A Little Self-Analysis (Or, What’s Like to Teach Ethnic Studies as a White Man)

September 18, 2009

Locating Privilege as a Pedagogic Practice

I have spent nearly half of my teaching career and all of my scholarly career working in American Studies and Ethnic Studies. Both fields, like the allied fields of Women’s/Gender and Sexuality Studies, take seriously the importance of social location as a component of identity formation and critical pedagogy. Striking a middle ground between essentialism and relativism, these fields of study recognize that a component of our identity formation and our intellectual progress are the interlocking social experiences of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class and ability. They hold firm that we are not reducible or defined by our phenotypes; yet that we are impacted by the social expectations and performances associated with them. The understanding of race as a social construction stands at the heart of Ethnic and American Studies and is a central thesis in the anti-racist work of those fields, which orient themselves towards unpacking and dismantling racial formations and ideologies through critical analyses of history, culture, and society. Moreover, these fields often work to counter racial ideologies by encouraging that students examine and investigate their own social location. Whether explicitly-in a family history project or personal writing–or implicitly, Ethnic and American Studies can often be challenging and uncomfortable work not only for the complexity of the concepts and ideas, but because those concepts and ideas run counter to what we commonly understand about our culture and ourselves.

In my experience (and as my friend Gavin hinted at in a comment on my previous essay) this discomfort is perhaps most common among students whose awareness of privilege is complicated by their embrace of identities associated with ideals of meritocracy. This is most evident among middle-class, white, male students who are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the advantages they are afforded by a patriarchal, racist society because those realities run counter to the reality that they (or, more commonly, their families) have struggled to overcome economic and social hardships. Many are first-generation college students; and the majority comes from communities deeply impacted by deindustrialization and globalization. As such, my white students tend to have experienced or to have identified with some degree of economic marginalization and are disinclined or unable to acknowledge that they are afforded any advantages or privileges because of their race and gender.

Resistant students are the rule rather than the exception in Ethnic Studies and American Studies. I suspect there is a similar trend in Women’s Studies. However, based on my observations of and conversations with my colleagues in these fields, I have had to deal with far less visible, vocal resistance than is the norm. Only on rare occasion do students openly confront or challenge me or the subject matter. When discussing the realities of white privilege I have never been laughed at, yelled at, or called a “war criminal” or a “f***ing bigot,” as some of my colleagues have. And, in addition to not having to face open resistance or violence, I am often successful in reaching reluctant students who are hesitant or wary of the material.

Why? Well it is not that I am smarter or a better teacher. Rather, it has everything to do with who I am. As a white man I fit the most common and popular conceptions of authority. I look and sound like a professor is expected to look or sound. Moreover, I am a tall and big man; in part, my students take me seriously because I am physically imposing. In any classroom, I would command authority that other colleagues can easily command simply because of their race and/or gender. But this is especially true in Ethnic Studies and American Studies, fields which demand a critical investigation of privilege and power. Although some students are initially resistant to the idea that a white man could teach a class on race and ethnicity, my location is more often an asset because students presume I can discuss racism and privilege objectively, especially when I implicitly or explicitly implicate myself as an inheritor or beneficiary of racism and patriarchy.

And, through my actions in class I can play a critical role in helping students develop a more critical and inclusive discursive community. I am able to use my position of authority in the classroom and my social location and the authority inherent therein to cultivate a more inclusive dialogue and thereby advocate for underrepresented or silenced groups. As I think many of us know, mediating class discussion is often most challenging when there are a few effusive or dominating students. This dynamic is made more complicated when the effusive or dominating students are openly or vocally resistant to course topics and then clash with students over course topics. Because our public discourse is so quickly swayed or sidelined by men who yell loudly, students are accustomed to letting vocal bullies hold sway in class. I have had many classes in which an individual, resistant student attempted to sidetrack conversation or intimidate their classmates. Or, more often, I have had classes in which the most insightful students were uncomfortable raising their voice because their voices were so often silenced. In those moments my job is to mediate conversation, to open up space for the silenced or ignored voices. I have to use the authority granted by my privilege to create space for those who do not have the same privileges.

I do not want to give the impression that my work in Ethnic Studies and American Studies is spent fighting evil white men and saving students of color and women. In fact, I see much of my work as defined by reaching out to and working with my male students, especially my white male students. Although many are resistant to the ideas presented in my class, I find many male students are receptive to discussing power and privilege and need the space and community to critical engage their own experiences; and, quite frankly, many male students need a masculine role model or mentor. I do not have space to explore this dynamic in depth, but I have found that by opening up and discussing my own location and my own privilege, I encourage male students to see me as a possible mentor or confidant.

(The physical nature of my authority because quite clear to me over this past summer when I taught an online class. In nine years of classroom teaching I have had four or maybe five students complain about the grades they received; in all of those cases the students were rather polite and reserved in broaching the subject. But, in my six-week online class, I had seven students aggressively complain about their grades. In all but one case, the students had either failed to complete or submit an assignment but attempted to lay the blame on me. And, in all cases the students were aggressive and belligerent in demanding that I change the grade; many of the male students became openly hostile and threatening. I can only presume that the students in the online environment felt free to bully and threaten because they had not met me in person. Either the anonymity of e-mail or the lack of a physical presence or, more likely, a combination of the two, enabled the students in their resistance and reluctance to do fair work.)

I have, as I believe this essay indicates, spent a fair amount of time investigating my own location and considering how I can use it to be a better teacher. A large component of this is recognizing that my identity is one with which many of my students are comfortable. I am able to reach resistant students who may not respond to other faculty members. I recognize that a goal of Ethnic Studies and American Studies should be the cultivation of faculty of color and women faculty. As an ally of those groups, I take seriously the work I can do cultivating diversity within the academy; and a large component of that work can be seen as creating space for critical dialogue across the curriculum. Through my work in Ethnic Studies I can help students become more comfortable with diversity and help them build a vocabulary to participate in inclusive discursive communities. And, by consciously using my authority and ability to dominate to counter the ability of others to dominate, I can thereby create space for marginalized, silenced, or intimidated students to raise their voices.

Looking Ahead

In my next essay I plan on addressing masculinity and pedagogy with a few specific examples from recent courses. I hope to use those examples to discuss the challenging yet crucial role teachers serve as witnesses to pain and violence.

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