Tobin Miller Shearer readily admits he doesn’t have all the answers. Even at his own lecture.
When audience member Chris Young-Greer stood up on Thursday night and asked how a person of color should handle people who expect them to constantly explain racial issues, Shearer, a white man, shook his head.
“You know I can’t answer that,” he said. But the microphone was still in Young-Greer’s hand, so he asked her what she thought.
“It’s very daunting to give someone opinions that they may not fully grasp,” she admitted. Shearer thanked her. The crowd clapped.
Shearer gave his lecture on Thursday at the University of Montana, where he’s an associate professor of history and director of the African-American Studies program. The lecture’s title? “How to be a White Guy: a Last Lecture on Punching Nazis, Baking Pies, and Not Being a Douche Bag.” Predictably, that title drew drew more a larger turnout than most 7 p.m. campus talks. Even after the seats filled up in the sizeable conference room, people continued to file in, sitting cross-legged on the floor or leaning against the walls.
“The first day of every class I walk into the room and tell my students, ‘I want you to know that I know I’m white,’” Shearer told the Indy. “I say, ‘There is going to be tension with me in this room, in this role. And there should be. But we can learn a lot together if we walk into that tension and see what we can discover about identity and privilege and power.’”
Shearer dedicated the lecture, part of the Last Lecture series presented by the Mortar Board Honor Society, to the advice he’s most qualified to give: how to be white and male, and how to use the privilege of those conditions to support and stand up for non-white, non-male people.
And no, standing up doesn’t mean punching Nazis. Violent reaction to white supremacy is a trendy way to play the hero, Shearer said, without addressing the deeper issues of racism. It’s one example, he said, of how white men are “blowing it.”
“We’re blowing it by not showing how many ways there are to be strong,” he said. “We’re blowing it by standing in the way of history.”
Fighting racism, Shearer said, isn’t about Facebook posts or knocking out Nazis. It’s about listening, having conversations about those issues and recognizing white privilege—over and over and over again.
“It’s not glamorous work. It’s hard work,” Shearer said. “I’ve gotten it wrong so many times, and I’ll get it wrong again.”
Only one line in Shearer’s lecture directly addressed politics: when he told the crowd that “white supremacy is enshrined in the White House.” That particular elephant in the room left no room for avoidance after an audience member asked what Shearer, given the chance, would say to Donald Trump.
“I wouldn’t punch him, as much as I might want to,” Shearer said to laughter. He said he would quote civil rights activist Ruby Sales, and ask, “Where does it hurt?”
“The man is not in touch with what’s hurting him,” Shearer said.
Then, a moment of quiet. And that, Shearer said, seemed like the perfect spot to end.