Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Professor Tackles Racism in the Classroom

This is a powerful piece. It really highlights how many times the burden of racism is endured by people of color in multiple ways.


By George Yancy | The Chronicle of Higher Education
October 11, 2009

An African-American student's voice cracked as she explained to her white classmates that she was weary of their denials: "I'm tired of all of you saying that racism doesn't exist anymore!"

There was an awkward silence as she began to cry. Some of her white peers looked away, some down to the floor. Others stared off, seemingly oblivious. I allowed the silence to linger, not wanting to detract from the intensity of the moment.

Afterward, many of the white students in that class began to listen with an attentiveness they had not shown before. Those who had seen themselves and the "postracial" world as colorblind were faced with an anomaly. Their classmate's plea challenged their idea of themselves as "good whites," forcing them to consider whether they had failed to take racism seriously.

There was a time when I would have been immobilized by a student's crying in my class. Now, however, I consciously foster the conditions that allow students to express emotion. My African-American student's tears, and the response from my white students, only confirmed for me that spaces within the classroom must encourage and nurture students to bring their entire selves—their angry selves, their fragile selves, their wounded selves—as they struggle with issues of race and racism.

When I introduce the topic, my students are surprised and sometimes taken aback by my frankness. I tell them that in my classroom we will try our hardest to leave cowardice and dishonesty at the door. I explain that the practice of "fearless speech" will guide the questions we ask, how we answer them, and how we speak to one another. At the same time, I explain, we will engage in "fearless listening"—the capacity to maintain open conversation by remaining nondefensive, conceding our ignorance, and admitting to our incompleteness and vulnerability. I tell them that fearless speech and fearless listening constitute forms of fearless action, and will not be penalized, even though they may result in anger and misunderstanding. I explain that in order for us to be better, more complete human beings, we must be willing to give up something—that is, lose our preconceptions, our arrogance, and our sense of certainty. Finally, I tell them that I, too, have much to lose.

I make it a point to ask my students, "So, are there any students in here who see themselves as racist?" The question seems especially bold, and loaded, when posed by an African-American professor to a class of predominantly white students. No one raises a hand; there is often a look of absolute disbelief on their faces.

While teachers and professors should strive to create safe spaces within their classrooms where honest dialogue can develop, it is important that we don't confuse safety with dishonesty or fear of challenging the status quo. Such "safe spaces" actually end up shutting down discussion, stifling creativity, and demeaning the students.

I have also learned that if I ask my students to take risks, then I must be prepared to do the same. Hence, I also pose the question, "Are there any males in here who see themselves as sexist?" Sometimes a few hands go up; typically, mine is the only one. Part of the objective is to expose another axis of hegemony besides racism. By raising my hand, my intention is also to communicate to my students that I am not afraid to discuss the ways sexist norms confer patriarchal power over me. My students are surprised by my candor, and yet, I think, profoundly appreciative. By disclosing my weakness, I am laying the foundation for mutual trust and respect, while modeling the kind of communication I expect them to undertake.

One white male student, responding to my invitation to fearless speech, shared with the class that he had been harassed by a group of African-American males about his sexual orientation. He shared with the class that as they taunted him, he had thought to himself, "I might be gay, but at least I'm not black." We could see the reluctance on his face, the guilt. He was clearly aware of his vulnerability and the risk of verbal reprisal. As in the case of my African-American student, I didn't want to interrupt the silence that followed. At that moment, it was enough that he had named his racism without condemnation from others.

On another occasion, a white female student shared that while she and her boyfriend were walking down the street, her boyfriend saw a black female from behind and then turned to her and asked, "Why don't you have a body like that?" Without skipping a beat, she responded, "At least I have real hair." Instead of criticizing him for his sexism, she resorted to a racist retort, characterizing the black female as aesthetically fake by the presumption that she was wearing hair extensions. I could see that she was dismayed to recognize her own racism.

Within the safe, yet fearless space of our classroom, an antiracist alliance often emerges among my students. Black students, while often understandably cynical, become more accepting of their white peers' efforts. White students often experience a sense of vertigo as they begin to identify and question manifestations of racism that they had not seen before.

My objective is not to nurture stultifying guilt in my white students, but to encourage them to listen carefully for racism in their inner voices, and to take note of how it affects their body postures and anxieties when around people of color. By publicly unveiling such realities about themselves, my white students pose aspects of their identities as problems to be challenged.

To some people, tears in the classroom might seem like an indication that something has gone wrong. In my class, I view such visceral responses as clear evidence that something has gone beautifully right.

George Yancy is an associate professor of philosophy at Duquesne University and author of "Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race" (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).

No comments:

Post a Comment