11 August 2016

How a Teacher's Race Affects their Ability to Teach about Race

I met with someone from the Diversity and Equity Office at the University where I teach part-time yesterday. We've agreed to collaborate on a few classes for my upcoming course on Intercultural Competencies. In the meeting, my colleague asked me 'What do I not feel comfortable teaching?'

In this class, I introduce and discuss a LOT of uncomfortable topics including "race" (in quotation marks here to denote that this concept while very impactful is not based on genetic/biological but social constructs), ethnic identities, gender, sexuality, religion/us identities, structures of racism and oppression, Indigenous peoples relationships with the government, the Canadian structure of English-French-Nation language use, personal biases, whiteness, microaggressions...etc.

At first when I answered her, I listed only one or two of the above topics as being difficult to teach and noted that I included guest speakers where possible.

Throughout our meeting however I came back around to the question when I realized that I only feel truly comfortable (and had the right to speak) around the topic of whiteness, privilege, aspects of gender and sexuality, and microaggressions - and perhaps a few others - because I identify (and am identified by my students) as a majority member of the Canadian community. For all other topics, I am only capable of being able to speak from an outside perspective and thus, questions surface about representation and my right/ability/want/need to speak for others on their behalf.

An interesting article came out about how a teacher's "race" affects their ability to teach about "race". There are many interesting ideas including:

Mr. Lunt: In a strange way, that authority [as a faculty member at the front of the classroom] to assert facts makes the conversation more factual. It puts limits on what’s going to be accepted as evidence. I think it prompts our students to review their assumptions before they enter them into the conversation.

Ms. Ambikar: You may be right. That "authoritative tone" makes a huge difference. But it’s not equally available to all of us, is it? When I make assertions like the one you did, I am likely to be dismissed. For example, one day I quoted the civil-rights activist and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, whose work has shown that there are more black people in prison today than there were slaves in 1850. I was met with complete disbelief until I showed a video of her saying just that. I think the only facts that I am able to use are facts about India or from my own background. My facts are acceptable only if they relate to countries or cultures outside the United States. In all other contexts, not being white myself, even the facts I present are open to being questioned.

Mr. Lunt: Sadly, I have to agree. The authoritative tone matters, but I would be na├»ve if I pretended that much of my authority didn’t come from my perceived race. I mean, one stereotype of white men is of neutrality, rationality, factuality — the political "clothing" that every instructor needs when they talk about race.