A Muslim student is asked if she has a bomb in her backpack — jokingly, of course. A black man realizes his classmates assume his admission was solely due to affirmative action. A woman is certain her professor is paying more attention to male than female students, but she knows from experience that she’ll be accused of overreacting if she calls the behavior sexist.
It’s the little slights like these — they’re often called microaggressions —that explain why college campuses, while more diverse than ever, can still be tough places for, well, pretty much all groups of students except white men.
Understanding the effect of these microaggressions on students is an essential step to closing the race and gender gaps in achievement and graduation rates. That’s the conclusion of a new study by Harvard University’s Voices of Diversity project. To reach it, researchers analyzed interviews and online surveys of more than 200 students attending Missouri State University, two anonymous public institutions in the South and the Midwest, and a private, elite university in the Northeast.
The sample size is small, but the students’ responses — especially the anecdotal ones — paint a portrait of the new landscape of racism and sexism in higher education.
It’s more subtle, but just as alienating as ever.
Diversity gains aren’t enough
Diversity on college campuses has increased: between 1976 and 2007, black students grew from 10 percent of the total college population to 13 percent , Hispanics students from 4 percent to 12 percent, and Asian/Pacific Islander students from 2 percent to 7 percent. The percentage of female students increased from 48 to 57 — making women the majority at many schools. And there’s likely been more progress made since that data was collected.
But the numerical gains made by students of color and women can’t erase a long history of exclusion.
“[S]imply changing the representation of various groups does not in and of itself ensure that the experiences of racial/ethnic minority and women students are as positive as those of their white and male counterparts,” Diversity Project researchers noted in their write-up of the study. They explained that, “since institutional change tends to be slow, one cannot assume that increases in numbers of students of color have been accompanied by adequate changes in what has been called the ‘chilly climate’ for students of color and women in undergraduate populations at [predominantly white institutions].”
In their interviews with students, the researchers discovered that this “chilly climate” doesn’t always come from outright racism, sexism, or hostility. Sometimes, they found, it’s the result of subtle slights — often based in stereotypes — that can discourage and alienate students, putting a damper on their college experiences.
What are microaggressions?
The majority of the incidents students described in the report are what social scientists call “microaggressions,” the subtle, commonplace, verbal or behavioral indignities — sometimes intentional and sometimes not —that insult and humiliate people who are in the minority.
They’re the kind of things that provided the basis of the 2014 movie Dear White People, a satirical look at the experiences of black students at predominantly white colleges. In the film, characters vent frustration with things like incessant requests to touch their hair.
Here are a few examples from the report:
One woman talks about overhearing remarks that remind her of the way male students sexualize their female classmates, saying, “You can be standing in a group of guys, and they can be talking about the girls that are next to them…commenting on people’s clothing or ‘She’s pretty. She’s ugly. She’s fat. She’s a bitch.” Another reports that her male classmates “have more access to professors,” and, unlike women, who “have to be within their own space and kind of really think about what they have to say before they say it,” seem to feel uninhibited in class.
An Arab-American student says classmates have teased him about being a terrorist, followed by “you know I’m just joking.”
An African-American student tells stories of how black males are questioned by campus police about whether they attend their Ivy League school — even when they’re holding a student ID. Another reports that “there are people staring at me, trying to see how I react” whenever race comes up in the classroom.” In response, the student says, “I kind of scrunch up and try not to be noticed.”
Study authors said this wasn’t surprising: “Experience in the civil rights and women’s movements has shown that even changes in structures and policies do not, in and of themselves, eradicate racism and sexism and in fact often lead to the metamorphosis of expressions of prejudice into subtler forms.”.
Why the findings matter
The students overwhelmingly reported that these microaggresions took a major toll on them — causing apprehension, anguish, and concern about how to react, layered on top of the hurt feelings the comments evoked.
The incidents not only caused immediate emotional distress, but also led students to wonder how much they can trust their own judgment, the authors wrote. The authors of the study said many students of color and women experienced prolonged doubt and stress that left them questioning their place on campus and whether they belonged.
This, of course, can damage self-confidence and serve as a major distraction from academics. Aside from the obvious (nobody wants college to be a terrible time for everyone besides white men), these findings have consequences for educational equality.
If students are preoccupied with navigating microaggressions, it stands to reason that they’d be distracted from academics and possibly even less motivated to complete their education. So this issue is important for people who are concerned about racial and gender gaps in achievement, as well as graduation rates.
“This study is absolutely necessary right now, as we face the continuing challenge of the achievement gap between minority students and their white counterparts,” Henry Louis Gates, the principal investigator on the project, said in an interview with the Harvard Gazette. “The information we glean from this study will help us understand better the wide variety of factors that influence student performance.
It may be easy to talk a good game when it comes to race, but a new study from Pew Research Center reveals the hidden racial biases that people carry. To get at the truth, researchers used an Implicit Association Test (IAT), which tracks how quickly people associate good or bad words with specific groups. The study focused on black, Asian, white, biracial black-white, and biracial Asian-white participants, with an eye toward discovering if biracial people are less likely to be biased. It turns out that they are not.
The experiment was run in two parts. In the first part, black, white and black-white biracial people were shown images on a computer with photos of either a black or white man, and a word that means good or bad. They are asked to—as quickly as they can—press a button on the keyboard that either agrees or disagrees with using the word as an accurate descriptor. The same was repeated with a group of Asian, white and Asian-white biracial people.
The results showed that most of those polled had some racial preference. Among black-only respondents, just 26 percent exhibited no or negligible amounts of bias. For Asian-only people, that number was 20 percent. For whites in the first group, the number was 27 percent. Among whites in the first test, that number was 27 percent; it was 30 percent for the second group.
But most people exhibited a clear bias, even those who identify with more than one racial group. Forty-eight percent of people who identify as white-only favored whites over blacks; 50 percent of them preferred whites over Asians. For black-white biracial people, 42 percent preferred whites, while 35 percent preferred blacks. And when it comes to black people, 45 percent preferred blacks over whites, while 29 percent were more likely to associate positive things with white people.
In the second group, 42 percent of Asians preferred Asians, while 38 percent preferred whites. Among biracial Asian-white people, 39 percent preferred whites, versus 38 percent who preferred Asians.
In general, the numbers stayed the same even when divided by age (39 and younger, versus 40 and up), gender, education and political party. And when the same people were polled for explicit bias, they were less likely to reveal it.
Previous IATs have shown that the biases they uncover are associated with actions. For example, a 2007 study found that doctors’ IAT scores were reflected in the treatment plans they created for their patients.
Last year, a white male Princeton undergraduate was asked by a classmate to “check his privilege.” Offended by this suggestion, he shot off a 1,300-word essay to the Tory, a right-wing campus newspaper.In it, he wrote about his grandfather who fled the Nazis to Siberia, his grandmother who survived a concentration camp in Germany, about the humble wicker basket business they started in America. He railed against his classmates for “diminishing everything [he’d] accomplished, all the hard work [he’d] done.”
His missive was reprinted by Time. He was interviewed by the New York Timesand appeared on Fox News. He became a darling of white conservatives across the country.
What he did not do, at any point, was consider whether being white and male might have given him—if not his ancestors—some advantage in achieving incredible success in America. He did not, in other words, check his privilege.
To Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicutural education at Westfield State University and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, Tal Fortgang’s essay—indignant, defensive, beside-the-point, somehow both self-pitying and self-aggrandizing—followed a familiar script. As an anti-racist educator for more than two decades, DiAngelo has heard versions of it recited hundreds of times by white men and women in her workshops.
She’s heard it so many times, in fact, that she came up with a term for it: “white fragility,” which she defined in a 2011 journal article as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”
When the Black Lives Matter movement marched in the streets, holding up traffic, disrupting commerce, and refusing to allow “normal life” to resume—insofar as normalcy means a system that permits police and vigilantes to murder black men and women with impunity—white people found themselves in tense conversations online, with friends and in the media about privilege, white supremacy and racism. You could say white fragility was at an all-time high.
I spoke with DiAngelo about how to deal with all the fragile white people, and why it’s worth doing so.
Sam Adler-Bell: How did you come to write about “white fragility”?
Robin DiAngelo: To be honest, I wanted to take it on because it’s a frustrating dynamic that I encounter a lot. I don’t have a lot of patience for it. And I wanted to put a mirror to it.
I do atypical work for a white person, which is that I lead primarily white audiences in discussions on race every day, in workshops all over the country. That has allowed me to observe very predictable patterns. And one of those patterns is this inability to tolerate any kind of challenge to our racial reality. We shut down or lash out or in whatever way possible block any reflection from taking place.
Of course, it functions as means of resistance, but I think it’s also useful to think about it as fragility, as inability to handle the stress of conversations about race and racism
Sometimes it’s strategic, a very intentional push back and rebuttal. But a lot of the time, the person simply cannot function. They regress into an emotional state that prevents anybody from moving forward.
SAB: Carla Murphy recently referenced “white fragility” in an article forColorlines, and I’ve seen it referenced on Twitter and Facebook a lot lately. It seems like it’s having a moment. Why do you think that is?
RD: I think we get tired of certain terms. What I do used to be called “diversity training,” then “cultural competency” and now, “anti-racism.” These terms are really useful for periods of time, but then they get coopted, and people build all this baggage around them, and you have to come up with new terms or else people won’t engage.
And I think “white privilege” has reached that point. It rocked my world when I first really got it, when I came across Peggy McIntosh. It’s a really powerful start for people. But unfortunately it’s been played so much now that it turns people off.
SAB: What causes white fragility to set in?
RD: For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.”
In large part, white fragility—the defensiveness, the fear of conflict—is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, “What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.” It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people.
The good/bad binary is also what leads to the very unhelpful phenomenon of un-friending on Facebook.
SAB: Right, because the instinct is to un-friend, to dissociate from those bad white people, so that I’m not implicated in their badness.
RD: When I’m doing a workshop with white people, I’ll often say, “If we don’t work with each other, if we give in to that pull to separate, who have we left to deal with the white person that we’ve given up on and won’t address?
SAB: A person of color.
RD: Exactly. And white fragility also comes from a deep sense of entitlement. Think about it like this: from the time I opened my eyes, I have been told that as a white person, I am superior to people of color. There’s never been a space in which I have not been receiving that message. From what hospital I was allowed to be born in, to how my mother was treated by the staff, to who owned the hospital, to who cleaned the rooms and took out the garbage. We are born into a racial hierarchy, and every interaction with media and culture confirms it—our sense that, at a fundamental level, we are superior.
And, the thing is, it feels good. Even though it contradicts our most basic principles and values. So we know it, but we can never admit it. It creates this kind of dangerous internal stew that gets enacted externally in our interactions with people of color, and is crazy-making for people of color. We have set the world up to preserve that internal sense of superiority and also resist challenges to it. All while denying that anything is going on and insisting that race is meaningless to us.
SAB: Something that amazes me is the sophistication of some white people’s defensive maneuvers. I have a black friend who was accused of “online harassment” by a white friend after he called her out in a harsh way. What do you see going on there?
RD: First of all, whites often confuse comfort with safety. We say we don’t feel safe, when what we mean is that we don’t feel comfortable. Secondly, no white person looks at a person of color through objective eyes. There’s been a lot of research in this area. Cross-racially, we do not see with objective eyes. Now you add that he’s a black man. It’s not a fluke that she picked the word “harassed.” In doing that, she’s reinforcing a really classic, racist paradigm: White women and black men. White women’s frailty and black men’s aggressiveness and danger.
But even if she is feeling that, which she very well may be, we should be suspicious of our feelings in these interactions. There’s no such thing as pure feeling. You have a feeling because you’ve filtered the experience through a particular lens. The feeling is the outcome. It probably feels natural, but of course it’s shaped by what you believe.
SAB: There’s also the issue of “tone-policing” here, right?
RD: Yes. One of the things I try to work with white people on is letting go of our criteria about how people of color give us feedback. We have to build our stamina to just be humble and bear witness to the pain we’ve caused.
In my workshops, one of the things I like to ask white people is, “What are the rules for how people of color should give us feedback about our racism? What are the rules, where did you get them, and whom do they serve?” Usually those questions alone make the point.
It’s like if you’re standing on my head and I say, “Get off my head,” and you respond, “Well, you need to tell me nicely.” I’d be like, “No. Fuck you. Get off my fucking head.”
In the course of my work, I’ve had many people of color give me feedback in ways that might be perceived as intense or emotional or angry. And on one level, it’s personal—I did do that thing that triggered the response, but at the same time it isn’t onlypersonal. I represent a lifetime of people that have hurt them in the same way that I just did.
And, honestly, the fact that they are willing to show me demonstrates, on some level, that they trust me.
SAB: What do you mean?
RD: If people of color went around showing the pain they feel in every moment that they feel it, they could be killed. It is dangerous. They cannot always share their outrage about the injustice of racism. White people can’t tolerate it. And we punish it severely—from job loss, to violence, to murder.
For them to take that risk and show us, that is a moment of trust. I say, bring it on, thank you.
When I’m doing a workshop, I’ll often ask the people of color in the room, somewhat facetiously, “How often have you given white people feedback about our inevitable and often unconscious racist patterns and had that go well for you?” And they laugh.
Because it just doesn’t go well. And so one time I asked, “What would your daily life be like if you could just simply give us feedback, have us receive it graciously, reflect on it and work to change the behavior? What would your life be like?”
And this one man of color looked at me and said, “It would be revolutionary.”
SAB: I notice as we’ve been talking that you almost always use the word “we” when describing white people’s tendencies. Can you tell me why you do that?
RD: Well, for one, I’m white (and you’re white). And even as committed as I am, I’m not outside of anything that I’m talking about here. If I went around saying white people this and white people that, it would be a distancing move. I don’t want to reinforce the idea that there are some whites who are done, and others that still need work. There’s no being finished.
Plus, in my work, I’m usually addressing white audiences, and the “we” diminishes defensiveness somewhat. It makes them more comfortable. They see that I’m not just pointing fingers outward.
SAB: Do you ever worry about re-centering whiteness?
RD: Well, yes. I continually struggle with that reality. By standing up there as an authority on whiteness, I’m necessarily reinforcing my authority as a white person. It goes with the territory. For example, you’re interviewing me now, on whiteness, and people of color have been saying these things for a very long time.
On the one hand, I know that in many ways, white people can hear me in a way that they can’t hear people of color. They listen. So by god, I’m going to use my voice to challenge racism. The only alternative I can see is to not speak up and challenge racism. And that is not acceptable to me.
It’s sort of a master’s tools dilemma.
SAB: Yes, and racism is something that everyone thinks they’re an authority on.
RD: That drives me crazy. I’ll run into someone I haven’t seen in 20 years in the grocery store, and they’ll say, “Hi! What’ve you been doing?”
And I say, “I got my Ph.D.”
And they say, “Oh wow, what in?”
“Race relations and white racial identity.”
And they’ll go “Oh, well you know. People just need to—”
As if they’re going to give me the one-sentence answer to arguably the most challenging social dynamic of our time. Like, hey, why did I knock myself out for 20 years studying, researching, and challenging this within myself and others? I should have just come to you! And the answer is so simple! I’ve never heard that one before!
Imagine if I was an astronomer. Everybody has a basic understanding of the sky, but they would not debate an astronomer on astronomy. The arrogance of white people faced with questions of race is unbelievable.
As far as Lee Bebout was concerned, his Arizona State University course, US Race Theory and the Problem of Whiteness, was off to a good start. A multiracial, politically diverse group of undergraduates was enrolled. He’d prepared a syllabus and was ready to lead them in seminar-style discussions, assigning basic readings and weekly papers on the history of race in America and other topics.
But the class had met exactly once in the beginning of the 2015 spring semester, when news of it — or its title, at least — spread past campus. Bebout was at lunch with his wife in January when a producer for a conservative radio show reached out to book an interview about the course. Next, Fox News wanted to talk.
“I thought, ‘Oh god, this might not be a good thing,'” Bebout, who tends to talk about the controversy in bemused understatements, remembers.
Then came the hate mail. Lots of it. More than one message commanded the 38-year-old professor, who is white, to “go live in Africa.” The outrage reached a fever pitch that transcended the everyday internet trolling that goes hand in hand with just about any news that relates to race.
“Things got obviously weird,” he says, “when white supremacist groups came to my neighborhood.”
The people campaigning against the course were incensed at what they understood to be an entire semester dedicated to slamming white people. But the Problem of Whiteness wasn’t designed to convince students that white people are a problem. The negative language in the course’s title was simply a nod to how tough it can be to talk (or even think) about what it means to be white, when white is so deeply etched in the minds of many Americans as a synonym for “raceless” or “neutral.” The reaction to the course seemed to prove this thesis.
Bebout, then an assistant professor of English (the school stood behind him, and he’s since received tenure and is a full professor) had previously taught courses like Transborder Chicano Literature and American Ethnic Literature. He says he created the Problem of Whiteness for practical reasons: “I can study Chicano studies, I can do critical race theory to some degree, but without understanding whiteness, it felt like there was this big gap that I wasn’t able to understand in the field.”
In other words, you really have to understand the idea of whiteness to even begin to talk about race in America. As Columbia University historian Barbara J. Fields told the producers of PBS’s series Race: The Power of An Illusion, it was self-identified white Americans of European descentwho “invented race during the era of the American Revolution as a way of resolving the contradiction between a natural right to freedom and the fact of slavery.” Slavery is over, but whiteness remains the identity against which ethnic groups are compared and the identity that racism protects.
You really have to understand the idea of whiteness to even begin to talk about race in America
One white teenager profiled in the new MTV documentary White People put it in plain language: “White is the default. It’s the default race.” That film, which premiered July 22, is a high-profile exploration how young white people perceive their racial identity in a country that’s more ethnically diverse by the year, and where they stand to be outnumbered by people who identify as something other than white by 2042.
It’s not the first recent effort of its kind. Last year, an interactive film project, The Whiteness Project, gave a platform to the unfiltered views of white Americans, who answered questions like, “Can you describe any benefits your receive from being white?”
In June, after NAACP official Rachel Dolezal was exposed for going to incredible lengths to distance herself from the white identity she was born with and “pass” as black, and white supremacist Dylann Roof was arrested for a deadly attack on a predominately black Charleston, South Carolina, church, the New York Times Sunday Review asked, “What Is Whiteness”?
The idea that whiteness is deserving of scrutiny is unfailingly and uniquely controversial. Many fret that contemplating what it means to be white is no more than a setup to make white Americans feel “ashamed,” as one disgruntled father of a teen featured in White People complains. Others worry that this focus distracts from the plight of members of racial minority groups, or that it irresponsibly offers a new platform to old racist views, without providing sufficient context or correction.
But what’s clear is that the days of pretending that whiteness is invisible are over. The turmoil surrounding it is just one of the growing pains of a country that’s rapidly changing and struggling to rethink old ways of talking about and analyzing race.
The study of whiteness isn’t new, but mainstream attention to it is
One reason Bebout didn’t fully anticipate the intense backlash against his course is that the topic wasn’t revolutionary. Examining what whiteness is — analyzing it as a race, a culture, and a concept that has fueled racism — isn’t new, particularly in academia.
And contemplating what it means to be white goes back even further than these contemporary texts, to the late 19th century and early 20th century writing of thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois. Attention to whiteness has had more practical moments, too, like in the curricula of the freedom schools of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when, as Bebout puts it, “a lot of black activists were saying, ‘Okay, we need to understand social conditioning of white people.'”
In 1988 came Peggy McIntosh’s essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, anchored by a 50-item list of small benefits that white Americans enjoy every day — like “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race,” “I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair,” and “I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.” Still widely considered the simplest, go-to explanation of “white privilege” — which is fast becoming a household term — it set off a surge of interest in whiteness studies scholarship in the 1990s that’s since ebbed and flowed, but has never been a secret.
In recent years, though, something has changed. Energy around the idea that white people have a race and a stake in conversations about race and racism has, very clumsily, begun to go mainstream.
“Controversy about this spikes every five or 10 years. The difference is now we have the internet,” Bebout says.
This development means the topic has emerged from its cozy, nuance-friendly place in academic and progressive circles. In the hands of the public — sharing articles, offering reactions on Twitter, and typing paragraphs in comment sections — it’s simultaneously been treated with skepticism, infused with new life, and violently garbled.
In MTV’s White People, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas travels the country to interview a cross-section of young, white Americans: teachers at a predominantly Native American elementary school, a kid from an all-white town who attends a historically black college, a recent high school graduate who frets that she’s missed out on scholarships because of her race, and the leader of a workshop on white privilege. Their narratives are supplemented by interviews with experts, and statistics and charts about demographics and attitudes that flash across the screen.
The point? “We cannot have an honest and real conversation about race in America if we can’t talk about what being white means in America,” Vargas told the LA Times in a pre-premiere interview.
That concept sounds straightforward enough, but it hasn’t been easy to digest.
In part due to the provocative language of an initial casting call that asked potential subjects, “Are you being discriminated against for being white?” and, “Are you being made to feel guilty because you’re white?” in addition to, “Is something making you question the advantages you’ve had as a white person?” and the release of a trailer that featured white subjects’ unfiltered musings (“You say the wrong thing, and suddenly you’re a racist”), the film was met with dread.
Anticipatory critiques rolled in. There was knee-jerk negativity from the usual — often conservative — suspects who resist most any conversation about race, and who seem to sniff out that scrutiny of whiteness might lead to thinking critically about racism in America in a way that clashes with their ideology. (They’re right: It often does.)
Rush Limbaugh, for example, dismissed Vargas as a “a renowned illegal immigrant” and then, honing in on the use of the term “white privilege” in the trailer, offered his conservative listeners an ominous description of the film, whose potential damage, he seemed to argue, had been underdiscussed.
But the disapproval runs deeper and is more complicated than that. Mention “whiteness” as an area of study, and some will recoil at the assumption that it’s code for “white supremacy,” as in the antagonistic “White History Month” campaigns that tend to crop up as pushback against African American History Month and what critics see as out-of-control multiculturalism. From others, it will elicit eye rolls in anticipation of petty complaints about imagined hardships and reverse racism.
“I can’t tell if this is actually supposed to be funny or serious but it’s kinda hard not to laugh when a white dude exclaims, “You say the wrong thing and suddenly you are racist!” before the words “WHITE FRUSTRATION” wrote Kristen Yoonsoo Kim for Complex.
“The white people featured in the documentary come from all walks of life, but they have one thing in common: They all seem like a bunch of whiny white people,” wrote Yesha Callahan of the African-American news site the Root.
The film has also been criticized by those who saw it in its entirety and thought its aims were worthy but worried that it fell short at times, presenting some white subjects’ unsophisticated attitudes and statements without sufficiently challenging their premises. In a conversation between Slate TV critic Willa Paskin and staff writer Aisha Harris, the two agreed that it would make an insufficient teaching tool. Paskin dubbed it a “pretty great idea for a documentary that was a little too remedial with and gentle on, well, white people.” Harris agreed, noting, “But we spend so little time with each of them, and the conversations are edited so heavily, that it always felt rushed. ”
It’s true, White People is short — under an hour long — and it was heavier on feelings than on history or scholarship of American racism. But it was, after all, made for MTV. And despite the short viewer attention span that it seemed to anticipate, it managed to offer some instruction, dispelling the myth that white students are at a disadvantage when it comes to college scholarships, criticizing colorblindness as a tool for combating racism, and even giving viewers a peek into an actual classroom lesson on white privilege.
And with this topic, even a flawless production would have had to contend with a different issue: not hostility to the message, but disinterest. Some members of the main group that must buy into analysis of whiteness for it to work — white Americans themselves — simply don’t see the appeal of scrutinizing their own racial identity. And it’s fair to ask: If they don’t have an academic interest like Bebout’s, what’s in it for them? As Nell Irvin Painter, a professor of history at Princeton University and the author of The History of White People, wrote for the New York Times, whiteness is often perceived as being “on toggle switch between ‘bland nothingness’ and ‘racist hatred,’ neither of which is particularly appealing.”
The idea that “we all have skin in the game” — even white people — is taking hold
Demonstrators gather in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s death. (Jenée Desmond-Harris)
“Whenever the words ‘whiteness’ or ‘white privilege’ get uttered by nonwhite people, people’s reflexes go all the way up,” Vargas told BuzzFeed News in November 2014, anticipating reactions to the documentary.
“White people think race is something outside themselves, and they don’t consider themselves a race”
Perhaps he was primed after the response to The Whiteness Project, the interactive investigation designed to explore how Americans who identify as white think about and experience their ethnicity. The project elicited similar reactions the moment the series of video interviews in which residents of Buffalo, New York, responded to questions like, “What does it mean to be white?” hit the internet.
“White people think race is something outside themselves, and they don’t consider themselves a race,” Whitney Dow, the 53-year-old filmmaker behind the project, said, echoing a common talking point among people campaigning for attention to whiteness.
In many cases, his interviews made his point for him, with subjects seemingly wanting to weigh in on anything but whiteness, railing against diversity or affirmative action in responses like, “I just don’t buy into the nonsense about discrimination,” and, “Because slavery happened, does that mean we owe black people something?”
Dow said the people who initially criticized the concept made up two main groups. “One is from the right, on the conservative side, who say, ‘Why are you stirring something up? Everybody needs to forget about race and stop talking about it. We just need to move on.’ The other side is from the left, who are saying, ‘You’re just another white guy who won’t let go of the microphone. You’re putting all this stuff out here that’s incredibly wounding for us to hear, and it’s really, really outrageous what you’re up to.'”
Dow ultimately got to explain the project’s intended message — mostly, that white people do have a racial identity, and that it almost never gets any serious attention — in a series of interviews (including this one, with Vox). He said plenty of others looked past the often abrasive — and, yes, racist — statements of the interviewees to glean larger lesson of the project. While he says the intended audience of the project was his fellow white people, one of his favorite examples of a positive response is from a black woman who he said told him, “It was incredibly cathartic and relieving to see that white people are grappling with the same thing, that they feel like their whiteness is somehow defined in opposition of blackness. Seeing that we’re grappling with the same things gave me some sort of inner peace.”
But the whiteness trend is not just fodder for films and internet debates. It’s gaining a foothold in American culture — the real-life, in-person kind.
New York City’s private Fieldston Lower School made headlines in May for a new program that splits up kids, starting in third grade, into racial “affinity groups” where they are encouraged to have frank conversations about their identities and experiences, and then reunite for a curriculum designed to “foster interracial empathy.”
What makes the program unique is that it isn’t just for the black, Latino, and Asian students. White students have their own group, too — and participation is mandatory. Mariama Richards, the school administrator behind the program, told New York magazine’s Lisa Miller that when other schools have affinity groups, “they send the white kids to recess.” But true integration, she said, “doesn’t happen if only half the people are talking about it.
“What I am suggesting is that we all have skin in the game. I’m suggesting that we all need to be involved in this conversation,” Richards said.
That idea — that white people have an identity worth thinking about, and a natural stake in tackling racism — is taking hold.
While the Fieldston kids don’t have any more of a choice in participating in their groundbreaking, mandatory program than they do in studying math or English, the adults in one Boston organization do, and they’re coming in droves.
This is a meetup group for folks who see racism as a white problem and/or are interested in learning about the systemic role of whiteness in our society. We’ll feed y’all (nothing fancy) and let you peruse the largest collection of anti-racist literature in New England (not to mention, you’ll meet some great folks). Sometimes we’ll have a reading, a talk, a movie and/or sometimes, we’ll just put up our feet and rest and/or roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty 😉
Typical events include “Book group: Reproducing Racism — How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage” and “Strategies for Moving White People Into Racial Justice.” The group’s name is a nod to Mcintosh’s “Invisible Knapsack” essay on white privilege.
According to Michael Martin, a black 28-year-old software engineer from Springfield, Massachusetts, who is one of the largely white (he guesses about 60 to 70 percent) group’s seven organizers, membership has “exploded” in the months since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, drew national attention to racially biased policing and larger issues of racial inequality. A lot of white Bostonians wanted to know where they fit into the solutions.
“Once everything happened, there was an immediate response,” he said.
The group now reports about 100 active members. Martin says they show up with varying degrees of literacy about racism, but with an earnest interest in combating it — and not in a kumbaya, colorblind, “I don’t see race” sense, at least if he has anything to say about it. He considers it his responsibility, as one of the leaders and one of a handful of black members, to keep conversations on track by reminding members that American racism and white supremacy are bigger than one-on-one interactions. “We never let anyone get out of any of our space thinking that there isn’t systemic racism that’s happening,” he said.
Martin is not surprised by the recent surge of interest in the group. “I definitely think there is a cultural moment” surrounding whiteness and white Americans’ role in fighting racism, he said. “I think it needs to be pulled more and more out of academia. This is something that’s affecting people whether they have a chance to go to a four-year university or not, and we need to have a conversation about it.”
Scrutinizing what it means to be white in America is new, and it’s hard. There’s the fact that so many people have solidified the view that talking about race is bad or that ignoring the labels we all use is the best way to address it. But even once you get past that, there’s a cognitive struggle even among people with the best intentions and most enthusiasm to grasp that “whiteness is not the planet all the other planets revolve around.”
“I didn’t see the value in thinking about whiteness and why that would be important — I wanted to talk to people who were different than I was”
That’s how Drew Philp, the 29-year-old author of a forthcoming book expanding on an BuzzFeed essay that grappled with his role as a white man moving into Detroit, describes the concept.
But he remembers when he didn’t get it. As a student at the University of Michigan in 2007 he was selected to participate in the school’s Program for Intergroup Relations — and part of his role was to facilitate a class for his peers.
The assigned topic: whiteness.
He was not excited. “Initially I was very resistant to it, personally,” he said. “It was an idea I’d never been exposed to in any manner. I felt maybe that I was being cheated of some experience, and I didn’t see the value in thinking about whiteness and why that would be important — I wanted to talk to people who were different than I was.”
He’s now come all the way around to appreciate whiteness studies, but the memory of his college experience means he understands people who don’t.
“A new idea making its way through the culture is difficult in general, and people, myself in included, are trained in a lot of ways when it comes to race. Millennials are the first generation when it’s been unacceptable to be an overt racist in all public spheres. So talking about whiteness triggers folks. [They worry], ‘Maybe we’re going to make a wrong step.'”
He hasn’t held back when it comes to publicly criticizing these missteps, though. In 2014, as a film critic for the Detroit Metro Times, he penned a scathing review of a White People, a stage production by Brooklyn playwright J. T. Roger, arguing that while “the conversation around whiteness is sorely needed,” this particular piece of art went awry, with characters who “are all defined, not by their whiteness as something specific and definable, but by their descriptions of people of color and violent interactions with other races.”
He slammed the show with an astronomy metaphor: “White People looks at the gravity and the satellite moons, forgetting the star. Everything but white people.”
It’s a common sentiment. Matt Johnson, who penned Loving Day, a novel in which a biracial protagonist navigates questions or race, color, and identity — and who’s written about his own biracial identity — recently tweeted a concise take on this dilemma: “Whiteness can’t take being focused on. Whiteness only accepts being the lens that focuses.”
That could partly explain why Bebout is used to people recoiling and resisting the concept of his course. His tactic is to diffuse their anxiety with a joke (Yes, I teach about how white people are awful), and then, once they’re disarmed, deliver a well-honed elevator pitch that tells a more accurate story: “Look, what I’m interested in is how white people have experienced race in the United States, and they have not necessarily experienced it the same ways as people of color. They experience it by not talking about it or not seeing it or talking about race in a very coded way. Or talking about race in one way at home and another way in public. I’m interested in how white folks experience race and how that experiencing of race is informed by and also reinforces racial inequality.”
He makes the topic, which has proven to be so complicated, sound simple.
THE terrorist attack in Charleston, S.C., an atrocity like so many other shameful episodes in American history, has overshadowed the drama of Rachel A. Dolezal’s yearslong passing for black. And for good reason: Hateful mass murder is, of course, more consequential than one woman’s fiction. But the two are connected in a way that is relevant to many Americans.
An essential problem here is the inadequacy of white identity. Everyone loves to talk about blackness, a fascinating thing. But bring up whiteness and fewer people want to talk about it. Whiteness is on a toggle switch between “bland nothingness” and “racist hatred.”
On one side is Dylann Storm Roof, the 21-year-old charged with murdering nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on Wednesday. He’s part of a very old racist tradition, stretching from the anti-black violence following the Civil War, through the 1915 movie “The Birth of a Nation,” to today’s white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and gun-toting, apocalyptically minded Obama-haters. And now a mass murderer in a church.
On the other side is Ms. Dolezal, the former leader of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., who, it seems, mistakenly believed that she could not be both anti-racist and white. Faced with her assumed choice between a blank identity or a malevolent one, she opted out of whiteness altogether. Notwithstanding the confusion and anger she has stirred, she continues to say that she identifies as black. Fine. But why, we wonder, did she pretend to be black?
Our search for understanding in matters of race automatically inclines us toward blackness, although that is not where these answers lie. It has become a common observation that blackness, and race more generally, is a social construct. But examining whiteness as a social construct offers more answers. The essential problem is the inadequacy of white identity.
We don’t know the history of whiteness, and therefore are ignorant of the many ways it has changed over the years. If you investigate that history, you’ll see that white identity has been no more stable than black identity. While we recognize the evolution of “negro” to “colored” to “Negro” to “Afro-American” to “African-American,” we draw a blank when it comes to whiteness. To the contrary, whiteness has a history of multiplicity.
Constructions of whiteness have changed over time, shifting to accommodate the demands of social change. Before the mid-19th century, the existence of more than one white race was commonly accepted, in popular culture and scholarship. Indeed, there were several. Many people in the United States were seen as white — and could vote (if they were adult white men) — but were nonetheless classified as inferior (or superior) white races. Irish-Americans present one example.
In the mid- to late-19th century, the existence of several white races was widely assumed: notably, the superior Saxons and the inferior Celts. Each race — and they were called races — had its characteristic racial temperament. “Temperament” has been and still is a crucial facet of racial classification since its 18th-century Linnaean origins. Color has always been only one part of it (as the case of Ms. Dolezal shows).
In the 19th century, the Saxon race was said to be intelligent, energetic, sober, Protestant and beautiful. Celts, in contrast, were said to be stupid, impulsive, drunken, Catholic and ugly.
The mass immigration that followed the Irish famine of the 1840s inflamed nativist, anti-Catholic bigotry that flourished through the end of the century. Then new waves of poor Eastern and Southern European immigrants arrived, inspiring new racial classifications: the “Northern Italian” race, the “Southern Italian” race, the “Eastern European Hebrew” race, and so on. Their heads were measured and I.Q.s assessed to quantify (and, later, to deny) racial difference. They were all white, members of white races. But, like the Irish before them, the Italians and Jews and Greeks were classified as inferior white races.
By the early 20th century, the descendants of the earlier Irish immigrants had successfully elevated Celts into the superior realm of northern Europeans.
Meanwhile, World War I dampened Americans’ ardor for “Saxon” — given its German associations — and increased the popularity of a new term liberated from Germanic associations. The new name was “Nordic.” Many German-Americans even altered their surnames during and after the war, but the notion of plural white races held on until World War II.
By the 1940s anthropologists announced that they had a new classification: white, Asian and black were the only real races. Each was unitary — no sub-races existed within each group. There was one Negroid race, one Mongoloid race, one Caucasoid race. Everyone considered white was the same as everyone else considered white. No Saxons. No Celts. No Southern Italians. No Eastern European Hebrews. This classification — however tattered — lives on, with mild alterations, even today.
The useful part of white identity’s vagueness is that whites don’t have to shoulder the burden of race in America, which, at the least, is utterly exhausting. A neutral racial identity is blandly uninteresting. In the 1970s, long after they had been accepted as “white,” Italians, Irish, Greeks, Jews and others proclaimed themselves “ethnic” Americans in order to forge a positive identity, at a time of “black is beautiful.” But this ethnic self-discovery did not alter the fact that whiteness continued to be defined, as before, primarily by what it isn’t: blackness.
Ms. Dolezal seems to have believed that the choice to devote one’s life to fighting racism meant choosing black or white, Negroid or Caucasoid. Black was clearly more captivating than a whiteness characterized by hate.
We lack more meaningful senses of white identity, even though some whites, throughout history, have been committed to fighting racism and advocating for social justice. In the 19th century, abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown helped end slavery. In the early 20th century, Mary White Ovington helped found the N.A.A.C.P. Lillian Smith depicted the South’s nexus of “sin, sex, segregation” in her writings. White Communists, priests and rabbis stood beside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. Where would America be without these white allies of black freedom fighters?
Given that the monolithic definition of whiteness is antithetical to social justice, perhaps we should encourage a rebellion against it. Just as blacks and whites joined together as “abolitionists” to bring down American slavery in the 19th century, anti-racist whites in the 1990s called themselves “race traitors,” believing that social justice for all demands treason against white supremacy.
Eliminating the binary definition of whiteness — the toggle between nothingness and awfulness — is essential for a new racial vision that ethical people can share across the color line. Just as race has been reinvented over the centuries, let’s repurpose the term “abolitionist” as more than just a hashtag. The “abolition” of white privilege can be an additional component of identity (not a replacement for it), one that embeds social justice in its meaning. Even more, it unifies people of many races.
The Illusive Conversation: Race in America’s Classrooms
by David J. Leonard | @DrDavidJLeonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)
In the aftermath of the savage murder of 9 African American men and women in Charleston, SC there was lots of public discussion of America’s unresolved racial acrimony. In the wake of Rachel Dolezal, there were daily debates about privilege, identity, and the unresolved issues of race in America.
In the days following uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson, and the brutal attack of Dajerria Becton in McKinney, and the killing of Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Sam Dubose, Christian Taylor there were a slew of articles and public discussions of police violence, poverty, segregation, and America’s continued racial divide.
You would think from these recent events, times-were-a-changing; that long overdue talk was going to finally happen. If this conversation is happening, the revolution has not reached America’s colleges and universities.
While colleges and universities have never fully invested in African American Studies, and Ethnic Studies, the most recent budget crisis has led to tightened budgets, divestment, and a lack of growth. Irrespective of the “calls for yet another conversation about race,” and the persistence of racial inequities, addressing racism on and off campus has not been a priority. State legislatures across the nation responded to the purported STEM crisis with a steady stream of investment; The crises of poverty, police violence, housing and employment discrimination, and systemic anti-Black racism has not compelled investment.
The ‘racial strife’ and tension the news media spotlights has not led to widespread support of new faculty to foster these necessary racial conversations; no financial investment in departments committed to developing curriculum to prepare the next generation of students to be racially literate. In a moment where the needs couldn’t be clearer, colleges and universities have prioritized recreation facilities, athletics, bloated administrative costs, and professional programs.
“Things that were previously simple are not so easy to explain anymore. We’ve metaphorically moved ‘from simple addition to calculus’ in the study of social sciences,” notes Safiya U. Noble, assistant professor in the Department of Information Studies in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at University of California, Los Angeles. “Yet, I am doubtful that my counterparts in the math department have to employ the kind of pedagogical strategies we do, as Black women faculty in the social sciences and humanities, to have students comprehend the research and accept it from us as legitimate experts.”
Upon teaching her first general education course, Whitney Battle-Baptiste, an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at University of Massachusetts Amherst, spoke of a loss of innocence for teaching about race: “I was met with hostility, anger, fear as well as excitement and enthusiasm. Those feelings came through in my evaluations, with references such as, I was too political, brought up too much about race and inequality; my approach to teaching was elitist and angry.”
The level of racial hostility and white student resistance for all things racial can be seen in the faculty evaluations. Resembling an online comment section and Twitter, evaluations are rife with racism and sexism. Countless studies have documented how racism and sexism shape the classroom and infect evaluations. Black faculty members are routinely criticized for being “hostile,” “angry” and “unprofessional.” Claims of bias and critiques lamenting the focus on race and racism, despite that being the theme of the course, are commonplace.
The recent events in Ferguson, Charleston, Baltimore, Texas, and elsewhere make clear the stakes and the importance of this work. It highlights the necessity of racial literacy, diversity, critical multicultural education, and ethnic studies. It points to the importance of dealing with whiteness. According to Stephany Spaulding, “Without Critical Whiteness Studies, we will continue living in a society that blindly privileges particular ways of organizing institutional practices and structures.”
From the lack of investment in creating diverse places of learning, to the open hostility directed at the faculty, particularly women of color, to the rampant racial complacency from white America and its liberal institutions of advanced thinking and learning, it is clear that colleges and universities are not well-positioned to address the problem of the twenty-first century: Racism.
The question remains will colleges and universities seize upon these opportunities? Will the public at large grab hold of this moment? Will white faculty and students demand not only conversations about race, but a financial and cultural investment, and institutional change? Or will colleges and universities refuse the responsibility to provide those ill-equipped to have these conversation with the necessary tools?
After watching this discussion and reading the article, what do you think the purpose of ethnic studies is? What assumptions do people make about ethnic studies course? Why do you think there is a backlash against these programs and course?
Why Ethnic Studies Courses Are Good for White Kids Too
by Dr. Emery Petchauer, January 9, 2012
Last week, Judge Lewis Kowal of Arizona upheld a ban on ethnic studies classes in the Tucson Unified School District. Ethnic studies generally refer to courses such as African-American studies, Asian studies, or — in the case of the Tucson Unified School District — Mexican-American studies. Courses such as these, which comprise full programs at many public universities across the United States, often focus on the contributions that such groups have made to the world and their unique social experiences. As many of these groups have experienced different types of systematic oppression, too, these courses also take a “critical” bend and focus on power, oppression, and empowerment in society. The controversy over ethnic studies in Arizona garnered national attention in the summer of 2010 when Gov. Jan Brewer and then-State superintendent of education Tom Horne ordered that the Mexican-American studies program in Tucson be terminated. The logic of ethnic studies opponents and the recent ruling includes the following points: 1. The courses teach students to be bitter toward and resent Whites (Side note: Does studying the American Revolution teach Whites to be bitter toward the British?). 2. The courses treat students as a collective group rather than as individuals (Side note: Does the U.S. Census make people identify as individuals or as groups?). 3. The courses teach material from a biased perspective (Side note: Is the “American Revolution” taught from identical perspectives in the United States, and, say, the UK?). 4. The courses teach students to overthrow the government (Side note: Does reading Animal Farm teach students to overthrow the government?). Each of these points is categorically false and (as my side notes suggest) tremendously narrow-sighted. Simply put, we don’t apply this kind of thinking to other parts of school curricula. These points and others have been clearly addressed before, such as here. Consequently, I will not rehash them. Instead, I want to address a key assumption about ethnic studies classes: that they are only for students of color. This is an assumption that undergirds many misled perspectives, including the recent ones in Arizona. (Side note: Are classical philosophy classes only for Greeks?) Without a doubt, classes that focus on the contributions, experiences, and unique perspectives of so-called minority groups are indeed beneficial to students of these same groups. But, ethnic studies are good for White kids, too. Here are three reasons why: Thinking Critically. I often say that every way of seeing also is a way of not seeing. Ethnic studies courses implicitly operate upon this maxim by illustrating how different groups in the United States and around the world often have very different perspectives on events, people and eras — both big and small. Of course, some perspectives contradict with one another and are irreconcilable. When White students (or all students for that matter) are exposed to different and even contradictory perspectives, it teaches skills such as perspective-taking, abstraction and evidence-based argumentation. These are some of the basic components of critical thinking skills that are infused within state learning standards across the nation. For people primarily concerned with traditional school outcomes, these critical thinking skills are positively linked to school and academic performance. The wide body of empirical research on conflict resolution education programs illustrates this clearly. Conflict resolution education programs (not to be confused simply with conflict resolution), such as those pioneered by Dr. Tricia Jones of Temple University, typically produce academic improvements in schools. And, this is not necessarily because schools may be safer. A byproduct of conflict resolution education is that students learn how to think in more complex, critical and sophisticated ways. These habits of mind translate into higher performance on academic measurements. The same can follow from ethnic studies. Thinking critically is not bound to one classroom. Learning it through an ethnic studies class can then transfer over into other classes, even for White students. Replacing White Guilt. One of the sly accusations against ethnic studies is that courses make White students feel guilty and bad about themselves. Without a doubt, some White folks feel an abstract sense of guilt when they learn about some of the atrocities that White folks have inflicted upon people of color by action and inaction. Guilt is seldom a healthy place from which to act, so this feeling is certainly not productive. Ethnic studies courses — when working well — do not produce this abstract and unproductive sense of guilt. Instead, they teach White folks how to be critical allies in specific ways to struggles for equality. Stated another way, the opposite of Whiteness is not feeling guilty about being White; it’s not Blackness, and it’s not hip-hop either. The opposite of Whiteness is pushing against oppression, inequality and White privileges. And when White folks are doing those things, they are too busy to be burdened by a much played-out sense of guilt. As ethnic studies courses outline how people of color have successfully fought for their own education, liberation and humanity, this is a vital starting point for White folks to eventually join this important work and get in where they fit in. Functioning in Today’s World. It has long been a statistical likelihood that White folks will be a demographic minority in the United States during the lifespan of current school-age children. Though many cities and rural areas still remain deeply segregated by race, the nature of the globalized economy and workforce means that the top leaders of U.S. industries will be working alongside people who do not check the same demographic boxes or hold the same social assumptions as they do. This global reality gives new importance for students to be able to function across differences. The guiding purpose that most consistently informs public education policy is to maintain dominance in the global economy. Perhaps ironically, ethnic studies programs like the ones (now formerly) in Arizona fit squarely within this purpose. Even if one subscribes to the ugly position that there is little value in studying the experiences and perspectives of people who are not White, one cannot refute the point that this area of study will prepare students — including White students — to be better leaders in today and tomorrow’s world. As a whole, the recent iteration of the ethnic studies debate in Arizona reveals more about the longstanding political-racial ideology of the state than it does about ethnic studies classes themselves. To be clear, this political-racial ideology is one of White supremacy. Unfortunately, like the social toxin that it is, this ideology in practice via Why Ethnic Studies Courses Are Good for White Kids Too.
At a teaching workshop last week, a new faculty member asked me how I felt about students using laptops in the classroom. I replied, “I ask students not to use laptops in my classroom—unless a student tells me they need or strongly prefer a laptop to take notes (for any reason), in which case we make that work.” She looked relieved to have this endorsement of a learning zone with fewer electronic distractions.
I am far from alone in asking students not to use laptops (or phones) in class. Some of my colleagues, though, seem surprised that I don’t get pushback from students about this policy. I like to think it has something to do with my taking the time to explain my laptop policy for the class and then working hard to keep up my end of the contract.
Let me explain.
On the first day of class, students and I spend the first 30-40 minutes learning something new about how language works (in order to set the tone for the class), and then we go over the syllabus. When we get to the laptop policy, I pause and say, “Let me tell you why I ask you generally not to use laptops in class.” And here’s the gist of what I say after that:
First, if you have your laptop open, it is almost impossible not to check email or briefly surf the Internet, even if you don’t mean to or have told yourself that you won’t. I have the same impulse if I have my laptop open in a meeting. The problem is that studies indicate that this kind of multitasking impairs learning; once we are on email/the web, we are no longer paying very good attention to what is happening in class. (And there is no evidence I know of that “practice” at doing this kind of multitasking is going to make you better at it!)
Now I know that one could argue that it is your choice about whether you want to use this hour and 20 minutes to engage actively with the material at hand, or whether you would like to multitask. You’re not bothering anyone (one could argue) as you quietly do your email or check Facebook. Here’s the problem with that theory: From what we can tell, you are actually damaging the learning environment for others, even if you’re being quiet about it. A study published in 2013 found that not only did the multitasking student in a classroom do worse on a postclass test on the material, so did the peers who could see the computer. In other words, the off-task laptop use distracted not just the laptop user but also the group of students behind the laptop user. (And I get it, believe me. I was once in a lecture where the woman in front of me was shoe shopping, and I found myself thinking at one point, “No, not the pink ones!” I don’t remember all that much else about the lecture.)
In addition, I can find your multitasking on a laptop a bit distracting as the instructor because sometimes you are not typing at the right times; I am not saying anything noteworthy and yet you are engrossed in typing, which suggests that you are doing something other than being fully engaged in our class. And that distracts my attention.
There’s also the issue of the classroom environment. I like to foster a sense of conversation here, even in a class of 100 students. If you are on a laptop, I and your peers are often looking at the back of your computer screen and the top of your head, rather than all of us making eye contact with each other. Learning happens best in a classroom when everyone is actively engaged with one another in the exchange of information. This can mean looking up from your notes to listen and to talk with others, which means you may need to make strategic decisions about what to write down. Note-taking is designed to support the learning and retention of material we talk about in class; note-taking itself is not learning. And speaking of what you choose to write down …
A study that came out in June—and which got a lot of buzz in the mainstream press—suggests that taking notes by hand rather than typing them on a laptop improves comprehension of the material. While students taking notes on a laptop (and only taking notes—they were not allowed to multitask) wrote down more of the material covered in class, they were often typing what the instructor said verbatim, which seems to have led to less processing of the material. The students taking notes by hand had to do more synthesizing and condensing as they wrote because they could not get everything down. As a result, they learned the material better.* I think there is also something to the ease with which one can create visual connections on a handwritten page through arrows, flow charts, etc.
I figure it is also good for all of us to break addictive patterns with email, texting, Facebook, etc. When you step back, it seems a bit silly that we can’t go for 80 minutes without checking our phones or other devices. Really, for most of us, what are the odds of an emergency that can’t wait an hour? We have developed the habit of checking, and you can see this class as a chance to create or reinforce a habit of not checking too.
Of course, if you need or strongly prefer a laptop for taking notes or accessing readings in class for any reason, please come talk with me, and I am happy to make that work. I’ll just ask you to commit to using the laptop only for class-related work.
There is legitimate disagreement in academe about no-laptop policies (see, for example, a critique of such policies by Dennis Baron, who writes a blog about language and technology). And obviously, different classes have different technology needs. For the classes I teach, I come down on the no-laptop side unless we need access to computer software or the Internet to do a class activity together (in which case students with laptops can share with those without them). In the end, though, we as instructors need to take responsibility for ensuring that class time is well used if we’re asking students to be fully present. As I say to students, it is a contract. I am asking them to come to every class, to do the assigned reading and any other assignments ahead of time, and to engage fully in the classroom conversation without multitasking on their laptops or phones. My end of that contract is that I will do everything in my power to make it worth their time to be there.
* Dan Rockmore, in the June New Yorkerpiece linked to above, about his decision to ban laptops in the classroom, suggests having students read some of these studies, and I have had good success with my initial attempts.
Posted: 05/14/2015 5:41 pm EDT Updated: 08/10/2015 9:59 am EDT
For the first time in many years I am teaching a freshman course, Introduction to Philosophy. The experience has been mostly good. I had been told that my freshman students would be apathetic, incurious, inattentive, unresponsive and frequently absent, and that they would exude an insufferable sense of entitlement. I am happy to say that this characterization was not true of most students. Still, some students are often absent, and others, even when present, are distracted or disengaged. Some have had to be cautioned that class is not their social hour and others reminded not to send text messages in class. I have had to tell these students that, unlike high school, they will not be sent to detention if they are found in the hall without a pass, and that they are free to leave if they are not interested. Actually, I doubt that the differences between high school and university have ever been adequately explained to them, so, on the first class day of next term, I will address my new freshmen as follows:
Welcome to higher education! If you want to be successful here you need to know a few things about how this place works. One of the main things you need to know is the difference between the instructors you will have here and those you had before. Let me take a few minutes to explain this to you.
First, I am your professor, not your teacher. There is a difference. Up to now your instruction has been in the hands of teachers, and a teacher’s job is to make sure that you learn. Teachers are evaluated on the basis of learning outcomes, generally as measured by standardized tests. If you don’t learn, then your teacher is blamed. However, things are very different for a university professor. It is no part of my job to make you learn. At university, learning is your job — and yours alone. My job is to lead you to the fountain of knowledge. Whether you drink deeply or only gargle is entirely up to you.
Your teachers were held responsible if you failed, and expected to show that they had tried hard to avoid that dreaded result. I am not held responsible for your failures. On the contrary, I get paid the same whether you get an “F” or an “A.” My dean will not call me in and ask how many conferences I had with your parents about your progress. Indeed, since you are now an adult, providing such information to your parents would be an illegal breach of privacy. Neither will I have to document how often I offered you tutoring or extra credit assignments. I have no obligation whatsoever to make sure that you pass or make any particular grade at all.
Secondly, universities are ancient and tend to do things the old-fashioned way. In high school your education was basically a test-preparation service. Your teachers were not allowed to teach, but were required to focus on preparing you for those all-important standardized tests. Though it galls ideologues, we university professors still enjoy a large degree of academic freedom. That means that the content and format of your courses is still mostly under your professor’s control, and the format will probably include a good bit of lecture, some discussion and little or no test preparation.
Lecture has come under attack recently. “Flipped learning” is the current buzz term among higher-education reformers. We old-fashioned chalk-and-talk professors are told that we need to stop being the “sage on the stage,” but should become the “guide on the side,” helping students develop their problem-solving skills. Lecture, we are told, is an ineffective strategy for reaching today’s young people, whose attention span is measured in nanoseconds. We should not foolishly expect them to listen to us, but instead cater to their conditioned craving for constant stimulation.
Hogwash. You need to learn to listen. The kind of listening you need to learn is not passive absorption, like watching TV; it is critical listening. Critical listening means that you are not just hearing but thinking about what you are hearing. Critical listening questions and evaluates what is being said and seeks key concepts and unifying themes. Your high school curriculum would have served you better had it focused more on developing your listening skills rather than drilling you on test-taking.
Finally, when you go to a university, you are in a sense going to another country, one with a different culture and different values. I have come to realize that the biggest gap between you and me is a cultural difference. I have absorbed deeply the norms and values of an ancient academic culture and they are now a part of me. You, on the other hand, come to my classes fresh from a culture with different values, one that finds academic ways strange and hard to understand.
Take the issue of documentation. For an academic, there is something sacred about a citation. The proper citation of a source is a small tribute to the hard work, diligence, intelligence and integrity of someone dedicated enough to make a contribution to knowledge. For you, citations and bibliographies are pointless hoops to jump through and you often treat these requirements carelessly. Further, our differences on the issue of giving or taking proper credit accounts for the fact that you so seldom take plagiarism as seriously as I do.
If you want to know the biggest difference between you and your professor, it is probably this: You see university as a place where you get a credential. For your professor, a university is not primarily about credentialing. Your professor still harbors the traditional view that universities are about education. If your aim is to get a credential, then for you courses will be obstacles in your path. For your professor, a course is an opportunity for you to make your world richer and yourself stronger.