Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Pedagogy, Bias, and an Entirely Unrelated Amusing Internet Video

Last week, I had my students read a 1988 article by Peggy McIntosh called "The Invisible Knapsack", an abridged version of which can be found here.

For those of you who haven't read it, it's on the subject of privilege, especially unseen privilege, as it pertained to the white majority in the United States in the late 1980s. I use the past tense there (with reservation) because of the conversation that took place in my class.

Given that it is, primarily, a composition and rhetoric class, we spent much of our time on how McIntosh presents her argument, and the effect it has on the reader. But we spent more time than I expected grappling with the relevance of the article to modern readers.

My students' first reaction was "how old is this, anyway?"

Back up: The majority of my students are 18 years of age. This means that they were born, by and large, between the first day of January and the last day of December in 1994, and for whom, as Beloit's Minset List for this year tells us (among other things) "Slavery has always been unconstitutional in Mississippi, and Southern Baptists have always been apologizing for supporting it in the first place" (that state ratified the 13th amendment on 16 March 1995 -- Kentucky beat them to it by just under 19 years). Since they were young enough to be even aware of politics, there have been prominent black figures in the upper echelons of American governance, with Condoleezza Rice serving as National Security Advisor from 2001-5, later replacing Colin Powell as Secretary of State from 2005-9. (And, as the list also notes, since they were eleven, the job of Secretary of State has been a woman's job).

So it's with a great degree of skepticism that my students came to a list meant to highlight white privilege, with items on it like:

I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser's shop and find someone who can deal with my hair. 


I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children's magazines featuring people of my race. 


I can be sure that if I ask to talk to "the person in charge" I will be facing a person of my race. 

Which, I suppose, fair enough, right? It's easier than ever before to see, especially in cities, the growing cosmopolitanism of America. All colours of culture have been, to a large extent, equally commodified (and so what if that's just because there was a profit to be made and a market to be explored, right?). And the "person in charge" has been a black man for the past four years (long may he reign). But the real challenge was in getting them to recognize that there are still items on the list that continue to be relevant. Especially in places like Arizona, items like this:

If a traffic cop pulls me over, or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race. 

The number of people who get pulled over for "driving while black", "flying while brown", and so on in this country is, in the words of a prominent internet meme, still too damn high. Profiling, I tried to tell them, was a form of racism. And they largely seemed to agree.

But they also seemed to think that the lion's share of racism in this country was due to economic conditions, ones that, at one point in history were due to racism, but now are due to a repeating cycle of poverty only tangentially and historically related to race. Because if everyone is equal, like they've been brought up to believe, then the problem isn't racism. The problem is money.

Well, I'm still working on them with that one. We had to get to compositional matters.

This week I'm having them read an article from Scientific American. "Study Shows Gender Bias in Science is Real. Here's Why It Matters." It's part of my ongoing quest to teach them to analyze rhetorical situations, understand bias, and, this week, how genres produce expectations. I'll let you know how it goes.

Oh, and because I promised in the title, here's a silly video treating the story of Hengest and Horsa as though it were a) historically accurate and b) a first-time home-buyers' TV show. Enjoy?


Bellatricksy said...

When I taught that in an intro to women's and gender studies class, it prompted one person to change her major. I also had them read John Scalzi's "Being Poor" (http://whatever.scalzi.com/2005/09/03/being-poor/) and then write their own "privilege inventory," using his as a model. I taught "Being Poor" in a comp class, too, when introducing contextual analysis--we read the essay, then students wrote a response to it, and then they read his "Going Meta for a Moment" about what prompted him to write it, and then students wrote about how their understanding changed once they learned that it was written in response to media coverage of Katrina, as well as what they learned about the author.

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

Has it occurred to anyone to take a moment and think about whether your students are on to something? That maybe, in a country with a black president, the problem is now the economic inequalities that are racism's legacies rather than racism itself?

I say this because I live and teach in rural Appalachia, where we deal with many of the same social problems--high unemployment, low education, teen pregnancy, single motherhood, high incarceration rates for drug users--associated with "black" communities, yet here they are manifested in majority "white" communities. In other words, the evidence is staring me in the face every day that the root problem is poverty and economic inequality, regardless of race.

Vellum said...

Bellatricksy -- I love Scalzi, and I haven't read that yet, so it's going to the top of the pile!

Nathaniel -- Oh I think certainly they're on to something. But it's a situation of both/and, not either/or. Certainly poverty is one of the more immediate causes of the marginalization of groups of people in America today, but at the same time, the idea that racial bias has disappeared is overstated. It doesn't take a lot of looking to see that the growing popularity of what I'll call the "Immigration Control" mentality in increasingly Latino areas of the US is disproportionately affected by racial preconceptions, and the unperceived biases we ourselves exhibit (even when we think we're being unbiased) can be shown to be there, especially in hiring circumstances -- all it takes is a racially "marked" name to change the perception of a candidate. It all feeds back on itself.

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