Over my many years in the classroom, I’ve realized that some of the best opportunities for impactful teaching/learning occur when students are made most uncomfortable or in moments when their ostensibly bedrock beliefs are shaken by something we’ve read or a wild Roth lecture. The two topics that are most capable of wrong-footing them are sex and race. As soon as either of these topics is broached, eyes are averted and butts begin to squirm.
I’ve long thought that it is in these two areas that we most fail to adequately prepare our young people for life in the adult world. The American education system’s clinical approach to sex education reduces human sexuality to a biological experience with mostly negative outcomes and somehow manages to make sex boring. This, combined with most religions’ equating of sexuality with sin, guilt, and shame, has resulted in generation after generation of sexually-maladjusted adults. This, however, is a topic for another day. In light of the current prominence of race relations in the American zeitgeist, it seems the more pressing of the two topics.
My college composition classes recently finished a unit in which all of the supplementary readings were focused on race relations. I’d highly recommend Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility to anyone interested in the topic. There’s a link at the bottom of the page. Concepts such as microagressions, white privilege, and white fragility were explained, and topics such as systemic racism, confederate symbolism, and affirmative action were discussed. For the record, of the nearly fifty students enrolled in the classes, only one is African American.
After a couple of weeks exploring the topic, the feeling I received from many of my students was that they just wanted to move on, which, I explained, is one of the primary reasons we, as a country, still have significant problems with race relations. Our discomfort with the topic, possibly the result of repressed guilt inside of our collective unconscious, causes us to underestimate the problems caused by institutionalized racism or simply to prefer to ignore the realities of it and to pretend we live in a post-racial world. This is an option easy to choose if you are white. I suggested the possibility that such glossing over of historical truth has resulted in an insufficient coming-to-grips with or a full atonement for America’s original sin of slavery and the subsequent era of Jim Crow.
When asked to share in written responses their own experience with race relations, it became clear that the most formidable obstacle to anything approaching enlightenment on the subject is ignorance born of inexperience. Most of their perceptions of African Americans has been gleaned from pop culture. A consistent theme was that none of them have ever had an African American teacher, principal, coach, boss, or authority figure of any type. This is mostly the result of the demographics of the small town in which I teach rather than systemic racism; however, many of the students will soon be entering universities, the military, the workforce, and moving to urban areas where ethnic and racial diversity are common. If in schools we fail to confront the realities that continue to cause racial division and enmity in society at-large, how can our graduates be expected to be effectively functional in these contexts without the proper sensitivity to the issues of racial and social justice? I ask this especially because, in their essays, a surprising number of my students referred to African Americans as “colored people.” I can already imagine the conversations to come with the folks in their HR departments at their future places of employment.
Trust me, I get the desire to “just move on,” but that strategy has only served to kick the proverbial can down the road to successive generations. We will most likely never reach a state of true colorblindness nor am I sure we should, but I’d be proud to be member of the American generation that finally picked up that can of systemic racism and placed it in the rubbish of American history where it belongs and provided truly equal opportunities and access to societal resources to all of its citizens regardless of race or ethnicity.
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