Teaching with Tension is a collection of seventeen original essays that address the extent to which attitudes about race, impacted by the current political moment in the United States, have produced pedagogical challenges for professors in the humanities. As a flashpoint, this current political moment is defined by the visibility of the country's first black president, the election of his successor, whose presidency has been associated with an increased visibility of the alt-right, and the emergence of the neoliberal university. Together these social currents shape the tensions with which we teach.
Drawing together personal reflection, pedagogical strategies, and critical theory, Teaching with Tension offers concrete examinations that will foster student learning. The essays are organized into three thematic sections: "Teaching in Times and Places of Struggle" examines the dynamics of teaching race during the current moment, marked by neoconservative politics and twenty-first century freedom struggles. "Teaching in the Neoliberal University" focuses on how pressures and exigencies of neoliberalism (such as individualism, customer-service models of education, and online courses) impact the way in which race is taught and conceptualized in college classes. The final section, "Teaching How to Read Race and (Counter)Narratives," homes in on direct strategies used to historicize race in classrooms comprised of millennials who grapple with race neutral ideologies. Taken together, these sections and their constitutive essays offer rich and fruitful insight into the complex dynamics of contemporary race and ethnic studies education.
About the Author
PHILATHIA BOLTON is an assistant professor of English at the University of Akron.
CASSANDER L. SMITH is an associate professor of English at the University of Alabama and the author of Black Africans in the British Imagination: English Narratives of the Early Atlantic World.
LEE BEBOUT is an associate professor of English at Arizona State University and the author of Mythohistorical Interventions: The Chicano Movement and Its Legacies and Whiteness on the Border: Mapping the U.S. Racial Imagination in Brown and White.
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What "Everyone Knows"
Teaching Ferguson in St. Louis
Almost as soon as protests propelled Ferguson, Missouri, to national headlines in August 2014, my colleagues and I at Fontbonne University, located twelve miles away in Clayton, the seat of St. Louis County, began to ask what it meant for our students, many of whom live in and around Ferguson, in the area known locally as North County. We called meetings to talk about how we would fit it into our first-year seminar course, Culture and the Common Good. We revamped our existing syllabus for the Introduction to African-American Studies to focus on Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. We participated in a variety of efforts to support the community in Ferguson. Like many schools, we held panels to discuss the ways that race matters in various disciplines, we offered supportive conversations and prayer sessions, and we tried to explain again and with more urgency the dynamics of white supremacy as Ferguson erupted in anger that was both righteous and hateful.
Marcia Chatelain's invaluable #FergusonSyllabus hashtag inspired me to create an interdisciplinary course, Ferguson: Context and Consequences, which I offered in spring 2015. In the syllabus, I explained that we would not discuss Darren Wilson's guilt or innocence nor debate Michael Brown's character. We would not try to dissect the forensic evidence or sift through eyewitness reports. Instead, we would focus on what one protest poster called "the whole damn system" to understand the contexts, which were already urgent before August 9, 2014, and to consider what implications Ferguson, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ensuing white backlash would have for our region and nation. We would reject color-blindness, since it was impossible to understand Ferguson without discussing race, but we would also focus on the role of the state. Our animating questions were these: from where did the protesters' distrust come, and what were its effects on Ferguson and on the nation? We looked to sources in law, journalism, urban planning, history, music, and psychology for explanations and hosted guest speakers that included Brittany Noble-Jones, the first news reporter to cover Brown's death; Loretta Prater, an activist whose son Leslie had died at the hands of Chattanooga police in 2004; and Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a state senator from nearby University City and a prominent voice in the protest movement.
The seminar-style course on Ferguson was small and relatively diverse, with five white men, one white woman, five Black women, one Latino man, and one Latina woman. I am a white woman, and my teaching assistant is a Black woman. About half the students were from St. Louis city or county. Three were out-of-state students, and about half were from rural Missouri. Two were adult students; the others were of traditional college age. Their major fields of study ranged from pre-law to education to speech-language pathology. I knew most of the students in advance, whether through prior coursework in American history, culture studies, or the first-year seminar, or through the many activities surrounding race relations we had held in previous semesters. A few had become fledgling activists in the months between Brown's death and the start of the course, but none was an experienced protester.
When the course began, I asked the students why they had chosen it. A couple of them admitted that they just needed the course to fulfill a requirement, but most — and not only the white students — explained their feelings of confusion as they reacted to the protests in Ferguson. Those who were from out of state or from rural areas explained their discomfort as stemming from the fear that their families and friends felt at the place where they had chosen to attend college, yet they did not know how to reply to my question, or even necessarily what they thought themselves. Students not from St. Louis struggled to understand the local geographical divides. Most were uncomfortable with the destruction of Ferguson's infrastructure, even as almost everyone expressed concern about the nature of Brown's death. These concerns cut across racial, gendered, and geographic lines. "I don't know what to say" was a refrain shared among the students.
One early focus of the course was the concept of respectability. None of my students had been familiar with the term beforehand. By demonstrating how respectability politics work, I encouraged students of all backgrounds to think more critically about the contexts for the distrust of police in Ferguson and beyond and to frame their own critiques of racism more effectively. However, in this chapter, I will discuss the ways in which my classroom discussion of respectability took some unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable turns. These moments reframed my teaching, offering me better insight into the diverse kinds of knowledge the students held and how that knowledge affected their arguments in class. These moments demonstrated how the discourses of respectability inform a kind of double consciousness, to use W. E. B. Du Bois's term, in some of my Black students. Specifically, I came to see that Black students who had grown up in or near Ferguson operationalized a kind of respectability politics that had allowed them to navigate a racist culture and become successful college students. Yet they also were able and eager to make powerful antiracist critiques based on their experiences in those same places. However, this realization also pushed me to make some uncomfortable choices as a white teacher. Asking my students of color to interrogate their own racial experiences was perilous terrain that not only violated some of the codes of color-blindness by which instructors often are assumed to abide, but also reproduced racial hierarchies via professorial/student hierarchies. Yet coming to better understand my students' experiences with respectability emboldened me to take more risks that enriched my students' experiences. After teaching this course, I believe that predominantly white institutions like my own must devote greater attention to the politics of respectability if they want to fulfill the diversity, equity, and inclusion goals that are, in the wake of Ferguson, more urgent than ever.
"Respectability politics" has come to have a negative association in and around the Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged after the 2012 death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin at the hands of community watchman George Zimmerman but grew in intensity after Ferguson. The term, introduced by the scholar Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her 1993 book Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church: 1880 to 1920, suggests that Black women have negotiated success for themselves by conforming to white normative standards of moral virtue and middle-class behavior. While the term describes behaviors in Black culture, it is also attractive to whiteness because it displaces white responsibility for racial inequality onto Black individuals, families, and neighborhoods and away from the social institutions that reproduce it, such as criminal justice, law, education, finance, and health care. Fredrick C. Harris explains, "What started as a philosophy promulgated by Black elites to 'uplift the race' by correcting the 'bad' traits of the Black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of Black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of Black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity." In the context of Ferguson, respectability politics was evident not only in the voices of Black elites such as journalist Don Lemon and self-help guru Iyanla Vanzant, but also among white deniers of racism who suggested that had Michael Brown been more polite and law-abiding, his death would have been avoided.
This assumption is a key target of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Ferguson Police Department's choice to release video of Brown's alleged strongarm robbery on the same day they released the name of the officer who shot him created particular rancor among protesters, since many viewed this information as an attempt to divert attention from what they saw as Brown's murder. As Marc Lamont Hill explains in his book Nobody: Casualties of America's War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond (2016), the Ferguson police likely assumed "that the public, including the Black community, would not invest its support in Brown if he was marked as a criminal." Perhaps no figure in Ferguson better illustrated the demanding logic of respectability politics than Michael Brown's stepfather, Louis Head, whom Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder investigated for "inciting a riot" in November 2014. Head, despairing at the failure of the grand jury to indict Wilson, shouted "Burn this bitch down" in a momentary outburst of grief and frustration, even though he had previously and afterward called for peace. That Head, who had been incarcerated, seemed to fit a stereotype of disordered Black culture — particularly of the disordered Black family — thrust him into the spotlight as white conservatives assigned him blame for his stepson's presumed misbehavior and death.
I set out to discredit "respectability politics" early in the course, since I was eager to suggest to my students that one's rights are not a function of one's respectability and to demonstrate how decades of research on the Black community have shifted the blame for inequality from racism to deficiencies in Black culture. Students read passages of the 1965 Moynihan Report, which famously described Black families as a "tangle of pathology," and we analyzed internet memes about Brown's family that reproduced this thinking. We then contrasted those claims with, for instance, statistics on the actual involvement of Black fathers in their children's lives. I introduced Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's term "cultural racism" and discussed Robin D. G. Kelley's Yo Mama's Disfunktional. Then, turning to Bill Cosby's infamous "pound cake speech," we examined the ways in which Black voices reproduce similar lines of critique — that is to say, in respectability politics — well outside the academy. The concept was valuable for students who were uncomfortable blaming Black families for police brutality, but had trouble arguing an alternative position. The night after that particular class, one of my students happened to recognize Michael Brown Sr. at a local fast food restaurant — a powerful reminder that Brown's family are real people who live in our community, not caricatures on the internet. The student shook Brown's hand, and Brown wished God's blessings on her and her friends.
The piece that moved students most deeply was an excerpt from Gerald Early's book Daughters: On Family and Fatherhood (1994). Early, an esteemed Black professor at Washington University, the premier educational institution in St. Louis, related his story of being racially profiled at an upscale local mall. Although the piece is dated — the event occurred in 1991 — both the mall, Plaza Frontenac, and the university retain their prestige. Early writes poignantly of his humiliation and of lashing out at one of his daughters in the depths of his rage, as he tried to explain to her that white society sees him as nothing more than an animal. Early's piece masterfully illustrated the vulnerability of even the most respectable of Black men. Although most of my Black students generally understood this idea already, for some — particularly for those of relative class privilege — it nonetheless hit harder. My white students understood through Early's story the ways in which humiliation can breed rage, which allowed them to reframe Brown's stepfather not as a criminal rioter, but rather as a grieving husband and parent.
Understanding the politics of respectability also helped my students who had attended (during the previous semester) a presentation from Bernice King and other representatives of Atlanta's King Center. King had appeared on our campus to invite participants in the center's initiatives to promote peace in Ferguson. At that event, prominent African American residents of St. Louis — pastors, politicians, bankers, and police officers, many of them representatives of the civil rights era — filled the first two rows of seats, alongside the university administration. King and her associates on the stage emphasized a strategy of nonviolence while also stressing education and fiscal responsibility as the keys to transforming racial inequality. Many students shifted uncomfortably in their seats throughout this presentation, and when protesters from the Ferguson movement, standing in the back of the room, began to object vociferously to the characterization of themselves rather than police as violent, many students nodded their heads in agreement. This event illustrated a core conflict between the civil rights era and the emerging Black Lives Matter era: this new movement did not require its victims to be "respectable" to argue for their rights; they would not accept a characterization of themselves as the troublemakers. The Ferguson protesters and those that came afterward understood that respectability cannot fully protect Black citizens; moreover, it should not have to.
My extended lesson on respectability seemed to have been successful, not just in questioning its value, but also in setting a tone for the class discussions that would follow. We would not — and my students almost entirely did not — turn to critiques of Black culture in order to explain away systemic, institutionalized racism. Contextualizing respectability politics this way played an important role in creating a safer classroom experience for my students of color, and it focused all students on appropriate critiques of systemic racism and on the precarity of lives affected by it. I saw a meaningful deepening of the commentary from several students, especially those who had been most focused on the damage to Ferguson's stores and businesses, as they began to reassess what such destruction represented — it was more, they realized, than an excuse for criminal misbehavior.
However, later in the semester, I was humbled to realize that understanding the concept of respectability, and even hearing my critique of it, did not necessarily mean that the students in my classroom could be free of respectability politics themselves. In one informal journal entry, one of my Black students, a Ferguson resident, inveighed against the use of Black English, arguing that it was unintelligent and embarrassing. In my written comments, I countered that Black English has its own grammar and coherence, that it is simply a dialect like any other. Gesturing toward our discussions of respectability, I encouraged her to consider whether one's dialect ought to determine his or her right to be protected or respected. Toward the end of the student's journal entry, I also underlined a passage of a sentence that contained the phrase "feeling some type of way," a term the writer had used in expressing her frustration with Black English. "Isn't this Black English?" I queried playfully, knowing this student's sense of humor, and adding a "smiley" face next to it.
Although I found this journal entry a bit surprising, given that this student had repeatedly expressed substantial concerns about institutionalized racism, I did not think much of what I had written. But the next class period, the student approached me, laughing and hitting me on the arm, clearly more at ease than ever before in the class. "I loved your comments on my journal! You and I can hang out!" she joked. She went on to explain that she was shocked at what I had written on her paper and especially at my familiarity with the phrase "feeling some type of way." Something clearly had transformed for her: a sense that she could speak in a way that she was not comfortable speaking before.
The moment was lighthearted, but I found this exchange deeply affecting, and it opened many questions for me as a white instructor. What had she meant when she wrote the journal entry in the first place? Did she really believe that Black English was the embarrassment she had told me it was? Or was she telling me what she thought I wanted to hear? Could it be both? I had already shared with the class my personal and professional investments in antiracism. Indeed, I had argued strenuously against respectability politics. And yet, it seemed, by virtue of my position and my race, perhaps she truly didn't know that she didn't have to be "respectable" with me. If she felt she had to perform respectability in this course, I wondered, how did she feel in every other course, almost all of which would have been taught by white faculty at our predominantly white institution, and few of which likely had addressed these topics explicitly? Of course, my thoughts were not limited to this particular student, but to all of my students of color, in this and every course. It was a stark illustration of Du Boisian double consciousness. Du Bois writes that double consciousness is a "sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others." Even if I did not look at my student with "amused contempt and pity," as Du Bois suggests, she seemed to have felt some expectation of that judgment from me. In the next chapter in this volume, Anita Huizar-Hernández explores the struggles of Latina/o students in Arizona after the passage of legislation that banned the teaching of ethnic studies in that state. These students suffered academically as their cultures and histories became antithetical to the state's values in education.(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgements IntroductionTeaching with Tension: Race and Education at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century Philathia Bolton, Cassander L. Smith, and Lee Bebout Section I: Teaching in Times and Places of Struggle Chapter 1What Everyone Knows: Teaching Ferguson in Saint Louis Corinne Wohlford Chapter 2Resisting the Single Story in an Arizona Classroom Anita Huizar-Hernández Chapter 3Resisting Impulses and the Challenges of Teaching Race in the Early American ‘Ethnic’ Studies Classroom Cassander L. Smith Chapter 4Walls and Bridges: Teaching Culture and Diversity to Pre-Service Teachers Stuart Rhoden Chapter 5 Multi-Faceted Strands of Resistance: Teaching African American Literature in a Maximum Security Facility Briana Whiteside Chapter 6Relief and Resistance: Student Emotions in a Majority-Minority Ethnic Studies Classroom Magdalena Barrera Section II: Teaching in the Neoliberal University Chapter 7The Hoop of Learning: Inclusion, Collaboration, and Education for Indigenous American Youth Travis Franks and Kyle Mitchell Chapter 8How We Lost Our Academic Freedom: Difference and the Teaching of Ethnic and Gender Studies John Streamas Chapter 9Onward into the Discomfort: Teaching for Racial Justice in an Era of Media Outrage, the Alt-Right, and the Neoliberal University Lee Bebout Chapter 10Virtually White: Teaching Race in Online Classes Dan Colson Chapter 11Toward a Pedagogy of Presence or How I Nearly Lost My Body to the Neo-Liberal Academy Drew Lopenzina Chapter 12Teaching Whiteness in the Neoliberal University: Positionality, Privilege, Resistance, and Transformation Marguerite Wilson Section III: Teaching How to Read Race and (Counter)Narratives Chapter 13 Frangible Whiteness: Teaching Race in the Context of White Fragility Marcia Nichols and Jennifer Wacek Chapter 14Some of my Students are Leprechauns (Or Why it is Difficult for White College Students to Understand that Racism is still a Big Deal) Carmen Lugo-Lugo Chapter 15Exploring Development of Immigrant Fiction: Pedagogy of Counternarratives Umme Al-wazedi Chapter 16 The Potential of a Moment: Race Literacy and Black American Literature Philathia Bolton Chapter 17 Teaching Asian American Literature in the Urban Multicultural Classroom: Reflexive Practice, Cultural Politics, and the Problem of Identity within a Transnational Framework Jungah Kim ConclusionBack to the Classroom: A Final Note Philathia Bolton, Cassander L. Smith, and Lee Bebout Contributing Authors Index