In Praise of The Other Talk, by Brendan Kieley

Bob Gordh

I am writing to recommend a book for use within the SMMUSD that I believe would aid significantly in carrying out the district’s stated intention to provide its students with an anti-racist, pro-racial justice curriculum.

The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege, by Brendan Kieley, is an extraordinarily well-thought out, extraordinarily accessible and reader-friendly book on the subject of race in America. Although white middle school students are its particular target audience, non-white students, older students, and adults, too, can also profit greatly from reading it.

Before discussing the book itself, let me acknowledge that the phrase “white privilege” in the subtitle may very well alarm some white parents. Such parents may worry, perhaps vociferously, that reading this book may make their children feel guilty about being white. While I do not feel that this kind of concern should dissuade us from using the book, I do think we need to be prepared to address the concern in a constructive and persuasive manner. Here are some points we might make.

Let’s analyze the phrase “white privilege.” There are two claims, it seems to me, that are embedded in this phrase, as it is being used these days. The first claim is that on the whole white people are in a more advantaged position within American society than are non-white people. No one is denying that some Black people are rich or that some whites are poor or that some Latinx hold high positions and some whites low ones. The point instead is that in just about every major area of life — income, wealth, health, education, housing, political power, prestige, credibility, treatment by teachers, store proprietors, police and other components of the criminal justice system, etc. — whites on the whole are faring better than non-whites. (And that white people who are disadvantaged in any of these areas are almost never disadvantaged because they are white.) Taken in this way, I don’t see how this claim can reasonably be disputed, and Kieley is diligent in presenting plenty of statistical evidence to back it up.

The second claim embedded in the phrase “white privilege,” is that white advantage is unearned or undeserved. Although to some this claim is no doubt more unsettling than the first, it is defensible if properly understood. It does not deny, as Kieley is careful to point out, that white people have worked hard, often very hard to get where they are. Nor does it imply that white people in general have cheated or behaved in underhanded ways in pursuit of their goals. What it does imply is that non-white people have been unfairly restricted, hindered, and discriminated against as they have pursued their goals, with the result that their present disadvantaged position is unfair or unjust. Again, Kieley martials plenty of evidence, taken mostly from American history, to support this conclusion. The corollary of said conclusion is that the advantaged position of whites overall is also unfair or unjust.

Will recognition of their unfairly advantaged position make white students feel guilty? Not necessarily. After all, they did not place themselves in this position. Their best chance of avoiding guilt, or at least of not getting stuck in it, is surely to acknowledge the facts of the case, face up to the moral questions raised by these facts, and commit themselves to doing the best they can to advance the cause of racial justice. And this is exactly what Brendan Kieley , with both kindness and urgency, encourages white students to do. His book is not against white students, it is for them. Its aim is to help them be the best they can be.

Parents or others who object to the use of a book like The Other Talk (perhaps without having read it) may well be in favor of a “colorblind” approach to the issue of race (really more of an avoidance than an approach), which is decidedly different from, and at odds with, the anti-racist approach to which SMMUSD is very admirably and courageously committed. Colorblindness can be grounded in the good intention to regard everyone as an equal. Or it can be motivated by the cynical intention to mask racism by pretending that we are all post-racial now and no longer need to be concerned with matters of race. In addition, a colorblind stance can be motivated largely by the desire to avoid facing uncomfortable truths. In any case, colorblind folks say that we don’t need to talk about race and may even consider it impolite — or even racist — to do so. At best they feel that in classrooms, as in other places, talk about race , if sometimes unavoidable, should be kept to a minimum. The anti-racist reply to this can be summarized in a simple rhetorical question: If we don’t talk about race, how can we possibly undo racism?

If we want our students to understand American (and world) history, if we want them to understand the most urgent current issues facing Americans (and other citizens of the world), if we want to equip our students to become change agents toward a more fair and just future, then it would be misguided indeed to avoid the topic of race in our classrooms. To do so would be like teaching geography lessons about Antarctica without mentioning the cold and the snow!

The subject of race is vast, but let me suggest 5 key subtopics that our students need to learn about:

1. They need to learn that race itself is not a biological reality but a social construct, and they need to learn about when, where, how and why “race” has been, and is still being, constructed.

2. They need to learn a great deal about the history of “race” relations, especially in what is now the United States.

3. They need to learn about the many ways in which non-white people have resisted racism and about many great things non-white people have achieved in spite of racism.

4. They need to learn about many (albeit insufficient) ways in which white people themselves have opposed racism.

5. They need to learn a great deal about ways in which both interpersonal and systemic racism manifest themselves in today’s world.

The Other Talk is outstanding in large part because it clearly presents plenty of useful information on all of these subtopics. There is, however, a further reason for my extremely enthusiastic endorsement of the book.

Although there is material under the subtopics just listed that is inspiring and encouraging, there is much that is heartrending and tough to hear about, especially, in some ways for white students, especially, in other ways for non-white students. How to keep students from running the other way? One of the greatest things about The Other Talk, from a pedagogical point of view, is the brilliant way in which its author Brendan Kieley responds to this challenge. The tack he takes is to make his book primarily a first person narrative about how he himself transitioned from a lesser to a much, much greater awareness of, and concern about, the issue of race. In anecdote after well-chosen anecdote, Kieley charts his ever-deepening awareness of how much safer and easier it is to live as a white person than as a non-white person in these United States. Moreover, as he tells his story, he shoves embarrassment aside and relates numerous mistakes he has made in the arena of race. From each mistake he derives a valuable lesson. In addition to admitting past mistakes, Kieley emphasizes that even now he has much to learn (as we all do). Such humility on the part of a writer who has clearly become exceedingly knowledgeable about his subject, is disarming and endearing. Such a writer is not talking down to his readers from on high but is rather respecting them and encouraging them to do the best they can, just as he is trying to do the best he can.

It is also worth mentioning that Kieley employs the talent and skill of a gifted creative writer to make the anecdotes he shares vivid, sometimes humorous, and consistently entertaining , as well as deeply meaningful. Students will like the author of this book, and they will like themselves better after having read and pondered and learned from it than they did before.

Might non-white parents be upset because their children have been assigned a book intended primarily for a white student audience? I have 3 replies to suggest: 1. All students, in order to understand and constructively participate in the society they live in, need to learn about the subtopics listed above. The Other Talk is one very accessible text from which all students can learn a great deal about these subtopics. 2. Non-white students will, I think, be aided in their own thinking about race and in their conversations about race with others, both white, and non-white, by Kieley’s very clear and fair-minded analysis of white privilege. 3. It is important for both white and non-white students to know that there is a strong (if insufficiently strong) contingent of white folks who are passionately committed to bringing about racial justice. The author of the book is an exemplary member of this contingent. White students may join, too. And non-white students can claim members of the contingent as allies.

I hope that before long SMMUSD middle school students will enjoy the privilege of reading, interacting with, and discussing Brendan Kieley’s enlightening, thought-provoking, and life-affirming book, The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege.

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