Talking about IT: privilege and politics in the classroom

Lots of college instructors feel the urgency and difficulty of talking to our students during especially troubling social and political times. On the one hand, we are taught that our classrooms, like good newspapers, are supposed to be fair, balanced and apolitical. It’s supposed to be our job to teach students how to think better without becoming overly normative about the particulars. But when we are faced with raging ignorance, gross injustice, and threats to our most basic values, the pressure and responsibility to speak in more clearly values-based terms grows.

The narrow space we occupy is revealed to be even tighter when we consider that our students, primed by gun fever and a white supremacist president, may use weapons or cars to mow us down in the parking lot if they don’t like us. And we must add to the mix that those same angry students may well have parents who have the ear of the provost, the president, or a university regent with the power to strip us of our very livelihoods. We want to do the right thing — to create a space for authentic discussion in the face of evil — and we also want to keep ourselves safe and secure.

Except that, as it happens, safety and security comes only through the embrace of and identification with privilege. For ostensibly white, middle-class, heteronormative instructors, the “politics” question arises in the midst of unavoidably huge, newsworthy events such as “race riots,” anti-immigrant policies, or heedless wars. But for everyone else — for example, the visibly black, brown, foreign, Jewish, Muslim or queer — “political considerations” shape nearly every gesture and choice. When Black Lives Matter was finally deemed worthy of mainstream media attention, many white professors began to wonder earnestly about how to discuss it with students. But, of course, black people had been dying all along at the hands of police officers. It took mainstream media interest to make it classroom worthy because that was when it began to matter to most of us who are white.

It is a tribute to the victims of highly publicized hate crimes that we are moved by their stories to address social issues in the classroom. It would only deepen the tragedy were business to proceed as usual in the wake of their murders. But such pedagogical tributes also threaten to devolve into a one-off performance of social penance by otherwise apolitical instructors. The suddenly concerned professor leverages this dramatically political news cycle to bravely initiate a discussion — understanding full well that silence equals complicity — and then breathes a sigh of relief when the news changes and it’s time to return to the “real” curriculum.

It is a reflection of a professor’s privilege when this turns out to be a temporary, almost seasonal pedagogical question. Our students and colleagues of color, or those who appear to be foreign or queer, never enjoy the escape into apolitical repose from which they can emerge at will. For them, existence itself, as a person, a citizen, and a professor, is always already highly charged. In the eyes of students, parents, and administrators they are, by and large, deemed guilty of political advocacy — and this is treated as a sort of failing to be indulged or monitored — simply because they exist.

Bravely socially conscious instructors have been here all along, maneuvering around perceptions and accusations that they lack objectivity or are mired in “identity politics” — as shameful as being called a feminist or a liberal — fighting for dignity and fairness. It’s just that they are generally too far behind the sexy headlines for the more privileged among us to notice or care. Anyone who wants to be a genuine ally in the struggle for social justice must risk “talking about it” well before and long after Dan Rather has decided it is time to care.

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