Open Letter to College and University Faculty from a Worried Grandma

My Aunty Nancy posted this letter this morning and encouraged others to share.  

Dear College and University faculty,

I am writing to ask you to save the lives of my grandchildren. Their names are Florence and Jack.

They are not my only grandchildren. I have another named Anthony, but I don’t worry as much about him. I find myself attending to only the garden-variety worries with Anthony: accidents, illness, friendships, school. My worries about Florence and Jack are much more frightening, the kind that chase away sleep and tighten around your throat, late at night when you least expect it.

I worry they will have occasion to walk alone in a white neighborhood at night and one of the people watching them from their window, will be the person who posted last week on FaceBook a picture of a noose next to a man who is black.

I worry they will be killed riding their bikes by someone like my friend’s father, who said he would “get two points if he hits a nigger with his car.”

I worry they will have someone in their neighborhood like my Uncle Jim, who defiantly proclaimed that he would be “goddamned if he would ever live next to an ignorant black buck.” It’s easier to hurt someone you think of as an animal.

I worry they will not follow their father’s example, who changes into khakis and a button-down shirt to make outside repairs on his home because it is safer for him.
I worry one of them will want a BB gun and will take it outside for target practice with old tin cans and be shot dead because of it.

I worry Florence and Jack will wear hoodies. I am not kidding. I worry that my grandchildren will wear hoodies.

I appreciate the attempts made by well-meaning people to fight racism and discrimination by attending diversity training, tolerance seminars, ethnic food fairs and cultural music festivals. But these are innocuous events that seem more about making us feel better, than actually improving the lives of those who are oppressed. I am thankful that they try but it is not enough.

I sincerely believe that the only people who can change the hatred and fear that continues to hold our country in bondage are teachers–in particular, higher education teachers. Faculty. You.

All of the power of change is in your hands. And that power comes by doing what you have dedicated your lives to and what you do best: teaching.

You know how to teach your students to think critically and look at issues and problems from all of the different angles and perspectives, through uncomfortable and prickly conversations that will make them squirm in their seats but will provoke their thinking.

You know how to teach them to be introspective, how to recognize their own biases, and to face the reality that we all discriminate and prejudge others.

You know how to teach them about the devastating effects racism and bigotry have on an individual, an institution, an economy, and a country.

You know how to teach them that white privilege is real and how the luck of the genetic draw confers power and opportunity on only some of us. And because of that, believing in the concept of a level playing is absurd.

You know how to teach them that being “color-blind” is not a good thing and that having friends who are people of color does not make them incapable of racism.

You know how to teach your students to question everything, including themselves, and to learn how to change their own minds.

You know how to teach your students to understand that we who are white are the ones responsible for the suffering resulting from discrimination, racism, bias and bigotry. We caused it, we perpetuate it, and it is ours alone to fix.
Please teach them by example how to be activists. Show them by demanding the missions of your institutions reflect a commitment to teaching equality. Show them by altering your curriculum and your assignments to fit this mission. Teach your students to make a fuss. Teach them how to be vocal, insistent and relentless. Teach them to be maladapted. Most importantly, teach them to embrace the concept that silence implies consent.

I don’t know if there is a way to teach bravery. I don’t know how you teach someone to be strong enough to make family and friends and perfect strangers uncomfortable, when you speak up whenever an ethnic slur is used, or a bad joke told, or a belief expressed that is based in hatred. We are taught from such an early age to be courteous, to obey the rules, and to mind our manners. It is a difficult thing to push against those conventions, to remember that there is no such thing as courage without fear.
But you are faculty–you love a good challenge. Teach your students how to raise an objection. Give them the right words, the mantra that can be committed to memory and then employed each and every time they hear or see something that they know is not right. We all know what discrimination looks like. We all know what racism sounds like. We all know the words that express stereotyping or bigotry. What we don’t know is what to say to our beloved Aunt Gert or the grocery store clerk when those things are expressed. This part is the most difficult part, but also the most important. This is the part that requires bravery.

You can do this thing.

And if not you — who?

On behalf of all grandmothers who lose sleep at night, I thank you.
Nancy Erickson

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