If only life were so simple. Based on my experiences in college, I would have been lucky to find bigoted people who actually wanted to learn, who had an attitude conducive to anti-racist education. The idea that we can change racist behaviors is predicated on the assumption that people will want to change. People get their pride wrapped up in racism. They are proud to “stand up to the liberal agenda.” They are smug with their ignorance. Racism makes them feel strong instead of weak, confident instead of uncertain, comfortable instead of uncomfortable, bound to a familiar community rather than alone and alienated. How can we expect those people who have made up their minds on the matter of race, people who most desperately need these kinds of interventions, to benefit in any way from a single-minded appeal to education?
Some might argue that the purpose of anti-racist education in the university should be to court “swing racists;” analogous to swing voters, these people are amenable to revising their beliefs on racism, who have not allowed racist thinking to fester in their psyches. Such people would agree with my argument that anti-racism efforts would be wasted on those who have made up their minds, and disagree with my wholesale rejection of institutionalized anti-racist education. I would argue that solely focusing on swing racists will do nothing to meaningfully advance this cause. Substantive change can only come from de-imperializing the most entrenched strains of racist culture, for it is from this single fount that both swing racist and prideful racist develop their beliefs.
De-imperializing one’s mind, in my opinion, requires a lifetime of multi-faceted effort. It cannot be achieved solely in an institutionalized educational setting. I think this is because the paternalism of the educational setting developed in tandem with the institutionalization of colonial hierarchy. Ideas about how to standardize the civilizing process of infantilized savages were circulated back to the metropole, where they redefined institutions “at home”. The child of the home country came to be seen in terms not unlike the infantilized “savage” adult. I don’t think it is possible to use methods developed under a imperialist-paternalistic paradigm to intervene on racist beliefs. The relationship between the anti-racist educator and the racist student is no less marked by paternalism than any general relationship between teacher and student. This approach risks making students feel disrespected, even victimized, when they encounter anti-racist teaching. If our project is to decolonize our minds and to de-imperialize theirs’, then I think it is a contradiction to believe that the university can function as the bedrock of this movement. Universities as we know them have yet to escape the shadows of the past as enforcers of socioeconomic inequality: indeed, what good can they be when the United States as a whole is still characterized by imperialist politics and culture?
The revolution will not be televised. The revolution will not be funded. The revolution will not be taught in school. Universities as they exist today will never be sufficiently radical to be up to the task of eradicating racism in youth. Unless we can abandon paternalism as an educational paradigm, there is no saving the university so that it can save others. Trends are not at all promising. Campuses are coming to more closely resemble resorts or hotels for young twenty-somethings, for cushy coursework, grade inflation, and networking bonanzas to hustle students into careers. College seems to be turning into a vehicle for self-affirmation and careerism rather than one of radical redefinition. Under these conditions, anti-racist solidarity becomes more a matter of self-selection and conspicuous consumption, than teachable moment for all.
What about dialogue, a reciprocal encounter with “the other”? If paternalism poisons the teacher-student relationship too much, then what about student-student interactions? This is where reasoning about campus diversity comes into play. The idea is that putting people in contact with those from different backgrounds and ways of life will increase the likelihood that they will grow and learn to see the world from different perspectives. Yet it is far easier for people to take their provincial attitudes with them, for minorities to find themselves "admitted but not welcomed," and finally sorted, whether they like it or not, into groups of like-mind, race, and class. “Diversity” is more often an Admissions euphemism for a deeply self-segregated campus than a substantive aspect of student culture. What’s more is that even student-student interactions cannot escape the distorting effects of paternalistic anti-racism between teacher and student. These interactions do not occur in a vacuum. It is far easier for a racist student to imagine his anti-racist peers as collaborators with or unfair beneficiaries of a “liberal” teacher-student cabal.
If we want to de-imperialize their minds, then we will have to de-imperialize our methods. We cannot succeed if we rely solely on the power of the university to make this happen. We should know better than to think that the master’s tools could ever dismantle the master’s house. In other words, our only hope is to radically redefine our approach to education. We must take it out of the classroom, away from the teacher-paternalist, and into our own hands.