An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
I never thought I would write a letter like this. I teach with a majority of white colleagues. We all say we want to actively dismantle the traditional white canon, but most of the time retreat to our corners of comfort for fear of doing it wrong. How do I challenge them professionally? How do I help my colleagues along?
To give you some background, we’re a private college that, while majority white, has a very high proportion of students of color. And across the board our students are mostly working class and first generation. Our faculty doesn’t reflect that reality, but can’t make immediate changes because of how hiring and employment works in academia. So it’s up to us white faculty to decolonize our own classrooms.
How do I push us to get past our discomfort to actively embrace anti-racism?
I am not an educator in the formal sense, so my answer to your question must, by necessity, be a general human one, as opposed to an academic one. Other folks, academic folks, might point you to book lists or hold forth on pedagogy. I couldn’t even give you a textbook definition of pedagogy; I just know how to use it properly in a simple sentence.
Despite my lack of academic bonafides, I have spent 48 years now studying with singular dedication how to be human, and particularly how to be a white human navigating white supremacy with my humanity still intact. And if there is one thing I have learned through that process and believe to the very depths of my soul, it is that if white people want to decolonize their minds then they need to spend as much time as possible engaging with worlds that have nothing to do with them.
And let me be clear about what I mean by “nothing to do with them”. I mean, not about white people’s perspectives. I mean not about white people’s comfort or validation. I do not mean that white people, or whiteness, may not be characters or a theme in those worlds, but they are not the eye or the heart or the imagination, and will likely receive little positive attention or sympathy. White folks engaging with worlds where we are not centered may feel implicated in ways that are uncomfortable, if not down right painful. Learning to manage that discomfort constructively, so that we can feel it and also see and experience other people beyond it, is our work.
Toni Morrison, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century of any color, famously said, “I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”
I read Ms. Morrison’s first book, The Bluest Eye, when I was about 10 or 11 years old. Growing up in the District of Columbia where the vast majority of my classmates and teachers were black, not to mention school administrators, crossing guards, police officers, business owners, and city officials, I was raised to the seemingly revolutionary idea that black people were just people, like me. What Morrison illuminated for me through The Bluest Eye was not simply the stunning diversity of kinds of black people, which I was already witness to just moving through my days, but the rich, complicated, epic lives black people were living between each other and inside themselves far beyond the scope of my life.
Their lives were not concerned with me in the slightest, and yet they held a pathos and intensity that I recognized in myself. In Morrison’s hands I could see all the particular ways in which being raised a poor, black girl in mid-twentieth century America had molded Pecola Breedlove to be the poignant, tragic figure that she was. I could also see how her fear and yearning and self-hatred echoed my own.
By not holding herself responsible for my comfort, or for explaining the complexity and humanity of black people to me Morrison offered me one of the central lessons of living in community successfully — I am unique and epic on the inside, and so is everyone else.
I think it is this training, to see and value the particularity and the universality of experience at the same time, that most white people lack.
White supremacy, with its racialized hierarchies and absolute insistence on centering whiteness to such an extent that it blinds white people to everyone else, steals our humanity from us. What I think educators must do in order to fight white supremacy is to insist students experience a diverse array of people centered by their own language, aesthetics, and history.
You mentioned in your letter the desire to “actively dismantle the white canon”. The heart of that effort is to push back against the centering of the white gaze. What art, music, poetry, dance, movies, and fiction do BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) create for each other, to celebrate, communicate, and witness? Send your students out to find that material. Assuming it is not material of their culture of origin, ask them to explain what is specific (historically, linguistically, aesthetically) about it. Make them do their research, which may involve immersing themselves in rafts of information that will feel very foreign. Set the expectation that they investigate their own filters, that they unpack their unconscious responses to material that isn’t about them.
Don’t just focus on narratives of oppression and struggle, though don’t avoid them either, because those stories need to be more widely taught. However, make sure you also send your students out to find material about joy, comfort, love. The capacity for anyone outside of white-cis-heteropatriarchy to carve out space for these human experiences is deeply revolutionary. It is also crucial for white people to internalize the reality that BIPOC are not caricatures or stereotypes. They are human beings who experience all the same emotions that white people experience, and many that white people often don’t have to due to white privilege.
You must replicate in your classrooms what Ms. Morrison offered me, the opportunity to realize that life exists beyond whiteness, and engaging with it not only matters, but is satisfying, enriching, and essential to being fully human.
It’s not hard to find examples of BIPOC carving out space for their full humanity. The piece of art in the header for this column was the first image that popped up when I googled “black joy in art”. How gorgeous is that? That simple search also led me to this video, from just earlier this year:
A whole art show on black joy! Just imagine all the riches out there for your students to discover.
I realize it may go against the whole notion of the academy, but I encourage you to challenge the assumption that a person can only teach from a place of unassailable authority. As Audre Lorde so aptly said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Instead of you and your colleagues approaching this learning from a place of expertise, which implicitly puts you above your students, engage them in co-learning with you. Don’t be ashamed to admit what you don’t know. Ask them what they know. Teach them they are the authority of their own experience, but no one else’s. Encourage their curiosity, and their humility, by modeling them in yourself.
Here. I’ll go first… I’ve spent a lot of my life around black people, and so can offer examples referencing black people to make my points here, but I know almost nothing about Native, Indigenous, Latin American or Asian cultures. I can only assume that since all of those cultures are made up of humans that my premise holds, but the particularity of those cultures might raise different questions or concepts that, again, are completely outside of whiteness so would not occur to me.
Does that mean that I should avoid your question because I don’t have the perfect answer to account for all the possible permutations? Keep my mouth shut out of some fear that I will say the wrong thing? No. We all have to start somewhere. Not knowing is uncomfortable. Making mistakes is uncomfortable. But keeping white people comfortable is sort of the whole point of white supremacy, so fuck comfort. Just begin.
There are going to be big, messy conversations about racism, exoticization, objectification, appropriation, capitalism, sexism, intersectionality, and more. You all have the opportunity to teach your students, particularly your white students, how to navigate those conversations with openness, humility, and some measure of grace. Don’t squander it because your egos might get bruised.
That said, opening up conversations about race and white supremacy, or trying to de-center whiteness in your curriculum, is going to make your white students uncomfortable, and uncomfortable white people can be racist as hell. It is too much to ask of your BIPOC students to wade through all of that with you unsupported. If you and your colleagues don’t know how to interrupt racism in yourselves or other people, time to read some books and get some training.
You may not be able to do much about the (white supremacist) hiring and employment practices of academia in the short term, but you can organize your faculty to demand anti-racist professional development taught by BIPOC. You can push for faculty or campus-wide discussions of anti-racist texts by BIPOC. You can insist that all speakers brought to campus be BIPOC. To the extent that teaching is done by adjuncts on your campus, you can push for those adjuncts to be BIPOC.
Also, you absolutely can mobilize your faculty to push for long-term hiring and tenure decisions that are anti-racist. It’s not a quick fix, but it is an important one.
Just increasing the diversity of faculty without looking critically at curriculums and institutional norms, however, won’t change much of anything. White faculty and administrators have to begin that decolonization work, not wait for BIPOC to come and start rolling that boulder uphill for you.
You appreciate the necessity of this work, obviously, so now you must simply begin. Can you begin in your department? Challenge your department to review their curriculums together and look for ways to introduce the work of BIPOC. Make discussions of decolonization of the subject material a standard part of every course. Demand that every member of your departmental faculty read a book, or the same book, about anti-racism, and then spend time in departmental meetings discussing that book and talking about how to navigate racism in the classroom. Arrange with your department head to bring in a BIPOC to train professors in anti-racist education techniques. Talk openly about compensation in your department, and make sure any BIPOC on your faculty are getting paid at the same rate as your white colleagues.
Don’t try to change the entire institution at once. But do change your corner of the institution. Show the college how it’s done, with humility and dedication. Then make sure it spreads. I would bet you cash money that if you actively engage your students in your efforts, it will spread. Speaking as a parent, I will say that today’s kids are often more progressive, dedicated, and strategic than my generation was. Lift them up, and you will be riding their coattails before you know it.
I hope you’ll check back in about your progress. Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
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