Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Pedagogical Failure? More Notes on Being a Working Class Black Guy Teaching Whiteness Studies to Young Earnest Snowflakes

As I sit here pondering the ethical conundrum of reading the results of the Implicit Association Tests submitted to me by my students (I told them I don't want to know about their biases as some things are best kept private), a quick essay seemed a good cure for my temptation.

These last few weeks have provided a proverbial gift basket of examples which demonstrate the connections between academic work and "the real world." The problem: I do not know if my students realize that they often demonstrate the validity of the very theories which they at times are so earnestly trying to reject.

For context, it is helpful to highlight the cognitive schema which the post-Civil Rights, colorblind, Age of Obama generation uses to make sense of the world: for harm to occur there must be hurt feelings and mean words; we live in a world where individuals trump structures; blame to specific agents must be assigned, if no agents are to found, no ill deeds have occurred; and that these conversations on race and power are really about "good" people and "bad" people, as opposed to institutional relationships and historical ownership of unearned advantages.

This clinging to the core mythologies of American individualism, in an era where there is racism without racists, can be tedious to shatter. But the ability to quickly break through this internalized mythos has become old hat, easily accomplished with a modest amount of effort.

As those who have read my pieces on college teaching have discovered, I can be a bit of a provocateur in the classroom. Because I delight in unsettling assumptions (and here I cannot wait to assign some of the late Dr. Manning Marable's book on Malcolm X), I have to be careful about how I go about clipping the snowflakes' wings: I want them to have a controlled crash where they leave my seminars as one of the walking wounded, stronger and better off for the experience. I don't always need to cause a state of intellectual combustion where like the robot Nomad in Star Trek an undergraduate overloads and get trapped in a fitful feedback loop.

My courses on Whiteness Studies often accomplish this perfectly. First, these courses create a necessary discomfort where majority white students have to confront that they will be the topic of conversation. This is doubly wonderful because white students--and white men in particular--often bristle at having to talk about issues of race with (insert look of shock and horror) a black man. I try to frame this experience as one that is therapeutic and positive, where to paraphrase the wonderful Jane Elliot that white folks are going to get to experience for a few weeks what black and brown folk go through their entire lives in this society. Many will not like it.

Once we get through the preamble, and a bit of awkwardness, things tend to go well. I have been blessed to generally have a good and earnest group of sincere students who want to engage. For that I am grateful. The few who are utterly resistant to all this talk about white privilege--and how whiteness is a type of property made real by the State and fiercely policed and protected by White society--do so with smiles and not with hostile eye rolls or disruptive posturing. Yet in their relative acceptance of what the scholarship on Whiteness has to offer, some students unintentionally demonstrate the validity of the very arguments which they are at times loathe to accept.

In the interest of shared professional development and reflection, here are three gems from the semester so far as offered by some of my students:

1. "I find the Implicit Association Test very problematic. The good and bad words as well as associated images could have been swapped with others and I would have gotten the same result. Ultimately, it is more of a psychological test than a bias test."

[Priceless. There was almost a Star Trek Nomad moment as we watched a video clip where the creators of the test served up some ownage to a white test taker who used similar logic to explain away the findings of the IAT.]

2. "Some of the readings are quit mean and harsh. How are these authors going to convince anyone about their findings if they are so hard on white people? This isn't winning any friends or allies. These authors should be nicer to their audience and not hurt anyone's feelings because two wrongs don't make a right."

[Quick tongued Chauncey DeVega's response: The sociologists, historians, political scientists, and other folks who we are reading are not very invested in being nice. Nor, am I. White supremacy isn't very nice. So why should we/I/they be nice in how we confront it?]

3. "Prof., you are pretty clear in your political leanings and opinions on these matters. I have read some of your work online and in print. I am not saying you have a bias, but why aren't we reading more things written by white men as opposed to women and minority writers and scholars? "

[Confused and surprised by the question sort of response: Everything you read in almost every other class is written by white men. You get that, right?]

These three examples are just the tip of a very deep iceberg whose mass is hiding under the water waiting to sink any ships that are careless enough to pass too close. Pray tell my fellow travelers do you have similar examples from the classroom or the dreaded "real world" which you would like to share in salon?


Werner Herzog's Bear said...

As a teenager, I was bluntly confronted with my racial privilege in a classroom setting, but it took some time before I could really own up to it. Many of these students might seem resistant, but you are doing God's work as the folks back home like to say, and it will bear fruit in the long term, since the more thoughtful of these students will reflect on their classroom experience.

In my classes, I have had students get upset that we aren't talking more about elite white men. When I went over the early history of the gay rights movement this week, you could hear a pin drop. Usually I get averted eyes and sometimes the crossed arms and hard stare of the narrow-minded white guy who doesn't want his worldview (and privilege) challenged. Unfortunately, this particular type is especially well represented here in Texas.

Anonymous said...

I do a lot of teaching and work on health inequities and the social determinants of health. If ever the American individualist political culture was a problem, it's in these paradigms, because most people are just stunned to find that health and its distribution is MUCH more a function of social and economic conditions, and the structural injustices that shape them at a macrosocial level, then it is individual action.

In my intro stuff on this, I'll typically ask the students -- usually med students, PH students, or other professional students -- if they think all the major chronic diseases are distributed equally. Because I work in a regional public uni whose mission is closely tied in with underserved communities, most of the students fortunately know that disease is not.

Then I ask about the risk factors that tend to promote high levels of stigma: fatness, smoking, promiscuity, violence, etc. I ask if these risk factors are distributed equally. Students starting to shift a bit uncomfortably -- we are headed into shoal-filled waters here. Once we've established that these risk factors are disproportionately concentrated among those lower on the social gradient, including among many racial and ethnic minorities, then we get to the heart of the matter.

I look right at them and ask if this means that poor people are just dumber than the rest of us? Lazier? More self-destructive? More VIOLENT?

I get a LOT of seat-shifting and downward looks when I talk about this. But these are med students, not undergrad seminars, etc. So usually I don't get much of a response and then I let 'em off the hook, by telling them flat out that we either believe that poor people ethically deserve their increased burden of illness and suffering, or there is something about their lives, and the difficulties we have caused, that shapes that distribution. And I make no bones about telling them my views on the matter, although, of course, I am very careful to couch them as my views on the matter (i.e., Teh Right Ones. Heh.)

Don't know if they buy it or not, but one does what one can.

Anonymous said...

There's also apathy. I don't care about your issues, just as you're not likely to care about mine. I will deal with you as an individual, but you can leave all of your racial / gender issues at the door.

Joe said...

As a white man stricken with the so-called "liberal guilt" affliction, I enjoyed your article (which I found featured on Google Reader).

I liked the racism without racists point. I think it is human nature to assign blame. With overt racism being unquestionably on the dramatic decline over the course of this nation's history; there are fewer and fewer clear villains to point to in order to explain the ever-prevailing inequalities in our socioeconomic system.

I have had many conversations with my right-leaning friends on the topic of privilege. Perhaps, it is another aspect of human nature to resist the notion that there are things that we have been given without our knowledge. Black people in this country too should recognize the privilege that they live in this specific location and this specific time where they don’t have to face many of the plagues (proverbial and literal) and harsher injustices which have been the prevailing rule (rather than exception) for the entirety of human existence.

As far as white people are concerned, I think Chris Rock described it best when he explained what potential career paths lay at the feet of a C-average student depending on their race. (Black Person: Burger King; White Person: President of the United States) The discrepancy in the qualifications between George W. Bush and Barack Hussein Obama should speak volumes to that point.

However, it is difficult to remain too pessimistic in light of the fact that a black man with such a name could be elected president less than 10 years after September 11. Of course, despite his intelligence and drive for success, it is obvious that he too has enjoyed additional privileges that I (and the vast majority of Americans) have not.

P.S. I think your Trek reference may have detracted from your points. It was a reference lost on me as it is on many people I am sure.

Josh Wallace said...

Interesting that you should bring up Star Trek, as I had a formative personal experience with confronting my own White privilege in a Louisiana State University undergrad class on the show. I took it because I thought it would be a fun way to kill 3 hours a week. Turns out, I worked nearly as hard in that class as I did in any of my honors seminars. It was a serious application of gender theory, queer theory and post-colonialism to pop culture, and it was the first time, I'm sure, most of the (nearly all White) students had been exposed to those methods of interpretation. Because we were dealing with a fun TV show and not a CLASSIC OF LITERATURE, no one felt intimidated by the material, the discussions were remarkably voluble & free and people grappled sincerely with some ideas they might otherwise have rejected. Experiencing frontal intellectual assaults on the legitimacy of my own privilege has been indispensable to my development, and will no doubt continue to be so, but sometimes, particularly in Louisiana, a glancing blow is better than nothing.

chaunceydevega said...

@Werner. You are out there hustling to brother. As we have often said there are so few students who really have any intellectual curiosity and then mate that with outside distractions and a semi-literate culture, and the classroom can become a dead space as opposed to a live one full of exchange. I have a gem on that too for next week--so if you have a post to share on this, send it along.

@Daniel. All those minorities are just lazy and plus they have "bad" culture. You didn't know that? So much of the discourse has simply shifted so that old school racism with its understandings of biological difference have been translated into "culture." So transparent.

@Anon. That is a common deflection. You black and brown/glbqt/poor/women/etc just need to leave your "racial" stuff at home and move along.

@Joe. The Obama paradox. Isn't it a big one. I ask folks to riddle me this, is B-Rock "privileged" in any way as a black man? Is he more privileged because of class than a poor white man? If Obama weren't the President, and was just a regular brother on the corner trying to get a cab how would he be treated? etc. etc.

@Josh. Got to love the vision of Roddenberry. Classic Trek and also of course TNG and DS9 have dealt with "serious" issues. DS9's episode where Sisko goes back in time to Harlem is amazing, as is the episode where Jadzia meets her former lover. There are lots of great books on Race and Trek out there too.

Cheyanne said...

Hey Chauncey,

I happened to catch you today on The Progressive Radio Network and had to tune into your blog to hear what you have to say here, because what you said on the radio today had me saying "Amen brother" throughout the broadcast. Your Blog is just as good as your real voice.

Thanks for voicing your voice all the while the audience, who gets "it" the same way you do,nod their heads in agreement.

You sir are a breath of fresh air.

chaunceydevega said...

@Cheyanne. What kind words. Thanks for the love. How did you stand my grating voice ;)

Hopefully, there will other opportunities for me to do my thing. There are links to some other appearances on the site as well if you look around.

Anonymous said...

I have a friend who teaches a rhetoric-based freshman comp class who tries to address this with the students. This semester, they countered with "there is no such thing as white privilege and I'm entitled to my opinion." The class is down to about 10% of the original class size now. It's hard to show people the unnamed.

Melissa said...

Hi, I posted on your blog before. I wish I could take your class. Will there ever be an unmasking of Chauncey Devega? Like in Batman where they're all asking "Who is the Bat Man?" Of course personal safety is tantamount, what with all the crazies around.

That Jane Elliot had me going bananas - she's a tour de force. As a white woman, I read alot and I get sad sometimes because it seems that all that my fellow white women can muster in race conversations are tears and guilty woe. Not Jane Elliot though! She's going on my venerated people list.

40 said...

As a respectable Negroe who's girlfriend is not I'm often finding myself in teaching situations to expose the subtle nuances in society which are often missed by those in the "relative power position". It goes beyond send her out to hail cab, and telling her to clam up when police are involved even though we did nothing wrong. Here's a recent example, I have redacted my GF's name to protect her, and the city to show the universality of this phukschitt.

Out on Saturday night with my lady & her friends celebrating her birthday, we're out for dinner at this snazzy little spot thats a restaurant that turns into a club after. Great evening so afterdinner we head out to get some drinks at other bars. Now I'm wearing shirt, tie, sweater, ("The Carlton"), jeans and Timberlands. Let me also interject, also going on in "The Town" that day was a St. Pats bar crawl where 1000's of drunk folks are roaming around in green tees that they got as part of their festivities. So we're walk to one bar, dude goes "Can't let you in with those work boots on". I laugh and start walking away, my girlfriend is not understanding what's going on. Her friends aren't understanding what my dress code violation is. I'm like "Its cool I don't beg to give anyone my money" and I keep it moving. She's starting to get upset.

So we keep it moving, and we head to the Ritz-Carlton and enjoy several nice rounds of drinks in one of "The Town's" best hotel with no problem. One of her friends wanted to go to some other shit house bar and since it was my girlfriend's birthday we went. So as we're walking in again I get the "We can't let you in with the boots on" so I tell her I'm not dealing with this and inform her I'm gonna go another place but have fun. Dude at the door then says "Oh you're with them, well I'll let it slide, you don't look or seem like a gangbanger".

MY LADY LOSES IT. She's like "WTF There are people in here with flip flops and puke crusted pub crawl shirts on, and goofy St. Paddy's day shit on and he can't get it because of his shoes, and doesn't seem like a gangbanger?" We leave her friends there and go to my old standby watering hole by my old apt.

On the way there I calmly explain to her the world of racial clothing profiling, and the land where men with exposed toes and shitty tees are OK, and all they see is a nigger in Tims when I walk in. She was upset even more because I was so calm about it and just understood it. Gotta show the error of people's ways. I refocus my anger into teaching moments (and sometimes I spaz).

Joanna said...

I really hate the stupid IAT. You know why? Because it forces me to realize that despite my beliefs, despite the fact that I read Black Nationalist writers, write a blog which addresses racism pretty regularly, and consider myself to be one of the few "good" white folks I know, I STILL have these stupid biases. I use the excuses "Well, this is programming, and you can't totally erase how you were programmed" and "Well, most people of ALL races show a preference towards white, because of media.... blah blah blah" but damn, I cannot even tell you how much it bothers me to realize that I am not immune!

chaunceydevega said...

@Anon. The joys of attrition. Sad, your friend will likely get grief for doing her job and melting some snowflakes.

@Melissa. The reveal will be the anticlimax of anticlimaxes. Remember, what Morgan Freeman told Brad Pitt in Seven...

@40. Goodness the good old days of bringing multiple outfits to the club just to get told no over and over again. Our trick--silly as we were giving money to people who don't like us--was to wait for a pre Jersey Shore wannabe guido to go into the club wearing the same clothes we were. The bouncer had a choice. He could admit to being a bigot or he could relent. The daily injuries of being young, gifted, and black.

Joanna, anyone living in this society is sick with white supremacy. Oftentimes I think it is black and brown students who don't want to confront that they too have internalized that bug.