Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How Would You Deal With Having an Open and Publicly Known White Supremacist Student in Your Classroom?

I didn't recognize his name at first. It was his writing that caught my attention. An autobiography in 100 words. That was the first assignment, and it was as much for me to get to know my students as to evaluate their writing skills. 
When I scrolled through the submissions, I saw that many of them were “fun-loving,” “ambitious” and “determined to succeed,” but only one was “living on a radical fringe” that put him at risk of being a “societal leper.” 
Only one spoke of being duty-bound to a “right wing resistance,” and asserted that if he didn’t stand up for “European folk” and advocate for his race, the “liberal sheep” would continue to erase his heritage. 
In an act of piousness, I did to him only what I would have had him do to me: I Googled his name. 
I was met with dozens of pictures: grinning in Confederate flag T-shirts, grinning in “Straight Pride” T-shirts, grinning in mid-interview stills excerpted from the evening news. 
He was the founder of the White Student Union. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, he would be in my fiction writing class. 
Salon has a provocative piece about a college teacher having to deal with an open and public White Supremacist in his classroom. 

How would you deal with such a student? What are the boundaries and limits of respect? How should a teacher deal with a student who a priori has committed to a set of principles which have disdain for those who are not "white?"

On Twitter, I alluded to my go-to move as a lecturer who uses a Socratic approach to teaching in my seminars. 

As is necessary, I channel Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation in my seminars and try to explain how we/I must have a commitment to truth--be it empirical, philosophical, or moral. 

White Supremacy is based on a lie: "white" people by virtue of a connection to a social fiction known as "Whiteness" are not "superior" to other people who may happen to be arbitrarily categorized as members of a different "racial" group.

Students such as Ben Warner's can be "smart," "intelligent," or a welcome change of pace from those who just want to show up, get their gentleman "C's", and complain when they do not receive an "A."

Any basic questions about foundational assumptions and empirical reality would have destroyed Ben Warner's student's arguments and the mystical pull he (may have) had over others...the lecturer included.

Are such students a welcome presence in the classroom? I would suggest that they are not. But, they paid to put their butts in the seat. What to do?

I have no ready answer. However, I would not surrender to White Victimology--especially as channeled by White Supremacists--as Ben Warner does here:
One day, he came in a half-hour after class had started, and then stuck around to apologize. 
“Sorry I was late,” he told me. “I was dealing with the police.” 
“The police?” I said. 
“I might not be in class on Thursday. I got my first death threat.” He lifted his computer to show me his Facebook wall. 
“Usually, they just call me a motherfucker or tell me to suck a dick,” he said. “But this one says they’re going to kill me on Thursday.” 
“That’s terrible,” I said. “What are the police doing?” 
“They’re not doing anything.” 
“You shouldn’t have to deal with that,” I said, while at the same time knowing that — had he not been in my class, had I not seen him furrowing his brow over Carver or O’Connor, asking serious questions about characterization and voice — a more reprehensible me might have muttered he deserved it. 
He stood with his hands clutched in front of his waist, looking down at his chest, very much like a frightened child. 
“It’s been getting worse for you?” I asked. 
“These interviews keep getting it wrong. They take out all the good stuff I say.” 
“It’s a huge price to pay for this kind of celebrity.” 
“I guess I have to double down,” he said. “I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.” 
This was my moment. I thought maybe I could change something. There he was, after class, a scared kid … and me, in loco parentis. But I wasn’t sure what to say. 
“Or,” I tried, “you can just go silent.” 
He thought about that. “But then they just write whatever they want.” 
“For now,” I said, “and it might get worse before it gets better. But if you don’t feed it, it will eventually starve.” 
“That’s interesting,” he said, looking me in the eye. “I might try that.”
And speaking to a more significant point of personal safety and security, how does a possessive investment in White privilege and masculinity empower a white male college teacher the freedom to indulge a White Supremacist in their classroom?
The following class, he arrived wearing a shirt with a Confederate flag. The words “It Ain’t Over” were printed beneath it, but it was subtle — a dark green shirt, the flag a small one over the breast, with a larger version on the back, which was pressed against his chair. As I saw it, I thought, “What are his rights? Are they limited by the level of distraction he poses?” 
When he leaned forward, I thought I saw a student crane her neck suspiciously. But it was only a T-shirt. It was distracting, yes, but not much more so than his camouflaged backpack and crew cut...  
Or am I simply allowing myself to be fooled? Is it just that, as a middle-class white man, it doesn’t come up all that often? The difference between those people and whatever it was that my student was peddling was that with my student, I’d received the memo beforehand. It was out in the open and brazenly so (the Confederate flags on his shirts were getting larger, and he’d adhered a sticker to his laptop that read “The South WILL Rise Again”). 
It was a few weeks later that he stayed after class to alert me to an upcoming absence. He was going to CPAC as a member of the college Republicans. It was decent of him to tell me, but it also seemed like he was bracing for a fight. “It’s an excused absence because the SGA is paying for it,” he said. To my knowledge, there is no such arrangement between the student government and the university. Not that it mattered. I told him it was fine. 
Missing from Ben Warner's narrative is any mention of how those students who are despised and hated by a publicly open White bigot may be made to feel in this classroom. 

Yes, all parties present in the classroom paid the price of admission. 

But, what to do about openly disruptive voices who are committed to anti-intellectualism, in what ought to purportedly be a space of respectful intellectual inquiry, yet do not value such priors because of a path dependency beholden to White Supremacist hate?

Colleges and universities are supposed to be safe spaces full of liberal thought and indoctrination. Yeah right.


! said...

The lecturer felt "betrayed" by the fact that his student showed up as a spectator at that CPAC panel? Wow. Speaking as someone who grew up in an area with its share of white supremacist organizations and, very early, had to contend with these issues and take sides, I am amazed by his naivete. What did he think "white student union" and "white supremacist" actually mean? Did he actually think that suggesting to his student, oh, you could STOP being an active member of a hate group, would bring a moment of clarity... after-school-special style?

I don't know what I would do if I were the lecturer, but my experiences as a white female student opposing these kinds of chucklefucks in my high school classes, ALL involve white teachers who were unable to pull the emergency break when discussions went completely off the rails. (example: I was told "well move to the city then, I'm sure one night you will find out just how dangerous black men are to a girl like you" by a peer. The teacher was silent.) In one way I now appreciate their paralysis and half-baked free speech platitudes, because I grew a thick skin and learned how to argue my positions. But in another way, I know that I was able to deal with the situation due to my own privileges. I am sure that for the very few people of color in my school, having a few inarticulate underinformed white kids in their corner was very cold comfort.

In any case it sure is interesting to have this view into what the fuck my teachers may have been thinking while they allowed fundie kids to make references to "the curse of Ham". Brings back memories ~

physioproffe said...

This is just fantasy, as I have never dealt with anything like this in my classroom. But I would like to think that I would apply my usual Socratic method to forcing such a student to explain and attempt (futilely) to defend the assumptions and logic that lead them to such egregiously false conclusions. This thereby exposes the true nature of reality at least to the rest of the students, if not the deluded interlocutor themself. This is what I do when students manifest faulty physiological interpretations of their observations.

MaryK said...

This is Schoolhouse Earth. People are born here in order to make mistakes, from which to learn. One does not become a better horseman by never falling; it is the act of getting back on the horse that proves to us that we can learn and builds confidence.

I had a high school student get up in class one day and explain why he believed in the Church of Satan. He never said another word the rest of the year. But in that moment, he expressed himself clearly, succinctly, and had it been written down it would have gotten a high grade as an essay. The other students let him speak and nobody told him he was wrong. I appreciated his candor and the class's maturity for listening respectfully to a radically different viewpoint. "You have all shown me that you can allow opinions that most adults would have gone crazy about," I told them at the end of the class.

From the excerpts of what I read here, the instructor handled this student correctly. It's not about changing his mind, but about giving him room to fall off the horse and decide for himself whether to get back on and continue his ride.

j.ottopohl said...

I currently teach in Ghana so I don't think this is even a theoretical possibility for me. But, students' political beliefs even when blatantly wrong are not something I care about. In Kyrgyzstan I had a lot of openly Stalinist students. People who supported the whole sale deportation of ethnic groups because a handful of them had fought with the Germans during WWII. Even though there were also students in the class whose grandparents had been among those deported. I also had a few with very weird conspiracy theories regarding Jews. That shows up less often here, but I do find sometimes find blatantly anti-Arab or Islamophobic stuff in student essays. Usually this hurts their grade since it requires making stuff up like claiming Muslims destroyed the Second Temple. But, grades are given on the basis of doing the assigned work well not on whether I agree or disagree with a student's personal opinions expressed outside the classroom. If they can make a coherent argument with a thesis supported by evidence consisting of verified facts they will get a good grade. In a fiction writing class you don't even have to do that. Some great fiction writers had vile racist ideas. I wouldn't want such a person in my small graduate seminar on the History of Race and Ethnicity. But, for many classes I can't see it making a difference especially if the student doesn't put any of their racial politics into their assigned work

j.ottopohl said...

I already dealt with that. "Usually this hurts their grade since it requires making stuff up like claiming the Muslims destroyed the Second Temple."

chauncey devega said...

Got you. But, not all facts are created equal and how do you deal with the context of the argument and its broader implications?

j.ottopohl said...

I grade essays on whether they make a coherent argument answering the question asked. This is subjective. But, then so are all history grades. I have 250 students a semester and most of them just try and paraphrase the assigned readings. That gets a passing, but not spectacular grade. I stopped asking questions about the Arab-Israeli conflict because I got a couple of Holy Roller answers quoting the Old Testament every semester. But, overall my problem is getting the students to question and critically examine things not having offensive or wacky ideas.

CBid13 said...

I think that's where some of the problem lies, CDV. In the instructor's effort to remain "open minded" and "noble" when dealing with this student, he may have neglected the fundamental rights of his other students to have a learning environment free of such distractions and possible intimidation. The teacher may also have failed to identify other students' discomfort or intimidation. Not everyone speaks up for themselves and/or others when they believe it could possibly lead to some kind of physical altercation or retaliation against them at a later time and outside the classroom.

thatguybill said...

I haven't had that problem, but I've had students with other beliefs I find objectionable in class. If they treat me and their classmates with respect, we're fine. If not, we have a problem.
From what the author said, it seemed like the student was generally fine in class. It was his activities outside of the class that were the problem. I don't see it as the job of the teacher to police that. I doubt the university has a policy forbidding confederate flags in class, but I would definitely bring up the subject with the student. I would try to convey the message that I treat him with respect because he is my student, and try to make him feel welcome in class, but he is not showing his classmates the same respect. Not sure how well that would work out...

chauncey devega said...

Fair points. Keep it to yourself. If you bring it here we gots to talk.

grumpy rumblings said...

I had a guy like that in a stats class. Kept derailing discussion (about MATH) to go on long rants about immigrants and minorities (of which there were several in the class). Fortunately he dropped the class after failing to turn in any homework assignments so we stopped wasting time with him saying something racist and me saying, "That's an empirical question and the empirical research shows you're wrong. Let me bring that point back to the MATH we were talking about."

The non-white class members began to participate in class without being cold-called after he left.

pjwhite said...

It's comical how many straight white middle class men consider themselves open-minded / enlightened for being "tolerant" of racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism. Jonathan Haidt is one hilarious example. He gives a simpering Ted Talk (and wrote a simpering book) about how conservative values are not "destructive" just "different." For example, conservatives aren't racist or xenophobic, they just value "loyalty" more than we liberals do. Look this guy up and you'll see I'm not exaggerating. Ben Warner reminded me of him. Ugh.