Thursday, November 15, 2018

Sabbatical Project: Look, a White Lady on Sabbatical!

As in the tale of Odysseus and the sirens, whites often fail to run the risk of being truly touched by the Other, exposed to the Other’s voice, narrative, and experiences. Odysseus wanted to hear the Sirens and yet play it safe. He wanted to be affected by them without risking fundamental transformation through a radical act of exposure. ”
––George Yancy, Look, a White!

One joy I’ve experienced while on sabbatical has been discovering a bounty of theoretical frameworks regarding whiteness and new vocabulary for the set of structural and behavioral practices that term describes. For white teachers, such as myself, it should now be easier than ever to enter uncomfortable but nevertheless necessary conversations about the impact our whiteness has on students.

Among the radically expansive thinkers who are developing these conversational pathways are George Yancy, an African American philosopher who provided the epigraph above. In his compelling book Look, a White!, Yancy asks that we* “flip the script” in our thinking about racism. Rather than focus on people of color when we think about race, he wants us to thoroughly, philosophically, and honestly interrogate our own social, cultural, political, and economic positioning.

This is a corrective to the misconception that because racism is an immense and on-going problem for people of color, the problem is theirs to solve. Racism belongs to white people and to achieve social transformation, Yancy says, we must be willing look deeply at the myths and fantasies (many unnamed and unrecognized) that allow us to continue to benefit from race privilege at people of colors’ expense.

“I encourage whites to dwell in spaces that make them deeply uncomfortable,” Yancy writes, “to stay with the multiple forms of agony that black people endure from them, especially those whites who deny the ways in which they are complicit in the operations of white racism. I want them to delay the hypothetical questions, to postpone their reach beyond the present. Reaching too quickly for hope can elide the importance of exposure.”

He asks white people “to tarry,” slowing our responses while sitting with all that arises when our own racial and ethnic identities are named, problematized, and analyzed, something that people of color in the United States must contend with daily.

There is a growing body of mindfulness practices that may allow white people to fulfill Yancy’s request. Utilizing these can help us avoid the sometimes overwhelming urge to flee, hide, or deny when we look at our status and privilege. Ruth King’s Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out is one such book, one that came highly recommended, and that I look forward to reading soon.

In the meantime, books such as, Historian Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of WhitePeople, Gilda Ochoa’s Academic Profiling: Latino’s, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap, Tapo Chimbganda’s The Classroom as Privileged Space: Psychoanalytic Paradigms for Social Justice, and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, have helped me understand that while whiteness is a biological fiction, it nevertheless materially affects the world and shapes everyone it in it, including the individual psyches of white teachers, such as myself, and all the students we serve.

These new-to-me methods for looking at whiteness and the fresh language these books provide for naming its impacts seemed unavailable to me the last time I invested this deeply and explicitly in social justice work. That was more than two decades ago in New York City during the AIDS crisis.

I recall white activists attempting to work with people of color from inside a certainty that all our assumptions were correct. We were overly invested in these perceptions and overly confident in our analysis, arising from what was an unconscious, but nevertheless powerful, belief in the objectivity of our perspective combined with a natural intelligence. 

All our proposed actions built from this broken place. But it couldn’t have been clearer; despite the crushing effects of homophobia, white gay men and people of color, including gay people of color, experienced the AIDS crisis differently. We just didn’t think that mattered, and we white activists knew best, or so we thought.

I saw that we disappointed and even betrayed the trust of the people of color groups with whom we tried to form coalitions. I witnessed one such group walk away. We, somehow, were bewildered when they did.

In light of all this, the best any individual white activist could do was attempt to prove our goodness despite the racism we knew existed somewhere out there, beyond what we thought was our own realm of agency or responsibility. This often meant some other white person in the room needed to be identified as the bad white, if only to preserve the myth of our individual innocence.

In her book White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, DiAngelo attributes this dynamic to white people’s false understanding of racism. If we think about racism at all, most white people see it as grounded in the individual acts of bad people. In so doing, we cut off conversations about its deeply rooted structural elements, elements which normalize and privilege our own experiences.

DiAngelo’s book is about the many unconscious strategies white people have developed for cutting off conversation, thus, avoiding accountability and responsibility for the oppression from which we benefit (regardless of how much we also suffer from it in other forms). In this way, structural racism continues to flourish, diminishing the lives of people of color, and deeply thwarting our own humanity too.

Back in the nineties, though, white activists seemed to have nowhere to go with the peculiar mix of blindness, aggression, and shame, which is also common to our people at this time, in this place. That’s why two little words “white fragility” are so precious to me today. To name a thing is to know a thing, to bring it forward even as it does its best to stay unnamed, unseen, and unconsidered.

As DiAngelo says, “[R]ather than retreat in the face of that discomfort, we can practice building our stamina for the critical examination of white identity––a necessary antidote to white fragility.”

My hope it that in examining my own whiteness and how it functions within my school and the larger systems within which it too operates, I will be better able to engage in richer more meaningful dialogues with students, teachers, and administrators alike and fulfill my teaching responsibilities more effectively.

Chimbganda encourages teachers to draw on the messy dynamics of transference and counter-transference to help navigate such challenges. Her book on the interplay between classrooms, social justice, and psychoanalysis, is especially good at laying out the psychological dynamics and consequences of keeping parts of ourselves unexamined and in the shadows. When coupled with racist ideologies and structures, the damage this does to us as children, and by extension the adults we become and the societies we develop, is immeasurable. Hers is the most profound book I have ever read about teaching and learning, and I hope everyone I know reads it.

The shadow’s presence in an educational context means we rarely-to-never name the actual dynamics of an individual campus. In the case of the school where I work, most faculty and administrators are white and most students are not. This is true despite the fact that study after study indicates students of color find greater support and connection, and, ultimately, success through educators and curriculum that mirror and reflect their own ethnic experiences. 

Chimbganda captures it like this, “Within these systems even a microcosm of empowerment was enough to make a difference in the outcome of these children and this is what I seek to highlight as the most valued asset of education in relation to social justice.”

Likewise, study after study also shows white students benefit from the presence of faculty of color, who seem to more consistently build good learning relationships with their students. But we haven't talked much about what this means for us as white instructors, and I think it would illuminate a lot about our teaching practices if we did.

It’s easy to see that the hiring practices on my campus arise from the larger societal inequities within which it operates. Another of these is the fact that most instructors on my campus are part-time, hardworking people who are paid less per hour than I am for doing the same work. Their status and working conditions also affect students’ learning. But this structural inequity is another that rarely gets reflected upon when we examine, as we do more and more frequently, data meant to tell us all we need to know about student success and failure.

Data and its uses, misuses, and the myths it supports are at the heart of the Ochoa’s book on the dangers of what she names "academic profiling," which is related to "stereotype threat," something social psychologist Claude Steele has written a lot about. 

By focusing on data, educational institutions can appear to drill down into foundational truths about learning and success without ever addressing what affects them most: power and inequality.

Ochoa’s book is a lengthy and powerful case study of the very “Southern California High School” from which she graduated. In it she names that phenomena as a “power evasive discourse,” showing how it limits system-wide transformation and blinds teachers to their students’ actual lives, abilities, beauty, and fullness, condemning everyone involved to the same outcomes and unrealized potential.

“In such climates, the needs of students are overlooked,” Ochoa writes, describing a system where “technical” and “aesthetic” solutions to perceived gaps are prioritized over inter-relationship. “[W]here the impersonal and standardized are privileged over personal connections and human affection. This type of ‘aesthetic’ schooling is ‘subtractive’ and often divests students from what they know and experience.”

However, when educators and schools open themselves to “power aware” discussions, Ochoa says, they are better equipped to hear what students have to offer and what they actually need. From here our ability to respond in a human, heartfelt, and meaningful way increases.

My hope is that once my sabbatical is completed, and I return to my campus and the classroom spaces where I operate with all my promise and also all my flaws, I am able to live up to the wisdom, beauty, and humane practices these scholars have uncovered and named. The language they’ve developed to do so is a treasure, one that should be shared.

* Though this post is meant for every reader who’s willing to make their way through it, I’ve used the collective “we” throughout to refer to myself and my white peers. In doing so, I hope to make an identity that is often unnamed, and consequently hard to see, more visible to myself and my readers.

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