Lessons: De/Centering Whiteness in the Classroom

Two weekends ago, I had the opportunity to watch a brilliant play called The Niceties, a play that encapsulates in just two hours so much of what is challenging about navigating the identity minefields of the 21st-century classroom. The action unfolds at an elite liberal arts college in Connecticut during Office Hours. It revolves entirely around two characters – Zoe, a black student, and Janine, her white history professor. Zoe is a brilliant student who hopes to channel her passion for social justice into a service fellowship after graduation. Because high grades are so important for landing prestigious post-graduate fellowships, she has come to office hours to request feedback on her paper from Janine, a leading scholar in the field of American history. What begins as a straightforward conversation about scholarly conventions – about standards for evidence, analysis, and academic argumentation in the field of history – metastasizes into a much larger conflict about power, privilege, and identity in institutions of higher education and in the US, more generally. 

The Niceties admirably distills the main points of contention in the current national debate – namely, how do our identities shape how we remember history, and will we ever be capable of seeing and acknowledging both the good and the bad, the inclusive and exclusive dimensions of our past, simultaneously? But while it exposes the audience to both sides of how the current debate is unfolding on college campuses today, I worry that, by casting the conversation through the all-too-familiar dyad of minority student/white professor, the play does not go far enough in helping the audience interrogate racial dynamics within institutions of higher education and thus in eroding at the mediatized image of the “coddled” minority student. Although the racial configuration itself is indeed representative of what we find on today’s college campuses, it nevertheless allows those spectators accustomed to the workings of power (that is, primed to expect that faculty remain above reproach much the same way that white worldviews rest untroubled) to read Zoe as the more problematic of the two women. In order to truly rethink the way race influences student-faculty interactions in college settings, I want to relate an anecdote about myself and a white student, thereby muddling, if not entirely reversing, the racial dynamics through which stories of “tricky student encounters” are often imagined and conveyed. 

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to teach a writing course about African diaspora and the development of black identity in the Atlantic world. The course began with the historical forces of slavery and colonization, and proceeded into the contributions of black intellectuals to the concept of “blackness” in France, the Caribbean, and the US. Given that my seminar was one of very few in the department to address race, migration, and diaspora, it comes perhaps as little surprise that it attracted many minority and first-generation American students of immigrant backgrounds (certainly more than most seminars in that department). It was a terrific seminar. My students were always engaged, whether we were discussing the slave narratives of Olaudah Equiano or Harriet Jacobs or the poetry of Leopold Senghor.

About halfway through the semester, a young white woman from the course came to see me in office hours. As we chatted, she disclosed that she didn’t always feel at ease about the prospect of sharing her thoughts in class. When I asked her why, she evinced some embarrassment, and eventually managed to explain that because she was white, she didn’t feel comfortable contributing to a class discussion about slavery and black identity. Of note, 3 of 12 students were black; the rest of my students were of Latinx, Middle-Eastern, or Asian backgrounds. In that particular instance, I responded by explaining that everyone was welcomed and encouraged to contribute in my classroom; that all I asked was that students ensured their comments and observations were grounded in the texts we read and discussed; and that we should all strive to engage with one another with respect, with honesty, and with compassion. The semester continued, and the student appeared to have found her voice, listening and contributing to the discussion in equal measure. 

Since that conversation, I have had many mixed feelings about the encounter – some productive, some less so. On the one hand, it was a reminder that simple classroom interventions not only improve student learning outcomes but also avoid the vast majority of identity-based pitfalls in discussion-heavy seminars. For instance, setting “ground rules” for discussion is essential in our polarized political climate. During that process, we could have made clear that in our classroom, as in all classrooms, we are to remain focused on the text at hand. I have since also considered a variety of pedagogical tools – including reading primers organized around discrete discussion questions – that would have helpfully structured students’ immersion into each text, providing them with a common analytical language to discuss selected passages and concepts. Moreover, a class that delves into such painful topics calls for reminders, early and frequent, that history can be ugly, uncomfortable, and unkind; that nowhere is this most apparent than when we center the perspectives of the oppressed; and that if students feel challenged by a particular text (as, indeed, they ought to), they should come speak with me in Office Hours. If I could go back in time five years ago, I would have done this and so much more.

On the other hand, as I reflect on the encounter, I wonder about other things, and I have no easy answers. Above all, I wonder about the source of my student’s unease in that class. Was her reluctance to discuss race (even in a class explicitlyabout African diaspora) representative of white America’s belief that race is an impolite topic to discuss in public? Was that social convention so deeply-ingrained that our conversation was perhaps part of her own long struggle to overcome it? Or, conversely, was she so aware of her whiteness that she sought advice on how much “space” to leave for fellow students of color in the classroom? Nothing in our exchange leads me to believe this last scenario was the case, but it is worth noting as a genuine possibility. Far more likely given our interaction is the possibility that the course, its readings and materials, and perhaps even some of its participants “triggered” her whiteness, her white fragility – a term coined by Robin D’Angelo to encompass “the hurt feelings, shattered egos, fraught spirits, vexed bodies, and taxed emotions of white folk” (White Fragility, xi). This is not about casting aspersions on my former student’s character; she was (and is) a lovely person. It is simply to inquire whether this student, who was profoundly unfamiliar with this kind of history, with these kinds of readings, perhaps also with these kinds of students sitting next to her, found herself in need of additional soothing and encouragement in order to participate.

To interrogate this student’s relationship to her whiteness is, I think, important for understanding the “Zoes” out there in a new light. So many students of color, like the fictional Zoe, have grown accustomed to (indeed, have no other choice than to grow accustomed to) accepting that the standard curriculum is Eurocentric;  that the texts we are told to read are often authored by white men; that the ideas and the histories we are taught that matter and are important are not in the least reflective of our bodies, our experiences, our pasts; and that the fellow students we will find in the classroom may not look, act, and behave like us. This is only to speak of the classroom setting, though, of course, as we know only too well, American culture at large centers whiteness – white people, white experiences, white viewpoints – every day, in ways great and small. And students of color, people of color, all the Zoes of the world, learn that this state of affairs is to be expected, is indeed above critique.  By contrast, white students rarely find themselves in a similar situation, and if the interaction with my former student is any indication, would necessarily struggle to adapt to a setting in which whiteness was not centered, even for just an hour and a half, twice a week.

The Niceties is a great point of entry for those who desire exposure to or simply a reminder of the arguments on “both sides,” but I fear that, for those accustomed to the black student/white faculty configuration, it can underscore the false assumption that blackness, and that otherness more generally, requires special handling. By flipping that configuration, I hope to help us think about the role that race plays in the experiences of our students – all of our students. And I wish to encourage us to start asking different kinds of questions. For instance, instead of focusing on minority difference and identities of “otherness” in the classroom, what might we learn if we consider the ways in which whiteness is centered, and resists decentering, in our curricula, in our syllabi, in our classrooms, and, of course, in the world beyond?

Lessons: On Dialogue, Monologue, and Academic Performance