In December 2017, I presented a paper at the American Anthropological Association on how political liberals are using social media to redefine themselves and their mission in the aftermath of Trump’s election. As I explained to the audience of scholars, many social media posts address how to educate Trump supporters out of their explicitly stated prejudices such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. While some Facebook posts addressed the curious phenomenon of “white privilege,” an inexplicit or “invisible” form of structural racism compared to the more commonly understood definition of “racism,” authors of these posts on white privilege seemed willing to “check the privilege” of others, but not to use this social justice call to examine their own. This came across as terribly ironic to me, since as activists point out, “checking (white) privilege” means addressing one’s own position among others, rather than using it as an accusation against conservatives and “unwoke” liberals.
Since then, I have thought about how race and racism continue to impact teaching in the Trump era, especially as a primarily “invisible” phenomenon to those of us who have and exercise it unwittingly. I recently had the opportunity to discuss white privilege and other topics related to teaching race and racism with colleagues at a CETLS Teaching and Learning Brown Bag. The brown bags are monthly, informal faculty discussions that allow us to share, explore, and discuss various aspects of our teaching and scholarship. During the October brown bag, guided by the overarching theme of language and linguistics, my colleagues and I unpacked how the teaching of “academic language” or “Standard English” might be accomplished apart from racialized assumptions, such as what constitutes “appropriate” language for the wider (read: whiter) society. All of us were aware of the ways in which our “teaching,” defined by many in the room as helping prepare students for their future jobs and careers by shaping their communication and writing, is problematically tied up in wider, often assimilatory standards that neither we nor our students control.
How, then, can we teach our students while empowering them to challenge such standards? One answer, I proposed, was to let students teach us about language and “race” and what it means to them, and explained specific approaches and activities that I have found success with. One such activity is called, “Question, Comment, Connection.” It is a simple reading response that asks students to write at least one question, write one comment, and make one connection, whether academic or personal, to the material. As I noted, such approaches and activities have been successful because they allow me to really see students as experts of their own knowledge and experience when it comes to language, race, and racism. As it turns out, I have learned much more about codeswitching and identity from my students than I have at any conference I have ever attended. And my students report that they feel empowered knowing that they have something in common with people they are reading about.
In self-assessments I distribute at the beginning of my class, I have noticed that most students see race and racism at work in their lives and they are eager to talk about it. However, they often feel unequipped or self-conscious doing so in a classroom setting, especially when instructors are, at the very least, transmitters of ideas or positions that can unwittingly promote unfairly or oppressively racializing structures. As we pursue teaching in the era of Trump, it is valuable it is to learn something about white privilege, race, and racism from positioning students as teachers, an idea that is also discussed in Adele Kudish’s blog post. One way we can do that as educators is to examine what we do in our “teaching” and why — how are we caught up in structures of race-based privilege? And how can we acknowledge that in front of our students towards productive co-learning?