Teaching While White

*This post is part of our online forum organized by Drs. Charisse Burden-Stelly and Crystal Moten titled “Researching, Teaching, and Embodying the Black Diaspora”

University Lecture (Flickr: University of Minnesota Duluth)

My writing here is in response to the “Between Ethic and Education: Non-Black Educators Teaching the Black Diaspora” session at the AALAC workshop that dealt with issues engendered by non-Black instructors teaching Black diasporic work. This session, led by Carleton College Associate Professors Andy Flory and Jeff Snyder, was the most difficult for the group to navigate. I think the discomfort in the room stemmed from the latent suspicion, from Black people and white people, about white people teaching Black material. The good news is that following a stuttering, at times passionate discussion, we came together as a group in a way we hadn’t before. The workshop opened a space for vulnerability, and we saw each other more clearly afterwards. I offer these thoughts as someone grappling with the issue of being a white teacher of Black material. The workshop forced me to put into words what I think I’m doing, and why.

On a roadtrip this summer, my family and I were listening to a podcast focused on excavating the life and work of Phillis Wheatley. My 11-year-old son noted that he vaguely knew who she was from a book at school. I knew she was a poet who had also been enslaved and was taught to read and write English by her owners. My husband had never heard of her.

The podcast is composed of women’s voices talking, edited together so it is difficult to discern one speaker from the next, or how many speakers there are in total. The podcast episode was over an hour long, but after about 10 minutes, I asked my husband and son, “How do we know the people talking are white?” It was obvious to me, and I wondered if it was obvious to my family. And more importantly, HOW did we know?

Because we did know. My son immediately said, “Because they’re laughing about slavery.” That brought me to a full stop, and I considered the truth of what my son observed. The podcasters were not directly laughing about slavery — but they weren’t not laughing either. As the podcasters enumerated Wheatley’s journey from Senegal or perhaps Gambia to the United States aboard a slave ship, and the many horrors she must have faced as a child on this journey and in her first years belonging to the Wheatley family of Boston, the women did laugh. They laughed nervously. They laughed unexpectedly. They laughed and choked on their words. They were embarrassed. And that’s how I knew they were white.

I’ve noticed when white people talk about the history of slavery or Jim Crow or the frequent deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement, there is embarrassment, a laugh and a choke. The sources of the embarrassment are probably manifold. I think most reasons stem from an unexamined stew of guilt, anger, and feelings of helplessness. We laugh and choke because we haven’t come to terms with the truth of the united histories of Black and white people in this country, and because most of us don’t feel we’re doing “enough” to combat how that history plays out now — in every city and classroom in the US. We laugh because the past is so horrible that it’s barely comprehensible; we choke because we know we are probably failing to make meaningful change in the present.

When I stand in front of a classroom at the predominantly white, expensive small liberal arts college where I teach, I too find myself doing the laugh-and-choke. I have been on a quiet journey for the past few years to stop doing this, and to be a better, more responsible and responsive teacher of the Black diaspora. I also try to go beyond Black abjection as the only frame in which to view Blackness in the classroom. As a professor of practice in a small theatre department, I teach classes in directing, and I direct a play annually with students. I also teach first-year seminars on a range of topics, and do the usual slew of advising and mentoring. As a white artist and teacher, in a department of only seven full-time faculty (four white, three People of Color) with an intense interest in the work of Black writers and artists, my syllabi have shifted over the years to include more and more work that challenges the centrality of whiteness in theatre studies. I am still at the beginning of this work, but I have developed a few strategies as a white instructor of Black work that I will share here.

Earn the right to be in the room.

One concern that probably keeps Black writers, thinkers, and artists off syllabi in liberal arts colleges is the worry from white instructors that they don’t know enough. That was my excuse for years. But the writers and artists I am introducing to the students are too important to leave out, so I do my homework. I read the material deeply, and read around it deeply to know what others, especially Black scholars and artists, have to say about the material at hand. Like teachers everywhere, I go beyond published works to TED Talks, recorded interviews, documentaries, and podcasts to find diverse commentary that exists in a range of media, because more formats equal more voices. I ask myself before the semester begins, “Have I earned the right to stand in front of a classroom, and direct our collective attention to a person, or an artwork, or a historical record that does not come from my lived experience?” Or, “Have I earned the right to direct this play by a Black playwright?” If I shudder internally, I open another book, keep clicking, or reach out to a colleague.

Keep the focus on the work.

I don’t apologize for being white, but I acknowledge it in the first class. On the first day of my course “Directing I,” I hand out the syllabus and point out the plays we will be spending the most time with: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, and The Owl Answers by Adrienne Kennedy. I then look up, make as much eye contact as we can all handle, and say “We’re going to be talking about race, specifically Blackness, a lot in this class. If you feel that I am not the right person to be leading these conversations, we offer ‘Directing I’ in the spring semester too, with a different instructor.” After that, I try not to bring up my whiteness again, and keep the focus on the work we are grappling with and what the students bring to the conversation.

Don’t let a racist comment go by.

Don’t let a piece of racist terminology or a comment with a racist subtext go unchallenged. Make the correction. Make it publicly.

Admit mistakes.

—Which for me, are legion. Mistakes make me wince doubly because not only have I said (or not said) something that is racist or hurtful, I have also thrust myself into the spotlight of the classroom, when my main goal is to engender thinking and work between the students and what we’re studying. When a student corrects me or makes a pointed rebuttal, I try to pause, breathe, apologize, and say, “Thank you, I’m trying to be less racist, and I can work on that slip.” I give space for students to speak, and then try not to dwell. If something racist happens or is said (by me or a student) and I don’t catch it in the moment but realize it later, it’s still worth it to act. At least a few times, I’ve begun a class by noting something that happened the last time we were together, and I apologize. As my heart pounds, I remember what Robin DiAngelo writes in White Fragility: in a discussion about race, a white person is NEVER in real danger. The same goes for me in the classroom. Shame is not fatal.

Don’t assume students know.

Last semester I used the term “magical Negro” to describe a character in a Tony Kushner play. At least one student had never heard the term before, and assumed I was using the hurtful, throwback word “Negro” in place of Black. I didn’t discover her discomfort until the course had ended. Had I taken the 30 seconds to define the term, there would have been no confusion, and I could have also accomplished some teaching around a still-prevalent racist Hollywood trope.

Share my interests.

I tell my colleagues, inside and outside my department, what I’m teaching, and what my students are working on. I track down colleagues who are teaching Black diasporic work to share what I’m doing and ask for suggestions. My public work for the college, directing in the main stage season, reflects my classroom teaching; this fall I’ll be directing two one act plays by Adrienne Kennedy and a short piece by Jackie Sibblies Drury. Allow me to admit something: I’m scared to direct these plays. But what else should I be doing? Plays that make me feel safe? Plays that make other white people on campus feel safe? Instead, I’ll try to be brave and publicly share how my interests intersect with these Black writers, and why I think our students should spend their time and talent on these productions, while also providing more opportunities for Black students on campus to embody roles on stage written for them.

Finally, what are the ethical responsibilities of a non-Black person teaching aspects of the Black diaspora? I think our responsibilities are to the students. What do they need? What is missing from their education? Frequently, Black Studies. It would be irresponsible of me to exclude this work. As a corrective to the dominant white, Western paradigm, I find myself centering Blackness within all my classes, and the classes are richer for it. The question for me in 2019 has become, “How can I ethically teach at an institute of higher education and NOT center Black thought?” The days when I feel confident in my preparation and remember how much the students hunger for and deserve this work, I don’t laugh or choke. Instead, the class flows.

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Alice Reagan

Alice Reagan is an Associate Professor of Professional Practice in Directing at Barnard College. She directs new plays and classics with a special interest in works by and about women. She founded and curates New Plays at Barnard, a commissioning program that brings women-identified writers to the college. Upcoming: No Good Things Dwell in the Flesh by Christina Masciotti at the Yocum Institute; A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath at Cleveland Play House; Funnyhouse of a Negro and A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White by Adrienne Kennedy at Barnard College. alicereagan.com

Comments on “Teaching While White

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    I am white , based in the UK, and working on a PhD about playwright Alice Childress and her artistic neglect
    I don’t teach because I’m now retired from paid work but hope my research will eventually be useful
    I found this post helpful and relevant as I constantly question my right to write it and the assumptions that I make. As I work from home posts like this are so important

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    Brilliant article and quite necessary to intellectual integrity..I appreciate your work and know that Eric Foner agrees with you 150%!! Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing this insight.

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    This is a good example of introspection, something that is rare among Europeans, Americans, or South Africans of British, Dutch and other European ancestry (I do not accept the term “white” due to obvious connotations of purity and innocence).

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    This post is absolutely what I needed to read this week as I struggle with the fallout of my failure to hold up a Black student who had corrected another student’s comment about slavery. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    Thank you for such a thoughtful and honest piece! As a white PhD candidate, studying Black women in America and Liberia, I struggle a lot with my place in writing and teaching Black Diaspora studies. Your words helped to verbalize my feelings, so thank you!

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    In the many years I have been reading “Black Perspectives,” this is the first time I felt it necessary to comment on an article. As a Black male, I am eternally fascinated by the endless excuses whites make for what seems to me a simple fact–their inability to see Black people as that which every living thing is–sentient beings.

    In an effort to avert serve cognitive dissonance, perhaps even psychosis, European enslavers created social and psychological structures they believed would ameliorate the effects of the heinous business in which they were involved–the brutal enslavement and treatment of other human beings. Centuries later, the original structures designed to safeguard their mental environment are mostly in tact. Regardless of education, religion, political affiliation, or social standing, most whites still do not see Blacks as their equal. After all, how could they? Centuries of social conditioning do not disappear overnight–no matter how loudly they clamor for Dr. King’s so called Beloved Community.

    In the United States, Dr. Reagan, and the whites whom she lovingly coaches, would be vilified if she laughed and/or “choked on her words” about anything related to the Holocaust. Similarly, nothing about the Trail of Tears or Japanese internment camps engender laughter or choking on one’s words. Instead, these historic events elicit horror, sympathy and understanding. As a society, we instinctively understand the intrinsic value and worth of the affected people and their culture. And, we are able to give full-throated expression to those disgusting histories.

    In her work, bell hooks’ often addresses the issue of “The Other.” Black people and Black culture–The Other–have long provided whites lucrative careers in academia, entertainment, sports, culinary arts, literature, and a host of other fields. It might be more helpful for our society if well-meaning whites spent more time working passionately to dismantle white supremacy and the structural inequalities that remain in our society than studying and teaching about Blacks and the “fragile” ethics related to the same.

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    Anthony Knight has hit the nail on the head. European Americans do not laugh at slavery because of guilt, empathy or contrition. They laugh or cackle with glee at slavery and the slave trade because they do not recognise the humanity of the enslaved Africans ( I do not use the term slaves as it is symptomatic of the denial of African humanity and dignity). As Knight has asked, why do not Germans laugh at any mention of the Holocaust? Do they lack the guilt which European Americans supposedly have in regard to the Transatlantic slave trade?

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    I come at this from a bit of a different angle. For the past 24 years I have been interpreting slavery history, particularly in the Colonial era. I have researched fully everything I say, and when I offer my opinion, I fully state them as my opinions. I feel no compunction in calling someone on the use of perjorative language (I’ve kicked a person out of my shop for using the N-word, after warning him that I do not tolerate its use. Heck, I even called my father out for using that word. He stopped doing it immediately).

    When I first started this journey, I was hesitant. I wanted to get it right, and I was somwhat nervous that I couldn’t lead visitors to understand that without enslaved Africans’ knowledge this country would be a far different place. But I DID find a way. It’s called the truth (lots and lots of research to get at that truth. Lots and lots of listening to Gullah Elders telling family stories). I personally don’t know anyone who laughs at slavery or the slave trade. We’re all too busy and intent on education.

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    Black people never made attempts to dismiss white people from the human race. Racism and white supremacy is a construct of white people. Racism is rooted in economics privilege and greed. Chattel slavery as it existed in the United States is an extension of living at the expense of other people labor. (something for nothing) Attitudes of racial superiority and privileged class are with us today. Even though there are murmurous examples , among black people,( W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Ids B. Wells Barnett, ,Madam C. J. Walker) that the superior race hypothesis is false. White people need this false group narrative of white supremacy to feel good about themselves.
    The information age has left a void in the white supremacy lie. Whiteness, the property of one-tenth of the people on the planet, is being exposed for the sham that it is and has always been.

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