Beyond Uncomfortable Silences

A couple weeks into the Spring semester and once again I’m enjoying exploring the concept of privilege with my students. I’m also very conscious of attempting to “hold space” as I teach this semester. I’m really fortunate to have smaller sections, so I can invest more deeply in cultivating mastery in my students and experiment more freely with different approaches to developing their own intuitions.

Recently, I came across this article on “whitesplaining” from the great folks over at Everyday Feminism. The article very clearly outlines the kinds of responses that (regardless of intentions) invalidate the perspective of people experiencing racism and reinforce white privilege narratives.

As I read, I kept on thinking of another article that has become a part of the way that I think about race. In “A Muscular Empathy,” the author challenges us to confront examples of historic and/or institutional racism not with the immediate assumption of our own exceptional opposition, but rather with the question of what would prevent our opposition? Even better: Why would I have likely gone along with injustice? Although we want to believe that we would be the one to speak out against slavery, against segregation, against prejudice, the truth is these injustices have existed and still exist because most people don’t speak out. Likely, I would have been, have been, sometimes still am numbered among the don’ts. The Everyday Feminism article invites us to a similar consideration. Putting myself in the position of the “whitesplainer” in the article, the informative question is not whether I would say things that attempt to explain away someone’s experiences, but why would I say those things?

For me, I think the answer is mostly embarrassment and shame. I am ashamed that racism is still a daily experience for people in America. I am embarrassed that people who I consider good people say bad things, revealing how embedded racist presuppositions are in our culture. I want to relieve the sting of racist comments, not only because I feel bad for the person receiving them, but also because I am really uncomfortable confronting the fact that racism is a persistent reality.

So I think the first step in avoiding “whitesplaining” is to be silent. Not necessarily to more fully listen to the experience of the person talking. At least, not at first. If my shame is what is compelling me to speak over someone else, then that’s the first thing I need to let ring through my silence. I need to sit in the uncomfortable silence.

But I can’t stay there.

That’s the point of the last article I want to bring into conversation today. It challenges what ally politics and activism should look like. I had to read the article several times (and yes, there were uncomfortable silences in between). Guilt and shame, if allowed to have the last say, can lead to immobility, specifically a refusal to take action under one’s own auspices. The article contends that sometimes even “listening” can amount to another abdication of responsibility even if done in the name of deference to the oppressed community. Although this seems at first to be the correct impulse, like the “whitesplaining” examples above, what results is re-entrenchment of racist and other authoritarian assumptions. The author writes, “For a liberating understanding of privilege, each of us must learn our stake in toppling those systems of power to recognize how much we all have to gain in overturning every hierarchy of oppression.” I understand it this way: in the same way I need to confront my own shame about racism, I also need to fully understand my own reasons for fighting for racial justice. Only then can we have genuine partnership instead of awkward paternalism, arriving at a place where those participating in racial privilege and those experiencing racism will end up as equals on the same side of action.

Please share your reactions to the articles above (my attempts to grapple with them included). If you are a teacher trying to bring these concepts into focus for your class, I’d love to learn about your strategies.


Teaching to “Hold Space”

As a result of teaching the concept privilege to my students, I’ve become increasingly aware of the privilege inherent in my position as teacher. More than just having a seat at the table (see my snack time illustration), to some extent, I convene the meal, including picking the menu, serving the food and monitoring behavior at the table. If I’m encouraging my students to consider how they might use their seat at the table to influence the conversation in a way that makes space for others, then I need to ask the question how I can leverage my position as teacher to make a space for my students.

One of the things my students discovered in contemplating the question of privilege is that offering a seat sometimes means giving up yours. What I mean is, that while we like to think equality can be achieved by bringing everyone UP to the same level, sometimes it means taking people a step DOWN to achieve fairness. I love (everything, but especially) the ending on this short video from the ACLU. After Sasheer  Zamata loses her drink, her friend offers some of his lemonade, but she playfully knocks it out of his hands: Now we’re equal. Let’s go get some more lemonade together. I think this is particularly pertinent when thinking about how I might deal with my privilege as a teacher. It’s not about stepping every student up to be a teacher, but maybe taking a step back towards my students and transforming my teaching to look more like their learning.

I came across this article in a friend’s newsfeed. Although the focus of the article is on end of life care, I thought it provided an interesting framework around which to rethink, what I’m calling, invitational teaching. I took the time to attempt to consider specific applications of the author’s points to the project of teaching. Here’s what I came up with:

“Holding Space” Teaching Thoughts

  • Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom.
    • Ask open ended questions: What do you think? How would you approach the problem?
    • Design activities for exploration. Allow them to handle the problems.
    • Design both questions and activities to reveal and employ held skills
  • Give people only as much information as they can handle.
    • Reduce teaching content to a few central concepts per lesson
    • Reduce teaching content to non-intuitive tools/information
    • Design activities/questions to employ newly supplied information
  • Don’t take their power away.
    • How can I put decision making power into my students’ hands?
    • Include a decision making nexus within activities
    • Allow for divergent decisions within the activity
  • Keep your own ego out of it.
    • Provide evaluations that matter to students, allow them to assess their mastery
  • Make them feel safe enough to fail.
    • Lead through the process, not to a predetermined answer
    • Use in-class journaling to encourage protected creative thinking
  • Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness.
    • Present info to guide, not countermand
    • Present philosophers as historical guides rather than authoritative voices
    • Share personal growth in discipline as well as struggles in growth
  • Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc.
    • Use in-class journaling to capture feelings and personal reflections
    • Use videos and other media to present vulnerable viewpoints
  • Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would.
    • Distinguish between clarity on key concepts and divergent processes of inquiry
    • Graded assignments should emphasize and honor the above distinction

Looking at the observations above, those around grading surprised me. What I find most challenging is providing decision making opportunities within the lesson. I feel encouraged that in-class journaling was a good tool to use in our privilege lessons and I’m very interested in continuing to use it going forward.

These are more general thoughts than lesson plans, but I’ll be sure to share those here as I develop them going forward. Please continue to let me know what you think.

Privilege – Lesson 3

It’s taken me a long time to get this post up, mostly because this lesson took several class periods to navigate.

Whenever I teach Intro to Ethics, I start with Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics and move into the feminist critique in the form of ethics of care. Although on this end of the lectures it’s hard to imagine why, it never occurred to me before how well these topics would frame our discussion of privilege.

The lessons include the diagrams I used. The “Wheel of Oppression” I feature is a modified version of Peggy McIntosh’s model, as cited by Dena R. Samuels in the paper I mentioned earlier.

Please find the new lesson here. I look forward to your comments.

Privilege – Lesson 2

Finally got to the second lesson on privilege today. It ended up taking the whole class period to discuss. I even had to assign the journaling activity for homework.

The “cherry” set-up took awhile, but I thought it was important to establish a safe framework for exploring how privilege becomes entrenched, how it feels to encounter it, how addressing it often creates resentment. I may have erred on the side of making privilege appear too passive or benign. However, I feel like that’s a common retort to privilege: I don’t actively oppress people so I’m not responsible. I’m trying to establish responsibility without activity. We did refer back to the analogy often in our discussion of Kim Davis’s actions.

Here’s the link to Lesson 2. Please comment here and let me know what you think.

Word of the Day

Got to admit, sometimes I feel at a disadvantage writing and thinking in English. I study mostly French and German philosophers (Marion and Heidegger especially). Somehow those languages seem so much more hospitable (enter Derrida) to the philosophic project. Maybe in the case of Heidegger, the use of language seems more calculated and engineered (because it is). But French seems to effortlessly bend and twist to produce a subtly in thought that defies gravity. And easy translation.

Today I’m preparing a paper on Marion to present at a conference in March. I’m extremely humbled to be included in the program and very happy to be writing about work that on any given day takes up a good deal of my head space. In particular, I am writing on the way “vanity” in Marion’s account of the saturated phenomenon suggests the need to think beyond Self and Other to include Another, in this case the religious community.

“Vanity” is a pretty good word as things go. In Marion’s work, at least in my reading of it, vanity is the precipice at which the self comes to the end of its rope and becomes capable of the plunge into existential crisis. Vanity is a great word for this extremis because it carries with it both the self-absorption native to the self and, in the useage assigned in Ecclesiastes, its undoing, an exasperated admission of the futility of self-agency. That’s neat work for one word, especially one that retains the full connotation in English.

Writing on the subject today, I reacquainted myself with the word “deponent.” A deponent is both a person who makes a deposition and a passive verb that in nonetheless active in meaning. In other words, deponent turns out to be a handy word for discussing the self converted by the saturated phenomenon to witness. The witness is active in its capacity to register the saturated phenomenon, but is also passive in that the coming forward of the saturated phenomenon itself becomes the self which is attested.

Deponent is not at the heart of my argument (so much good has been said on that front by others better than I), but seeming as I so rarely find an English word (albeit one that is invoking Latin and Greek verbs) that fits philosophy so nicely, I thought I’d take the time to celebrate. Please feel free to share the love and list your favorite English philosophical phrases. In the meantime, keep writing.