By: Dr. Christopher Pramuk
As the unnamed “white professor” whom Taylor Zachary takes to task in his editorial, “A whitewashed Jesuit education,” I’d like to respond directly to Taylor, if I may, I hope in a spirit of respectful dialogue.
Taylor, first I want to affirm your courage in giving voice to a “Black perspective often ignored and overshadowed by the enduring solidarity of white students, white faculty and white administrators.” I expect your example and your voice may give others the courage to speak up about their experiences and perspectives. I hope so.
The offense at the heart of your editorial appears to be my question put to you, during the Q and A following a panel on racial justice on Jan. 17, as to why you chose to attend Xavier instead of an historically Black college or university (HBCU).
Clearly you perceived the question not as a question intended to draw forth something more about your story in the context of the “Xavier Bubble,” but as a preformed judgment, evidence of “flawed reasoning” and “the purest form of victim blaming.”
I admit that I was frankly astonished and unsettled by the gap between how you heard my question for example, the message that you should “go to a school where more people look like you” and the question I asked, or intended to ask. I apologize if my intention wasn’t clear or if the question felt inappropriately invasive in the context of the forum. I can see now how it may have been so.
At the same time, Taylor, my question about HBCUs did not drop out of the sky. It arose, as I recall, from the substance of our “brief back and forth,” and more broadly in the context of my earlier remarks during the panel, which anticipated some of the same concerns you raised about the Xavier Bubble. My initial response to your comments, you may remember, was to affirm your critical concerns.
Still, I admit that following with such a personal question, in such an impersonal space, was a risk. I took the risk, I believe, because I trusted that your comments and question to me during the Q and A session were posed in an authentic spirit of dialogue.
You write that “answering a question with a question is simply rude discourse.” I disagree. Sometimes responding to a person’s question with another question can be an attempt toward deepening understanding and empathy. Often in the classroom, before I respond to a serious question from a student, I want to know more about the person asking the question. What is the human experience and social history from which the question arises?
To be sure, if we don’t find ways to create spaces of active listening, vulnerable give and take, a disciplined desire on all sides for mutual understanding, it’s difficult for me to put much hope in “conversations about race.” We all need room to speak and to misspeak, to ask questions and risk being misunderstood, to learn new ways and to unlearn old ways, if we are going to imagine together and build something new, a world community that takes delight in our beautiful, mosaic differences. If we can’t find ways to initiate such processes at a Jesuit Catholic university, where will we learn to do so?
Finally, you ask for more “course material organized around Black and/or Ethnic Studies.” I strongly agree. I don’t know if the “six Black courses” that you mention that Xavier now offers include my own courses on “The Black Catholic Experience” and “Black Literature and Faith,” two of the most personally rewarding classes that I teach at Xavier.
I daresay you’d find the substance of these classes heartening. How about we talk in person? I’m in Hinkle 317. Even better, I’d love to see you in a future class.
Postscript: The day before this piece went to press, Taylor and I met in my office for some two hours and had what I feel was a very open and constructive conversation. We ended with a commitment to keep the dialogue going and to try to open it up in some fruitful way for other students, faculty and staff. What form such a conversation might take, and when it might happen, is yet to be determined.