What 10 Students Learned From Having To Say Their Worst Thoughts On Race Out Loud

Mar 16, 2020
Originally published on March 16, 2020 6:54 pm

The first time Judi Benson heard the unfiltered truth about race from a black person, she was 25 years old. It was 1973 and she was taking a class at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville called "Human Conflict: Black and White."

The class was radical for its time and place. In the early 1970's Jacksonville, was still raw around civil rights — new to school busing, still struggling with desegregation in its jails. It was a city divided, with violent race riots in its recent history.

But when Benson arrived for the first day of class, she thought she was beyond all that. As she wrote in a journal she was made to keep for the class:

"Like the other whites in the class, I thought that day that I had it all together and would show any racists in the group a thing or two, as well as demonstrate to the black sisters and brothers how hip I was."

She was in for a rude awakening. There were 10 students in the class — five black, five white — and the professor, Peter Kranz. One of the first things he did was direct the students to go around the room and say what they really thought about people of the other race.

So they did, one by one, as Kranz, who is white, wrote their statements up on the board. Nearly 50 years later, Benson can still recall some of those statements.

"All whites are rich, blacks steal. All whites are racist and you can't trust them ... Black men want to rape white women. White men want to rape black women," she remembers. "The one that really surprised me was when they said they didn't think white people loved their children. That's why they had mammies to look after them. It came up that white people thought black people smell, but guess what? Black people think whites smell like wet dog."

These days, when almost six-in-10 Americans say race relations in the U.S. are bad, we rarely hear about racial confrontation going well — especially the kind Kranz facilitated, where people are encouraged to say, to each other's faces, the unacceptable things they think in secret. Whether they happen online or on the street, these types of encounters end in vitriol or even worse, violence.

But this 1973 classroom was a rare example of a successful attempt. Here was a teacher who decided the only way to make racial progress was for students of different races to actually confront each other. So he decided to risk it. He would unleash all the ugly feelings in the hopes that he could channel them into something good. And in the chaos they found catharsis.

No place for politeness

Philip Mobley was 19 when he took Kranz's class.

"I was the one that said that I thought that white people, when they got wet, smell like a dog, because that's what I had heard. I remember saying that," says Mobley.

He was also the one who said he thought white people didn't love their children, because if they did they would raise them themselves instead of hiring black nannies.

Mobley was raised to hold his tongue around white people. As a kid, his father kept him mostly sheltered on the black side of town. But every once in a while, while out on errands, they would encounter a white person, like the one day when they went to a white butcher who got upset because they were late for an order and she had somewhere else to be.

"She talked to him like he was a child," says Mobley. "She just yelled at him as a child and he just said, 'Yes, ma'am. Yes ma'am.' And when he got back in the car, I was just like, 'Wait, why did you let this lady talk to you this way?' And to him, his response was, 'I have to take care of my family.'"

So when Mobley walked into the class, he had absorbed the idea that speaking honestly to white people wasn't an option. He described himself back then as very polite, kind of a nerd.

And really, in the beginning, all the students in the class were pretty polite.

"I would say way back then, like most people, I really tried to avoid confrontation at all costs. I was such a mouse," remembers Benson.

But there was no place in the class for politeness. The class was inspired by a program developed by two black psychiatrists, Price M. Cobbs and William H. Grier, authors of the 1968 book Black Rage. The idea of the book was that black people were enraged by all of it — racism, slavery, the everyday slights — and the resulting rage was suppressed and eating them away.

The solution they proposed involved putting black people and white people together in a room and making them speak directly and honestly about their feelings about one another.

"Confrontation was the method, and real understanding, by the participants, of the real problems between Blacks and Whites was the goal," writes Terence Clarke in his book An Arena of Truth, which recounts the story of Kranz's class and the ideology behind it. "It would be rough ... and the one restriction was that actual physical violence would not be permitted."

Kranz himself participated in one of Cobbs and Grier's workshops and took the lessons he learned into his work at the University of North Florida. It looked something like this:

  • Week one: confess your deepest racist thoughts. 
  • Week two: read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, discuss, confess again. 
  • Week three: Entertain a visit from a local Black Panther. Pour your heart out into your journal.  

In one of the more radical class requirements, each student had to stay in the house of a person of the other race for a week. For students, it was an unnerving demand, but ultimately central to the goal of Kranz's experiment: to foster racial empathy that would stretch far beyond the walls of a classroom.

Mobley remembers being so freaked out he made sure he had a friend nearby, as a lifeline.

"I remember telling him, I said, 'When we get here, I need you to kind of ride around for about 30 minutes because I'm not comfortable going and stay with these white people for a whole week."

But he did — they all did. Eventually, the stereotypes that students once held began to fade.

"It was liberating"

Mobley remembers the moment he saw a transformation among the students in the class.

"I think what was happening more is the white kids were feeling more emotional, embarrassed, and the black kids ... probably a little more assertive and free. You've been oppressed for so long, and then all of a sudden someone gives you the opportunity to say what you feel ... It was liberating."

After awhile together, they moved to a new phase, where instead of sorting by race, they divided along different lines, such as who liked weightlifting, who was a nerd, who was a parent.

"It wasn't long before we were talking after class and laughing after class and going to have a beer at the boat house" says Benson. Mobley remembers they became "like a family."

It was a transformation that stemmed from what students described as the real lesson from the class: yes, confrontation is critical, but it's not the last stop. It's the start of a process — you say the secret out loud, to the person's face, then you sit and you listen. You walk away angry or defensive or still full of rage. But it doesn't kill you. You just go back and work through it.

"By having to expose yourself and finding that you weren't going to drop through into an abyss, that makes you stronger," says Benson. "And the first time you're able to say something honestly, without being attacked, it makes you stronger."

The lesson marked a radical departure from how we typically think about confrontation. When Kranz studied with Cobbs and Grier, he'd learned that people avoided confrontation because they thought it was the humane thing to do. They feared if they opened the door even a little, they might end up with a riot. But the result was a lot of suppressed rage and fear that was showing up on their bodies.

To be sure, Kranz's class was a highly-controlled environment, a safe space for hard conversations about race. The professor was a trained clinical psychologist and knew how to formally build in, as Clarke wrote in An Arena of Truth, "a period of cooling off and reflection." And some race scholars have pushed back against the idea of radical conflict, saying there are better ways to explore such troubling stereotypes.

Still, there were lessons in it for the broader world about how to normalize confrontation, and fit it into regular life.

Decades after the class ended, for example, Benson says she was no longer a mouse — not with her ex-husband, or mildly racist acquaintances, or anyone really.

For his part, Mobley found himself in the position of having to translate the method for his teenage son. One year, in his son's high school, the class president was black and the principal declared that, for the first time, the class president would not automatically get to deliver the school's commencement address.

"All of the black kids were angry," Mobley says. "And I remember they came to the house. We talked about it, we expressed that anger. And I prepared them to say, you need to go and let the administration know how you feel about it ... there is a need for certain people to be in your face ... At the same time, there has to be meaningful conversation behind it. Because if I'm just going to make you mad without doing the bonding and the education and the growth, all I've done is made you mad."

It's an obvious lesson except that it's difficult to execute. Often the default is to say nothing and simmer in rage, or explode. But because Mobley had that experience so many years ago, he was able to give his son options he didn't have as a kid: Don't get lost in the anger. But don't keep it in, because it can eat you from the inside. And then you will never win, or make anything better.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We used to hear the term post-racial a lot. Before that, it was colorblind. There are ways of ignoring differences and ignoring the reality of race. NPR's Hanna Rosin of the podcast Invisibilia reports on lessons learned from a program that confronted the racial gulf head-on.

HANNA ROSIN, BYLINE: The year was 1973 at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. The new class on offer - Human Conflict: Black and White. It was taught by a man named Peter Kranz and inspired by the book "Black Rage," written by two black psychiatrists, William Grier and Price Cobbs. The idea was that black people were enraged by all of it - racism, slavery - and the rage was suppressed and eating them away. And the first step to purging, the students were taught, was telling some basic truths.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PHILIP MOBLEY: You've been oppressed for so long, and then all of a sudden, someone give you the opportunity to say what you feel. Oh, yeah. It was liberating.

ROSIN: Philip Mobley was 19 when he took the class. He'd grown up in Jacksonville, which, in the '70s, was still new to school busing, new to desegregating jails, with violent race riots in its recent history. As a kid, Philip's father had kept him sheltered mostly on the black side of town. But every once in a while, while out on errands, they would encounter a white person, like this one day when they went to a white butcher who got upset because they were late and she had somewhere else to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MOBLEY: She talked to him like he was a child. She just yelled at him as a child. And he just said, yes, ma'am. Yes, ma'am. But when he got back in the car, I was just like, wait. Why did you let this lady talk to you this way? And to him, his response was, I have to take care of my family.

ROSIN: So when Philip walked into the class, he had absorbed the idea that speaking honestly to white people just wasn't an option.

What kind of person were you?

MOBLEY: Very polite; I was kind of a nerd.

ROSIN: But there was no room for polite in this class. Week 1 - confess your deepest thoughts on race. Week 2 - read the autobiography of Malcolm X. Discuss. Confess again. Week 3 - entertain a visit from a local Black Panther. Pour your heart out in your journal. Week 4 - visit a historically black university. One of the more radical requirements was that each person in the class - five black people and five white people - had to stay in the house of a person of the other race for a week. Philip was so freaked out that he made sure he had a friend nearby as a lifeline.

MOBLEY: I remember telling him - I said, when we get here, I need you to kind of ride around for about 30 minutes because I'm not comfortable going and staying with these white people.

ROSIN: But he did it. They all did it. They sat in the class week after week until all the feelings came out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MOBLEY: What was happening more is the white kids was feeling more emotional and embarrassed, and the black kids was being more assertive and free.

ROSIN: One of the white students in the class, Judi Benson, was 25 at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROSIN: Had you ever been confronted by a black person before?

JUDI BENSON: No.

ROSIN: You'd never been told the truth by a black person.

BENSON: No.

ROSIN: What did it feel like on your body to be told the truth like that?

BENSON: Shame is the biggest thing I can think of - just mortified.

ROSIN: And Judi admits that there were basic truths that they did not know about each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BENSON: It came up that white people thought black people smell, but guess what? Black people think whites smell like wet dog.

MOBLEY: I was the one that said that I thought that white people, when they got wet, smell like a dog because that's what I had heard.

ROSIN: They all got through the few weeks of race 101, but the lasting takeaway...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MOBLEY: I really didn't understand the value of the experience until many years later.

ROSIN: When he had a son, who faced his own racist incidents at school, Philip was able to teach his son the value of confrontation - how not to get lost in the smallness of anger but also how not to keep it in because it can eat you from the inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MOBLEY: We got to be able to address it, but at the same time, there has to be meaningful conversation behind it.

ROSIN: And that's the difference between what we think of as confrontation today - the fast, angry exchanges in the halls of Congress or the threads on social media. The confrontation Philip and Judi learned was about the start of the process. You say the secret out loud to the person's face. You hear everyone in the room do that same thing. You sit, and you listen. You walk away hurt or defensive or maybe even still full of rage, but you just go back to class again the next week and work through it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BENSON: You know, by having to expose yourself and finding that you weren't going to drop through into an abyss, that makes you stronger.

ROSIN: Stronger for the next conversation or even the next confrontation.

KELLY: That's NPR's Hanna Rosin. She co-hosts our Invisibilia podcast. Their new season tackles climate change, artificial intelligence and racial divisions. And you can hear Invisibilia on NPR One or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISOTOPE 217'S "LA JETEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.