Yesterday’s HON 478 class focused on the phenomenon of urban renewal, based on Mindy Thompson Fullilove’s book Root shock: How tearing up city neighborhoods hurts America, and what we can do about it (New York: One World Books, 2004). Like Michelle Alexander’s The new Jim Crow (our last reading), this book is often an eye-opener, even for my school’s relatively socially conscious and self-critical students. Aside from those students who’ve taken my amazing colleague Prof. Dwight Mullen‘s course, The State of Black Asheville, most are unaware of the dramatic changes wrought by “urban renewal” to this city’s landscape and community. (See, for example, the 1937 Home Owner’s Loan Corporation redlining map of Asheville at the top of this post.) Fewer still are cognizant of similar changes in their hometowns, much as I was in the dark regarding the Model Cities program’s impact on my own hometown.
Unpacking Fullilove always offers us an opportunity to reflect on the role of place in our identities, and to sit with, for a while, the realization that for most of us, our home “place” is and has been a stable one. This stability is itself an artifact of our relative privilege.
I’ve been thinking about privilege in new-to-me ways for the past week or so.
It’s only relatively recently (maybe in the past five years) that I’ve recognized and acknowledged that my white/male privilege is likely what’s enabled me to adopt so easily certain practices in the classroom:
- allowing students to call me by my first name and not “Doctor” or “Professor,”
- wearing, when I so choose, shorts, sandals, and T-shirts (and not more formal attire) to class, and
- adopting a very informal speech register (also known as “code-switching like a mutha”) in conversations with students, in and outside of class.
Could my female colleagues, for instance, get away with any of these without repercussion? Recent studies on gender bias in higher ed suggest not.
I’ve even come to acknowledge that my longtime perception of my university as a place where “you’ll find support for your novel projects and initiatives if you’re willing to work to see them through” likely owes a great deal to the privilege accorded me as a straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered male. How many of my female colleagues, my queer colleagues, or my colleagues of color would agree with my past characterization of this college as such a “can-do” place? Do I believe that my institution obstinately resists innovation and change? No, I simply suspect that it’s easier for straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered males to affect that innovation and change.
It’s only much more recently that I’ve come to recognize that yet more fundamental aspects of my teaching likely rest on a bedrock of privilege. Take confidence, for instance. Confidence helps a teacher to rest comfortably with quiet in the classroom, silently waiting for a response to a question or for the next voice in a class discussion. Confidence helps a teacher to take themselves less seriously, to act like a fool for a moment, if needed, to make a point through humor or exaggeration. Confidence helps a teacher to respond to a student’s request for more information with “I don’t know.” All of these acts – silence, silliness, and honest professions of ignorance – are powerful pieces of equipment in a teacher’s toolkit, and though all good teachers can wield them, when wielded confidently they’re more effective.
And where does that confidence come from? Some folks are more naturally confident than others, but confidence comes more naturally to those who are propped up by the system around them and to those who are often assumed to be successful before they even begin. This isn’t to say that I’ve not worked hard to get where I am, and it’s not to say that I don’t continue to work hard; it’s merely to acknowledge that I’ve likely received significant unwarranted assistance by virtue of my identity.
As I move forward in life, I hope to stay aware of both my privilege and others’ relative lack of it. I owe it to my students and to myself, and really to everyone I interact with. How can I, for instance, offer a positive role model to my soon-to-be-stepchildren if I don’t keep my privilege in sight?