Being Nice Doesn’t Cut It

“Now, remember to be nice! Being nice doesn’t cost you anything!,” said my boss.  For the first couple of years that I worked for her, she would always cheerfully give me her “Be Nice” pep talk before important meetings or events.  I understood that she meant to have my game face on and to speak carefully, in particular in those important meetings.  I always thought that “professional” would have been a more appropriate word.  But, I always deeply disagreed with the idea that nice does not cost you anything.

Ladson-Billings (1998) encourages education professionals to challenge the acceptable practices that come with working in a “nice” field.  Instead we should be bold and unpopular, if necessary, to advance the conversation about school inequity. We should be willing to be bold and unpopular so that we can confront the racism that led us to a deeply inequitable society.   I believe that this is an example of how being nice can be costly in a detrimental fashion.  If we are too busy being nice,we will be unable to engage in conversations that allow us to deeply and genuinely explore racism in America. defines nice as, “pleasing, agreeable, delightful.”  I do not see how an honest conversation regarding racism could possibly be pleasing, agreeable or delightful.  I will grant you that we are fighting and in too many cases, killing one another, over some pretend concepts that are no more real than the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Race is nonsense.  You can’t point to the map and say I am from white or from black.  But, just like Harry Potter, people have taken the concept of race way too far.  (I mean no offense to the Potterheads out there. I love me some Harry Potter.)  While races are a fabrication meant to ease the minds and souls of “whites” and justify the mistreatment of “blacks”, the racism that results from those pretend races…is real.  It is pervasive.  It is deadly. It is real.  So, if a person walks away from a conversation about pervasive, structural racism thinking, “Oh, that was nice!” then they are crazy or the conversation lacked depth and honesty.

I know that I struggle with pushing the boundaries and walking purposefully into a land of discomfort.  I do clumsily stumble into uncomfortable situation on the regular; if I stumble in, I can usually just as gracefully stumble right back out.  But, to march right in on purpose is a different ball game.  I was at breakfast with a white female friend recently.  She excitedly shared with me how she attended a presentation about how she should not just be my ally, but she needs to take the step to be my accomplice.  Now, this friend is someone who likes to push any boundary possible, so I could immediately see that crossing boundaries and giving society the middle finger in the name of social justice was a place she could enjoy.  We discussed that while we have similar goals regarding creating equity in the space of higher education we both face challenges on how to move our cause forward and not get ignored and/or shut down.  She was recently asked to have members of her department participate in a diversity workshop and when she asked her supervisor for permission to work on a skeleton crew for an hour she was told that would not be happening.  There was no reasoning provided.  She opted to take a risk and operate on a skeleton crew anyways.  She said that she was terrified that she would get written up, but nothing happened.  We discussed what her supervisor would have given as a reason for writing her up since they routinely operate on a skeleton crew for lunch hours and other trainings. “You see HR, I am a racist and don’t believe in diversity!” Yeah right. That would not be a very nice thing for him to admit.

My conversations with this particular friend make me think a lot about the discussions we have in class.  How do we take all of theories and turn them into practice? How do we approach the dismantling of racism and white supremacy? How do we get into the system and blow it up? Do we charge at the racism and white supremacy like Bravehart or do we roll in like the Trojan Horse and tear it down from the inside?  I look at my friend and see her as trying to tear down her particular system from the inside in covert operations fashion.  She has tried to confront the system head on, but found no success.  So now she has moved to being more discreet and is attempting to dismantle and reassemble the system one white supremacy block at a time.

Leonardo (2004) also pushes us to look beyond the nice idea of white privilege to a deeper issue, white supremacy.  He pushes us to look beyond the “nice” idea of a group that has benefits to the darker side of the process by which white people obtained and keep those benefits.  The deeper examination is not at all pleasing, agreeable or delightful.  My friend is grappling with when and how to have those conversations.  She is trying to balance being “nice” and professional with making progress. She is only one person, but she has realized that she does have the power to change a system that was set-up for the success of white folks.  My hope is that we will all find our own systems to dismantle and reassemble in a way that is not set upon a foundation of white supremacy so that one system at a time we can create change. Be bold. Be unpopular. Don’t let them tell you that we have to be nice.


Ladson-Billings, G. (1998, January). Just what is Critical race Theory, and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1).

Leonardo, Z. (2004). The Color of Supremacy: Beyond the discourse of ‘white privilege’. Educational Philosophy & Theory, 36(2), 137-152. doi:10.1111/j.1469-5812.2004.00057.x

The definition of nice. (n.d.). Retrieved May 05, 2017, from


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