By Jonathan Branfman
PhD Candidate & Instructor in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies
OSU’s classes in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies (WGSS) explore the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. In our pop culture class, for example, we might discuss Taylor Swift and Cardi B: Though both are famous women, they face different feminine stereotypes due to their different skin colors, accents, and immigration histories. Because WGSS courses focus on race this way, they often include lessons explaining racism and white privilege. At a university like OSU, where the great majority of students are white, many students find these topics unfamiliar or unwelcome. In this post, I’ll discuss three key challenges that I’ve experienced in my five years teaching about racism as a WGSS PhD student. My goal is to support fellow educators who teach about racism, and so support better public awareness about racism.
Beyond Neo-Nazis: Implicit Bias
Many Americans are raised to define racism only as individual, explicit, and intentional—for example, neo-Nazis yelling slurs or the Ku Klux Klan attacking Black families. This focus discourages many white students from noting how most white Americans, including themselves, participate more subtly in racism. For white students who have never witnessed racist discrimination (or don’t realize they’ve witnessed it), this narrow focus can also lead to the rosy assumption that racism is over in America. Like the Kirwan Institute’s research on “implicit racial cognition” (also called “implicit bias”), WGSS classes often emphasize that it’s valuable to recognize unconscious forms of bias that shape our behavior, leading us to discriminate even without intending to.
But how can we help students recognize this kind of bias and its impact on their own behavior? I find popular culture a useful tool for this lesson. Many music videos, TV shows, and film clips convey racial stereotypes, like the common portrayal of Black and Latino men as criminals. To link these ideas more closely with students’ lives, we can also assign readings (like this one) about how students and faculty of color are often profiled by campus police or stereotyped by white peers as drug dealers. Students can also benefit from reading recent cases in which white students have called the police on classmates of color just for snoozing in their own dorms. We can also use these readings to invite students to share their own experiences of being profiled, or of implicitly judging others. This lesson can prompt students to identify how racism seeps more subtly into many parts of their lives, and how they can make personal changes to resist it.
Beyond Silver Platters: What Privilege Really Means
The flip side of racism is white privilege: The social, educational, economic, and legal advantages that people receive just for being viewed as white. Like racist discrimination, white privilege can reflect implicit bias—for example, when a young white man in a hoodie is seen as “casual” while a young black man in a hoodie is seen as a “dangerous thug.” Another great example concerns teaching about racism: My colleagues and I often find that instructors like myself who have white privilege have an easier time teaching about racism, as white students are more likely to take us seriously instead of dismissing us as “angry” or “aggressive” people of color.
However, teaching about white privilege can be difficult for many reasons. One reason is the misperception that “having privilege” means “having an effortless life.” Many students therefore reject the notion of privilege because it doesn’t seem to fit their own experiences and risks invalidating their own struggles. For example, when introducing the idea of privilege (whether white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, etc.), I’ve often heard students object by saying something like, “Nothing in life has been given to me on a silver platter, I’ve had to work hard to get where I am, so I can’t be privileged.”
Conversely, students often have a breakthrough when they grasp that having privilege doesn’t mean receiving everything on a silver platter—it just means that you’re working hard under good conditions. For an example close to students’ lives, we can ask students if they’ve ever heard parents speak about “good schools” and “bad schools,” then ask students to list what makes a school “good.” After students list items like computers, nice facilities, updated textbooks, and well-trained teachers, we can discuss what these resources do for students. No matter how much time and effort an individual student spends studying, they will usually accomplish more with access to these resources than students struggling to learn without such advantages. After this discussion, we can present historical and current statistics on school segregation and funding in the U.S., to show how students of color are extra likely to face financial obstacles while pursuing education.
In this (and any) conversation about poverty, it’s also valuable to remind students that poverty of course harms many white Americans, yet still disproportionately impacts people of color. So in this case, “white privilege” doesn’t mean that all white students in America receive A’s for no effort or automatically get into great colleges. Instead, it means that white students in America are disproportionately likely to enjoy good funding, instruction, and holistic support as they pursue education. Yet ironically, white students rarely need to worry that others will dismiss their academic accomplishments or their acceptance into a university as “affirmative action handouts.”
Why Mention Racism? Beyond Blaming the Victim
In recent years, I’ve increasingly heard an odd claim: that discussing racism actually harms people of color by putting them “in a victim mindset.” From this perspective, the violence and unequal outcomes that people of color experience are not the result of discrimination, but the result of a self-indulgent “victim mentality” that prevents people of color from succeeding. In other words, this narrative claims that speaking about racism is what creates racial inequality, and is just a form of useless whining rather than a valuable step toward fixing things. This claim is not new, but I’ve noticed it become especially popular in news media and everyday conversation in the past few years.
Many people of color and white allies see that this narrative about racial inequality is blatantly untrue. However, many of our students have grown up with the precisely this narrative, and so it is already present in our classrooms when we teach about race, regardless of whether students actually voice it. For this reason, I recommend directly acknowledging this claim and inviting students to critically analyze it. A good start can be screening a news clip that voices this view on race, and then asking students to identify the speaker’s underlying assumptions. It can also be helpful to compare racism with a simpler scenario. For example, if one classmate is repeatedly punching another, how would we stop it? If we acknowledge “Hey! Sydney is punching Taylor!,” does this acknowledgment cause the violence or help us to stop it? Students will often chuckle at this silly question, and this analogy helps them see that it’s equally silly to equate learning about racism with perpetuating racism. This discussion can also help students see how discussing racism is part of the proactive effort to change it, rather than a useless form of whining. In turn, this realization can help defuse the resistance that many students have learned against recognizing racism, making future lessons easier.
These experiences and strategies come from only one university, but I hope they can be useful for fellow educators in many settings.
Jonathan Branfman is a PhD candidate in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies a the Ohio State University, defending in May 2019. His research is on race, masculinity, and Jewish identity in the media (think of Drake, Zac Efron, and Broad City), and he has taught WGSS classes on film and pop culture. Jon has also published the LGBTQ children’s book You Be You, now translated into sixteen languages, which will come out next year in a new edition with Jessica Kingsley Publishers.