Letter to the Editor: How faculty can navigate whiteness

Adriane Brown, Associate Professor and Director, Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies

The issue that came to our attention following professor Adamo’s use of the N-word is this: Is Augsburg actually a welcoming and inclusive environment for its diverse student population? For years, students in the Honors program who identify as members of marginalized communities have felt unheard, tokenized, dismissed, invalidated and unsafe.

I’ve been thinking about Yancy’s words recently, and I believe that this is a moment for us as white faculty members to tarry with our own practices of whiteness. It is would be easy for me to make myself the Good White Professor, to distance myself from Phil Adamo and to insist that I would never do THAT. To be clear, I assign some course texts by black authors that use the N-word, and I do not read the word out loud. However, I have also engaged in other teaching practices that re-entrench whiteness and affect my students’ educational experiences.

I have prioritized my own discomfort with anger over giving space to my students’ emotional reactions to racism. I have intellectualized classroom discussions about racial trauma. I have assumed that because I am queer and grew up poor and earned three degrees in Gender and Women’s Studies, I am thoroughly educated on racial oppression and do not perpetuate racism in my teaching practices. And even after claiming to be willing to talk about all of these things, I have gotten defensive and shut down conversations when approached about whiteness in my own practices.

We have to avoid jumping over the pain of racial trauma and rushing to action. Though it may seem anti-intellectual to dwell in emotion, black feminist scholar Audre Lorde asserted, “Anger is an appropriate reaction to racist attitudes, as is fury when the actions arising from those attitudes do not change.” We cannot speed past our students’ anger so that we can quickly identify solutions or ask them to have a detached conversation about something that they have dealt with on a visceral, personal level.

We have to acknowledge that while students have a tremendous effect on classroom environments, faculty members still hold significant institutional power over students. We get to choose whether or not to have conversations about race, and we decide what those conversations will look like. Students of color may choose not to approach us about whiteness in our classrooms because we issue their grades and they fear repercussions.

We have to let go of the fiction that we are good white people who already understand racism. It is possible for us to care deeply about our students of color while engaging in practices of whiteness that further marginalize them. It is possible for us to understand racism as a structural force while failing to see how we personally uphold it. It is possible for us to assign course texts by authors of color while neglecting to reflect on the ways that whiteness has shaped our professional and disciplinary development. I have engaged in all of these practices. Even as I write this, I wonder if I am doing so in part to be seen as “one of the good ones.”

I believe that we can both uphold academic freedom and work to avoid harming marginalized students through our teaching practices. Of course, we can’t always know what will harm our students, and it can be difficult to differentiate between discomfort (which is part of learning) and harm (which shouldn’t be). It can be challenging for us as white faculty to find that line when it comes to race, especially because most of us have spent little time thinking about our own personal investments in whiteness.

I love Augsburg, and I know that this is a place filled with people who care about doing this work. Many faculty, staff and students are already guiding us through these conversations, and I look forward to having them with many of you over the coming months and years.

This article was originally published in the Nov. 16, 2018 issue.