Teaching While White

I’ve been thinking a lot about race and racism in the classroom, about microaggressions and why anti racist activism is needed now more than ever. We’ve been having more of a conversation about it at my own university, so I decided to write up a list of the kinds of things I do and think about when it comes to teaching.

This is a working document, not final, but I think it gets at a lot of the issues that trip me and others up when creating a racially inclusive classroom.

I also want to reiterate, in no uncertain terms, that these thoughts do not reflect the thoughts or policy of the university which employs me, but only represent my own personal thoughts on the topic. (There is a reason, after all, that I have not named said university.)

Thoughts on Creating an Inclusive Classroom: Focus on Race – Helen Boyd Kramer

  1. When presenting art or music or literature that is racist, there are hugely different ways to do so. Version 1: “Here’s some racist art but we’re going to focus on the brush strokes/melodies and not talk about how racist it is” is NOT going to do the trick. “Here’s some racist art and let’s talk about why it’s racist, what makes it racist, and what it means that this kind of art is still hung in museums and galleries while black artists still struggle to be taken seriously.”
  1. Talk about how you, as a teacher and scholar, negotiate whatever kinds of art may be oppressive to you personally. Ask yourself, if you’ve never thought about it: as a woman, how do I negotiate references to rape and sexism? As a gay man, how do I address homophobia in culture? As a Jewish person, how do I negotiate anti-semitism? I don’t mean in your life, but in the ways that as a person who has studied subjects wide and deep: talk to students about how you have decided to make sense of how upsetting it can be to discover these kinds of microaggressions in the work of artists you personally love, and how it’s more upsetting precisely because you love them otherwise.
  1. I use this statement on my syllabi these days:

Safe Space/Trigger Warnings: Due to the nature of the reading material, I will issue no trigger warnings about specific readings, precisely because any or all of this material may be difficult. That said, I am more than willing to excuse you if necessary, although you will have to do a make-up assignment/readings. My intention, and the intention of most gender studies courses, is to address issues that cause oppression and violence in order to empower and create change. In order to do so, it is vital that we discuss, research, and analyze these topics but that we do so from an intellectual, not an emotional, place. That said, do make time to process, make appointments with counselors, or otherwise find support if any of these topics are deeply personal and troubling.

Finally, an educational atmosphere cannot be safe space in the truest sense, but I do ask that you follow these four rules:

  • Assume the best intentions.
  • Don’t assume you’re more right than anyone else in the room.
  • Listen to learn.
  • Criticize ideas, not people.
  1. Take trauma seriously. When introducing those rules, I usually talk about how some kinds of trauma aren’t well represented; that people assume TWs are always about sexual assault when in fact articles about lynching, transphobia, gay bashing, etc., are also triggers for students. I tend to talk more personally about how, as a NYer who lived through 9/11, I have to gird myself when it comes up even in intellectual spaces – and that it’s been a decade since that happened, and yet I will be not quite right for a few days after the topic comes up when I wasn’t expecting it. Relate. Try to. Figure out a way to understand what trauma is, how it feels to the traumatized, and remember that everyone relates to trauma differently.
  1. If you’re white, assume you’re racist. I often tell my students that flat out – that the first important step for any white ally is to acknowledge that we are all raised to be racist – if not by our family of origin, by our culture. Admit out loud to students that you are aware of some of the racism you were raised with, and that you know becoming less so is a process but a good goal. You can always use Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Knapsack” article if you’re not sure how to go about acknowledging skin privilege: https://www.deanza.edu/faculty/lewisjulie/White%20Priviledge%20Unpacking%20the%20Invisible%20Knapsack.pdf
  1. Accept that race doesn’t exist but that racism does. Race doesn’t exist biologically, genetically, or in any other scientific way; that race is a social construction that has helped people organize and categorize other human beings, usually in a way that oppresses, enslaves, or disempowers them. If you believe there is something innately different between you and a black person, you haven’t done your reading. Check out Coates: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/05/what-we-mean-when-we-say-race-is-a-social-construct/275872/
  1. If you’re white, learn something about the Four Enlargements of Whiteness, and find out if any of your own ancestry wasn’t considered white at some point. The definition of Whiteness has changed over time in the US, so much so that Irish Americans and Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, were not considered white at some points in history. This helps demonstrate that whiteness is (realness, Americanness) – a social construction. Here’s Abagond on the Fourth Englargement: https://abagond.wordpress.com/2014/06/26/the-fourth-enlargement-of-american-whiteness/ or you can check out Painter’s History of White People itself: http://www.amazon.com/History-White-People-Irvin-Painter/dp/0393339742
  1. Read a LOT more by black authors. I recommend Abagond and Black Girl Dangerous (online). Make sure you’ve read at least some of the basics of black literature / critical race theory (variable list, but I’ll add mine at the end). My short list: Malcolm X’s Speeches at Harvard, Ellison’s Invisible Man, James Baldwin’s everything and anything, Nella Larsen’s Passing and/or Quicksand, something by Toni Morrison, Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks (along with many others of hers), Said’s Orientalism, Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.
  1. Be aware of stereotype threat – what it is, how it works. See Claude Steele’s original work and some of the follow-up research on it. Short version: Stereotype Threat is a situational experience for those in marginalized groups who are invested in a field of study but are reminded that they are often representing the group. That is, male students can fail individually. When female students fail, “girls are bad at math”. Whistling Vivaldi is the book, and here’s a short interview with Steele about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=failylROnrY
  2. If a student says something racist in the classroom, or if you do, stop the discussion and take a minute to attend to it. Do not brush it off. Do not call the student out individually. I usually try to take a minute to say, “OK, did we all just hear that? I’m not sure who said it but I’m sure other white people in the room were thinking something like it, so let’s not criticize the person who did say something out loud. Instead, let’s talk about what that word/expression means and why it’s not good for any of us. After class, send an email to the class as a group and invite any students who had a hard time with what was said to an office meeting to process it a little more. Black students will often say they’re okay with white students coming to said meeting, but usually they’re not. Again, ASK. I use the line “It’s all about what you need from me, so tell me what works for you.” And DO IT. Bring it up again in the next class meeting; remind the whole class that racism is often unintentional but still very serious, and that you’re happy to spend more time discussing it privately with anyone who needs to talk more.
  1. When you’re coming to do a topic that may be difficult for some students, give counseling services a heads up, and let your students know that you have. I do this whenever we do readings on sexual assault, lynching, homophobia, transphobia. You don’t need to know if anyone sees a counselor about these issues raised in class, but they do appreciate knowing you’re aware that this material can be emotionally hard. Again, as in my “Not a Trigger Warning” statement, I remind them that while we discuss things intellectually in the classroom, there are emotional ramifications – some expected, some unexpected – that may result, and that’s normal – just not for the classroom.
  1. Don’t be scared of your black students, and don’t assume they are all the same. They come with a huge range of life experiences, world views, ways of dealing with being black in America. Never ask a black person what they think about gangs, drugs, Spike Lee, jazz, or whatever is unconsciously coded as “black” in your head. Maybe sit down and think about what things you think are “black” so that you are aware of that. Also, don’t be surprised when they love Adele or some other white performer. White people like black music, black people like white music. Tolstoy was the Tolstoy of the Zulus, after all (Coates).
  1. Simultaneously, do recognize that your student IS black. Pretending to be “post racial” or “colorblind” is wildly insulting. You are disappearing an important and significant aspect of a person by pretending you don’t “see” race or ethnicity. People are proud of where they’re from no matter where they’re from.
  1. Be okay with being ignorant. Believe me, don’t fake it. If you haven’t read anything by a person of the student’s cultural group, just SAY THAT. Most of us aren’t well versed in queer chicana art and if your student is, they’re happy to tell you what they know and love about it. Meet up with them during office hours to get recommendations. But also, read more, expose yourself to more. Remember as white people we are deprived of whole schools of art, music, literature, and history; we should feel robbed that we only know the works and world view of white people. So boring. Which goes with…
  1. Get comfortable with discomfort. It’s okay not to know things. Most people don’t. As faculty we have a tendency to know everything, or know someone who does, and to intellectualize emotional responses. But race is an uncomfortable topic for white people. Being aware of race isn’t about feeling guilty or anything like it: it’s about stepping up to make the world a little less racist, and that’s all it is. Recognizing privilege goes a long way toward that goal.
  1. Validate your students when they come to tell you something racist happened, whether it was on College Ave, in another class, or at home. Validate that they felt hurt. Telling students to toughen up, or “it could be worse” or anything like that just lets them know you’re not the one to talk to. Don’t equate your experience of oppression with theirs – “because I’m a woman I understand” but do tell them you’re sorry racism happens and that you recognize how hurtful it can be to experience.
  1. If they confront you over something you did, check with The Toe Rule – when someone tells you that you stepped on their toe, you just say sorry: you don’t explain why you did, you don’t get upset with them, you don’t ask for evidence that you did, and you don’t tell them to be nicer about it. You just apologize.
  1. Learn to appreciate the scare quote, or air quotes, to indicate words or phrases that are unacceptable or suspect to you but that authors may use otherwise. As a white person, don’t ever say the N word out loud. Just don’t. It’s not yours. My general rule of thumb is that if a word has a history of violence, and you’re not someone who would experience that violence right after hearing it, don’t use it. “Faggot” or “dyke” isn’t for straight people. The N word isn’t for white people to use. “Bitch” or “Cunt” by men. You get the idea.
  1. Don’t assume someone who doesn’t look __________ isn’t ____________. Lots of black people “look white” (whatever we mean by that) and so do multiracial students. Don’t ask African American students where their people are from because slavery means they usually don’t know. Simultaneously, asking anyone where they are from, especially where they’re “really” from, is a microaggression unless there’s a good reason for it. If anything about the way you’re asking implies “I’m white and American, but you don’t seem to be” you’re doing it wrong.
  1. Whenever you see the term “politically correct” replace it with “treating people with respect and using terminology for them and their identity that they prefer”.

Awesome Show on Gender

I just listened to this awesome show on gender, sexuality, and identity on BackStory.


  • great discussion of “two spirit” and the way it maps and doesn’t onto non-indigenous gender & sexuality categories
  • Joe McCarthy wasn’t just all about the Red Scare, but the Lavender Scare as well
  • WI “passing woman” marries woman
  • & the story of T. Hall who was required by law to wear clothing of both genders – and more importantly, how that would have been viewed by others at the time
  • why you can (or shouldn’t) think of Walt Whitman as a “gay poet”

Really, really great stuff, thoughtful discussion, and basically, pretty much what I teach.


io9 did this interesting article about Freud, and why he remains stubbornly, and maybe regrettably, important:

“Freud is truly in a class of his own,” writes Todd Dufresne, an outspoken critic. “Arguably no other notable figure in history was so fantastically wrong about nearly every important thing he had to say. But, luckily for him, academics have been — and still are — infinitely creative in their efforts to whitewash his errors, even as lay readers grow increasingly dumbfounded by the entire mess.”

It’s not so much whitewashing as having to teach him in order to teach a bunch of other things that reference his works. As someone who teaches, it’s hard not to notice how much of what we read and discuss has been written in response to Freud, but no one really assigns him anymore, either. So much of French feminism, feminist film theory, and post modern theory, rely on a basic working knowledge of some of his concepts, like Oedipal complex and castration anxiety and his ideas about the family’s role in the sex and gender roles, for that matter. (If anyone knows of a useful compendium of some of these major concepts, I’d love to know about it.)

But I was, also, reminded of his remarkable letter to the mother of a gay man who was worried about her son. He wrote:

Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them. (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime – and a cruelty, too. If you do not believe me, read the books of Havelock Ellis.

That’s often the context I teach him in – as part of the movement of turn of the last century sexologists, some of whom, like Freud, were essentially compassionate if also paternalistic. That is definitely not true of all of them – Kraft-Ebing was a pathologizing asshole, for instance – but Ellis, who he mentions, wrote the introduction to the lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, which was, in turn, brought up on obscenity charges only for portraying lesbian existence.

Bathwater maybe, but not the baby.

First Day of Classes

Tomorrow is the first day of classes here at Lawrence, and I’m teaching Gender Studies 100. We’re starting with a discussion of Caster Semenya, of course, so that we can talk a little bit about the way gender studies people view a story like hers. It introduces stuff like the binary, genetic/chromosomal sexing, gender stereotypes, etc.

I’m looking forward to it. This course is co-taught, and my co-teacher is from Physics this year, which means plenty of science students. Should be entertaining.