People of color live through discomfort. White kids will survive learning the truth about racism.

I didn’t know it then, but an incident during my sophomore year of high school encapsulates how many of us have had to douse our indignation and grievances, especially on matters of race, for the sake of white comfort.

SHARE People of color live through discomfort. White kids will survive learning the truth about racism.
Sen. Barbara Blackmon, D-Canton, speaks at the well in the Senate Chamber at the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. Blackmon was among the Black lawmakers who walked out of the Senate Chamber in protest Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, and withheld their votes as the body passed a bill that would ban schools from teaching critical race theory.

Mississippi state Sen. Barbara Blackmon speaks at the well in the Senate Chamber at the Mississippi State Capitol on Jan. 13. Blackmon and other Black lawmakers walked out of the chamber in protest on Jan. 21 against a bill that would ban schools from teaching critical race theory.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

During a pep rally when I was a high school sophomore, the boys basketball coach stood at the microphone, psyching and urging the crowd to attend an upcoming game against Evanston Township.

“I want to see your white faces in the sea of the hostile Black faces,” he blurted to a mostly Caucasian crowd that included some Asians and Hispanics and a handful of African Americans.

From what I recollect, when he mentioned white faces, he had either used the word “shining” or “happy.”

I didn’t know how to process the ugliness of what was said in the name of school spirit, so I told myself I was hearing things — until a Filipino classmate expressed his disgust, and the coach apologized for the anti-Black comments on the school intercom.

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Later at lunch, a white friend, in an attempt to justify the coach’s statements, held back tears as she told us a Black man stole her father’s job.

I couldn’t believe my ears again and angrily pushed back until our peers, mostly non-Black people of color, signaled that I needed to pipe down.

I didn’t know it then, but what played out at Niles West that day encapsulates how many of us have had to douse our indignation and grievances, especially on matters of race, for the sake of white comfort.

While the country is finally addressing how our schools and other institutions have glossed over the horrors of slavery and the widespread impact of racial inequity, the mostly-white naysayers are worried their children’s feelings will get hurt in the process.

Any utterance of critical race theory or racism, for some, is like throwing water on the Wicked Witch of the West.

Protecting white fragility is such a pressing issue in Florida that the Senate Education Committee there recently advanced a bill pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that would prohibit public schools and private businesses from making people — in this case, clearly meaning white people — feel “discomfort,” “guilt” “anguish” or “psychological distress” when teaching about our past.

How ludicrous that we have to debate and entertain proposed laws that would bury and literally whitewash our history for the sake of those who are quick to call others “snowflakes” but have such thin skin, it bleeds when threatened by facts.

The travesties that took place on American soil — whether the slaughter of indigenous peoples, the lynching of Black men and women, or the degrading treatment of non-white immigrants — should make everyone uncomfortable.

We can all learn more. And for many people of color, that also means learning to speak up and not shrink back.

My father, who was born a few years before India broke free from the British Empire, told me and my siblings that when he first came to this country and started his medical residency, he bowed his head out of respect when any white person — whether a colleague, boss or janitor — walked by him in the hospital.

He shrugged and said he thought all white people were sahibs and memsahibs, deserving of the “sir and madam” titles of respect. South Asians use the Urdu/Hindi word sahib and less frequently memsahib within their communities but in colonial India, they were the salutations assigned to the British to signify their authority.

But while we laughed at the absurdity of my very self-confident dad’s actions, we, too, were guilty of bestowing deference to our white classmates, internalizing and accepting our second-class status as people of color in school hallways.

Funny, not too many adults back then seemed to care about our discomfort, except for some wonderful educators we encountered, including my sophomore English teacher Ms. Faith Shapiro.

Minutes after we heard the coach say he was sorry for his remarks at that unfortunate assembly, Ms. Shapiro had us close our books and talk about race and our experiences.

The coach, the son of a prominent Chicago personality, kept his job.

But I still don’t know if any students of color attended the basketball game on behalf of our school to show him that among the “white faces” he yearned to see, we existed, too.

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Rummana Hussain is a member of the Sun-Times editorial board


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