Teaching issues of race and other identity categories presents a challenge in a racially mixed classroom. Student responses to race-related topics are unpredictable, and can send irretrievably shut down classroom dynamics for the rest of the semester.
Last semester, for instance, as some intentionally provocative students claimed that black people really do like fried chicken, others genuinely bought into the stereotype, and the class deteriorated into a discussion about fried chicken, rather than the point of stereotypes. Reigning in these kinds of conversations get increasingly difficult, and conversations get more uncomfortable and tense as conservative rhetoric toward people of color gets more hostile.
If the students of color (predominantly black, though at school we’re seeing a rise in other minorities) aren’t comfortable enough to respond, the conversation becomes awkward, and the spiral of silence takes hold. Many students of all demographics grow resentful, sullen, and silent. When that happens, it generally overshadows the rest of the semester, not just because of the racialized dynamics, but because students just don’t feel comfortable or interested in talking about anything at all after that experience.
In these moments, instructors struggle with two problems, balancing content (the concept of the moment, stereotype), and politics (racism).
Old School Way
Introducing the topic of privilege and difference is easier to handle neutrally or inductively before it is addressed directly. For example, when I taught women’s studies classes I tried to get students to see how their own sense of disparity first before naming it as such, and then afterward showed them that their experiences were based in sexism. So, for instance, instead of telling women that they are victims of beauty culture, ask them to inventory the contents of their purses, and then debrief with a content analysis, and a summation that connects to the beauty culture.
The LGBT student group at LSU used a similar approach when coming to class to talk about homophobia and queer identity. They began by asking students to list identity categories, then pick one, then imagine the President and Congress making it illegal to be that identity. Then they discussed how it made people feel. It worked for a lot of people, even though some students saw through the ruse.
Another dated example from the 90s to illustrate a neutral approach to teaching privilege: The “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” clip from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country shows how starting neutrally provides a non-threatening segue for talking about privilege. In the dinner scene, the Klingons come to the Enterprise for dinner and (iirc) Uhura says something about inalienable rights. The comment sets off a confrontation because Klingons are “aliens,” not humans. This clip makes a good discussion about how the entire encounter privileges human over Klingon, from the type of food served, to the privilege of breaking the law with impunity by serving illegal booze, to the fundamental assumption that the Klingons would have to give up the essence of their species to join the Federation. It’s an easy, neutral territory to cover. After all it’s fiction, and not politically charged reality. From there, the jump to privilege as related to identity categories such as gender, race, class, is much easier because the concept of privilege is separated from the politics. Once students get the concept, it is easier to discuss privilege as applied to race.
The NEW example! The students bleed their team colors!
LSU/Southern football fandom.
Here is the scenario:
Pretend you are an LSU or Southern fan and you bleed your team colors – for generations, even. Visualize that you have to attend Florida State because you got money, or it was the only school with your major, or your family moved there, or whatever. Imagine everyone at FSU hates LSU and the tigers, so when you are there, get harassed, teased, made fun of, rejected, etc. Then some FSU classmates points out that you will fit in better if you stopped wearing your LSU swag and started wearing ‘Noles stuff. So….what would you do
Here’s what happens:
Most students say they will keep their swag. Some say they would try to pass (using other language, of course). Some say they would wear their swag just to rub it in their classmates’ faces. Some say it would be a complete betrayal to their home team to change jerseys.
So, the shift from shirts to privilege is less difficult because students get the concept and the next move is political. Take assimilation, for example. The conversation about “illegal aliens,” Mexicans, and Mexican Americans wasn’t strained. Many students are comfortable disagreeing about jerseys, and being “like us.” Translating that conversation to immigration and assimilation is obviously more politically complex, but it makes the point about the disparity in demanding that “they” should be more like “us” when so few students would give up a just football jersey, much less a cultural identity.