Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Pedagogical Failures? The Authors We Are Reading in Class Are Mean to White People...

"Joe Feagin is not nice to white people, how is he going to win us over? ""Jane Elliot is mean to white people, what is wrong with her?"

Those are two questions from my class on Race and American politics which I am teaching this quarter. I like sharing these pedagogical moments with you all as so much of what we talk about regarding race and politics here on WARN--and in other moments more generally--can be traced back to what students are learning (or not) in the classroom. We make citizens in our schools; thus, the tin eared responses to white racism in the Age of Obama and a drunken ideology of conservative colorblindness that offers nothing, and masks almost everything, can often be traced right back to those spaces.

As a black guy who teaches courses on race I am always impressed by the candor of my students. Quite a few don't want to engage for fear of "saying the wrong thing." Generally, and with good speed, folks pick up on the fact that my courses are not some version of the Oprah Winfrey Show. I am not interested in having an encounter session. My goals are direct: read the texts, process the claims, and apply the theory.

Public feelings and personal moments of transformation are entertaining; they generally don't have a place in my seminars. Nevertheless, and while only a journeyman, I still remain surprised by the vulnerability and honesty of the white students in my classes. As one of their few non-white lecturers I can become their personal confessor. I am also a flagellating truth teller. Many stay for the punishment and want more. Others run away.

Here, there are a few moments that have repeated themselves. First, white students hate sister Jane Elliot. There is a revulsion at how she brings the heat and holds white folks accountable for their racism and prejudice.

The second is more curious: many students (mostly white, but a few of color) get upset at Dr. Joe Feagin's analyses of white racism as a societal organizing concept. Inevitably, he is described as "mean" to white people. Feagin apparently "doesn't want to win them over."

I smile and respond that the history of white supremacy and the institutional legacies of white racism are not nice. Moreover, some history is just ugly and should be presented as such. Most importantly--and this upsets quite a few white students--few authors in any field sit back and ask "how will my argument make people of color feel? Will it hurt their feelings?" Consequently, why should you be extended the courtesy?

On a meta level I will never stop shaking my head at the vulnerability of Whiteness. Its owners and practitioners have the world oriented around them. Whiteness is one of the greatest inventions in human history. White folks can gain all of the advantages of white supremacy in post-Civil Rights America and can wash their hands of it, all the while being able to play the "reverse racism" defense when the reality of white racism is called out for what it is.

Whiteness seems so durable. Its owners and practitioners so weak. How could this be? Perhaps, this duality is one of the secrets to how Whiteness and white privilege have endured for so long?

The revulsion of some at the truth of white racism is an example of white privilege in action where how dare someone deviate from the white racial frame and turn the lens inward, upsetting White priors, White beliefs, and a White sense of nobility and innocence.

There are also students who pleasantly surprise you with their directness. While some would be offended, I am intrigued by a student who submitted a list of questions to me after a class on race and life chances. He is a bold one; I think he should be commended even as his directness would be off-putting to some.

Said student asked me the following:

1. As a black American, assuming you consider yourself "black" and an "American" are you "thankful" that you were given a "traditional" "non-black" name rather than one that is stereotypically "black?"

2. Do you think having a "black" name would have impacted your career?

3. If you are dealing with a white person who is really ignorant about racism how do you tell them this?

So let's work through this together. How would you respond to these questions? Alternatively, is there something problematic about these questions to begin with? Is said student operating from a position of white privilege where he feels empowered to query a black professor in such a personal manner?


Plane Ideas said...

I find the questions not only shallow but an expression of pure fucking ignorance...The questions remind me of a person expressing himself as if he is entitled to not only ask these petty questions but he thinks he is being clever

I am under zero fucking obligation at any moment in my life that requires me to answer, acknowledge or pay attention to anything the privledged white culture offers up

These questions remind me of negro type questions one would get from jon stewart, barbara walters, these slugs and others who as white liberals practice the soft bigotry of patronization etc..

To be honest CD this white student actually believes he is smarter than you and you are his servant..

The idea that this clown even offered up this worthless hollow elementary questions reveals how yet again for me how fucked up this world is for us in a racist america 2011

weird beard said...

I think even if this kid watched a few episodes of Ask a Black Dude with Paul Mooney, the meta-tone highlighting the absurdity of the dumbass Q & A would be lost on would the tokenism of asking individuals to be put on the spot to speak on behalf of their race in some reductionist mascottery that asserts just about how much cognitive space the individual asking has devoted for the ideas/experiences/culture/history of an entire diverse collection of individuals, but then again only whiteness is allowed individual personhood in the privileged white bubble mind.

His choice of words is interesting and reveals a lot about the richness of the white pathology at work.
1. the implied question of whether you 'condider' yourself "American"- (because Whiteness is the only true 'merickan, the rest is suspect and perpetual foreigners who need to go back to where they came from.)
2. The first question was framed asking if you were "thankful"- as opposed to asking if you were dissapointed or angry or any other feeling, the first one that came to his white privileged mind was "thankful"(which reads as an implied value judgement that being less racialized in any form is superior, because whiteness is superior to all other races) whew..thank gawd you dodged the racialized name bullet, that could have been bad. Another assumption (TRADITIONAL=WHITE, ethnicity is the other and to be viewed as suspect and illegitimate to the 'traditional' (read white) community and thoughts and values upon which this traditional (read white) world was built, all by whitey himself)
And as far as his third question, If you are dealing with an epidemically racially ignorant oppressive white culture, and this has been told to them by people of color since time immemorial, how do you not get fed up dealing with them?

fred c said...

Number two could be reasonable, if name discrimination had come up in the course. Number three gets the benefit of the doubt. But number one, no excuse for that framing. I'm with Greg, the kid thinks that he's in such a superior position to you that he can just go fucking with you whenever he feels like it. Like a prison guard being rudely familiar with the prisoners, like "hey dipshit, suck any nice big ones lately?"

Unlike Weird Beard I don't expect you to get fed up with this stuff. I think you probably just find it fascinating, like I would.

DebC said...

cd...Interesting post.

I'm in TOTAL agreement with Thrasher on this...

"The idea that this clown even offered up this worthless hollow elementary questions reveals how yet again for me how fucked up this world is for us in a racist america 2011

...because I'm tired as hell of hearing from not only "white folk" (and I use that term so very loosely since none of their asses were white when they came here), but from kinfolk/skinfolk alike - about how far we've come and how much things have damned changed - when we really haven't, and they really haven't.

Like Thrasher (despite, or maybe because of the fact that, I've been 31-years-at-the-end-of-November, married to one of those folks who are wedded to Baldiwn's, "On Being White and Other Lies"), I am "...under zero fucking obligation at any moment in my life that requires me to answer, acknowledge or pay attention to anything the privileged white culture offers up" - but you are, given your employment.

I also agree with weird beard's...

"...only whiteness is allowed individual personhood in the privileged white bubble mind...His choice of words is interesting and reveals a lot about the richness of the white pathology at work.

That said, each of the questions make me cringe with the "knowing" that our being post-racial in the age of Obama is the biggest, running, f*ckin' joke going - but anyway:

1) So damned privileged and condescending is this question. Whether you consider yourself Black and/or American is beside the point - that's how white folk see ANYBODY with black skin in their America! And "thankful?" (Really??) that you were "GIVEN?" ...a TRADITIONAL NON-BLACK NAME rather than one that is stereotypically Black??"

Where in the hell do I start with that shit?! White folk, so benevolent that they deign to GIVE us a g*ddamn NAME - aren't they? Like we had a f*ckin' choice! Shall we revisit the Kunta Kinte, Toby scene in Roots where his damned foot was lopped off until he agreed his name was Toby? And what the hell is a stereotypically "Black" name to him? Does he even have a damned clue that we had a history - with names long before we began searching for, and creating names that gave us a sense of self-determination (I don't care if the f*ckin' names make sense to - NO-DAMNED-BODY ELSE!)?!

2) What an ignorant, obviously uninformed, joke of a damned question! Has he READ (does he even read??) any of the studies done on exactly that? See #1

3) Oh-h-h-h, this is an easy one - YOU TELL THEIR ASSES THEY'RE F*CKIN' IGNORANT (but for you, in a nice, teacherly kind of way)!! And then, tell them to READ SOME SHIT/GET TO REALLY KNOW SOME - "OTHERS" (then compare the same old, incredibly ignorant, privileged bullshit they've been spoon-fed to their new lived experiences)!

If I WERE a man cd - I'd say you were a better man than me. It's shit like this that helped me decide not to go back to finish my Masters in Journalism in DC - lies, inherent racism, privileged bullshit that continues to "leave out" the history of me - AND, I was supposed to pay them for it!!

Angry Black Woman rant over...

Chris Sharp said...

Hey CD, great post as usual....I don't think I'm qualified to answer any of those questions because I'm a white guy, but I think Thrasher nailed it. Definitely one of those "I sure hope that idiot is not white" moments but I seem to have alot of those lately. I hope you didn't hold back with whatever answers you gave him, if you did.

I suppose I could take a shot at number three since I actually have that discussion with alot of my white friends. Predictably, I try to steer the conversation towards the ugly and undeniable history of racism and whiteness in our country. Since I tend to know more history than most folks and I was a philosophy major who knows how to put together a logical argument, it can sometimes be an effective method. On the other hand, if someone has no interest in understanding history in its unvarnished state, I think it is a virtually impossible task. I have actually been giving this alot of thought lately. The more and more I deal with his issue, it seems to me that it goes back to a simple lack of human empathy that is embedded in most white people, and obviously some blacks as well. I'm not talking about the hypocritical gratuitous empathy that alot of white liberals express until they are blue in the face, but true human empathy that can only come from being able to really imagine what the other goes through. You don't have to walk a mile in someone else's shoes to have it but if your mind is closed to even considering the other person's experiences -- maybe because you are enjoying the benefits of whiteness and do not want those benefits threatened -- it is a difficult and sometimes painful task that not many people can accomplish. However, once someone gets over that hurdle, or if they never faced it to begin with (I'd put myself in that category since I have always been co-dependent), it is surprisingly easy to get them to come around.

A litle off point but is anyone else ready to puke if they hear another story about Amanda Knox and the horrors of a white women being wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for four long years? Down here in Florida, they typically release a few black guys every year because their convictions were overturned based on DNA evidence. Some of these guys have spent decades behind bars on death row, with stories far mpore compelling than Ms. Knox's, but I have yet to see Good Morning America spend an entire week covering their stories. The worst part was atching their token black host Robin Roberts fall all over herself gushing about how traumatizing it must have been for her and what a miscarriage of justice it was. She lost so much weight in prison she went from a size four to a size zero and she spontaneously speaks Italian because he hasn't used her English in so long. Oh the horrors!

Anonymous said...

You find time to talk and reason about race with white folks? HAHAHAHAHAHAAH!

chris sharp said...

Well I do spend time around them and it can be a fun way to kill a few hours, especially at a bar. I usually wait until someone makes an off color comment and then I pounce. Most of the time they never see it coming. Sure there have been some negative reactions and even a few violent ones, but I think its the least I can do for the cause since none of you would ever be caught dead in some of the bars I attend, I am hopefully connecting with an audience that few "others" can reach. And as I said once in awhile I am successful so I look at it as using my whiteness for good, or changing America one mind at a time.

Of course when I go to black or mixed bars it is an entirely different conversation.....

chaunceydevega said...

@Thrasher. He is lucky he doesn't have to deal with you! Weird he seemed very confident and sincere. I told him he basically had balls. No comment if that is good or not. I have not decided if I will answer. Likely not, his response will dictate my next move.

@Weird. The American comment through me too. Those are the moments when you have to wonder about their processing of the material in class and if they view everything from a set of priors where whiteness is always normal; any criticism of racism or inequality means you are "unAmerican."

Funny too, they proved my point unintentionally where we discussed how whiteness is problematically associated with Americanness and the consequences of that. The most conservative student in class willfully defended the notion because white people are the majority in the country. I smiled...

@Deb. Like Thrasher, he is lucky you aint' there. Would you ignore him or challenge said student?

@Chris. White women are a protected class in this country with their magical tears and missing white woman moral panics. Where you been brother ;)

DebC said...

"Would you ignore him or challenge said student?"

Now that I've calmed down, cd - Jane Elliot's, "White people's #1 freedom in the United States of America is the freedom to be totally ignorant about those who are other than white. And our #2 freedom is the freedom to deny that we're ignorant. Today, we're going to take away these people's freedom to be ignorant. I want you to understand how the system works" - would be my answer.

And I might add, with regard to your student, "I want you to understand that I understand how the system works - whether you choose to understand or not." Considering the dearth of any real educating (read: "critical thinking" along with the book learnin') having gone on in this country for a very long time, I think it's especially incumbent upon teachers today, to continually debunk all the "Lies My Teacher Told Me" (again, for you - in a nice, teacherly kind of way).

I really do get pretty damned tired of having to challenge white folk on their alleged confusion - but I have to - not only for me, but for us and other "Others," particularly our children who are still (even today): born into, inculcated with, and continuously beat-down by this white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that runs this country.

And oddly I know, but I do it for whites too (even though I oftentimes feel I'm under no damned obligation to)- because whether they want to admit/accept it or not, our destinies in this country are inextricably linked.

That "American exceptionalism" bullshit truly no longer flies in this "global society" - there's evidence of that fact everywhere, if one but pays attention. They keep this shit up, and the world will eventually be "The Decider" when it comes to U.S. survival. And I doubt it'll be pretty, given all the heavy-handed havoc the US has wreaked all over the world.

I've got kids (young men now, but anyway) I'll be leaving behind to deal with THAT kind of shit (and I feel I do have an obligation to them). I am, however, doing all I can to get them to think outside of the only-living-in-the-US-box as a fail-safe, just in case these fools don't get their shit together (especially since there IS a limit to how much splainin' a person is willing to do!).

Oh Crap said...


To be honest CD this white student actually believes he is smarter than you and you are his servant..

Truer words/never spoken.

If this student were in a class of mine, I would have to ignore him, or else have to deal with the ombudsman knocking on my door because a weeping white child is demanding to file a "discrimination" suit.

But see, this is why I'm not an educator in the first place. I just don't have the tolerance.

DebC said...

"...or else have to deal with the ombudsman knocking on my door because a weeping white child is demanding to file a "discrimination" suit."

Too funny Thrasher! :-) But I feel you though. That surely would have been my fate after my response - or a trip to the dean's office, or wherever they summon errant "educators!"

fred c said...

I'm just glad that I don't teach in the US. All I get is, "Thank you, Ajan Fred, for letting me take your great class!"

Incidentally, I do talk about race in America a little bit. I try to build in a locally relevant sub-text about tolerance, cooperation and the mischief of status in general. Not much discussion though, language constraints prevent it.