Dear students in my Race & Ethnicity course,
The questions -- really, belligerent interrogations -- you posed in class today seem pertinent both pedagogically and epistemologically. And, your in-class comments were accompanied by confrontational emails that you sent later in the day, which gave me some pause.
I delivered a lecture about the concept of white privilege. Your hollow stares, cramped smiles and silent voices punctuated at times with contemptuous remarks bitterly reminded me that white privilege is not a concept. Rather, it is a pragmatic and precise representation of what it means to be “white” in this country and, as a result, what it means to be a person of color or a woman of color -- even if that person is a scholar of race studies. Here, even a nonreaction, which includes willfully not reading scholarship produced by people of color on your reading list, is a reaction. Indeed, your silence -- by not reading the materials assigned in this course about white privilege -- speaks volumes about the mechanics and mechanisms of white privilege in classrooms.
The ways in which my lecture about white privilege unfolded today, coupled with your hostile reactions in the classroom and accusatory emails, have led me to map how privilege and oppression are working in our own classroom. I received my first student email from a white woman, who wrote, “You course is racist toward whites.” (Indeed, Uma Narayan’s notion of gender essentialism is apt.) I am reminded of two scholars on your course reading list, bell hooks and Bhakti Shringarpure. hooks expresses how she has not been able to trust white women in the American feminist movement (historically at a speech at the National Women’s Studies Association). One of Shringarpure’s white students writes, “If one is not careful, a multicultural discussion can start to look a lot like an attack on white culture … ” Shringarpure’s response: “I am yet to meet a person who can have a normal nuanced nonracist conversation with me about Africa or India, and I've been studying that literature for about a decade.”
Here, I am thinking about multiple aspects of knowledge production. The difficult questions that come to the front line are: first, who is reacting and speaking in this course, both in the classroom and electronically (i.e., via email)? Second, who is not participating in the conversations that are taking place both inside and outside the classroom? And, third, those of you who are vocal, what does my representation as a queer, Muslim American woman of color mean to you in the context of expert knowledge production about race, ethnicity and racism? By asking these questions, I point to various forms of hegemonic vectors of power, that is, monolithic understanding of the American nationalist self: white privilege, predatory corporate capitalism, symbolic ethnicity, heteronormativity, Christianity, male privilege, colonization -- the list goes on.
I am perhaps not as concerned about who is speaking -- white students -- as I am about who is not speaking -- students of color. I am also perhaps not as troubled with the content of our conversations as with the censorious tone in which questions are being asked of me. I do not find it fascinating that, collectively, the students of color in my classroom are silent and those who identify as white are vocal. This is precisely how white privilege works in an academic context!
I encourage you to engage with and think critically about the epistemological consequences of a woman and person of color producing scholarship around marginalization and oppression and privilege and power through the lens of race, ethnicity and racism. Another one of your authors on your reading list, Afshan Jafar, raises questions around authority and bias in scholarship. In an article about Reza Aslan’s interview on Fox, Jafar demands us to think about “who gets to study what/or whom.” And “who gets to study (or teach) about what?” If my body were white, then what differences would that make in knowledge production and acceptance? That is, who gets to produce knowledge about race and racism that is accepted, and why? Jafar writes, “The assumption here is also that a white, Western (and again, mostly male) perspective is never biased. When they produce research it is ‘knowledge,’ but when Others produce it, it is ‘a perspective.’”
Collectively, you have branded this course as racist (toward white people) and lodged an institutional complaint that I am racist toward white students. I simply cannot take this protest seriously. Hence, I offer the following response: “I have five white friends and my neighbors are white!” I welcome such sentiments because not only does it revitalize my commitment to the social justice work that I am doing, but it also makes my job easier in uncovering power and privilege and their counterparts, oppression and marginalization. I make a clarification here: my course is not racist. It is about racism!
The notion of reverse racism is a myth. Silencing white stories does not change what it means to be white in this country, and it certainly does not impact public policies that continue to privilege white people. On the other hand, silencing stories of color maintains marginalization and oppression or the status quo. It supports public policies that continue to negatively impact those of us who identify as people of color. I make two interrelated points here.
First, if some of you are uncomfortable in my classroom, then that means that we are making some progress in understanding the social construction of race and ethnicity and the ways in those constructions benefit white folk. Experiencing discomfort only twice a week for 75 minutes at a time is simply a nuisance and more so a privilege. It is nuisance precisely because you are feeling unease. And it is a privilege because, for some of you, once you walk out of this classroom, you no longer have to feel awkward. That is, your normality -- meaning, your whiteness -- is restored!
Second, it is true that not all whites live a privileged life. However, even poor whites have the privilege of whiteness even if they are unable to see it because of their inability to put Wonder Bread on the table. The error here is the conflation of white privilege with class -- or poverty. A poor person of color is still worse off than a poor person who is white.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with admitting one has white privilege; it does not mean that you are a racist. Rather, it means that you come from a legacy of systemic and systematic oppression that disadvantages people of color. I am asking you to take responsibility by at least recognizing the privileges that you do have in and outside of this classroom.
In this course, my goal is to create a space in which the stories of people of color can be rewritten. Arguing that the course content -- scholarship authored exclusively by people of color -- is racist toward white students is a function of white privilege. This course is one of the few spaces in which the voices of people of color -- the counterposition -- can surface through biased dominant discourses. And if this means that momentarily white histories and voices are less salient, then I am willing to take that risk. If you are not willing to do so with me by your side, then take note of the upcoming course-drop date.