Friday, May 11, 2018

Do we need white privilege to teach about race?

Last year, in the wake of Charlottesville, I saw quite a few biological anthropologists state on social media that they would use their white privilege to expand how they address the anthropology of race and human variation. While I appreciate their commitment to using white privilege to dismantle myths about race that underlie white supremacy, this statement made me uncomfortable. If anthropologists need white privilege in order to teach white students about race, what does that mean for anthropologists of color teaching these topics? What does that mean for students of color, in a classroom curriculum that may unintentionally center the education of white students?

So I drafted a blog entry which I didn't post. I didn't quite feel comfortable posting something that critiqued senior colleagues' good intentions. But in the light of more recent discussions about the way in which anthropology pushes students of color out of the "pipeline," and recent discussion on twitter about the challenges black professors have in teaching about race, I think it's worth revisiting.

In my own experiences of teaching biological anthropology, I've used my own identity as an example of how its difficult to categorize people based on appearance. While others do similar exercises with online resources or pictures of celebrities, I think my identity can be an asset in engaging students in a personal way. On the other hand, it can also negatively affect how students perceive my expertise and effectiveness as a professor, and make it riskier for my to teach challenging topics. As a visible minority, there's limits to what I can teach and how I can teach it without risking pushback from students. I discuss race from a biocultural perspective, but avoid directly tackling the issue of white privilege, whereas white colleagues can more easily address it because they share that experience with their white students.

I wish colleagues would explicitly recognize that their white privilege affects both their ability to teach challenging topics and how students evaluate them--and  that this has greater implications for the inclusion and retention of minority students and faculty within anthropology. Student evaluations play a role in if contingent faculty get renewed contracts, how job candidates are evaluated, and whether tenure-track professors receive tenure. They are well-documented biases based on race and gender. Racialized minorities, particularly women of color, need to constantly assess how their teaching will be received in light of these biases. And often, "diversity" is valued in the classroom for educating white students, which may came at the expense of minority students. When educating white students is centered, I worry that it may shine an uncomfortable spotlight on students of color. I've been in situations where I was expected to share my experiences of racism to educate white colleagues, and it's incredibly uncomfortable. We need to be mindful of how, often unintentionally, these experiences alienate minority students.

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