Archive for the ‘teaching’ Category

I’ve got to disagree with Clarissa on this one: It’s not fair to equate pregnancy with a hangover (even if the nausea can be similarly overwhelming). Specifically, a student who misses class for pregnancy-related disability should not be treated the same as one who misses due to oversleeping or a hangover.

But let’s back up. Clarissa was responding to a post by The Feminist Breeder on prodromal labor, in which TFB also mentioned that she was feeling crappy enough in her 40th week of gestation that she just couldn’t hang with her college-degree program. Here’s the bit that set Clarissa off:

I have to keep going to class until I’m really in labor, and school is pretty far away.  My Tuesday class is a reasonable half hour away, but my Wednesday class is 90 minutes away in traffic.  If I started hard, active labor at school, I have no idea what I would do.  Also – get this – I left class early last Tuesday because I was so sick I couldn’t see straight, and my professor actually had the balls to dock me 20 out of 25 possible Participation points just because I had to leave.  Clearly she’ll be docking me ALL 25 Participation points for each class I miss while I’m doing a silly little thing like trying to have a baby, so I cannot take off a single extra day other than what is absolutely necessary.  (And yes, I am SOOO writing a letter about that.)

Now, I think jumping straight to a letter to college administrators, rather than trying so say, talk to her prof, is pouring gas on the flames. If a student has a beef – especially an adult student like TBF who’s got the cojones and verbal skills – she should first talk to the the instructor, preferably when she doesn’t feel on the verge of hurling. Personally, I would be much more receptive to a conversation than a formal complaint. Going slow offers a chance to preserve the student-teacher relationship as a collaborative one. Going directly to the administration strikes most teachers as an act of aggression (which is why I’ve never done that to my kids’ teachers, even when it might have been warranted). Often, too, the instructor will cool down and reassess a rash decision, opening the gate to a reasonable compromise. If not, there’s still time to write a scathing letter, though I suspect TBF, who could very well be in labor as I write this, felt the hourglass was empty (prodromal labor has a way of remininding one of the clock). And so I understand perfectly why she might skip negotiating and just lodge a formal complaint.

That said, I just can’t sign on to Clarissa’s reaction:

There is no doubt in my mind that her pregnancy is very special to this woman. It must also be very special to her relatives and friends. For strangers, however, of which her professor is one, it is neither more nor less special than another student’s hangover. Both the pregnancy and the hangover are the results of the choices these students made as adults. In my capacity as an educator, I don’t think it’s my place to judge whose choices are more legitimate and deserve of greater consideration. All I need to know is that the student wasn’t there and, as a result, didn’t manage to participate.

This is a false conception of “fairness.” As my friend Moonglow (who just happens to be the mother of a brand-new daughter, yippee!!!) told me today: “I never promise my kids that I’ll treat them all equally. But I do commit to treating them all fairly. That means knowing what each of them needs and when they need it.” (And if I misquoted you, my dear, please blame it on the delectable distraction of brie with fig jam.)

Much the same goes for my students. Last spring, a student of mine landed in the ER with appendicitis and only appeared two weeks later (full documentation in hand). I’ve had multiple students felled by mono, over the years. I’ve had students come to me with serious mental health issues (sometimes exacerbated by the portion of my syllabus dealing with sexual violence). I’ve had students totter to class on crutches due to slippery messes in the dorms. I’ve had students with arms in casts due to (ahem) barroom brawls.

I am not happy about the last category of problem – injuries that result from drunken stupidity – but I am grateful for those students’ frankness. And once a student acquires a disability, don’t I have an obligation – both human and feminist – to accommodate it? Would I not be a monster to mark down a student on participation just because his appendix tried to kill him? How could I live with myself if a student went into a spiral of depression, and I exacerbated it with rigid expectations of attending every single class meeting?

Last year, I had a graduate student announce to me that she was likely to give birth within the next couple of weeks. I was dumbfounded. I hadn’t even noticed she was pregnant, only that she’d put on a few pounds. (That alone should’ve given me pause, because I tend not to notice even major changes in people’s shapes. I’m obtuse that way.) The very next class meeting, she was absent, because she’d just come through labor. A week later, she showed up for class, her iPhone brimming with baby pictures. She worked very hard not to let her pregnancy interfere with her coursework, but I certainly could have found ways to accommodate her if she’d asked for more time off.

There’s an easy, pragmatic, fair solution to most of these situations. Exempt the student from work missed (as long as it’s not a major project) and weight the rest of their grade more heavily. This little trick works as well for a pregnant student as for anyone else struck by unexpected disability. The student does pay a small price, in that there’s more pressure on the rest of their work and less opportunity to dilute a crummy grade. But it’s a fair price that makes allowances for the fallibility and vulnerability of our flesh. However much a university might pretend that we’re all disembodied brains, in the end those brains still rely pretty heavily on their whole-body support systems.

I guess I’m a bit of a feminist-Marxist on these issues: from each according to hir ability, to each according to hir needs. That doesn’t mean abandoning all standards. It simply means realizing that life intervenes. Death intervenes. And all kinds of other shit – good, bad, and ugly – intervenes, too. Students are whole people, often needy people, coping with lives more complicated than we instructors often know. They cannot be reduced to their throbbing-in-a-petri-dish brains (or pickled-in-a-game-of-beer-pong brains, either).

This isn’t a matter of trusting my students. (Mostly they deserve my trust; sometimes they prove that they don’t.) It’s a matter of trusting my own judgment. I trust myself to distinguish between the student who couldn’t turn in her final paper on time due to strep and the one who added my class late, then fell asleep in the back row after a mere three minutes! Hey, at least he zonked out so fast I couldn’t take it personally; there was no time for me to bore him to sleep.

This is also an arena where I have to live true to my principles. Any feminist ought to be committed to disability rights. Heck, even Sarah Palin (a nightmare feminist, but a feminist nonetheless, in my book) at least pays lip service to disability rights. You cannot honor human rights without acknowledging that most of us, if we live long enough, will eventually live with a disability. You cannot work toward gender justice but then insist it’s only for those of completely able bodies and minds. What does that mean for me, practically speaking? If a student is struggling to achieve with a disability – of any sort, be it a physical, mental-health, or learning-style condition – it’s my job as an educator, feminist, and mensch to help them perform at their peak, on as level a playing field as I can cobble together.

But hey – isn’t pregnancy a natural, healthy condition? Well, for all the work that women’s health educators, natural childbirth advocates, and feminist historians have done to unseat the idea that pregnancy = disability, we do childbearing women an awful disservice if we insist that pregnancy never spawns disability. Most of us suffer at least debilitating fatigue. Most of us have stories about how we nearly ralphed at work. My students from fall 2002 and winter 2003 – when I was gestating the Tiger – can consider themselves lucky that I maintained a barf-free classroom. And I got off easy, compared to my friends who landed in the hospital, hitched to an IV, after weeks of incessant vomiting.

If you care about women, you must care about mothers, and thus you must be willing to honor pregnancy-related disability as real disability. And yes, pregnancy usually results from a planned, voluntary choice, these days, but not always; women still find themselves pregnant against their will, and they still sometimes decide to carry out a surprise pregnancy, even with the option to terminate. Anyway: Should I only make allowances for students’ injuries if they can prove that, say, the other guy started the fight, or the other driver broke the law? And do I really want to start interrogating a pregnant student about why she and her partner didn’t both get sterilized before they ever had sex (after all, every other contraceptive is fallible), or why she didn’t terminate the pregnanacy early on? That way lies fascism.

To be crystal clear – and fair! – Clarissa doesn’t advocate bare-bulb interrogations. She instead argues that one should never cut students slack when their free will contributed to their inability to participate; that a class missed due to a hangover is no different than one missed due to pregnancy symptoms, because in both cases, “choice” was involved. I trust Clarissa enough to believe her when she says she’s a good teacher – and actually, I trust that in a few more years, because she’s smart and tuned in to her students, she may very well trust herself to draw finer-grained judgments, which just might put the pregnant students in a different category from the hardcore imbibers.

But this other extreme – harshly penalizing pregnant women for making a “lifestyle choice” that most couples eventually make (but predominantly women  pay for) – sets feminism back a couple of generations. It tells women, “It’s fine if you want to compete with the men – as long as you’re just like the men!” Didn’t we leave that trap behind us in the ’80s, along with big hair, shoulder pads, and Tears for Fears?

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You wouldn’t think I’d be angry, would you, given that I’ve just been declared part of management? In less than three years, I’ve gone from a lowly adjunct teaching position to a “managerial” function. The real magic? I might have been a management employee all along! Next year: world domination!

This great gift comes via Ohio’s Senate Bill 5. As you’ve might have heard, S.B. 5 – which will drastically curtail collective bargaining rights for Ohio’s public employees – was signed into law by Governor John Kasich yesterday. S.B. 5 will outlaw strikes by public employees, upon penalty of fines and jail time. It severely curtails the collective bargaining rights of teachers, police, and firefighters. And with language that echoes the Supreme Court’s Yeshiva decision (1980), which smothered faculty unionization at private colleges, it prohibits collective bargaining entirely for the most faculty at public universities. Here’s how the Chronicle of Higher Education summarizes the ban:

The classification provision defines as “management-level employees” those faculty members who, individually or through faculty senates or similar organizations, engage in any of a long list of activities generally thought of as simply part of the jobs of tenured and tenure-track professors. Those activities include participating in institutional governance or personnel decisions, selecting or reviewing administrators, preparing budgets, determining how physical resources are used, and setting educational policies “related to admissions, curriculum, subject matter, and methods of instruction and research.”

As “managers,” faculty won’t be able to organize. And the bar is set very low indeed for faculty to be classified as managers; it’s not just department chairs or faculty senators who will be swept up in this. Virtually all tenure-eligible faculty sit on hiring committees, so the “Yeshiva language” would instantly bar them from collective bargaining. But those of us off the tenure track also have influence on curriculum and instructional methods. Even as an adjunct, I served (gladly) on a curriculum committee. Voilà! I’m a “manager.”

Now, the faculty on my campus aren’t unionized, though some of us have been involved in a sustained drive to organize under the auspices of the American Association of University Professors. I sunk a bunch of time into this drive during fall and winter, trying to rally volunteers and launching our local AAUP blog. I take S.B. 5 personally.

Organizing against the attack on unions in Ohio has been harder than in Wisconsin because our capital is not a stronghold of liberal and left-wing politics. If Madison can be likened to Berkeley, Columbus is more like … Sacramento, complete with the sprawling suburbs and strip malls. Still, faculty and students have been hauling up to Columbus to demonstrate, and we’ve had a few demos here in Athens, too. It’s hard to know where to go next – sink more of our scant resources into the union drive, hoping S.B. 5 will be overturned by referendum? Work on the referendum instead? Sit in a corner and whimper?

But now that I’m a manager, I guess I need to buck up and start demanding some of the perks of the job. Our university president has access to a private plane. Upper-level administrators have enjoyed free country club memberships. And then there’s our football coach, who earns more than any of the top administrative bananas. I’m willing to forgo the plane and country club once I start getting the six-figure salary that’s now my due.

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First things first: If you’re local to SE Ohio and already know why you should contact Jimmy Stewart today and give him an earload on why SB 5 is bad for Ohio, why here’s his phone number! (614) 466-8076 – and email! SD20@senate.state.oh.us – I’m sure he’ll delight in hearing from you. [Update, 2/21/11, 9:50 a.m.: Stewart’s office is closed for President’s Day – gah! My plan is to leave a voicemail and send an email today, then follow up with a call early tomorrow.]

If you don’t know why SB 5 is evil, or why you should mix a call to Jimmy with your morning Joe, or what sort of earload you might deliver … well, read on, preferably with said Joe in hand.

We here in Ohio do not have a governor who has been parodied as a Mike Myers character – yet.

We don’t have 70,000 protesters as Madison did on Saturday – yet.

But we do have a fugly bill, S.B. 5, that makes Wisconsin’s anti-union agitators look like they’re playing bumper cars while we’re up against John Kasich’s Monster Bus Madness. Where Wisconsin’s legislation (as far as I understand) preserves the facade of collective bargaining, Kasich is going to kill collective bargaining dead for state employees. Be alert for the speeding gubernatorial bus at the end of this otherwise turgid passage! (It’s underlined, so you’ve got no excuse to miss it.)

Here’s the relevant legalese:

Sec. 4117.03. (A) Public employees have the right to:

(1) Form, join, assist, or participate in, or refrain from forming, joining, assisting, or participating in, except as otherwise provided in Chapter 4117. of the Revised Code, any employee organization of their own choosing;

(2) Engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection;

(3) Representation by an employee organization;

(4) Bargain collectively with their public employers to determine wages, hours, terms and other conditions of employment and the continuation, modification, or deletion of an existing provision of a collective bargaining agreement, and enter into collective bargaining agreements;

(5) Present grievances and have them adjusted, without the intervention of the bargaining representative, as long as the adjustment is not inconsistent with the terms of the collective bargaining agreement then in effect and as long as the bargaining representatives have the opportunity to be present at the adjustment.

(B) Persons on active duty or acting in any capacity as members of the organized militia do not have collective bargaining rights. Employees of the state, of any agency, authority, commission, or board of the state, or of any state institution of higher education do not have collective bargaining rights. The state, any agency, authority, commission, or board of the state, or a state institution of higher education shall not bargain collectively with its employees.

At first glance this passage seems incoherent. There’s a lot of lahdeedah about procedures for collective bargaining, only to have it become red asphalt in the final scene! (Eerrrrrrrg. That’s me. Run over. Damn, that bus was big.) The apparent contradiction melts away when one realizes that local public employees are in a different category from those of us who work for the state. The local folks – including teachers – won’t be sitting pretty, either, but in principle they retain access to collective bargaining; it just won’t help them much, thanks to a set of arcane new rules in the spirit of Wisconsin’s. (Progress Ohio lists local public employees’ proposed tribulations.)

Unlike Wisconsin, Ohio is not exempting police and firefighters, and this may cost the Repubs dearly. Several Republican senators have already balked at this, realizing who lines their pockets. Other State Senators, such as Jimmy Stewart from my neck of the woods, realize that anti-union votes won’t go down well in dying coal country, where unions once secured not just a decent living but also self-respect and community. (See Friday’s Dispatch article for a list of wafflers, and contact them if you can! Or better yet, check out Plunderbund, which dishes up the list of fence-sitters with verve, style, and snark.)

The Ohio bill also tries to out-badass its neighbor to the north by hiking health insurance premiums more steeply. Again, the legalese from SB 5:

Sec. 124.82.

(F) A state employee who receives insurance under this section shall pay at least twenty per cent of the cost of the premium assessed for any insurance policy issued pursuant to this section that covers health, medical, hospital, or surgical benefits.

Wisconsin public employees, by contrast, will be forced to pay at minimum 12.6% of their healthcare coverage. We already pay around 10% – not counting deductibles and other tricks for evading the current cap.

I realize that there’s enormous populist anger at the thought that any public employee would receive benefits while many private employees are completely shorn of them. The solution, though, isn’t to hollow out state employees’ benefits. By that logic, we’d all soon be earning minimum wage. The strategy has got to be expanding collective bargaining and revitalizing unions to ensure that all employees receive decent pay and benefits. (A single-payer healthcare system would, of course, solve half of these problems. A girl can dream.)

There’s also populist resentment of public employees getting paid more generously than those in the private sector. Professor Rudy Fichtenbaum, labor economist at Wright State, just decimated this preconception in his testimony before the Ohio Senate, opposing SB 5. Basically, Fichtenbaum notes that state employees have amassed a whole lot more education and training than their private-sector counterparts. Controlling for education, studies find that public employees actually earn less than those counterparts. Seriously, if you have even a passing interest, read Dr. Fichtenbaum’s testimony, which is lucid and very, very persuasive.

It is those “coddled” public sector employees who teach our children, or our neighbor’s children. It is they who determine whether Ohio will nurture innovators and informed, critical citizens, or whether we will have to try to compete with Sri Lanka – on their terms. (I’m still trying to figure out who’s coddled, by the way: those who stay up emailing students from 9:30 to 11:30 and then write about politics until after midnight, perhaps?)

What’s at stake here is nothing less than my adopted state’s economic future. As long as the marginal tax rates for rich Ohioans remain unchanged, we have no moral right to fatally undermine unions, pull the plug on the middle classes, and sell our children’s education to the lowest bidder.

Which brings us full circle. If you’re moved to contact Jimmy Stewart, please do it today (Monday) as the vote will likely take place on  Tuesday. He’s no doubt waiting for your calls. (614) 466-8076 or SD20@senate.state.oh.us. Sen. Stewart is also Majority Floor Leader, the #3 position in the Senate, so folks outside of his home base (the 20th district) might feel free to contact him, as well.

Oh, and if you can make it to Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday afternoon (Feb. 22), there will be a massive rally starting at 1. Word is that SB 5 will come up for a vote that day. I’ll be in my classroom, preparing the rising generation to compete with Sri Lanka, but I am thrilled to hear that some students and  colleagues will make the trip. Wish I could join them!

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Just after 10 this morning I got an email from the campus police, reporting that a gunshot had been heard in or around one of the dorms at 6:15 this morning. One student – who had been videotaping himself – had caught it on tape, and the police confirmed that it was indeed a gunshot. A second person also reported the sound.

It’s now nearly 3 p.m., and though I’ve been checking the university’s emergency page, there’s been no further information from the police. Probably everything will be just fine. But it’s disquieting that the initial safety alert came nearly four hours after the incident, and that updates are so slow in coming. I don’t live on campus and I spent the day working at home, but my neighborhood is a five-minute walk from the area where the gunshot was reported.

More to the point, I worry that someone obviously has a gun on campus, despite their being banned in all campus buildings. I worry even more that this person has ammo and chose to use it. I can’t think of any benign explanation.

I also worry that Residence Life staff were going door to door, checking on dorm residents. What on earth is an unarmed R.A. supposed to do if she or he actually finds a student with a gun?

Update, 2/10/11, 4:30 p.m.: I spoke with a police officer at the OU men’s basketball game last night. (There were two officers posted very prominently – which I hadn’t noticed at past games.) He told me that while they had no further information, whoever created the noise wasn’t likely to do it again just for kicks. He further said it was still possible the sound came from some source other than a gun. All very reassuring – but then he casually mentioned having taken guns away from people on Court Street, where students go bar-hopping, on numerous occasions. So much for feeling safe again!

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Most of the students I teach, I never hear from after the final exam. The exceptions are almost always utter delights – the folks who sincerely took interest, who liked to learn, who were kind and thoughtful and real. Every once in a while one will re-emerge from the ghostly wisps of the past, reminding us that our work isn’t ephemeral, even if it usually feels that way.

Two former students resurfaced this weekend. One, whom I taught in 2007, wrote me for a reference – no, not a recommendation letter, but the title of an essay! A piece she’d remembered and wanted to reread! Turns out she’s well on her way to a Ph.D. in psychology. She tells me my class made a lasting difference in how she views the world. Judging from her request, she’s got an abiding interest in sexual assault. I hope she’ll be able to marry that with her psych skills. She says she’s developed an abiding “passion” for women’s issues. Words like “powerful” and “inspirational” were bandied about. Let’s just say I’m the one who felt most energized and inspired.

The other ex-student was more of a monster rising up from the deep. [Edit: That comes across as unduly harsh: The ideas she espouses are the monster, not the ex-student herself.] Technically I’d never taught her; I’d only read her column in the school paper, marveling at its wingnuttery. I also listened to the venting of colleagues who had the dubious pleasure of teaching her in WGS and journalism. There, she was intermittently hostile to her feminist teachers and consistently too cool for school. I always thought her ambition was to become the next Ann Coulter.

Surprise! She’s publishing cheek-by-jowl next to Coulter at Town Hall! (Via Renee at Womanist Musings who braved the ooze of the far right – a far more intrepid gal than I.). Now that our young alumna is halfway to her goal, it’s fair to name names: Meet Ashley Herzog, recent Ohio University grad, proud denizen of wingnuttia, author of Feminists against Women. Oh, and she’s also making those lists of “top conservative women who are HAWT!!” (to which we owe the following photo).

In her latest post at Town Hall, Herzog takes aim at my university’s new gender-neutral housing option:

The idea that college life is so tough for gay and transgendered students that they need separate housing is preposterous. Far from being uniquely oppressed, the LGBT contingent is often the most catered-to of any group on campus. Administrators go to great lengths to satisfy these students while simultaneously nurturing a victimhood complex.

(Read the rest if you think it could possibly get better. I promise it won’t.)

Hahahaha! You’d think gender-neutral digs would feature jacuzzis, wall art by Robert Mapplethorpe and Judy Chicago, and surroundsound cycling through Liberace and Elton John, Holly Near and Bikini Kill.

No. Dude. It’s just a dorm room. In fact, said rooms won’t have any extra features. It will merely lack one simple furnishing that used to come standard: a roommate harboring homophobia and transphobia.

As for a “victimhood complex,” Herzog’s been nurturing her own for at least half a decade, spurred on by silly instructors who insisted she work for a grade. By now, her wounded victimhood is festering quite nicely. I’m sure she’s finding that what failed in the classroom will stand her in good stead at Town Hall. Ann Coulter, prepare to move over.

Me? I reserve the right to snark at Herzog in the future when she deserves it. (And she will, she will.) In the long run, I’m far more interested in what becomes of my smart, altruistic former students who don’t see self-promotion as their best quality.

Update 1-27-11, 4:30 p.m.: I want to make it crystal clear that I will never, ever mock students for statements they make in class. That is a zone of privacy, a safe place for exploring ideas, even (or especially!) half-baked ones. I will occasionally blog about interesting things they teach me, but I won’t publish their names. If a student places themselves in the public sphere by publishing views that are reprehensible, criticism is fair play. I still wouldn’t call him or her out for anything that happened in class. By the same token, I’ll link to any student who publishes something interesting, and I’ll do so with great pleasure. All of this goes for former students as well as current ones.

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What a bracing way to start the day! One morning, you wake up, log on, and find that a commenter has called you a cunt. Another day, you’re equated with white supremacists. The former hasn’t happened in a while. The latter came just this morning, before I’d had my coffee.

I’m not approving that comment, which was aimed at my previous post (on guilt versus responsibility in anti-racist pedagogy). This isn’t censorship. This is simply following my comment policy, which disallows hate and ad hominem attacks. I’m willing to engage with criticism, as long as it’s constructive. You be the judge: helpful or hateful?

If you look at the guilt pedophiles possess because of what they do to children and the fact that none of their kind has ever been cured of the desire for sex with children, you can see how far Whites still have to go to cure themselves of the inferiority complexes known more commonly as White supremacism and Negrophobia.

You can read this analogy, and the rest of the long comment that accompanies it, elsewhere on the interwebs. I’m not linking to it, but you can google the quote. Or just search on the name of this blog and “white supremacist.” It’ll pop right up.

Another highlight:

Kittywampus’s problem is her lack of experience of human variation – a typically White supremacist stance that proves her attempt to hijack the national debate on White supremacism in favor of Whites.

I would love to have a chance to hijack the national debate! We would have universal single-provider health care, an end to hate-talk on the airwaves, generous grants for troubled schools, a vastly shrunken military, chocolate bon-bons for all – and that would just be my first day’s agenda.

But seriously. Am I a white supremacist?

I do not believe that any white person can shed every vestige of racism. We can and should examine our attitudes and privileges, but there’s an unconscious level that is highly resistant to change. An example I often use with my students is the myth of the black rapist. White women continue to see media portrayals of black men as sexual predators that go straight back to the days of lynching. (For the record, I am not nostalgic for that era, which I fear makes me a rather poor white supremacist.) I think it’s important to acknowledge that racism is visceral. Conscious ally work does not magically erase decades of harmful stereotypes being funneled into our unconscious minds.

You can take the Implicit Associations test on race to see if your subterranean thoughts are completely free of race bias. Mine are not. For the record, I don’t come out “pure” on the gender tests, either. Go here to try the test – then select “Demonstration,” click through the next two subsequent screens, and select “RaceIAT.”

The fact that racial stereotypes persist somewhere in our id does not mean we should throw in the towel as allies. If anything, it’s a reminder of our obligation – our responsibility – to do something about it. “Something” shouldn’t end with self-examination and guilt, either. It should lead to action.

For me as a teacher, “action” means challenging students’ views in the classroom when they complain about affirmative action. It means learning and teaching about black feminism, womanism, and womanist theology. It means examining white privilege – again, not to make my white students feel like crap but to inspire them to act against racism in their lives. It means showing up for attorney and strategy meetings when a young black man (a former student of mine) is being framed for a felony. On this blog, it means denouncing Arizona’s stupid and draconian law that gags ethnic studies teachers; undermining the racist trope of “reverse racism”; and questioning Islamophobia.

Funny thing – none of that involves wearing a white sheet.

Yes, I realize that racism is more subtle these days than in the heyday of the KKK. I ask my students to consider how it’s woven structurally into the very fabric of our institutions, economy, as well as lurking in our unconscious minds. But true white supremacy is alive and well on the intertubes. Can we reserve the term “white supremacist” for those who deliberately embrace and cultivate racism? Can we discuss differences of tactics in antiracist pedagogy without stating that all white people are as morally bankrupt as pedophiles? (And no, this isn’t “reverse racism,” either. It’s just plain old hate and prejudice, because the author does not exert any systemic power over me due to our racial backgrounds.)

If everyone who questions the political utility of guilt is, um, presumed guilty of white supremacy, then it’s a crying shame that Audre Lorde is no longer here to defend herself. I quoted her words on guilt in my previous post. She saw it as a barrier to fighting oppression. Anger, in her view, was a more useful emotion, as long as it was focused fiercely on ending oppression rather than simmering corrosively inside us. Her essay “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” (pdf) poses challenges that are (unfortunately) still relevant to white allies. She asks white feminists not to fear the anger of women of color, but to listen, and to understand, and to acknowledge that anger is justified.

Lorde also distinguishes between anger and hate:

And while we scrutinize the often painful face of each other’s anger, please remember that it is not our anger which makes me caution you to lock your doors at night and not wander the streets of Hartford alone. It is the hatred which lurks in those streets that urge to destroy us all if we truly work for change rather than merely indulge in academic rhetoric.

This hatred and our anger are very different. Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change. We have been raised to view any difference other than sex as a reason for destruction and for Black women and white women to face each other’s angers without denial and immobility or silence or guilt is in itself a heretical and generative idea. It implies peers meeting upon a common basis to examine difference, and to alter those distortions which history has created around our difference. For it is those distortions which separate us. And we must ask ourselves: Who profits from all this?

(Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, p. 129)

Who, indeed, profits when constructive engagement with allies and potential allies is replaced by hateful invective intended to silence? Hint: It won’t be people of color, or any other marginalized group.

How about seeking that “common basis to examine difference” instead?

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Last month, a clip of Tim Wise speaking on “guilt versus responsibility” for racism appeared on both Sociological Images and Womanist Musings, where it drew diametrically opposed reactions. Sociological Images posted it without comment from the bloggers, but reader comments were strongly positive, apart from one obvious white-supremacist troll. By contrast, Renee at Womanist Musings was scathing:

Isn’t that nice?  No guilt, only responsibility.  I think the problem with this little speech is that from the moment that White people are born, they do take advantage of every single ounce of privilege that is bestowed upon them.  They don’t have to feel guilty about slavery, or Jim Crow, but they should sure as hell feel guilty for the perpetuation of Whiteness.  Tim may have gone to multicultural daycare, but his Whiteness made that an option, rather than a necessity.  When he was streamed into university courses and the teachers worked hard to ensure that Blacks were not, he didn’t feel the need to question.

(The whole post is here.)

Here’s the clip, so you can judge for yourself.

(Click here if you can’t view the clip.)

The discussion on Renee’s post made the important and valid point that white people shouldn’t dominate our conversations about race. Ultimately, a person who has grown up white needs to make the effort to read what people of color have written and listen to what they have to say. They can’t just listen to Time Wise and stop there.

But I would take issue with some of the other criticisms that Renee makes. First, Renee says that Wise should feel guilty about the unearned privileges he enjoys – about advantages he did not personally choose or seek. He should feel guilty about his daycare experiences? Really? How is he culpable for choices his parents made? Should he have foregone college, just because black and Latino boys are funneled away from it (and often into prison instead)?

Fighting privilege – or even “renouncing privilege” – shouldn’t mean voluntary abjection. Privilege comes in two basic forms. The first relies on power over others; it’s a zero-sum game. An example of this type of privilege would be the tendency of many audiences to take white middle-class male speakers more seriously than speakers from a marginalized group. (See, for instance, some conservative pundits’ dismissive comments on the Native American blessing given at the Tucson memorial service last week.) The second form of privilege need not entail the degradation of marginalized groups. Attending college falls into this category. These privileges shouldn’t be abolished but should be made so widely available that they cease to be privileges. (That doesn’t mean that every kid should attend college, or that colleges couldn’t be selective about admissions; instead, we would need to mitigate poverty, substandard K-12 school, dangerous neighborhoods, etc. until the racial makeup of colleges – including highly selective ones – looks very much like the demographics of the U.S. in general.)

More basically, I do not think guilt is a helpful emotion. Guilt paralyzes. It focuses attention right back on the feelings of the white person. It leads to inaction. It can even help perpetuate white privilege. As long as I wallow in guilt, I may have the illusion that I’m achieving solidarity with people of color. But that’s bullshit. Guilt is solipsistic. It’s a natural reaction, but if it’s more than transient, it’s toxic.

When I reject guilt, am I just shoring up my own privilege? After all, I’m a white woman who grew up in a practically all-white farm town in the overwhelmingly white state of North Dakota, dimly aware as a child that the civil rights and black power movements were taking place somewhere else.

So please consider, instead, the words of Audre Lorde:

Guilt and defensiveness are brick in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures. … (124)

Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness. …

I have no creative use for guilt, yours or my own. Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees. (130)

(Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, pp. 124, 130)

In fact, Lorde saw guilt as an obstacle to white women acknowledging difference, which in turn stopped them recognizing their own role in perpetuating racism.

In my teaching about racism, I’ve consistently tried to reframe the discussion as about responsibility rather than guilt. I try to show how racism is structural and systematic, rather than limited to outright bigotry. Most of my students are white, with backgrounds varying from rural poverty to suburban affluence, from highly integrated schools to all-white gated enclaves.

This past week I used the Tim Wise clip in my intro to Women’s and Gender Studies, and I thought it was very effective. More effective, in fact, than my teaching alone. Does it trouble me that may have Wise resonated with some of my white male students in part because he can draw on male privilege? A little. But I’m also pragmatic enough to see the value in male allies in anti-sexism. If Wise’s analogy of the manager who can’t ignore the debt side of the ledger makes some students more receptive to Patricia Hill Collins and bells hooks, then that’s a good starting place.

Many of the commenters on Renee’s post seemed to assume that Wise’s voice is crowding out the voices of people of color. I can understand why people of color would resent his earning an income as an anti-racist educator. I agree he has a responsibility to promote the voices of people of color, and I honestly don’t feel qualified to judge whether he does this adequately or not. From my perch here in Appalachia, I think Wise could do better in understanding the nuances of white poverty (in this otherwise useful piece, for example.) Overall, though, Tim Wise is helping to challenge young white people, especially, to see anti-racism as a cause that should matter to them.

Allies don’t have to be perfect. They/we need to be willing to listen. They/we need to be willing to speak up. They/we need to be willing to examine their own privilege. We’re all a work in progress. We all have opportunities to be allies. We’re all called to engage constructively with potential allies. Guilt doesn’t advance any of these processes. But a sense of responsibility sure does.

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