was written, “all deliberate speed” was left open to interpretation. But Singleton pointed out that today’s school systems still haven’t achieved the goals of the ruling—even though sixty years have passed. Based on today’s evidence, he said, “‘All deliberate speed’ means never.”

Singleton said that beginning and maintaining productive conversations about race wasn’t going to happen with the Brown v. Boardconcept of “all deliberate speed.” Instead, it required urgency and active engagement.

Singleton used the event to encourage just that. Breaking students into pairs, he assigned them discussion questions that helped them identify their key racial concerns. Next, each pair came up with next steps to create meaningful solutions to these issues. One pair suggested creating a student group with the express purpose of fostering racial dialogue, and another attendee said afterward that she and her partner had discussed methods of encouraging Stanford to hire a more diverse faculty.

“The event was meant to empower individuals to realize they can make a change,” said Kyle Niel, one of the organizers. With dialogues started and dozens of ideas brainstormed, the organizers are looking forward to seeing the next steps that students take with their new ability to engage each other in conversations about race with urgency and intent, rather than using the 1954 definition of “with all deliberate speed.”

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.