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Last month, I attended a teaching workshop on navigating difficult classroom discussions, with a focus on racist microaggressions that may occur during class. This was a great workshop; it reignited my passion for teaching by reminding me why I became an educator in the first place. Despite lawsuits against professors who dare to talk about structural racism and attempted forced retirements against those who talk about sex work, I stand firmly by the position that a professor’s job is to talk about uncomfortable, controversial subjects. A class is incomplete if its students have not been pushed outside of their comfort zones and/or had their initial ways of thinking challenged.
The workshop left only one issue unaddressed that I sorely wanted to discuss: acknowledging and navigating the instructor’s pain. This is not really a complaint. Recognizing and addressing racist and other microaggressions in one’s classroom deserves more than the three hours we devoted to it that morning. So, too, in my opinion, does recognizing and addressing what instructor’s experience and bring to the classroom. As I noted even in my introduction at the start of the workshop, I want to know how I can stop shutting down when something offensive is said in the classroom. Beyond that, I struggle with carrying my own pain from experiencing the very things I bring up in class.
Let me give two examples of what I mean:
- About half way through my research methods course last semester, a white student dismissed the conclusions drawn from a experiments that suggested the presence of racial prejudice and discrimination — even among young children. I acknowledge that I chose experiments that were not without their limitations, but had the benefit of a video about them. But, I could tell that underlying this student’s comment was not methodological concerns; rather, he seemed set in believing these experiments could not possibly demonstrate the existence of racial prejudice and discrimination. I was neither emotionally nor pedagogically prepared to have the “does racism exist?” conversation, so I pointed out the inaccuracies in his own comment, and acknowledged the limitations of the studies, and moved on. It was a course on methods, not racism, after all; but, how I could have better handled this kind of concern, or even challenge, lingers in my mind still.
- On the very day I taught on homophobia in my gender and sexualities course last semester, a construction crew member left a religious pamphlet in my apartment. I suspect this was upon seeing pictures of my partner and me while they entered to install a new door. Prejudice or shoddy work, they also threw our doormats about and left a lot of sawdust on the carpet and furniture. I went to class that day feeling violated. A stranger, whose identity, appearance, and politics were unknown to me, entered my home and left a message to me about their religious beliefs. This would have been a wonderful experience to bring up in that evening’s class. But, I knew not to for fear that I might become upset or even start crying. I had not yet processed the experience and, frankly, patched up the wound it reopened.
My pedagogical approach embraces one’s personal experiences directly, rather than treating them as suspect (i.e., a threat to objectivity) or irrelevant. I ask students to drawn on their own lives to support comments made in class; also, my assignments require students to connect course material to their personal experiences. I figure that students will not retain material as well if you ask them to prioritize it over all of their year’s of experiences, knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions; at best, they may set course material beside this preexisting mental content and, sometimes, easily slip back into old ways of thinking. Also, I aim to contribute to my students’ consciousness-raising by asking them to reexamine their own lives and past experiences through the critical lenses taught in my courses. So, I willingly work at breaking the barrier between intellectual and personal imposed by much of academia, and intentionally bring up controversial and difficult subjects during class.
I certainly agree with other instructors’ sentiment that I am not a counselor. I now make clear that the classroom should be treated as a safe, nonjudgmental place, but it is not designed as a group therapy session. I contribute to maintaining this kind of space by (re)directing the conversation back to course material, and avoiding therapy-style questions like “how did that make you feel?” and “and, then what did you say to him?” My approach is a work in progress, and necessarily shifts or expands each time I teach a new course. But, I generally feel comfortable in asking my students to reflect on their lives, even pain related to the issues we discuss.
Professor’s Feel Pain, Too
But, what about my experiences and pain? I certainly do not make the class about me. (Hello, still struggling with self-doubt and better self-promotion here!) Yet, I do make a point to divulge some to reciprocate in asking my students to open up to me (and the entire class, if they wish). At a minimum, I save the last day for lingering questions students have for me (asked anonymously), which usually covers “what’s your race?”, “what’s your sexual orientation?”, “where did you go to graduate school/college?”, “why did you become a sociologist?” Funny, though, I was surprised to find that I received only 2 or 3 questions in my research methods course — the one where I had already been the least open as a human; but, everyone asks a question in my gender and sexualities courses. After gauging the class in general, and the conversation that day, I sometimes interject with a personal thought or experience if it will offer a different perspective than what was already offered.
I have noticed, though, that my willingness to share surrounds “safe” experiences and thoughts. That is, they are not too controversial, thus avoiding radically changing how my students’ views of me thus far. But, I also mean that I have efficiently processed it. I either no longer experience pain in the case of negative occurrences or am sufficiently suppressing how I feel just enough to share with a group of semi-strangers. But, I do not simply have a painful past. As a fat Black queer man, there is a very good chance I experienced something related to weight, race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. that day.
Besides carrying the pain, especially for experiencing discrimination or microaggressions, it is hard to completely throw out the myth of objectivity in the classroom. Implicitly, I cave to the false security of being objective by withholding my own experiences and thoughts from classroom discussion. When my students talked about their experiences with homophobia — as targets or witnesses — I refrained from saying, “hell, I just experienced homophobia right before class!” because the conversation was not supposed to be about me. This is not necessary, and is unfair to my students who decide to share. But, it is hard to quickly break from the way that most of us are taught (if at all) to teach.
“Objectivity,” Or Suppressing Pain
The myth of objectivity in teaching is also unfair to me because it also plays out as suppression — a form of emotional labor. Being “objective” about racism, for example, is not simply keeping my thoughts to myself to, instead, prioritize my students’ thoughts; it is having to keep a lid on years’ worth of my own pain and anger. It is trying to be respectful and remained engaged as I hear white students underestimate the pervasiveness of racism while my mind starts to drift to the “nigger joke” that ruined my Christmas night.
So, in recognizing what this is — that I carry pain — it is now my job to figure out what to do with it. Bringing it to class puts me at risk for having this pain shutting me down or constraining my ability to effectively run classroom discussion. So long as I willingly teach on subjects like racism, homophobia, sexism, etc., I must work at emotionally and pedagogically preparing to talk about things that will always hit close to home. Sadly, I need to prepare, albeit it to a lesser extent, even when I teach “safe” and “generic” topics because it would be foolish to expect the classroom to be devoid of prejudice and discrimination.
But, this points to one manifestation of inequality in academia that I will forever resent: that marginalized scholars are tasked with this kind of emotional labor before (and likely after) class, on top of additional concerns to navigating during class. This additional burden of labor related to teaching is exacerbated because our privileged colleagues are less likely to pursue these subjects in class anyhow. And, worse, they are (at times) one source of the pain we carry around with us.
Before the semester started, I attended a workshop on effectively navigating difficult dialogue in the classroom, co-organized by my own institution (University of Richmond) and another nearby college (VCU). The bulk of the three-hour long workshop seemed to revolve around microaggressions that occur in the classroom; but, the overall goal was to build our toolkits as educators to recognize them and hopefully diffuse them, and understand what happens when we fail to do so.
Psychologist Derald W. Sue and his colleague define microaggressions as “[b]rief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group” (Sue et al., 2007, p. 273). Such experiences have various negative consequences for marginalized individuals who may face various microaggressions throughout the day. As Dr. Sue and colleagues highlight in other work, they may also produce difficult, tense, unworkable dialogue when they occur in the classroom.
Below are a few strategies we discussed in the workshop to prevent, recognize, and diffuse microaggressions that occur in the classroom:
- Set a tone of inclusion, safety, and respect from the beginning of the class. One specific strategy is to allow the students to develop a set of ground rules that will be used for classroom discussion for the semester. Some good examples that we, as workshop participants, came up with include: use “I” statements (speak for yourself); avoid interrupting others; avoid passing judgement; minimize defensiveness; confidentiality; there are no “stupid” questions; take note of others emotions to gauge (dis)comfort. From personal experience, this worked great in a class of 11 students, but does not seem as significant in my class of 24. I suspect an important step even before this one is to clearly define what discussion looks like in one’s class, particularly given the (large) size.
- Pay attention to classroom dynamics. Has a student’s body language changed from calm to tense? Or, engaged to disengaged? Has a student that usually talks often become silent all of a sudden? Do students change their chosen seat in the classroom after sitting in one place for sometime? (In other words, are they avoiding another student, or maybe moving further away or closer to you?) Is a student with otherwise perfect attendance suddenly absent after a class that seemed odd or tense? Some of these, hopefully, attune you to difficulties and tension that arise right away so that you do not see lingering effects in the next class meeting or thereafter.
- Take an active, not passive, approach to addressing microaggressions when they occur. This means continuing to actively facilitate classroom discussion rather than allowing the students to take over. Even if you are uncomfortable, refrain from changing the subject or becoming silent all together. As much as possible, contain your own emotions in hopes that you can deal with them after class.
- Another strategy to consider before the semester even begins is becoming more comfortable with the course material, but also (even if not related) talking about issues of inequality, prejudice, and discrimination. You should not rely on students to respond in certain ways or to speak as experts on behalf of their own racial or ethnic group. I personally struggle with this, sometimes (wrongly) assuming that certain students will offer a critical view on some issue I bring up; sometimes, students will surprise you by taking a different view or remaining silent all together. While this, on the surface, makes sense as the responsibility for the lone instructor for the course, I also understand the constraints we (especially marginalized scholars) feel. We worry about being intensely challenged by a student or disrespected, or about being dismissed as “biased” or prejudiced. And, we worry how this will affect future classroom dynamics, course evaluations, etc.
- Challenge microaggressions directly. Ask deeper questions that encourage students to name and examine their underlying assumptions. Remind students of the ground rules that the class set at the beginning of the semester. If the comment is not even relevant to the subject, let the students know (while also signaling that the comment was hurtful or offensive). If the incident was serious enough, deal with the student(s) directly after class.
- If relevant, cover microaggressions in the class. This will familiarize unfamiliar students, and may help marginalized students give name to these subtle yet pervasive experiences. It will provide students with a common language and conceptualization to use in class discussion.
- When a microaggression occurs, make sure to acknowledge the (potential) victim(s), as well. Effectively diffusing such incidents is partly work to address the perpetrator (intentions, assumptions, learning from one’s mistakes, learning how others were hurt) and partly work to address the victim (emotional/social/physical responses, lingering impact). One of the major pitfalls is the insult of not having one’s existence, experiences, and emotions validated following the injury of a microaggression. Students of color, for example, may be further silenced following a racist microaggression if the instructor fails to signal that they are aware of it and that someone was hurt by it. This, of course, does not mean looking at students of color and asking, “you’re Latina — how did that comment make you feel?” Maybe it is best to ask the entire class how they felt, and explicitly naming that some people of color may be hurt by such comments. It is not enough to accept what may feel like shallow comments from well-meaning white students.
I promised myself a little time to vent about the nigger “joke” I heard on Christmas, and then I would forgive and move on. At the close of the sentence, “bigger than a nigger’s lips,” my mind went spiraling. I was shocked that I heard what I heard. Five feet away from me? In mixed company on many accounts? How was the joke even relevant to the conversation? How, in 2013, do whites still make nigger “jokes”? I felt eyes dart in my direction. Oh, Eric — the Black guy — the professor — the one who does research on racism — the one who speaks openly about racism — oh, gosh.
I tried to play it cool. But, that all dissolved in a matter of minutes. Sitting in the car for the remainder of our time at the party was the only thing keeping me from vomiting. Or at least it felt as though I would, as nausea built from feeling trapped between politeness and my burning, screaming mind. I promised I would get over it by the next day, continuing to focus on racism as a system of oppression — not individual acts and attitudes.
But, in just seeing @StandForOurFlag, a defender of the Confederate flag, notify me that many in the US South continue to feel nostalgia for the confederacy (which lasted for four years) 150 years later because of something about liberty (give me a break), I cannot quickly get over the Christmas event. Two days later, I saw a Confederate flag waving proudly on my way to the mall. I tweeted about it, which is why I received the aforementioned response about liberty for (whites in) the South. Liberty?
In the spirit of one of my my 2013 resolutions (now one for 2014 because it is still a work in progress) — forgiveness — I had hoped to move on from the nigger “joke.” Black people, from capture, forced removal, enslavement, to Jim Crow, lynching, rape, to a continuing, yet subtler practice of racism today have been forgiving whites for a lot. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights movement leaders advocated for forgiveness even in the face of vehement racist hatred. It takes a huge, committed, faith-filled heart to forgive that. But, I have been trying. Something akin to “forgive the sinner, but not the sin” because racist individuals are simply a product of their racist society. It takes an evolved mind and spirit to be better than your upbringing, in my opinion. People can change — I have, and I have seen others become better, more compassionate, more open-minded, more understanding, and more critical of inequality and injustice.
I can think of something bigger than a nigger’s lips: a nigger’s heart. Still today, Black people and other people of color fight to make the US a better, more equal place — even with a continued willingness to work with white people where they are. Despite accusations of “playing the race card” and being hypersensitive, there is a great deal of patience afforded to whites without laying blame for this country’s racist past. We ask only to address today’s racism, which is a product of past racism. You cannot eradicate racial inequalities today without addressing the impact of centuries of enslavement, disenfranchisement, violence, and barriers to advancing and succeeding in life. You cannot tell a group of people who have never experienced full, equal citizenship in this nation to “get over” the very events and treatment that continues to constrain their lives.
So, I admit that alongside my forgiveness is a twinge of resentment. I have been asked again and again to forgive, even to forget, even to forgo recognizing bigotry when it occurs. But, I am sometimes automatically damned, accused, found guilty, punished simply because of my racial identity. I am asked to forgive those who refuse to forgive me for not being like them. How small is your heart (and your mind) if you automatically punish someone for being something you have decided is inferior or undesirable? So, we’ve got you beat there, racist white people! In this vein, we have the more open minds, we have the bigger, more forgiving hearts. We are able to simultaneously love this country and hate its ugliness in order to make it a better place.
I will keep forging ahead in my work to fight racism as a system, including racist treatment and attitudes. But, I think I have reached my capacity for forgiveness. Now approaching 30 years, I am beginning to feel heartache. I cannot forgive the murder of Trayvon Martin, nor that the State, which unfairly punishes those it should be protecting, that let his murderer free. I cannot forgive “oh, I didn’t know anyone would be offended,” and then be told celebrating the racist legacy of the South is a matter of liberty. I do not know that I can forgive the political sabotage driven by racism that has severely hindered President Obama’s important legacy in this nation.
My heart is big, but it would burst if I forgave any more without forgiveness in return.