Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Pedagogical Failures? The Authors We Are Reading in Class Are Mean to White People...
"Joe Feagin is not nice to white people, how is he going to win us over? ""Jane Elliot is mean to white people, what is wrong with her?"
Those are two questions from my class on Race and American politics which I am teaching this quarter. I like sharing these pedagogical moments with you all as so much of what we talk about regarding race and politics here on WARN--and in other moments more generally--can be traced back to what students are learning (or not) in the classroom. We make citizens in our schools; thus, the tin eared responses to white racism in the Age of Obama and a drunken ideology of conservative colorblindness that offers nothing, and masks almost everything, can often be traced right back to those spaces.
As a black guy who teaches courses on race I am always impressed by the candor of my students. Quite a few don't want to engage for fear of "saying the wrong thing." Generally, and with good speed, folks pick up on the fact that my courses are not some version of the Oprah Winfrey Show. I am not interested in having an encounter session. My goals are direct: read the texts, process the claims, and apply the theory.
Public feelings and personal moments of transformation are entertaining; they generally don't have a place in my seminars. Nevertheless, and while only a journeyman, I still remain surprised by the vulnerability and honesty of the white students in my classes. As one of their few non-white lecturers I can become their personal confessor. I am also a flagellating truth teller. Many stay for the punishment and want more. Others run away.
Here, there are a few moments that have repeated themselves. First, white students hate sister Jane Elliot. There is a revulsion at how she brings the heat and holds white folks accountable for their racism and prejudice.
The second is more curious: many students (mostly white, but a few of color) get upset at Dr. Joe Feagin's analyses of white racism as a societal organizing concept. Inevitably, he is described as "mean" to white people. Feagin apparently "doesn't want to win them over."
I smile and respond that the history of white supremacy and the institutional legacies of white racism are not nice. Moreover, some history is just ugly and should be presented as such. Most importantly--and this upsets quite a few white students--few authors in any field sit back and ask "how will my argument make people of color feel? Will it hurt their feelings?" Consequently, why should you be extended the courtesy?
On a meta level I will never stop shaking my head at the vulnerability of Whiteness. Its owners and practitioners have the world oriented around them. Whiteness is one of the greatest inventions in human history. White folks can gain all of the advantages of white supremacy in post-Civil Rights America and can wash their hands of it, all the while being able to play the "reverse racism" defense when the reality of white racism is called out for what it is.
Whiteness seems so durable. Its owners and practitioners so weak. How could this be? Perhaps, this duality is one of the secrets to how Whiteness and white privilege have endured for so long?
The revulsion of some at the truth of white racism is an example of white privilege in action where how dare someone deviate from the white racial frame and turn the lens inward, upsetting White priors, White beliefs, and a White sense of nobility and innocence.
There are also students who pleasantly surprise you with their directness. While some would be offended, I am intrigued by a student who submitted a list of questions to me after a class on race and life chances. He is a bold one; I think he should be commended even as his directness would be off-putting to some.
Said student asked me the following:
1. As a black American, assuming you consider yourself "black" and an "American" are you "thankful" that you were given a "traditional" "non-black" name rather than one that is stereotypically "black?"
2. Do you think having a "black" name would have impacted your career?
3. If you are dealing with a white person who is really ignorant about racism how do you tell them this?
So let's work through this together. How would you respond to these questions? Alternatively, is there something problematic about these questions to begin with? Is said student operating from a position of white privilege where he feels empowered to query a black professor in such a personal manner?