I don’t normally blog about frustrations in teaching. Well, I did vent about the flood of email I got last week (which has blessedly abated, and I’ve washed up on the beach like inert seaweed until the next deluge). As a rule, though, I don’t bitch and moan about student behavior. I don’t want my students to think I despise them, because in fact I’m very fond of them. I also don’t want them to worry that what they do and say will end up all of the intertubes, read by the audience of millions that Kittywampus reaches every day. (Ahem.) So to any students (past, present, or future) who might read this post: This is not about you. This is about me, as a teacher, and my thought process when I’m blindsided by a discussion that runs off the rails.
And so I need to think through what happened in my intro to women’s and gender studies class this morning. The topic of the day was racism. We read Peggy McIntosh’s classic “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Patricia Hill Collins’ “Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination,” and Renee Martin’s blog post, Womanism/Feminism … Feminism/Womanism. We started off by talking about white privilege, which was framed (as always in my class) by emphasizing that structural racism usually looms larger than interpersonal bigotry, and that we can discuss the legacy of slavery more fruitfully if we don’t get all tangled up in guilt about the past but instead focus on our shared responsibility for a less-racist future.
Quickly, though, the discussion veered into the potential ills of affirmative action and reverse racism. And there we remained for most of the second hour. I tried to introduce the idea of intersectionality (which was on the syllabus, after all) to defuse the idea that there’s a hierarchy of oppressions. They loved the term Oppression Olympics, but then we were right back to affirmative action. I’m fine with devoting some time to the problems of justice that affirmative action can create for individuals. Having once administered a summer program that included affirmative action goals, I know there are better and worse approaches. However, we spent so much time on “reverse racism” that ACTUAL RACISM racism got short shrift.
I tried again to keep the train from derailing by repeating a definition of racism that Renee often uses at Womanist Musings: prejudice + power = racism. A couple of the students got solidly on board with that formulation, but others were visibly and audibly pissed off. I pulled the teacher trump card and said, “I don’t care if you guys don’t personally embrace this definition; it’s the one that we’re going to use in this classroom.” I stopped short of saying, “And it will be on the test!” but only because I was too slow on the uptake.
So, even though I resorted to borderline bully tactics, that train drove straight into the ditch. And I’ve gotta take responsibility for it jumping the tracks, since I was the only engineer on board.
I’m not sure why the discussion unfolded as it did. This has been a group of open-minded students so far. During today’s discussion, they demonstrated more sensitivity to issues of socioeconomic class than is typical (and since class is the focus on Thursday, I’m hoping that discussion will be more fruitful). My students are overwhelmingly white. I myself am ultra-white (see my avatar if you doubt me.) This complicates my job as a teacher: When you’ve got maybe 15-20% people of color (POC) in the classroom, you’ll get a range of viewpoints, but no one will be able to sustain the fiction that racism hurts white people just as much as it hurts people of color.
A few hours later, while I was discussing my frustrations with a colleague, the puzzle pieces finally snapped into place. My friend (and occasional Kittywampus commenter) Sorra said, “Well, it’s no surprise, what with all the talk of Obama being a racist.” Ka-ching! As much as I’m tempted, I’m not trying to pass the buck from me to Glenn Beck, whom most of my students surely don’t watch anyway. It’s still my job to be an effective moderator in the classroom, no matter how the cultural climate degenerates. But even folks who don’t watch cable news absorb the vibe that Beck and his minions are spreading. Suddenly, with a black biracial man in the presidency, we’re allegedly living in a colorblind society where any expression of prejudice is considered equally harmful. While I don’t countenance hateful remarks or behavior toward any group, it’s just silly to say resentment of white people by POC is anywhere near as virulent as the systematic, structural, and pervasive racism backed by a multitude of enforcement mechanisms that most POC experience every day.
This video by Victor Zapata of Think Progress (via Lindsay Beyerstein at Majikthise) illustrates how the “reverse racism” meme is circulating. It might be hilarious if it weren’t so horrifying. Unfortunately, it’s not a parody.
I can only think that the resonance of “reverse racism” – which is just ludicrous applied to Obama! – testifies to the return of the repressed. In some of my fellow citizens, what’s repressed is plain old-fashioned racism. In others, it’s guilt over racism – theirs or their parents. In still others, it’s the denial of persistent inequality by basically good-hearted people who want to believe we inhabit a colorblind society. And of course affirmative action is a lightning rod for all of these feelings.
I really do believe my students are a bunch of good eggs, and so I’m optimistic that when we meet again on Thursday, we can move past the Oppression Olympics. We had a wonderful, empathetic discussion about Caster Semenya at the start of today’s class, with several students expressing their disgust at her loss of privacy and the freak-show tone of much of the coverage. More than arid intellectualizing, it’s empathy, after all, that can lead to an understanding of racism that’s broader than one’s own personal experience.