What We Talk About When We Talk About Values: Navigating Discussions of Privilege and Justice in the First Year Writing Classroom, Part II: Lemme Whitesplain That for Ya

By Carrie Lee O’Dell

This blog post took me forever to write and in the end, I cut enough material to make another post and made enough notes for a third. There’s just too much to say to fit it into one post, even one that’s this long. The material kept coming at me: in his campus talk, Elizabeth and Hazel author David Margolick called Paula Jones a bimbo and Hazel Massery Bryant a cracker. A student at Mount Holyoke College filed a complaint against an English professor for racist language in the classroom; another English professor, this one from Sarah Lawrence College, took to the virtual pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education to bemoan the rise of the singular they as a personal pronoun for trans and agender students. A young man in Oregon walked into a writing class and opened fire. I was explaining to a friend why this was so hard to write about; after twenty minutes, I’d taken so many detours, gone down so many rabbit holes, that she had to ask what I’d been talking about when I started. We all have a lot to say about privilege and justice, but it’s hard to find solutions to the problems that come up when we discuss race, gender identity, sexuality, class, or ability. The conversations are important, but exhausting.

When Leslie Doyle and I first sat down to talk about this workshop, we discovered we were coming from different places, though we had a common reason for wanting to open up a conversation about questions of privilege in the First Year Writing classroom. While Leslie was considering student response to class content, I started thinking about this workshop last fall. In a paper discussing potential obstacles to achieving the American Dream, a student wrote about how hard things are for colored people and I had to stop and consider my next move carefully.

You’re shaking your head right now. “You’re adorable, Carrie. Like this is the first time a student has used that phrase on a paper in one of your classes?”

It isn’t, of course. I don’t remember the first time, but it’s a frequent enough occurrence that I have a canned response ready to copy and paste. You know the response because you write it too: colored people is a phrase with a lots of historical baggage, it smacks of separate bathrooms and water fountains, for the purpose of academic discourse please say African-American, Black, or people of color. Yadayadayada. Why was I taken aback? Because the student who used the phrase this time was Black. I have no problem telling a White kid not to say colored people, but how do I tell a minority student what self-identifiers are inappropriate? Am I telling you what you can call yourself?

            I ended up using my canned comment with some qualifiers and if my student thought I was whitesplaining, he didn’t call me on it. It stayed in the back of my mind for the rest of the school year, though. Teaching First Year Writing means helping students negotiate language and start to code-switch as needed. Of course, it also means doing the hardest thing in the world when you’re in front of a classroom: sometimes you have to step back, listen, and learn a little yourself. You have to force students to unpack their privilege knapsacks and in the process unpack your own.

In her 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh frames her recognition of her own privilege as a White woman when by reflecting on the challenges of asking men to confront male privilege:

Through work to bring materials from women’s studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to improve women’s status, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened, or ended.

We can see the truth of McIntosh’s observations are alive and well in 2015 when we discuss the idea of privilege in the First Year Writing classroom. In an August 2015 post for Sociological Images, Stephen Suh points to two conflicting frames through which many students view the role of race in society: the color-blind frame and the diversity frame. He references a study in which sociologists Natasha Warikoo and Janine de Novais interviewed 47 students at two different schools about the frames through which they viewed race. Nearly half of the students interviewed cited both of these frames simultaneously as corresponding with their views. In other words, they saw no conflict in saying I love diversity in one breath and declaring But I don’t see race! in the next. You can’t have it both ways, though. You have to see diversity to love it, but once you acknowledge diversity, you can’t claim that you don’t see race.

Of course, a big chunk of the problem lies in the way that much of America—in and out of academe—considers White (and male and straight and cisgender and able-bodied) as a default. This directly affects our language. In our professional development workshop, Leslie and I asked colleagues to write down the words they use to classify themselves and why. For example, do you say White or Caucasian? Black or African-American? Woman or Female? Cis or trans? Straight or gay? Do you include martial status? Religion? Your bipolar disorder or dyslexia or multiple sclerosis? Why? And if you fall somewhere along a spectrum—you’re multiracial or agender or bisexual, for example, do you round up or sigh deeply and explain your identity yet again? Everyone expressed that there were things that they really had to consider; they had to think carefully about self-definition. If we have to think that hard about what polite, politically correct terms we use to describe ourselves, is it any wonder that students are confused about the appropriate language to use when discussing sensitive issues of race, gender, class, sexuality, or ability?

This summer, I taught in Montclair State’s EOF (Educational Opportunity Fund) program. EOF is a New Jersey state program that “provides financial assistance and support services (e.g. counseling, tutoring, and developmental course work) to students from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds who attend institutions of higher education in the State of New Jersey.” In the two sections of ENWR 100 that I taught for EOF, I was the only White face in the room. One day, as part of a discussion about sensitive language surround race, I made five columns on the board: Black, White, Latino/Hispanic, Asian, Other. I invited students to think of all the words we use to designate race and ethnicity—good and bad—and I started listing them on the board. Suddenly students who were drowsy and listless at 8:00 am or immediately following lunch were wide-awake and engaged. I found myself hoping this wasn’t the day that an EOF representative dropped by my class—how would I explain the pack of eighteen-year-olds gleefully yelling chink, beaner, rag head, scratch back and, courtesy of a student who took to Urban Dictionary when she ran out of material, spivic. (This last word is a combination of spic and Civic. It refers to Mexicans in tricked-out Honda Civics. We’re so specific in our hate.) I noticed quickly that students tended to only contribute words that applied to the racial or ethnic group that they identified with. It was like an unspoken understanding: the Black kids could call out jungle bunny, spade, pickaninny, and African booty scratcher, but they left wetback, cholo, and spic to their peers who spoke Spanish at home. The few students whose families came from Pakistan and Vietnam and Syria were worn out contributing terms like gook, terrorist, and tech support. I pointed at a big empty spot on the board.

“What word do we use for White people?” I asked.

After a silence one student ventured, “Caucasian?”

I was in a position of power; these students didn’t want to risk damaging a Fragile White Ego, especially one connected to The Hand That Grades. I started jotting works on the board: honky, cracker, redneck, hillbilly. Someone tentatively contributed pumpkin spice and I chuckled. Tension started to break. I added skin cancer and the no-nonsense slam poet in the front row declared “That’s just mean!” After a quick detour to resolve the question that anyone can get skin cancer, not just White people, we returned to the board.

“Which word do you hate most?” I asked. “Why does this word bother you more than others?

One young woman hated beaner because that’s what people yell at her father when he works construction. Muslim students were particularly sensitive to terrorist because they were sick of convincing people they weren’t carrying bombs. In one class, a student hated urban as a descriptor for African-Americans, but in another class several students felt the word sounded sleek and elegant. All of the Black students hated the word nigger, but most had no problems with a close friend of shared heritage calling them my nigga; it was considered a term of endearment. But if a White person said it, that was a problem. We discussed the role intent plays in racist speech—is it still racist if they “didn’t mean anything by it”? The consensus was that yes it was racist, but that didn’t necessarily make the person who said it a racist; students thought we should call people on racist language, but recognize that language is complex and sometimes we screw up.

I think of those classes as the Day of Racial Epithets and it was some teaching I felt really good about. Students had to think about language and why they choose specific words as identity descriptors. In the following days, we addressed questions of gender identity, sexuality, ability, and culture. In the course of this unit, my students wrote thoughtful essays that analyzed language and identity. I couldn’t help but wonder: would this unit on identity work outside of EOF? Would in work when half the class was White? When we have to devote a chunk of the day explain why Kanye West can say it, but the White suburban kid can’t? Why I laugh at pumpkin spice, but not at fried chicken and watermelon? I thought about testing this out in the course of teaching Elizabeth and Hazel, but I wimped out. I told myself it didn’t fit with my unit on education. Or the unit on the American Dream. Or the unit about media bias. Truth is, I’m nervous that the White kids either won’t contribute or will be a little too enthusiastic once given leeway to say the words out loud in class. Maybe I don’t give them enough credit. Maybe I’m still battling my own decades of being the beneficiary of institutionalized racism. The view of White as default or as generally good/heroic affects the language we all use in the classroom. We don’t want to cater to White/male/cis/het/able fragility (I’M not privileged! I work hard!) but we don’t want to alienate students (or worse yet contribute to some sort of “hard to be white in America” argument). Part of all of this is recognizing my continued shortcomings– including myself in that monolith of White, middle-class, functionally straight academia and saying “we.” And that great challenge to being an effective ally, especially when I’m at the front of the class– sometimes shutting up to really listen.

References and Resources

Bukiet, Melvin Jules. “What’s Your Pronoun?” The Chronicle Review. Chronicle of Higher Education. 21 September 2015. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.

Flaherty, Colleen. “Race and Slurs in the Classroom.” Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed. 5 October 2015. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.

Miller, Joyce. “Product Review: The Invisible Backpack of White Privilege from L.L. Bean.” McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. McSweeney’s. 18 December 2014. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” College of Education, Wayne State University. Teacher Education Program, Wayne State U. Reprinted from Independent School, Winter 1990. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.

“Spivic.” Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary. 2005. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.

State of New Jersey: Office of the Secretary of Higher Education. State of New Jersey. 2015. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.

Suh, Stephen. “’I don’t see color; I love diversity’: College students’ conflicting race frames.” Sociological Images. The Society Pages. 20 August 2015. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.


2 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Values: Navigating Discussions of Privilege and Justice in the First Year Writing Classroom, Part II: Lemme Whitesplain That for Ya

  1. I really love this post, Carrie. That sounds like an important lesson. (#pumpkin). I think these types of days are needed to start off our courses–and I often forget to take the time to break these ideas down before jumping into texts. *Also, I like your canned comment. I think it’s good to have a stock of those for such situations to make sure they get addressed. I will steal this next time I face such an issue.

    I would love to see how you (and I) tackle this lesson for the more white classroom. Perhaps in that room, we do the same but frame it a bit differently. Put up connotations with the dreaded word privilege (I totes work hard!), to try to lead to the questions: What does discussion of race and all of its uncomfortable baggage mean for students who haven’t thought about it, or for students who find such discussions “extreme” because today “really isn’t that racist,” or for the students who think “we need to stop talking about race” because it just makes us more racist —-these are all examples from my classrooms this semester. I wonder if starting with privilege before your columns of racial labels, or having it after would work better?

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