While the course was your average first half section of the American history survey, the content (at least as I taught it) included a fair dose of African American history; and I felt very white throughout the entire semester. For the first time in my life, I became very aware not only of the color of my skin, but what that color means in real situations. The power dynamic of the classroom, with students being in the subordinate role and the teacher being in the superior role, and with the students being black and the teacher being white, felt strange to me. At the end of the semester one of the students told me, "you know the history of our people better than some of us do." I was flattered, and at least had the humility to say that my knowledge was nothing special, just a matter of reading lots of books on the subject.
African American history has attracted me in so many ways for so many reasons (all of which are a topic for another blog post at another time). That interest has led me to the point where I am now teaching a class in the subject. No one has ever challenged my interest, at least not to my face. In fact, I've been asked, "why would a white girl even care?" To my face, black people have been more mystified at my interest rather than offended by it. To my face. What goes on behind my back, I can only imagine; and I imagine the same suspicion I would have toward a man interested in women's history.
A white woman interviewing for a position in African history was asked "why should we hire a white person to teach black people's history." She answered, without a hint of defensiveness, "my race doesn't preclude my interest in or ability to teach the history of Africa. The subject is fascinating and my scholarship solid." Then she moved on to discuss her research. That is certainly the way I have always felt about any subject. People can be part of the "in" or the "out" group in regard to any subject of history, the only difference is perspective. No one owns a subject.
That is all research and scholarship among equals, however. Here I am now, a white girl with a class in which all but one student has so far self-identified as being black, teaching African American history. The responsibility in this classroom is different because the students are not, in the context of the class, my equals. They come to me, the expert, for education in this subject.
At first, I felt privileged to be bringing "them" "their" history. I was secretly hoping to, again, earn the compliment of "you know more about our history than we do." I am now embarassed by those thoughts. I was going to be the Great White Savior coming to uplift the Natives. Like in the movies, I was the Nice White Lady teacher exposing the multicultural inner city kids to the big, wide world. I would be one of the "good white people." How utterly arrogant! How completely racist.
Education can be a very powerful and emotional experience. If some of these black students are coming to this class to learn about the past of black people because they have never systematically learned this history before, they might encounter some things that will be upsetting. Dealing with that anger and hurt and frustration -- the kind I felt when I first studied women's history systematically -- places you in a vulnerable emotional and intellectual place.
When I was going through that process in a women's history class, I felt much safer doing so in a class of women with a female teacher and in which the only male was a good friend of mine. That may not have been a particularly rational feeling, given the level of conservatism in the class. Indeed, I ended up feeling intellectually safer with the one guy than I did with the majority of the women.
More importantly, the teacher was female, so I did not fear that she would take my early attempts to understand patriarchy as an attack on her personally. In fact, when a couple of the other students were trying to silence a discussion on abortion, she stepped in and reminded them that the book that week was on the subject and that their desire not to even know that abortion existed because of their personal convictions of because they had "baby cravings" that week did not preclude us from discussing the history of the issue. I felt quite safe then, that my perspective would at least be respected by the person in charge of the class.
Which brings me back to my students. My membership in the race that did the oppressing, and my position as the person in charge of evaluating their work, could easily inhibit their exploration of the material. I don't want them holding themselves back out of fear that any emerging passion might affect their grade. Yet, how could they not hold back? That would require a type of risk and courage that doesn't have a place in a classroom, at least not in my classroom.
I don't want them trying to assure me that they don't think all white people are bad (which one already has done) because those assurances take away the intellectual energy that might better be used to evaluate different levels and types of racism that do not manifest themselves as overtly as Jim Crow. I want them to be able to share instances of racism that they have felt, and to be able to analyze those instances in the context of the history of racism. I want them to be able to share instances of pride and to analyze the pride in the context of African American history. With a white girl for a teacher, I fear that they will hold back and that they will not be able to educate one another in that way that can happen in a discussion setting.
This isn't about what I know and how I can impart knowledge to them, this is about how I can create an environment in which the students do feel safe in exploring this history and connecting the history to their own experience. I don't think they have seminars on how to do this. This situation I did not see coming.
MADtv's "Nice White Lady"