Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Critical Pedagogy: "White" Scholars Who Work on "The Race Issue"--Interviews with Tim Wise and Leon Litwak

These Internets are amazing. Although I am "only" in my (fast disappearing) thirties, there is something neat about being able to actually watch the author(s) of a given book explaining their work online. For those of the Youtube/Facebook generation, they take this ability as a given. Little do they realize how such a recent innovation, to be able to hear the literal voices of those whose written voices you were heretofore limited to imagining in text, adds a wonderful nuance to scholarship.

The Internet also makes it easy to do research on an author. You can immediately find out their personal story, as well as demographic information. Not that it should matter--but if we are being honest it most certainly does--but there have been many moments when I looked up someone's info and found out that he or she was not who I had thought them to be. Those "damn, I thought they were black," or the "all these years I assumed she was white" moments still occur.

We all work from a particular set of life experiences and social locations. Even for empiricists who ostensibly believe in positivism, the personal does find its way into one's research, scholarship, and writing. For my buck, it is better to know such things beforehand as they are a value added that appears between the lines of a given text, offering context, color, and influencing a text's unstated assumptions.

To point, Tim Wise is a friend of WARN. Whenever I get a chance to shill for one of his essays (the newest on Derrick Bell and Obama is great by the way) I do so. He is also a great speaker, one who is generous and patient with his audience and hosts. The above interview offers a narrative for his life's work, views on social justice, and shares some great insights on critical pedagogy.

Leon Litwak is an amazing historian. There is a denseness and rigor to his work that is awe inspiring. In considering the role of voice in scholarly writing, Litwak's command of the language is intensely personal and intimate. His speech is no less so. Take note of Litwak's observations about white racism and their fear of "uppity blacks." Sounds familiar does it not, as we work through white conservative hostility to the country's first black President?



Both Dr. Litwak and Time Wise are white. This fact is coincidental while also being deeply relevant to how audiences, peers, students, and the general public respond to their work. An anecdote proves instructive here.

I teach courses on race, American politics, political culture, and popular culture/cultural studies. The students in these classes include those who are deeply invested in the material, indifferent, find it intellectually interesting (and thus a "puzzle" to work through), and some who are highly resistant to even considering how American society is structured in social inequalities. Across these categories, there is one unifying moment that speaks to how race remains significant even for a generation that was taught to be "post-racial."

When the students in my classes discover that we are reading "white scholars" in a seminar on "black" or "minority" issues there is a moment of pause. Part of this is a function of their own intellectual development, where many undergraduates have not figured out that research and academia are professional vocations which consist of disciplinary fields that influence how we go about organizing knowledge. The professional need not always be the personal or the political--to play on a phrase--for many academics their research is an interesting puzzle that they have decided to focus their work on.

[I would even go so far as to suggest that for those working in identity politics, that some of the most provocative and incisive work comes from those who are not personally invested in the game. Yes, that is an impolitic thought; it may also be quite accurate.]

Students of color have been mixed in their response. Some are excited to find out that there are white scholars doing rigorous and interesting work on issues of race, power, politics, history and society. Many are especially positive in their response to folks like Tim Wise, because he echoes and validates all of the things that black and brown folks have been saying about white racism for years. Other students of color are annoyed that in their eyes, even in discussing "their" history, white folks are at located at the center of the narrative.

They ask, "why does a white person have to recycle what black and brown people in this country have been saying for centuries for it to be taken seriously?"

By comparison, socially engaged and intellectually curious white students appear validated. A white scholar working on these issues gives them currency and license to participate in the conversation. Other white students are made to feel defensive, and are upset that they are forced to confront the fact that yes, there are white people who are critical of white supremacy.

Moreover, this "race stuff" is no longer just a "black thing." It becomes a matter of critical importance which they now have ownership and responsibility over. Folks like Wise and Litwak neutralize the deflections offered by Whiteness even as they simultaneously arouse them. Such moments of defiance, upset, cognitive dissonance, and fear are wonderful things to behold. From said disruption, there is a chance for real learning.

What have been your experiences on this matter? Can you teach "black" while using "white" authors? For those who have had to organize a class, do you perform a personal inventory of the types of voices included on the syllabus?

Do those outside of a social or demographic group have a particular insight that those within it do not possess? How do we do this calculus? Whose voices do we privilege?

21 comments:

sal baje said...

classroom discussions about race are fraught at my land-grant university, which is located in a state that, as of the 2010 census, has a population that is < 85% white, < 5% african american, and < 6% foreign-born. all these percentages are all below national averages and way below means of the coastal, cosmopolitan area where i grew up and attended university.

most undergrads here -- and many grad students -- simply have insufficient exposure to people of color. so while i very much want to privilege the work of scholars of color, i've found that most students lack the vocabulary, perspective, and critical thinking skills to really grok these works. it's not uncommon to hear students here say things such as

- "slavery was a long time ago and black people need to get over it."

- "i don't see color; i see individuals."

- "it's really about personal responsibility."

i've heard these sorts of things again and again, and i tell you, they do *not* hurt less with repetition.

with this level of understanding to work with, we simply cannot begin the semester or seminar with an excerpt from "black skin, white masks" or "killing rage". we start with peggy mcintosh or tim wise ("white like me" has worked well with some students) and proceed with baby steps from there. i think that, for some students, highlighting the work of white anti-racist scholars offers them a positive example of how they might go forth in the world. even so, it's still wince-inducing when i hear a student enthusiastically cite a white scholar's words that were originally voiced by WEB DuBois.

chaunceydevega said...

@Sal. Stay strong. We may need to do an encounter group or support group on these matters. What other standard deflections have you encountered? Why do they embrace Tim Wise? I have had many white students call him anti-white and a race traitor.

Anonymous said...

Amazing how we now need to celebrate white scholars who have learned truth and finally evolved..WTF

So Wise is called a race traitor in a crowd he still is a privledged white

Whites folks remain the center of the universe even in Black studies BS that I am not supporting that fucked premise.

White scholars will never be Black nor will they fully understand the nuances of being Black why should we give them any dap when at their best they will always be 'c' students Black folks... White scholars and affirming students in Black studies will always have a ceiling on truly understanding Blackness so designated them with a hero savior status is counter productive. A man will never be a woman nor a woman a man regardless of what ever hormones they take created by modern science.

I will never listen to a white Miles Davis or a Asian John Coltrane and believe they have captured thier ionic sound.. they can duplicate, replicate, their style but not their essence and they can never be Blackness..

It is surreal and in a sense offensive that Black folks must still feel good about white folks learning about us. In truth that does not help me but them..I am living for me not white folks evolution...Shit by the time they think they caught up I have moved on and evolved..In science there is a theory that the object you study changes once you think you have figured it out...

Tim Wise.. Yeah right

Bill said...

People like Tim Wise are very important, because white people need to see a white way to be anti-racist. We're not at a point where we can "just be people," nor have I seen any evidence that human beings have ever been just people. We are human because we are ethnic. I don't want to live in a world in which Black people are "just people," and therefore not Black, for example. White, however, is very problematic as an ethnic identifier, because of its historical role. This is where a Tim Wise points a way forward. Like alcoholics, we need to first realise there we have a problem.

As for whose work to focus on as a teacher, I think that the teacher should go with what he or she can best connect with as an instructor, because that's what's going to get the students thinking. If it's Tim Wise who put it best for you, teach Tim Wise. If it's Steven Biko, or Vine Deloria, go with them. Teaching is all about the specific relationship between a particular instructor and particular students. It's inherently microcosmic and should be dealt with that way.

Anonymous said...

Bill,

If Tom Wise works for you find I don't see him adding any value to my blackness. I have had my filled of Elvis, EM, types I question the value of parrots and copies..

I don't see any purpose of rewarding whites if a white scholar discovers Black truth he does not deserve a statute or parade..WHy must we reward competence? Just do your fucking job ethic even applies to scholars

Of course this is the nature of a white centered universe they always remain the center of it ..

CD's genuflection to informed white scholars is not a reflection of their heighten awareness of Blackness but more a response to the toxic nature and pathology of whiteness that makes CD want to affirm them as progressive.

The pathology of white supremacy is always hungry has Black folks twisting and bending in so many surreal ways..It will make Black folks think whites are their savior and messiah..

For decades Black parents would lecture to thier children you have to be 3times better than white folks..This was a fucked up racialism tyoe of social engineering math equation this notion of always measuring up to whiteness..To now observe this same shit taking place when white scholars finally "get it" is insane..

I don't measure or nor evaluate my Blackness based upon the evolution of white folks..This is a new day folks like Wise and Litwak need to catch up with me..

Daniel Goldberg said...

I would say "great post CDV" except that'd be somewhat ridiculous given the general greatness of your posts.

This one obviously speaks to me -- a white Jewish man who teaches and writes on health inequities (from both contemporary and historical frameworks) and spends a great deal of time working with students on race, class, gender, etc.

I work at a regional public university many students of which come from grievously underserved areas and communities, many of which are poor, rural, and Black. I'm also extremely interested and passionate about the structural violence done past and present to Native Americans, and its devastating impact on Native health.

So I live these kinds of questions on a daily basis.

I mean, clearly, I've never experienced these things personally; I have no idea what it is like to experience racism and structural violence on a daily basis. I'm a GD white man, fer goodness' sake. What right do I have to do these things, talk about these things, research these things?

I don't think there's really any definitive answers to these questions, but rather that the quality of my responses is worked out in my practices themselves. How I conduct myself, what I do and do not do, my attitudes, perspectives, willingness to learn and be corrected by any and all comers, especially students, etc., is a critical part of the virtue or lack thereof of my answers.

I will say that two general ideas often occupy my thoughts on these matters. The first is my heritage as an Ashkenazi Jew, a heritage literally defined by persecution, rapine, and structural violence of the worst kind. PAUSE: I AM NOT BRINGING THIS UP TO COMPARE EXPERIENCES OF PERSECUTION OR VICTIMIZATION.

I can't stress that enough. I am not remotely suggesting that because the history of my own people has been one of persecution and violence that I am somehow inured from the massive benefits of white privilege and racism in American society, let alone across the globe.

Not. At. All. Rather, my point is simply that because being Jewish, and knowing what it means historically, culturally, and socially to be Jewish helps me work to understand with even the barest, most rudimentary sense what it might be like to live a life of stigma, discrimination, and inequality. I do not live that life now, of course – but being Ashkenazi Jewish means to me that I had better damn well pay attention to those phenomena, to structural violence, to what it means to desire social justice.

I can’t really capture this any better than what a (Jewish) mentor once said to me when I remarked about my passion for Native American health inequities and my concern re my status as an outsider. I asked why this seemed to mean so much to me, a person having not an ounce of Native American heritage, nor any particular contact with Native Americans growing up. He replied: “We’re Jewish. We have no choice.”
The second idea I often think of here is the importance of cultural humility. I come to these issues with a lot of knowledge and passion, but at the same time I also come as a novice, with palms facing out. Despite how much I know, in truth I know nothing about what it is like to live as a Black person, as a woman, as a Native American. That does not imply there are not better and worse understandings of what those lived experiences might be like. It does not imply I have nothing to offer. It does mean that I ought not pretense to subsume those lived experiences under the categories and assumptions of my own understanding. It does mean that if I want to help, I need to listen more than I speak, to let the voices of those who have been silenced and oppressed for so long teach me what I need to know to help.

Basically, what I have told Native American communities when I have had the privilege of interaction: “I just want to help. Tell me how. I will listen first and last.”

sal baje said...

@chaunceydevega: thanks for your kind, encouraging words. they're like spinach to popeye for me.

i'm intrigued by the idea of introducing students to "custer died for your sins". students here are woefully ignorant of the history and experiences of indigenous people; a pity, really, as we are in the middle of occupied land. i'm also considering toni morrison's "recitatif".

as to the appeal of tim wise: his writing is accessible to many white students coming out of rural public schools. one doesn't need to prior exposure to philosophy, legal studies, cultural studies, or black feminist thought to grasp his work. i know that tim wise has many detractors, yet as a writer, he certainly does know his audience -- perhaps this has something to do some students absolutely loving him and others regarding him as a race traitor.

educating white students about race has been a precipitous walk for me, a constant check of whether i'm diluting painful, inconvenient truths and the desire to bring about a fuller reckoning. my inclination is to go the fuller reckoning route, but this has resulted in difficult consequences for me. if enough students tearfully flee from the classroom, one might find one's self out of an assistantship!

thank you for the space to vent and work some of this out.

Anonymous said...

Wise of course knows his audience, he likes being the 'race traitor' it makes him a fashionable 'rock star' he wears it as a badge of notary..

Wise also knows that wounded Black folks will always take in 'race traitors' many need the affirmation of even wounded white folks..

The Wise's of the world and the Goldberg's of the world will never relinguish their white privledge in Dan's case he will always be a jew and he will always remind people of his religion I found his long winded post as being cast as forced speech. Brevity is the soul of wit David..When whites issued this long winded pleas I want to scream!!

It remains troubling that people like Wise and Goldberg exist they are creations of white privledge and at end of the day when the shit hits the fan both of them will kick my Black ass to the curb and their whiteness will run it's course..

I recall a movie Sophia's Choice where the nazi's came to her home to take her family to the camps she was asked was she german or jewish?

I am so tired of creations like Wise and Goldberg part of me wants to puke knowing these people have a missionary mindset they are life's social workers who want to people to remain in need of their services forever ..

Wise and David are not progressive forces they are evidence of failure ...They remind me of the civil rights laws in our country where people thought that made America civil and progressive Yet I viewed them as proofs of failure the need to legally force whites to be humane and civil that is not progressive in any measure.

We can do better than sing the praises of failed situational creations like Wise and Litwak

Anonymous said...

David,

My question is directed at you. Please help me understand. Whenever I encounter Jewish People before I can finish my name they always remind me they are jewish!

Why? Is it some basis to established some shared victimhood or shared grievance?

Often I feel when I get this reaction from jewish people it is their way of leveling the field. It is sense that they want victim and grievance parity.

Perhaps it is them saying I am not like the other white meat? Yet from my lens it feels competitive. I am remided of a conversation I had with Black professors who told me that during the creation of Black Studies programs white jews were often the professors and head of the departments. Apparently because they were jewish they knew about being victims etc according to these professors this allowed jewish intellectuals to purchase whiteness because they unlike the WASPS they knew how to deal with negroes and coloreds and in exchange for this duty admission into whiteness would proceed accordingly??

David please inform me and by all means educate and correct me. I think modern day jews in America have compartmentalize Black folks, we are no longer viewed as shared people in concert against those who view us as unworthy of humanity etc. I think the modern day jew in America has distance themsleves from Black folks and what we are left with are a noble minority like yourself. Am I wrong?

Z said...

Hm maybe I just assume they are more hip than they are (the students). I'm from LA and CA where there are lots of persons of color. I just assign anything interesting. "Syllabus calculus" well it depends on your topic. Where I find I have to watch it, to make sure I "include" people (i.e. not erase them) is actually with [white] women authors - not persons of color - I come from when one only read white men; then we started reading persons of color; this means I never paid attention to white women or white "Latina" women and I still tend not to.

Anyone who doesn't adore Litwack is nuts - he has info. I've never read Wise - perhaps I should but the material seems too ... introductory?

Anonymous said...

I don't adore Litwak but I was nutty before anyhow...

I am sure if your admire Litwak as a white educator you will adore Wise( I find him very pedestrian but I am a Black person who already knows his script better than he does)

Peace

chaunceydevega said...

@Anon 1. "We can do better than sing the praises of failed situational creations like Wise and Litwak" For example?

@Z. White women being written out of the script? My experience was often the opposite, lots of dead white men and living white women. Wise is synthetic and a good story teller. He is also great at synthesizing info and presenting it to his audience. For an undergrad or even high school class he is really helpful.

@Anon 2. No love for Litwak? Why?

Anonymous said...

Litwak is fine but I done celebrate people who just do their jobs..

Why should we elevate white scholars who arrive at the right analysis?

What drives this need to validate and appeased whites who have evolved and are progressive?

Why must they always remain in the center on our universe just because they have come around and make sense about race and racism?

I am not that easy to appease nor am I impressed when scholars discover truths I already know.. I don't need to sit next to white students in my class to feel I am now getting educated..

Anonymous said...

CD,

Some new fresh names include, Perry, Watkins, Coathes, Jared Bell as well as some super websites like Vox Union, Plane Ideas, Field Negro, Cobb,

Just to name a few..

chaunceydevega said...

@Anon. Got you. No accounting for taste ;) Cobb, nice guy but I will pass. But, the Internet is a big place.

Perry's book on hip hop, if we are thinking of the same person, was well-intentioned but very very uneven (how are you going to misquote songs and maintain a pretense to authority, her legal studies work is probably much better). Craig Watkins is cool people as is Coates. Jared Bell I am unfamiliar with.

Z said...

@Anon., Litwack is a truly major historian. It's a whole other ball game. "Just doing their job" is the description of rank and file faculty.

@Chauncey, Wise for class, OK, what field though? What if you only have 25% or so white students, is it still important to read Wise?

[I went to college before women got on the reading lists. Virtually every book I teach now is by a person of color. That is how I missed the white women, and have to be sure to remember to put them into the surveys etc. And because of being in a colored field, so to speak, at a school with a lot of POCs, my class tends not to be students' first experience thinking about race. So all of this why I'm like, h*** yes, Litwack, there's no substitute for his research if that's the area you're teaching, and ho-hum about general ice breaking, first consciousness raising, etc.]

Bill said...

@anon:

The thing for me with a Tim Wise is that he is indeed just repeating more or less verbatim what any number of Black--in his case, primarily--thinkers have already convincingly demonstrated. Doing it as a white person is what is good, in his case. At some point this is a discussion that white people need to have with each other, while cleaning up the mess themselves. I see him as part of that process.

Bill said...

@sal

Please use at least some of Deloria! I have found that God is Red has meant the most to me as a person, but dammit if Custer Died for Your Sins isn't a good place to start. Also, there's that great record Floyd Westerman cut by the same name that's worth a listen.

God is Red cites (if I remember right) that amazing speech that Chief Seattle gave, that really helped me contextualize myself. I'm still piecing things together to be sure, though.

Anonymous said...

It's a tragic consequence of racism that many individuals of all races will view Wise as more legitimate than political thinkers of color, even when Wise's own ideas are primarily descended from Black writers. Wise often acknowledges this fact, but very seldom acknowledges WHICH Black writers he borrows from.

I guess that's why I don't like Tim Wise-- while he presents his message in a way that's palatable for whites, he doesn't provide many opportunities for readers to continue their study of race and racism. As a white Southerner, my first serious readings in anti-racism were written by whites like David Roediger, but from there the jump to Black writers like WEB DuBois (and later Cabral, hooks, Lorde, CLR James, Fanon, etc.) was obvious.

Having said that, there are Black writers who whites can start with-- James Baldwin's essay, "On Being White-- And Other Lies" is incredibly hard-hitting, but is still accessible. Robin Kelley's work is rich and complex, but can excite whites of the hip-hop generation (and post-hip-hop generation) in a way that's almost unmatched.

For college undergraduates, I think someone like Joel Olson might be a better starting point; rather than becoming too preoccupied with the moral dimension of anti-racism (and thereby turning it into an ethical drama for privileged people), Olson's focus on material struggle is truly refreshing, and his work presents an opening to substantively discuss the role of racism in US society in a much more practical sense.

Z said...

@anon. Mar 16 3:04, I agree with that and will look up Olson of whom I was not aware - this sounds exactly right.

Anonymous said...

Iam not interested in derivative analysis of racism from whites they have no standing with me to offer up anything of merit on this issue

I refuse to wait while white folks evolve My own progress is more important