What We Teach When We Teach About Ferguson

The role of anti-racist, feminist academics.

September 1, 2014

This fall, for the first time since I finished my Ph.D., I won’t be stepping into a classroom. I made this decision for a number of reasons, the need to focus on finding a full-time job high among them. But I haven’t severed all of my academic ties (if that is something one can ever really do). In addition to consulting and editing work, I keep a foot in academia in other ways. I am a member of my discipline’s professional association, the National Women’s Studies Association, and will participate in their conference in the fall. I am also a member of a highly active email listserv (yes, those still exist!) which recently hosted a discussion on how to approach what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri in the classroom.

Because the listserv is private, I won’t mention the names of the people who participated in the discussion, or use their exact words.  The tone was at first completely supportive and highly useful - someone pointed to the #FergusonSyllabus hashtag on Twitter (started by Marcia Chatelain). Others discussed links to US foreign policy and made connections between our militarized police forces and South Africa’s apartheid state. Not long after, the trouble started. A member of the listserv posted US-wide violence statistics, citing the high rate of “black on black” crime, and urged members not to rely on explanations of racism, but to view Michael Brown’s murder as an isolated incident.

I nearly left the listserv. But then I thought again. (Actually I also thought about petitioning to have the offending contributor removed from the listserv, and THEN I thought again.)

This person’s attempt at “explaining away” racism is a reminder of why our work in the classroom is so important.  I know that the “isolated incident” and “black on black crime” (and worse) arguments are being used in the mainstream media narrative around Michael Brown’s death, of course. But I didn’t expect these excuses to find their way to my email inbox, into a space that I thought I was “safe.” As a queer white feminist who lives in a large East Coast city, and who surrounds herself with like-minded folk, I have the ability to forget that people who make these excuses are everywhere, holding up the foundation of a racist society. That ability to forget, and to feel safe in the first place, is part of my white privilege; and it is just the tip of the white privilege iceberg.

There is a popular exercise that is often used in introductory gender studies classes called “unpacking the invisible knapsack.” Developed by Peggy McIntosh, the exercise invites students to respond to a series of statements, everything from: “I can be late to [class] without it reflecting on my race” to “I [was not educated by my parents] to be aware of systemic racism for [my] own daily physical protection,” to, perhaps my personal favorite, “If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.” Taken together, these statements illustrate how structural privilege operates at the everyday level in a white supremacist society.

Now, in this time of national crisis, is not the time to forget, or to remain ignorant of how white privilege operates in our society. For white academics, now more than ever, this is the time to take what we know, what we have learned from our research, our analyses, and from living in the world, and use it in (and outside of) the classroom. We might not have the power of the militarized Ferguson police department, or the reach of news outlets like CNN, but we do have the tools to explain what structural oppression looks like - and maybe even more importantly, what structural privilege looks like. Owning privilege is key because it prompts us to ask how we might use that privilege to have difficult conversations; conversations that whites lose so little in having.  

While I won’t be doing this work in the classroom this fall, I will be doing it in other academic outlets, and in conversations with people who are resistant to explanations of the situation in Ferguson that include an understanding of centuries of structural racism and critical analyses of race, gender, and class.

So thank you, contributor to the discussion, you have made me remember why being an anti-racist, feminist academic is so important. See you on the listserv.

Gwendolyn Beetham is the associate editor of the University of Venus and the curator of the Academic Feminist at Feministing.com. Find her on Twitter @gwendolynb



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