Systematic Silencing

Unfortunately (yet unsurprisingly) a college professor who happens to be a woman of color was recently reprimanded for teaching about structural racism in her classroom in a way that made some white male students feel “uncomfortable.” While the subject should be fairly uncontroversial, particularly at an institution of higher learning, three white males interrupted her lecture to ask defensively why she was teaching this subject matter. As one might expect, she gave an explanation of why it was relevant to the course material in addition to telling them explicitly that she was talking about systemic issues and that nothing she was saying should be taken as personal attacks.  However, this was somehow inadequate for these young epicenters of unexamined privilege, and they continued to protest to the extent that they filed complaints with the school alleging racial harassment.

The way this story unfolds is incredible to me, as a student, because I can imagine in my mind exactly who these young men might be. Over the course of my college career, I’ve taken a whole lot of courses, and many of my classes have included these kinds of antagonists. It’s not always about issues of this sort – it could really be about anything. They derail and disrupt to lead  the class on tangents, to complain that the material is boring, to play the devil’s advocate for no apparent reason. I have never seen them taken for anything other than what they are: annoyances that ruin the classroom environment. Generally, all that is required is a little professorial flexing to get things back on track, and if they continue to disrupt, they are asked to leave. I’m not talking about people who don’t understand the material or who ask thought provoking questions. I’m talking about students who get bored and try to “have fun” with the lecture to kill time. I would imagine that these students exist to some degree at every college campus in the US.

With that context in mind, it is extremely distressing to know that these students were the presumed victims when it was their word against a faculty member’s. It’s difficult to imagine that their status as white men and the professor’s status as a black woman was totally unrelated to the reversal of the power dynamic that should have existed between a professor and her students. Meanwhile, in a communication from the college’s administration, the professor was told that she had “led a discussion on the very important topic of of structural racism [that had] alienated two students who may have been most in need of learning about this subject.” Instead of taking into account the very real possibility that these were just a couple of knuckleheads that didn’t want to learn, her instructional style is called into question.

This shouldn’t come as a shock, but it is not the responsibility of marginalized people to make members of dominant groups feel more comfortable. Some discomfort is necessary in acknowledging the status of reality. Confronting privilege is never easy, but that difficulty should never be blamed on the marginalized person who brings it to light. If those students weren’t ready to learn about racism, there is nothing (short of dishonesty) that could have made them more open to the topic. They don’t have the right to talk over her. They don’t have the right to derail her lectures and undermine her authority. They don’t have the right to shoot the messenger.

Meanwhile, as this professor is being reprimanded for having the audacity to perform her job, high school teachers across the US are assigning The Help as an example of period-accurate historical fiction, wherein white people triumph over the evils of racism in 1963 Mississippi. This is obviously a dangerously unethical way to teach young people about racism in the US, but for some reason, teachers have accepted this unfathomably sugar-coated (white-narrated) version of revisionist history as a means to connect white students with the topic.

These students deserve better than that. If they are allowed to believe that racism is not a problem in the US and that whites are situated as the benevolent caretakers of racial minorities, they lose the opportunity to really think about how their society operates. They lose the opportunity to examine themselves and grow their humanity. Confronting privilege is not just something that members of dominant groups are compelled to do to be “nice” to the oppressed. It is necessary for informed and meaningful participation in our communities, our nations, and our world. When we are “protected” from the knowledge of our unearned advantages, we are unable to develop the empathy that makes us fully human. Recognizing privilege is not a form of self-abuse or an internalization of guilt. It is something that we need to learn so that we can be better. And the only way that we can learn is by listening to what others have to say, including and especially when you feel that they are “beneath” you.

Emile: I always thought that you were very single-minded about your dreams and that that would help you through life. But now I see that you skipped the struggle and went right to the end.

Megan: It’s not the end, it’s the beginning.

Emile: This apartment, this wealth that someone handed to you. This is what Karl Marx was talking about. And it’s not because someone else deserves it. It’s because it is bad for your soul.

-Mad Men, “At the Codfish Ball”: Episode 7, Season 5


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