“Check your privilege” applies to professors, too

I located this image as I was surfing for blog elements — as I always do, to provide a humorous and ingratiating hook for the stuff I’m sharing. I was looking for a meme that connects with the content in the piece I’m reblogging below. This one seemed great: it references the now-familiar “cool professor” persona described by Washington State University at Pullman critical/cultural scholar David Leonard.

But after I downloaded it, the meme struck me as relevant in another way as well — it blithely appropriates the identity of a prominent African American rapper and music industry mogul. It does so ironically: the professor is not only white, but presumably much older than the typical hip hop fan, and he’s on a skateboard, a signifier of skater culture not generally associated with Jay-Z’s music. The point seems to be that this guy is doubly cool, in that he is able to seamlessly appropriate divergent threads of pop culture as part of a larger, admirable character. This prof is privileged indeed.

I found Leonard’s post in Vitae provocative and helpful. Unless I am explicitly discussing matters of race, gender, class or culture, I rarely consider my privileged status in the classroom. But this kind of self-reflexivity is important, not just for the benefit of our students but also for the careers of our talented colleagues who do not benefit from the existential privilege of a straight, white male identity. As our current moment finds calls to “check your privilege” as a source of intense cultural debate, this piece is worth your time.

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My Life in the Classroom, Where Race Always Matters

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May 20, 2014

When you walk into a classroom, what’s your demeanor? Are you approachable, even casual? Or do you favor authority and formality?

Ever since Katrina Gulliver, a professor at University of New South Wales, lamented a “culture of familiarity” in the lecture hall, I’ve been reading professors’ reflections on these questions. Reflections from professors like Will Miller, who pushed back against Gulliver: “I have been known to occasionally teach in clothes that I could mow the lawn in,” he wrote, “and apparently a student or two have at some point said I was cool. That’s not my goal, however.”

I’m a casual dresser, too, but that’s not what struck me about Miller’s essay. What stood out was this line: I may be a white male, but this has nothing to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom.

There’s a lot to digest here. But let me start with this: I am a white male, and that has everything to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom, why I am respected, and how I’m read by students and others. That is my story, and the story of my career within academe.

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Do we really now live in an age when many of us believe that whites are the main victims of racial aggression? Do we feel that their comfort or discomfort with the topic should govern how and when we talk about race?

As a matter of fact, some white Americans do. In 2011, researchers at Tufts and Harvard universities surveyed African Americans and whites about their views on racism. They found that a majority of whites now believes they have “replaced blacks” as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America. A majority also believes that anti-white prejudice is a “bigger problem” than the prejudice that African Americans face.

Discussing issues of race in the college classroom is a challenge both difficult and absolutely necessary. In a short, provocative piece for the Chronicle’s Vitae site, Cornell University Noliwe Rooks presents this surprising (and troubling) survey result.

Check out the full post here.