Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Encouraging Open Dialogue about Race

BOND: And I think this just shows how hard it is to talk about race-specific issues or programs and that naturally leads to a question about race consciousness. How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or issues of society or are these the same? Is there such a thing as a race-transcending leader?

HRABOWSKI: I think it’s silly to think that somebody’s going to be race transcending in America. If one knows history, it is naïve to think that anybody can be race transcending. That doesn’t mean that one can’t relate to all kinds of people, but the pink elephant in the room is race. Make no -- we cannot -- nobody can tell me that they can just not think about race ever. No. It just doesn’t happen. Now, with that said, the theme for me is authenticity. I love my students of all races. And we can talk about all kinds of issues.

This is a campus, one more, than can talk about the sticky issues of the day -- what does it mean to be an African American in this group, what does it mean to be a low-income white student in this group, or a woman in science in this group? I would say that we have to find ways of being able to be honest. I could play a game here and say, “Oh, yeah, we want to not have to talk about it,” but I know race will always, in my lifetime, be important to my students. They need to understand there will always be people who will judge them initially on the way they look, in different ways, whether they look polished and middle class, whether they are white or black or woman or male or whatever, and that those don’t have to be limiting factors, but they are factors that must be taken into account. And it is -- I’ll just give you one example of this campus talking about these things.

I was speaking in Howard County to a group of teachers about issues of children of color. And we finished and a young white woman got up and said, “Dr. Hrabowski, you didn’t mention the fact that we’re all white in the room." She said, "And this is a challenge that we’re working on here, but I’m the youngest in the room and my class is 70 percent of students of color but all the teachers are white. How do we deal with that?” And she says, “How do we deal with the fact that people aren’t comfortable talking about that?” And by this time, every face in the room is red, very red. And I’m just loving it. And I said, “Where’d you go to college?” -- being very serious with her -- “Where’d you go to college?” And she said, “Oh, you don’t know, Dr. Hrabowski, I’m one of yours.” We talk like this at UMBC. But it was clear others were not accustomed to being that honest about a fundamental point. And that’s not that a white person can’t be a great teacher for kids of color, but that person has to be able to talk about those issues, you see, because they are issues. I mean, as much as you might love that child, these are issues the child has to deal with and you’ve got to be --

So, what is my point? I’m saying that when I think about my own leadership, people here would say -- I would hope they would say, "He cares about all the students of all types. He will ask students about their backgrounds.” We have a lot of students here from mixed backgrounds. A lot of kids are out of the military, one parent is from Europe, one parent might be black. I mean, all kinds of interesting mixtures and we talk about it. Well, how do you discuss that because how it’s viewed in one country is different from here. A young woman can say to me, “I am French.” And I say, “But here they would just say you are a lovely black woman.” And she can say, “But I don’t like that. I don’t want to be that,” and we can discuss what that means, and so the fact is we Americans have not learned how to talk with comfort about issues of race in mixed company.

It seems to me that leaders of all races in our colleges and universities should feel some responsibility for setting a tone that will encourage people to say what they really think. I’m not interested in people simply telling me what’s politically correct. You know. When a student wants to say, “Well, didn’t you get that job because you were black?” I want the student to ask me that question. I won’t be insulted by that because if that’s what you really think, how can you ever have a different point of view if you’ve already made your mind up and you just remained quiet? Tell me what you think and let’s talk about it. We need that kind of discourse far more than we seek right now in our country.