How I Teach College-Level Writing: Try Not to Be Racist

Welcome back to my series of essays on teaching writing in U.S. colleges.

This next essay in the series makes a few relatively risky arguments, and covers more heated topics than grammar and sentence structure. I still hope you will like it, and find it useful.

Although I am (obviously) not the best person to write this essay (being a white British immigrant teaching in American higher education), I would not want my series on teaching to omit the topic.

I am happy to discuss any mistakes you feel I have made, or issues you think I have skirted, in the comments, or by email (danielwallace at gmail).

How I Teach College-Level Writing: Try Not to Be Racist

First of all, before talking about essays and classrooms, it’s necessary to define terms: what do I mean by “racist” or “racism”?

In this context, it’s necessary to distinguish two very different ideas: “RACISM” and “racism.”

In this essay,

  1. “RACISM” means: a deep loathing in one’s heart for people of a different race to oneself. It’s an emotion, a feeling.
  2. “Racism” means: a social system, operating in the U.S. and other Western countries, which exists to benefit white people and harm non-white people (in the United States, the system harms African Americans in particular).

In other words: often, when someone says, “I’m not a racist,” or “I didn’t mean that comment to be racist,” what they really mean is, “I’m not a RACIST.”

They mean “in my deepest soul, I don’t hate black people.”

If I, a white teacher, insist on giving a particularly brilliant and hardworking Mexican-American student a C grade for all her essays, without being able to give a coherent reason why, that, I think, would suggest evidence of RACISM. That would suggest something is wrong with me.

Unfortunately, one does not need to be a RACIST to be a racist. In fact, the two things may have little connection. Racism is a system rooted in history, in the geography of cities, generated and replenished by semi-conscious actions, by narratives we tell ourselves as we try to make sense of the world.

Although one’s involvement in racism may not be available to the conscious mind (at least to the minds of the people who benefit from it), there is ample, plentiful, concrete evidence that it exists and does constant, lasting damage to present-day, living people of colour in the US.

P.S. By this definition, it follows that it is not really possible for African Americans, or other Americans of colour, to be racist towards white Americans. Just like all human beings, African Americans can certainly say mean, unpleasant things to white people. But “saying mean things” is a completely different thing to playing a supportive role in a systematic process of oppression. It’s not really possible, aside from very special circumstances, for a person of colour to enact a system of oppression against a white person, because, at least in the present day United States, such a system doesn’t actually exist.

The tiny pockets of “advantage” available to people of colour, created through immense legal and political struggle, which attempt to ameliorate centuries of inequality — like drops of fresh water added to an ocean of salt — don’t alter this reality. The white student who “didn’t get a scholarship because of affirmative action” may indeed feel outraged and upset, and may genuinely struggle to pay his fees as a result, but he can still walk across campus and not panic when a police car slows down to talk to him. He’s not suffering from racism even though a scholarship went to someone else.

This post is the ninth entry in the series How I Teach College-Level Writing. You can start at the beginning, if you like:

THE SERIES

  1. The Intro
  2. The Theories
  3. The Diagnosis
  4. Why I Teach Cool
  5. The Essay, The Problem
  6. Every Sentence is a Question
  7. Don’t Grade Too Much
  8. Classroom Management

So. To aim to be a non-RACIST teacher is far too low a bar. No one deserves credit for that. However, to try to be a non-racist teacher is very difficult, because racism is the default. It is the norm. If you just do what you were planning to do, you may well end up teaching a racist course.

(Did that last sentence make you flinch? I will admit, it was hard for me to write.)

Here are some of the ways I try to design non-racist courses.

Helping Out

I believe that I have no problem giving an enthusiastic, diligent, talented student of colour an A in my courses. In fact, I’m delighted to do so.

I’m not, like, a RACIST.

But at the same time, it’s easy to see why this is no problem for me — such a student flatters my liberal ego, makes me feel like I’m a good person, doing a great job.

The question I have for myself is about the other end of the grading spectrum. In many courses, there are students who seem bewildered by the material, who don’t respond to feedback, who appear to barely participate in the class discussions. These students are intensely frustrating to teach, of course. One tries to reach them, give them advice, urge them to seek help from tutors. But after a certain point, if this extra attention hasn’t achieved anything, one just has to give up. There are too many other students in need of help, after all, and too many other things outside the classroom to worry about — every teacher has a limited amount of time and energy.

My question is whether a student’s race plays a role in when I decide to stop caring. Do I have a decision-making process in my head, playing without my conscious awareness, about whether a particular student is “worthwhile but disorganised, and would benefit from advice,” or is “simply a lost cause”?

And this is not simply my own observation. Danielle Moss Lee, writing about a Department of Education study into racial disparities, cites a finding that when students got in trouble in school:

…teacher feedback on suspension forms for white students included notes that compassionately described extenuating circumstances that might have caused the behavior, i.e. “John’s parents are going through a difficult divorce, and this may have affected his decision-making.” Similar consideration was rarely documented for black students.

(And imagine that this has been the case for the student’s entire life. At every stage, whenever the student struggled, past authority figures have given up 10% quicker than they would have done with a white child / teenager.)

Should a teacher work harder to help struggling students of colour, simply to compensate for one’s own unconscious racial bias, a bias that multiple studies have revealed is both common and, despite its subtlety, devastating in effect? Probably.

Is it helpful, too, to try to quickly involve university facilities, like the writing center or “student success coaches” (or other sources of support), in order that it isn’t only me and my limited energy trying to improve the student’s work? Probably.

Say It Like It Is

In my earliest days teaching in the U.S., I used to deliberately put materials on the syllabus that would specifically talk about racism. In an Edgar Allen Poe course, for instance, I would make sure to include a Poe-influenced short story by the African American writer Pauline Hopkins.

I assumed that the students of colour in the class would be excited to talk about the story. Here was something “relevant” to their lives! I was showing that I cared, that I was a good person.

But when it was time for that class, those students usually seemed uncomfortable — painfully uncomfortable. After all, they were just trying to get through the course, to survive the demands of the semester, and suddenly I was expecting them to lead a discussion about racism? They should take on the risk of alienating and angering their white classmates?

I cringe, now, to remember myself in those early years.

These days, I instead feel that it is my job to frame class discussions and activities before I ask the students to speak. It’s not a student’s job to teach the class anything — that’s my job. This is true for issues involving sexism and trans-phobia, too: it’s not on a student to speak up and point out how a comment is hurtful, or how a particular story speaks to or ignores wider injustices. That’s on me. If we are going to discuss a novel like Native Son, for instance, it’s my responsibility to prepare the class by sharing some of the links and theories I pointed to above, to talk through the systemic injustices facing a character like Bigger Thomas in the 1940s.

After all, stories can teach many morals. You may think that students are reading an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates and gaining fresh insight into racial injustice. But your students may be reading it thinking, “He’s so angry!” It’s the teacher’s job to frame and position each text, so the students grasp what it is you are hoping they see in it.

Recently I’ve been teaching a course on the US Presidential election. Although at times it feels uncomfortable, I see it as my job to present topics with their racism included, to model for all the students a way of speaking about complex issues and debates that does not obscure the role that race (and class and gender) plays in politics and society.

If we talk about voter suppression and voter fraud, for example, it’s certainly my job to lay out both sides of argument, but, as part of that introduction, to signal where I believe the weight of the problem lies.

I can’t just say “Republicans believe that voter fraud is a problem and Democrats disagree.” Instead I probably need to say something like: “Many people, especially on the political right, believe that ID requirements prevent fraud, but there is limited evidence that this is factually true, and there is considerable evidence, such as in recent court verdicts in North Carolina, that these requirements specifically target African Americans.”

If racism is a fact, as I believe it is, then it should be possible to describe it in ways that do not paint the white students in the class (or their family members) as monsters: it’s important for me the teacher to take the first step on doing so.

Mapping out polite discussion

Using Diverse Touch Stones

There is evidence that role models really matter: we are encouraged by people in power who look and talk the way we do. When one woman is elected to local office, for instance, more women in that area enter politics.

Now, I am a white, British-sounding man, but in the classroom I can assign any writers I like, and so I can introduce students of colour, female students, transgender students, and working class students to writers who resemble themselves. I include and highlight such texts not just because those texts speak to experiences I don’t have, but also because those texts show what capable, successful people of all kinds look like.

I think that’s important.

However, “diversity” is not enough, not on its own. It’s not enough to stick a few “diverse” reading assignments towards the end of the course and feel one has done one’s bit for anti-racism, for two reasons.

Firstly, courses tend to adopt one or two texts as touch stones, as central documents. This generally happens early: if the first book we read is by Jane Austen, then we will tend, inevitably, to compare everything that follows to Austen. Jane Austen becomes the baseline for our discussion of narration, plot, character and so on. So if I add in a Toni Morrison novel at the end of the term, Austen is still the centre, the heart.

As a result of this tendency, I now try to make sure that the first documents that every course reads are by non-white and non-male writers.

And I try to guide the class to use those essays and stories as the formal benchmarks for everything that follows. In a course about the history of fiction, for instance, I will use Gish Jen’s flawless short story, “Who’s Irish?” as the starting point, using it to teach the essential premises of the course. I don’t make a big deal about it — I just use Jen’s work as my central example as though this is a normal thing to do.

(PS Don’t worry about those “neglected” straight, white, cis-gendered, male writers: they will appear sooner or later. Inevitably, I will tend to return to those authors, instinctively. As the course develops, without meaning to, I will start discussing writers more and more like myself. So I don’t worry that my approach is “silencing” to white male students.)


Diverse, But Still “Anti-Black”

A second reason why diversity is not enough: it’s strangely easy to have a “diverse” reading list that is resolutely critical of actual and fictional people of colour.

It’s possible to fill a reading list with stories and essays about and by black people, for instance, in which most of the stories and essays paint black people in a terrible light.

Native Son, for example, shows black characters doing murderous, awful things. In contrast, novels like Sula and If Beale Street Could Talk show, I think, a great love and admiration for their African American characters. Now, on the one hand, these are just different narrative strategies: Native Son aims to teach the terrible and overwhelming effects of racism. But on the other hand, it sends an odd message to the students if this is the only African American text we read, especially if the teacher assigning the text is white.

This topic is tricky to talk about, but my basic point is that “diverse” and “anti-black” are not necessarily in opposition. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with minority writers critiquing their own community, I think it’s one thing if a black teacher assigns one of James Baldwin’s early essays where Baldwin talks about having contempt for other black people, and another thing if I, a white teacher, assign the same essay. It’s one thing if I assign Questlove arguing that black hip-hop is a sell-out to capitalism, and another thing if a black teacher does so: the frame surrounding the essay is simply different.

Now for the more troubling thought: it’s worth asking, if one re-reads one’s own syllabus in this light, and notices a lot of “anti-black-ness,” why one has been attracted to such texts. What exactly is one enjoying about these essays and stories?

I would never have realised this aspect of my own reading and teaching, maybe, had not a very brilliant writer of colour pointed it out to me.

Perhaps this issue doesn’t seem like such a big deal. However, in recent years, I feel like I’ve become slowly more aware of the enormous effort, particularly here in the South, in Tennessee, that students of colour put into “fitting in” with the society, the majority white and Republican-voting society, around them.

When I read this essay by Talynn Kel, I found this particular passage, about growing up in Atlanta, very relevant — and powerful:

Growing up Black in America, you learn to ignore a lot of racist shit, especially if you are moving in white spaces. I was taught that white spaces were aspirational, that access to these spaces meant success. That’s a white supremacist ideology, but we live in a white supremacist society, so it’s also true: all-white spaces are where a lot of power brokering happens. This often means that the more power you achieve, the more you face casual social racism. You sit in meetings where people openly say that Black people are lesser—but not you, they add. You’re different! That is, you’re different until you do something of which they don’t approve. Then you’re “just like the rest of them” or “you don’t know your place.” And to teach you your place, they revoke some of your privileges, like a naughty child, until you understand that you are there by their sufferance. To survive in that environment you learn to stay quiet.

I learned this in school, at work, in certain social groups… in order to keep your spot, or move “up the chain,” you learn to let casual racism slide. Your ability to stay silent in the face of racist bullshit becomes the norm. So you do it, because you think that’s your only feasible option and the price you pay to succeed in white America. The side effect is that this type of talk, this dislike and hatred of Black people, becomes not just the white noise but also the internal harmony of your life. It goes from being something you actively ignore to something you actively hum, and eventually sing. You stop noticing it, and then you stop fighting it, because it no longer sounds wrong to you. It sounds normal.

Some students of colour, certainly, arrive ready to talk about activism and civil rights. But many other students talk — both in class and one on one, to me — as though they assume that a certain amount of skepticism towards claims of racism and racial bias, or that an occasional expression of frustration or distance towards their own culture, is simply a requirement of being in college.

I’m probably expressing this very poorly.

The point is — I don’t want to dictate any student’s political views, and I don’t want to police their speech — nor am I their saviour or guru. But, at the same time, I don’t want the design of my syllabus to encourage in any student that insidious “internal harmony” that Kel describes.

What About The White Students?

I’ve taught classes where white students were in the minority, but that’s rarely the case where I am now, at the University of Tennessee. I consider that I have a pastoral duty towards all my students, and so, while I don’t want to have a racist classroom, I also want to make my courses welcoming and supportive to everyone.

If racism is a social system, then it’s a mistake to talk as though any one person is responsible for it, that some people in the room are villains.

One way I try to do this, when it’s time to introduce a racism-related topic, is by de-centering the white students and their concerns. Perhaps before discussing the specific racial disadvantages created by 1940s housing segregation in the United States, as it informs Native Son, I’ll give a lecture in which I talk about longstanding historical factors in other countries.

“I once heard it claimed,” I’ll say, “that the families in Florence, in Italy, who were fighting for the Pope in the fifteenth century, against the Holy Roman Emperor, were the same families fighting in the resistance, during World War Two, against Hitler and Mussolini in the twentieth. Isn’t that crazy?”

Look at this map of France, I’ll say, and see how sixteenth century Protestantism correlates with present-day support for leftwing parties. The same issues repeat and repeat, because they are passed down generation by generation. And did you know that parts of Iraq and Iran have never recovered, ecologically, from the Mongol invasion?

Once I’ve planted those seeds, then I’ll move on to the American example, slowly bringing in past racisms which everyone agrees were bad, and building up a picture of the present day, but one that paints racism as a universal, human problem.

White Students Really Are Victims, Only Not of Racism

Here in Tennessee, I get about one essay a semester arguing about “reverse racism.” The occasional white student will want to argue in their essays that, for instance, a line in a Jay-Z song which is dismissive of a white person is “the same as Jim Crow,” or “just as bad as what Trump says.”

(These are made-up examples, because student work should be confidential, but you get the general idea.)

I try to be firm but sympathetic towards these students. After all, many studies suggest that a huge number of white Americans believe some version of the idea that “reverse racism” is as bad or worse, at least today, than actual racism. A very large number of white people believe, according to surveys and polls, that the Federal government is throwing endless piles of money at black people at the expense of hard-working white people.

A nineteen-year-old who says something like this is almost certainly not a sophisticated and cruel neo-reactionary: he or she is more likely someone repeating a line they have heard many times at home or among friends.

It’s my job to explain what racism is, not to expect students to arrive with that model clear in their heads.

My goal, when giving feedback on such papers, is to explain what an “acceptable” or evidence-based version of the student’s argument would be. After all, it sucks to be enjoying Jay-Z’s music and suddenly hear one’s own identity disparaged, particularly if one has not yet learned to cultivate a hip, ironic distance about everything. And it truly is terrible to grow up poor in America, even if you are white. The student is not wrong about those things. But maybe there is a way to talk about Jay-Z without relating his lyrics to slavery, or to interrogate that very feeling of oppression and see what rises up, or to examine, as a research project, how commercial rap music presents images of race and blackness (when so much of the genre’s audience is white). Maybe that student would benefit from reading bell hooks, and could revise the paper to draw on hooks’s comprehensive critique of hip hop’s treatment of race.

And there certainly is a way to talk about the alienation of arriving at a big college with no money, and with no support network — without using complaints about affirmative action as a expository crutch.

Especially here in Tennessee, I make sure, also, to give my students conservative and Republican writers to read, people I admire, like Rod Dreher and Josh Barro. I want to show them models of the kind of writer they might wish to develop into, and to also show them how those writers wrestle, from a rightwing or right-ish perspective, with the same problems and questions that we are all struggling with.

Things Are Complex

There so much more to talk about.

How race and class intersect; what it’s like to teach a class divided by tensions between local students of colour and first generation West Indian immigrants; how one approaches the use of vernacular speech in college writing; the role that white teachers probably need to play in departmental meetings and disputes…

But this is enough for now, I think. I hope it was interesting.

Best wishes for your teaching.

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