Thursday, August 27, 2009

Teaching not preaching

It's that time of year -- you can see it in the panic stricken eyes of children trying to squeeze the last moments of pleasure in the waning days of summer. You can see it in the frenzied back-to-schoool shopping ads and the parents hunting down the best bargains. You can see it in the sprightly steps of teachers and school administrators gearing up for a shiny-brand-new school year.

So of course my own thoughts turn to the classroom, a place I know well since I've been teaching constantly and consistently since 1996. Of course, it's the college classroom I know best and college students.

I think that when we think of teaching issues of race and racism, we often think about getting to kids while they are young and impressionable--and the challenges of talking about race and racism in a way that will be explicable and honest but not too overwhelming or even scary/anxiety producing for kids.

But an education on race and racism is really a never ending lesson. And I really mean that--because I feel that even though I'm technically on the other side of the podium now, I'm still in many ways a student--trying to educate myself about the ways in which our understanding about the dynamics of race and racism continue to mutate and change, and the ways in which I try to see race from a variety of perspectives, not just from my position as an Asian American woman.

One of the struggles I do have as an anti-racist educator of college students is trying to teach rather than to preach. Because all college students are wary of the "hidden" agenda and don't want to be told what or how to think. And like it or not, the classes I teach, which either have explicitly or implicitly an attention to ethnic American literature (sometimes this is announced in the course title, like a class on Asian American women's writing--but sometimes in a 20th C. American lit class, the "ethnic" content seems obscured until you get to the syllabus and realize that we'll be reading a variety of multiethnic literature and talking about issues or race in all of the works on the syllabus), are often labeled "ideological" or "political"--since somehow we think that a course on Asian American literature does not have the same objective weight as a course on Jane Austen.

So I'm careful as I can, in the classroom, not to get into preaching mode. And to that end, I have a few guidelines that I try to use (and to be transparent about with my students) when starting the semester:

*I tell my students we aren't going to call one another racists. We're not going to use the dreaded "R" word. And I explain, as I have on this blog, that when you call someone a racist, it immediately shuts down conversation--because the person you have called a racist now feels so affronted and offended on being called the "R" word that whatever issue you were trying to discuss gets hijacked by the invocation of that word.

This isn't to say that you don't talk about racism. And I am clear with my students that I believe the U.S. was founded on institutional racism--and I use 2 examples, the transatlantic slave trade and displacement of American Indian tribes as a clear example of U.S. imperialism's use of racism in expanding its powers. I also try to make clear that this type of racism is NOT a thing of the past--the Civil Rights movement did NOT create an instant even-playing field. That's a harder thing for them to see, but we have the entire semester to work through these issues.

*I tell my students I'm not interested in either blame or guilt. When talking about issues of race and racism, I don't want people to feel bad--to feel like I am singling them out if they are white and telling them they are bad people or if they are a person of color that they are exempt from racism or have an automatic higher authority. We are ALL implicated in racism--affected and impacted by it. And so we are all capable of being allies in the struggle against racism.

At this point I do talk about white privilege, but again in a way not to make white students feel guilty but to show that there are differences that are a consequence of racism between people of color/racial minorities and white people. You may not have asked for white privilege but none-the-less if you look white in this society you are more often treated as white and accrue those benefits, even if they seem to be minor--like not being asked what language you speak or where you are from. This is something most white students never have to worry about or deal with and that many Asian American and Latino students are constantly grappling with.

*I tell my students that we are going to create a safe and comfortable atmosphere to talk honestly and openly about race and racism. That part of the problem is that we often treat discussions of race and racism like we do cancer--something to talk about in hushed terms behind closed doors--that somehow it's not OK to talk about race and somehow it shows bad manners or is shameful or to have questions about race and racism isn't OK. And one key thing I try to do each semester is to allow students to have a space to have conversations about race--which is hard.

Really hard.

Because people are on different pages when it comes to race and racism--and this comes from a variety of factors--their own racial identity, their experiences, their families and friends, the things they've read, their classes, their trust in and relationship with me, their trust in and relationship with their fellow classmates. Conversations can get pretty heated, and my job is to act more as a moderator than as a teacher in these moments.

And that's the part that is often the hardest for me and where I sometimes fail. Because I want them to work it out and talk it out amongst themselves--to have the dialogue and the conversation and not just be talked to about race by an authority figure (me). Yet there are moments when I've thought I need to intervene--to push them to think about the language they are using. For example, in one discussion students talked about an author being biased because he was Latino and therefore he was already pre-disposed to champion a Latino cause. And I asked them what would happen if they changed the word "bias," which they agreed had a negative connotation, to the word "advocacy," which has a more positive feeling to it. And what would happen if we talked about this author being an advocate of Latinos because he was Latino?

I realize that a college classroom is an artificial place in many ways. We meet for an hour a day for 3 days a week, and there is an authority figure (me) to act as moderator and to handle things when the conversation gets a bit heated. Talking to your neighbor or co-worker is trickier because there is no moderator and you aren't sure it's a safe space. But I think in a lot of ways the guidelines I establish in my classroom are ones that could be modified in our day-to-day interactions for those of us who want to be anti-racist educators outside of the classroom. Namely:

1) Don't call someone a racist.
2) Don't try to blame or guilt someone into your point-of-view
3) Do believe that a positive or at least productive conversation is possible and to speak your mind, speak truth to power, but in a way where the other person will hear you rather than get wrapped up in his/her defenses.

It's not easy--like I said, an education in race and racism is on-going. But I think we're all capable of being both students and teachers when it comes to anti-racist education. And I certainly think we ALL need to be students and teachers and allies when it comes to recognizing white privilege and fighting against racism. The really amazing thing is, we really can do this work--it's hard, but I'm convinced we can do it.


Laura Stillman said...

It is so complicated and what you do is so important. Repsectful and honest debate and sharing over such a hot button topic is difficult to manage. You are brave and it sounds like you are very successful at it. Thanks for the work you do.

CVT said...

As another classroom teacher (in the "get 'em while they're young" camp) that directly teaches about race and prejudice, I just want to say, "I feel you." Keep fighting the good fight.

CVT said...

Oh, and I moved my blog to, where I've got a little podcast rolling - I think you'd like it, so check it out (and no need to post this comment - just wanted to extend the invitation . . . ).