Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Response to a Question

I received an email from a fellow college professor (anonymous--and that's fine with me) who, in response to my previous blog article ("One Way to Diversify Academe"), asked me the following question: "Is racial or ethnic diversity necessary in academe? All of my former professors were white, most of them men, and as a professor I've been able to help diverse students in their academic aspirations as English majors. They leave my classrooms with a definite appreciation for and knowledge of English and American literature." S/he added, "Although our department doesn't have any faculty members of Hispanic heritage, our students neither complain about the lack of racial diversity among their professors nor do they exhibit any signs of under-preparedness in their studies."

Of course, I take such a question seriously; I don't want to assume that all academics routinely agree that diversity is indeed a vital aspect within any educational institution or as part of anyone's educational background.

But, I must admit that the question itself resonates as an alarm: The professor's cold rationalization is an example of what happens when people don't have diverse teachers.

To illustrate why diversity is critical in anyone's education, I often ask my students (in a course that focuses on institutional racism and social class) the following question: "What would happen if all of your teachers were men?"

Not surprisingly, the female students regardless of color are quick to respond: "Women wouldn't have any role models in the teaching profession." "Women would have an advantage over men when it comes to discussing feminist issues because they've lived their lives as women; feminism would be women's daily reality, not just theory." "In such a world, male professors would favor and promote literature and research written by other men." "Male teachers wouldn't be very sensitive to female concerns and issues--their concerns would be developed, encouraged, and controlled by a male-dominated profession."

And when other students try to minimize such comments, those students are almost always males. Obviously, some males take such comments personally, as if they were being criticized, even though their peers are merely noting what they think would be the effects of an all-male professoriate.

But when I then ask the same female and male students to answer a similar question but change "men" to "white," many of those who are white quickly fall silent. Yet, when I suggest that their previous comments could just as easily apply to people of color (that they too would have few role models, that they too might have certain advantages over whites when discussing issues of race and ethnicity, that they too could be victims of insensitive professors and their curriculums), even some of the women who balked at their male counterparts' objections try to minimize similar consequences: "But...."

I ask the students to examine why they have certain objections: Where do they come from? What's the point of such objections? What, if anything, do they think they've accomplished by voicing these objections? Do they feel better about themselves? Do they feel threatened? And who do they think they're ultimately helping when they minimize possible negative consequences that stem from racial and ethnic differences and concerns?

To help students become more sensitive to institutional racism, I utilize the HBO film White Man's Burden. Writer/director Desmond Nakano literally reverses the power structure in America: Caucasian Americans live in the "inner city" and inhabit mostly menial occupations; in contrast, African Americans live in the affluent suburbs and own or control most private businesses and public institutions. Although the characters are to a degree ethnographic stereotypes, their segregated circumstances amply define the problems that face both the disenfranchised and the empowered. (The students must examine and analyze four situations/conditions/phenomena in the film that illustrate institutional racism.)

In conjunction with the film, I utilize Paul Kivel's text Uprooting Racism (New Society Publishers). Kivel's subtitle (How White People Can Work for Racial Justice) often bothers students initially; however, once they read his text, most students understand Kivel's point: Whites control most, if not all, of America's institutions, public and private; therefore, those in power should always be the focus if we want to change the status quo rather than look to--and unconvincingly blame--those not in power.

Consequently, I too must look to the anonymous professor and ask, "What's gained by keeping academe a segregated realm?" And, more importantly, "Are you truly educated if you only see the world through white lenses?"