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POV: My Riffs and Questions about Race

BU dean of students invites conversation about race today on CoveritLive


When it comes to thinking of race, my life has been a series of riffs and questions. There’s nothing unique here—it’s an ordinary story that you know. Will you indulge me in a conversation for a while?

D. Quentin Miller and I must have met. In summarizing the content of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, he describes me now, whenever I am asked to encounter race and racial justice in the society. I am “a paralyzed man, one who does not know where to turn next after struggling against and negotiating with a world that mistreats him, clutching desperately to optimism amidst his society’s insanity.”

It hasn’t always been the case, but now, I don’t debate my humanity with anyone—to me it’s a given. Yet, despite this given and my ability to walk into any place and to sit at multiple tables, I have spent my life with a need to explain my presence and how I got here. I accept that being Black, for me, means that I operate on a personal set of principles that underlie and guide my perspectives, interactions, and work. I have come to terms with my personal sense of culture and history and how it weaves in my own ideas of Blackness—political, of the spirit, and of beauty. However, when it comes to race—even today—I start the conversation and the actions as that paralyzed man.

Must I accept an obligation to be a racial role model even though I struggle with personal doubts about my ability to do my work with my family, at my day job, and as a citizen? In the context of race, am I really allowed to make mistakes? Whatever the answers, I can’t escape an obligation to uplift and—most important—to represent.

Early days of struggling against, and negotiating with, a world that mistreats

My world was colored by days of lawful and customary segregation in America. My parents were born and raised in a place where Black folk had to live together on the other side of the railroad tracks—a place where the basics of existing in a civilized space could sometimes be difficult to find. Sharecropping, white terrorist groups, no health care, outhouses, illiteracy, “White” and “Colored” signs—all that stuff. And to really make sure that you did not take your humanity for granted, Confederate symbols adorned the place—they even placed a school in the town and named it after Jefferson Davis. Was it hubris for my parents to leave all that behind and raise me in New York City (actually, to refine me, in Brooklyn)?

The moments in my young life demanded that I squeeze between the civil rights and Black Power movements. I had very few interactions and encounters with white folks as friends. South Carolina taught me to be fearful and suspicious—I overvalued white folks and saw little beauty in anything considered Black. It was the beginning of a new age for my family when we could see then new jack Black people on television—teachers at Walt Whitman High on Room 222, a coach and teacher on The Bill Cosby Show, and Diahann Carroll as a professional on Julia. I got the hint of my inferiority when the neighborhood turned Black with specks of brown when all the white folks moved to be with each other somewhere on the other side of the city. I am also a direct witness to the racial hostility, tension, and violence surrounding busing. (I spent years with a continuous knot in my stomach from the constant police presence and the charged comments from adults.) I rarely saw a legit, powerful Black person (government official, college student, lawyer, teacher, doctor, or business person who was in charge).

Not knowing where to turn next, but desperately clutching to optimism amidst society’s insanity

I decided to finish school, but got an education. Serendipity sent me from my segregated (Black and brown) urban grind and into the middle of a white (it was white, not predominantly so) boarding school in a small town in Connecticut. I was in deep on the other side of the tracks—I didn’t realize it at the time, but I would stay on that side of the tracks the rest of my life. This was my first continuous encounter with privilege, non-African-diaspora-types from abroad, higher income status Blacks, and friendship and love with white folk. I also encountered rejection that challenged my worth, if not my existence—no dates because I would have to meet parents one day, and homes of classmates that I was cautioned not to enter. I also learned a lesson that I still carry: I had to not just be good, but better—drinking, smoking, fighting, a raised voice, bad grades, and errors were (and still are) unacceptable.

Was it fair of me to be afraid? And what to do with all the racial slurs, hostility, and seemingly innocent—not ignorant—small, grating comments about Black culture and people?

Was it irony or the universe at its best that this quintessential lily-white environment would be where I was introduced to Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Soul on Ice?

Indulge me in a break for a name shout to the folk essential to my struggle with racial identity: Nina Simone, Toni Morrison, Ella Baker, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck, Howard Zinn, Shirley Chisholm, Rosa Parks, Leo Tolstoy, John Coltrane, Lyndon Johnson, Langston Hughes, John Brown, Fannie Lou Hamer, George Gershwin, James Baldwin, George Orwell, Susan Sontag, Jack Johnson, Barbara Jordan (LAW’59, Hon.’69), Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Miles Davis, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Muhammad Ali, Bayard Rustin, Richard Allen.

Connecting with more stories of others on deeper levels

“When it comes to race and racial justice in the society, this generation ‘gets it’—they just don’t see race.” A sentiment that often goes unchallenged when it sneaks into my conversations. I wonder if it is true? Have I and my ilk just held on too long to an outdated conversation on racial justice? Is it time for me to move on and tackle the real problems of the country and the world (that should have priority over race)?

As a college student, I immersed myself in the racial justice landscape. I finally realized that people—even the Black ones—come in many varieties and from all over the world. As opposed to the competitive approach that had dominated my short life, true friendships with Black men began to flood in on me. I was the prep-school boy who got Blacker in college. I developed a deeper understanding and took notice of racial disparities in society: justice, health care, employment, neighborhoods, and dignity. I felt obligated to support and participate in associations and causes that dealt with racial justice, and finally realized how important it was for me to see examples of Black progress through the achievement of others within elite institutions.

I think that my “Black experience” has elements that are universal to human experiences—especially for people trying to make it in America. I applied my Blackness to my schoolwork and interactions. Eventually, it broadened my connections to the stories and analyses of other people and their struggles for societal justice. My white friends and I could also work together and speak candidly about international issues, women in society, and “people of color.” After all, aren’t we all Black?

It’s painful for me to see the #ITooAmHarvard and Black Bruins campaigns (multimedia campaigns created by Black students at Harvard and UCLA that confront us with their sense of being “the other” within their communities). What does this say about the enlightenment of this generation on matters involving race? Are these campaigns breaking any new ground? Is this just a conversation amongst elites?

Can we start a conversation before a fire gets started next time? I’m all in.

Kenneth Elmore (SED’87) is BU’s dean of students; he can be reached at kennmore@bu.edu.

Kenneth Elmore will continue this conversation today at 1 p.m. on BU Today through CoveritLive. Tweets from @DeanElmore will be included in the CoverItLive window above as he responds to readers’ questions and comments. Anyone interested in joining the conversation should add #BUpov14 at the end of a tweet. If not on Twitter, add comments and questions in the CoveritLive window above.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


7 Comments on POV: My Riffs and Questions about Race

  • Karen Chenausky on 03.27.2014 at 9:10 am

    Dear Dean Elmore,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on and experiences with being on the “wrong” side of race. I’m a helping professional who is always interested in how it is for another person. Imagining myself in their situation, coming to understand how those experiences might have carved me into a different shape, enriches my life and strengthens my resolve to confront my own prejudices.

    You ask, “In the context of race, am I really allowed to make mistakes?” I would claim (possibly with little authority, but I’ll leave you to judge) that it is imperative that you make mistakes. –And correct them, or at least acknowledge that other people might have done things another way. To have a perfect role model is not only unrealistic, but it also cuts off anyone from following. What motivation would there be to attempt anything else if it had already been done perfectly? Failure would be the only option in this case. And, remember, we would not have true equality if we demanded perfection. We would only have a situation where any flaw would be taken as an indictment of an entire, heterogeneous group of individuals. And that’s not equality.

    In short, though I’m sure I wouldn’t like it if a misstep of yours went against my own interests (I am also only human), I will fight for your ability as a proud Black man to make them.

    I look forward to continuing this discussion on race and remain yours in glorious imperfection,

    Karen Chenausky

  • Reggie Jean on 03.27.2014 at 9:33 am

    Thanks for starting the topic “ball rolling”. I will adjust my schedule to participate.

  • Bruce J. on 03.27.2014 at 9:43 am

    Very revealing, thanks, Kenn. I’m only speaking for myself, of course, though there are many “like me” who only encounter race “when it comes up,” not every day. Going to read this again.

  • Maria E. Restrepo-Toro on 03.27.2014 at 10:00 am

    My name is Maria E. Restrepo-Toro, a Senior Training Associate at the BU Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation. I congratulate you Dean Elmore for starting this conversation. I would love to share my perspective as a Professional Latina working here at BU for 18 years. I encourage face-to-face opportunities.

  • Daymyen Tyler Layne on 03.27.2014 at 12:39 pm

    Dean Elmore,
    Much applause for stepping in here to have these very uncomfortable, yet extremely needed and wanted conversations. Schedule is adjusted and I will be in the proverbial mix.

    Daymyen T. Layne – Salem State University

  • Phil Sandler on 03.29.2014 at 12:05 am

    One of the privileges of entering the BU environment is the encounter with others of diverse backgrounds. One of the privileges of practicing psychiatry is listening to people sharing their inner experiences. For many students, Dean Elmore, their encounter with you has enabled them to expand their notion of who they are and who they can be.
    Phil Sandler, MD
    Retired psychiatrist
    BU Student Health Services

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