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Am I a Failure as an Instructor?

May 5, 2009


Am I a failure if I can’t persuade students that privilege is real, and that minorities face social barriers than members of the dominant group do not?

I was not able to persuade the majority of my class these last three weeks. I was able to persuade only a minority number of students, several of whom are, not surprisingly, minorities themselves. (In my experience, non-white students almost always “get” white privilege.)

So, have I failed? I sure feel like a failure. Not only because they haven’t learned what I’ve been trying to teach them, but also because this is an issue that has serious social consequences outside of the classroom.

Maybe I am a failure, but I try to hold onto my dignity by reminding myself of these points:

  • It was unlikely that I was going to convince the majority anyway—I can’t bust through 20 years of socialization into a dominant ideology in 14 weeks.
  • The smartest students do get it.
  • Some minority students have thanked me for talking about white privilege. From my conversations with them I get the sense that they appreciate the mere recognition of their struggles. One student told me that it was empowering to have the critical tools to think about her experiences. One student told me to teach about white privilege every chance I got.
  • UPDATE: Also, when I was a college student I said the same sort of bullshit I’m criticizing now, but I grew out of it eventually, right?
11 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2009 3:59 pm

    Personally I feel that the role of an teacher is not to leave the class with particular opinions but to leave the class with the capacity to argue competently for the opinions they eventually end up with and the humility to accept when their arguments suck (the humility to accept their actual opinions suck is a little much to ask, very few people get so close to sanctity). That said, I don’t know about “instructors”. :p

    It’s not like you are teaching them pure mathematics and can hit them over the head with the agonising and irresistible strength of an equation. I am sure equations about privilege exist, because I once had the misfortune of looking inside a sociology journal and seeing how much effort at being quantitative there was but they rest on axioms rather less irresistible than those of mathematics.

    Of course Lev Shestov and for that matter Kurt Gödel might argue with that…

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 5, 2009 4:17 pm

    I think there’s a lot of room between “mere opinion” and knock-down mathematical proofs. Sure, I don’t have a mathematical proof that privilege exists, but neither does it fall in the realm of “mere opinion.”

    I don’t think that my job is to “teach the debate,” as if no position on an issue was better than another position. Scientists aren’t expected to “teach the debate” when it comes to things like whether the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa. Ethicists shouldn’t be expected to spend as much time on the arguments for slavery as they spend on the arguments against. Some positions are better than others—I think we do students a disservice if we flatten them all out as if they were all equally good (or equally bad).

    Don’t get me wrong—I’m not ramming my view down students’ throats. I readily recognize that there is reasonable scholarly disagreement about some issues. But the idea that minorities are poor because they’re lazy is not just another opinion—it’s a fucking lie.

  3. May 5, 2009 4:30 pm

    Are your students arguing minorities are poor because they are lazy?

    Because there is a lot of room between (and above and below and to the side) the “white privilage” model and a position that minorities are lazy.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 5, 2009 4:36 pm

    The theory of white privilege argues that minorities frequently cannot get ahead because of a number of social barriers. It seems to me that the flip side of this position is that minorities don’t have substantial barriers and than if they can’t get ahead it’s because they aren’t trying hard enough. Can you offer an example of a third position? I’m not denying that there are any, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head.

  5. May 5, 2009 4:49 pm

    Well I dunno, the problem is “White Privilege” is a loaded term.

    But certainly I can think of many other positions, from explicitly racist (minorities are innately not adapted for white society e.g. group X is innately introverted and our society demands extroversion) or at least nationalist (minority culture is incompatible with white culture e.g. group Y has closer-knit families and devotes more time to the family than to economic competition, our society demands the rejection of family life in order to reach high levels of economic success) to just things like linguistic reasons, class reasons (for instance in the UK, a regular brit would be hard pressed in general to tell between someone from Pakistan or from India, and yet Indians are generally middle class and do very well, Pakistanis are generally working class and do much worse in all those social measures of outcome etc) etc

  6. May 6, 2009 3:30 am

    One of the problems I had in teaching issues of class oppression to mostly middle class students, was that if they accepted the existence of class oppression, it lessened their own individual achievements. It would be the same trying to teach white privilege to white kids – especially if they’re the pampered brats whose education was one long ‘everyone gets a trophy day’ like in junior football.

    Do you think Obama’s election made a difference? His election was perfect fodder for liberal meritocracy arguments.

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 6, 2009 7:42 am

    I think that Obama getting elected makes them think: “If a black man can get elected then racism must be gone—there must be equal opportunity.”

    I try to get around that by making a distinction between racism and racialization. Sure, there’s hardly anyone who will say “black people are inferior to white people,” so maybe overt racism is on the decline, but we still lived in a racialized society: there is still economic disparity, residential segregation, etc. I can point out that the proportion of whites to non-whites in congress does not reflect the proportion in the population.

  8. May 6, 2009 8:19 am

    To me it seems all you are saying is that blacks are not fully assimilated to the mainstream of American society yet.

    But that makes me wonder if it would be an unambiguous good if they were.

    The assimilation approach to diversity …has the disadvantage of ending up with one big monotonous sameness. Plus people don’t always want to give up their distinctiveness. Although I will grant in the specific case of American Blacks there is so much fucked up history… that maybe it might be in everyone’s best interest to assimilate them.

    The problem with other approaches is that there are basically two ways it can go, separation (preferably with some kind of self rule and equal resource parity, not that that ever happens in the real world), there are examples of that in some parts of India IIRC, and to a lesser extent elsewhere.
    Or there is the way where everyone just sucks up and accepts one group is dominant, and I can’t see loud demanding Americans who believe in all these liberal principles doing so honestly. And I abhore the idea of doing so dishonestly. I’d pick the honest jerk of the dishonest slightly less of a jerk every day. But in the end I guess its up to Americans how they want to run their own country.

  9. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 6, 2009 9:55 am

    Sophia: I’m not at all recommending the assimilation of blacks to white culture, and I don’t think that would be a good thing. I’d like to see more economic equality and more equal representation. Not sure I follow your comments about honesty and jersk …

  10. May 6, 2009 10:38 am

    Oh I just mean that I would rather people just aceept that there was a dominant, subordinate model going on than try and pretend every group is equal when they patently are not.

  11. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 6, 2009 11:36 am

    Yes, the pretension of equality is infuriating.

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