You know by now, I assume, that I teach sociology at a University and one of my courses this semester (which began this last Wednesday) is a course on Racial and Ethnic Relations. So far, so good, right? I mean, this is what I do, after all. And after twenty years of doing it, I know better by now than to ever think I'm not going to be thrown a curve every once in a while, especially when I've just changed schools. Besides, I'm a pro and I love what I do and periodic shake-ups keep us young (they tell me).
Anyway, my usual way to start my course in Race is to talk about how, according to scientists, "the socially-constructed, political notion of 'race'" is not biological. Then, I ask everyone to put themselves into a big circle in skin tone order (that's right). It isn't easy. They want to be compliant, but it's a request that immediately -- and even considerably -- raises the tension level in the room.
I keep up a stream of patter about the topic to keep us moving forward, bringing in "hair texture" as the next consideration.
"Do we place someone with darker skin and straighter hair BEFORE or AFTER someone with lighter skin and curlier hair?" I ask casually, as if we discuss such things in public all the time.
I don't actually expect them to answer. Nor do they.
Finally, I pull out some one dollar bills and bless each of the darkest five or six with one to keep, explaining that they're getting the money for having the darkest skin. The rest of the students, by now openly vulnerable, look disappointed.
"What's the matter?" I ask, pretending not to understand. "You don't like it when somebody is rewarded for an accident of birth over which they had no control? People that look like me receive far more benefits far more often than this."
Suffice it to say that it's a pretty effective exercise and a very dramatic way to begin the course, make my initial points, and get everybody outside their comfort zone where they will stay for pretty much the remainder of the semester.
The rest of the course is based largely on a process of showing very intense videos and requiring everyone to write out their reactions, which they turn in to me. Then, I pick and choose among them, reading aloud to the group sentences and paragraphs from different reactions (without identifying the writers other than by ethnicity). This gives the African-Americans, Asians, and Latin@s an opportunity to say exactly how they feel without having to worry about being personally attacked. It also gives the students who look like me an opportunity to hear it straight for once, in a setting where I can comment on and further contexualize what they are hearing. The White students can write exactly how they feel, as well, of course, but hearing it read back to them out loud and also contextualized helps them to reconsider their White Supremacist thinking.
So imagine my surprise and consternation Thursday when I walked into the classroom and saw 41 students, almost every one of which was European-American. I cringe to think of it yet.
I had no idea what to do. I had brought my dollar bills and the other things I needed for my usual opening volley. I was excited, though edgy about teaching race for the first time in Louisiana. But I was ready. And now, here I was, flying by the seat of my pants without a shred of warning and no do-overs. Whew!
We all lived through it, more or less, I suppose. I mean, some of the students had already had me for other classes and knew what to expect. In fact, some of them had taken this course expressly to see what I'd do in there. But even they couldn't make me more comfortable and help me through the glitch. I was dumb-struck. And, of course, when I'm nervous and free-falling and talking about race, things can get hairy for the listeners. (I'm smiling here, but I do know -- and I'm sure you can imagine -- I can get rough.)
Later, I went to a couple of former students, young people of color I trust, and asked them what they thought the lack of color among the students in that course is about. Talking with them, I came to realize that students of color in Louisiana have enough to deal with racially without volunteering to sit in a room twice a week listening to racist White folks defend their belief system. They couldn't possibly have imagined what I had in mind. So I got unintentionally hung out to dry.
To make matters worse, my department chair pointed out that while sociology majors at my institution are not required to take Racial and Ethnic Relations, criminal justice majors ARE. So, what I was looking at the other day was primarily a room full of southern European-American law enforcement professionals of the future. Oh, my.
(It didn't occur to me until this moment that the last three public universities I taught for all required that every undergraduate take at least two "multicultural" courses to graduate. Which gives me a really good idea...)
In the meantime, I'm going to have to draft a whole new game plan for this course in this semester. It'll look something like Whiteness 101, I guess.