When I was in college, I took a public speaking class. One of the last assignments of the semester was to make a 10-minute persuasive speech on a self-selected topic. While most other students chose to do their speeches on abortion and capital punishment, I chose the topic of “oppositional culture” in the African American community. For those of you who don’t know what that is, oppositional culture refers to the way in which black people resist conformity to many aspects of the dominant (i.e., white) culture to avoid being seen as “acting white” by their peers. It is a very controversial theory that has too often been used to overgeneralize the experience of black Americans and blame them for low social and economic achievement.
I delivered this speech to a mixed group of peers at a major urban university. It was probably the dumbest and most frightening thing I’ve ever done. On my list of life regrets, it’s probably in the top five, despite two black classmates thanking me afterward. The problem was, I had the wrong frame of context for truly understanding such a complex topic. At the time, I didn’t know about racial profiling or wage discrimination or redlining or “white flight” or the Tuskegee experiment or urban lead poisoning or historic attacks on black churches. If I had, it would have been a very different speech.
But as scary and offensive as it was, that speech was a major first step in my attempt to understand racism and race relations in America. I now believe that I had to stand up in front of my peers and let my ignorant words dribble out of my ignorant mouth so that the truth could find room to register in my brain. I had to rile people who would get in my face and say, “You don’t get it” in order for me to ‘get it.’ And to be honest, I’m still in the process of “getting it.”