The hidden curriculum of hesitation

Haven’t posted much in a while. Been involved with a fascinating round of Doctoral dissertation defenses as well as Master’s orals. I think I’ve got most of the necessary stories down. It’s hard work shaping the overall text which is the major effort at hand…narrowing down the concept for each chapter and the specific themes that flow from that concept. And finally, trimming and/or expanding the narratives to fit the overall whole. I’ve spent a week creating several entries to the book, entries that take the form either of an introduction or an actual first chapter. Today, i think I nailed the first chapter, at least with enough specificity to allow me to go on to chapter two. I’m poking around in the area of maximum blindness for me – that area that other folks would see exceptionally well. It’s a bit nerve wracking. My good friend Andrew suggested I write about my feelings given the fact that if I were having these feelings, other people, white people particularly, might be similarly inhibited by feelings similar to mine. Unpacking mine might help them unpack theirs. We move in duo… . This ended up as C1 – the hidden curriculum of hesitation.

Oh yeah, I’ll also try to post JoHari’s window. If I can’t do the window, at least I can do a link. It’s an old gem!

Feelings Before I Write.

Should I Really Be Doing This?

The Hidden Curriculum of Hesitation.

I think I’m on the white hot edge of writing honest thoughts writers describe as the point of no return. Deciding to share what I have written is not without it own special form of panic. If the real truth be known, I harbor doubts about whether any of what I have to share will be interesting enough to keep a reader reading. I’m not trying to be a well informed pundit here. I’m not writing from the usual place of academic expertise. I’m writing about an area that almost by definition, others know a whole lot better than I do. Q2. Ohhhh yeah. The area of the JoHari Matrix that contains awareness known to others, unknown to self. Starting out writing about events in my life that others know better is downright scary. Maybe also stupid! Why would anyone choose to do that? My doubt is coming through in very uncomfortable feelings.

In my doubt I hear laughter, imagine the sting of personal attack, and feel embarrassed. I encounter my own personification of shame and doubt speaking to me: “Well what did you expect? There are experts in this field. What could you possibly add? What you have to say about working with your own whiteness is neither enough nor is it particularly edifying or even accurate for that matter.” Self doubt dies hard.

The laughter. Some of this laughter comes from Black folks. You’ve read my attempts to come to terms with something that you live and breathe every day. You read my imperfect words, my intellectualizations, my real inability to truly see the effects of my pigmentation on how society perceives and treats you. You laugh because its easier to laugh than cry. You’ve cried enough. Your laughter is a sardonic laughter that acknowledges 10,000 stories by people like me can’t do anything about your. Give it up, you say. It don’t mean a thing.

I worry about personal attacks from all sides. Blacks will attack me for being so numb for so long. How could I not act with all that was around me, right in front of my eyes. I saw all these injustices going on and still I chose to work within the system. What a honkey! (Is that word still used?) They will say I am weak and without courage because I chose to work in only safe places. I am unworthy of respect. From Whites, the attacks will come from two directions. The first attack will be from what I think is the more conservative, essentialist side. They will tell me I’m out of my mind. What I’m describing is just the product of an overactive imagination. Prejudice and bias are part of the human condition. They will say its just so much navel gazing to try to separate myself and see my behavior as influenced by privilege. I’m spend way too much time dreaming up things that aren’t there. They would encourage me to get a real job.

Liberal whites, expecially those who are already considerably knowledgeable about White privilege, will join in as well. They also will not believe it took me so long to see what was right under my eyes for most of my life. And now that I’m at least aware of some of the effects I have on others for what I am (not who I am) it’s way too late to mean much of anything to anyone, certainly them. Others have gone way beyond where I am in my analytical work. And they’ve done it better and much more comprehensively. Too bad I wasted a career. I might have been half good at this work if I’d started forty years earlier. Too bad I didn’t have a mind, then.

Part of my reticence to share my writing is firmly grounded in my feelings of shame. I will spend some time on the role of alcoholism in my life later on in these stories, but for now, one consequence of my lived life is the rather constant tendency to second guess myself, put myself down, criticize my work as I imagine others might criticize me. So at this moment of clicking on these keys, Mr. Shame has got me by the throat and he’s hissing into my face, “No One Will Care! Your life is mundane, predictable, uninteresting, mindless, even. Don’t You Get IT? Nobody will care what you have to say. You already feel stupid enough. Can’t you imagine how really stupid you’ll feel if you share any of these so-call ideas with anyone! Don’t compound your inabilities by putting yourself out there.” I picture myself agreeing with him, tucking my tail between my legs, and slinking off to my room of “if onlys:” if only I had done this sooner, if only I’d read more expert witnesses, if only I could get it just right, if only, if only, if only.

My feelings are jumbled. The pit of my stomach is a dull ache; not pain really, more a pressure, present and constant. Even my breathing changes when I choose to stay with these feelings for more than a moment. It gets shallow and more rapid. What’s that all about? The little boy in me is wanting acceptance again and he’s scared that putting this out will lead to rejection by my family, my friends, colleagues known, and colleagues unknown. He wants to be loved, not hated.

And yet I realize these feeling, though real enough, are all products of my psychic imagination. What purpose do these psychic questions and barriers serve? Interesting question. Do other White men besides myself who consider the effects of their own whiteness on their careers ever feel the same feelings I do? In the same places? Do they unconsciously rub their solar plexi when the dull numb pressure becomes insistent? What was it like for Paul Gorski? What was it like for Gary Howard? Did they feel weird or have weird feelings when they began their work of writing down their radical racial revelations?

I begin to wonder if the terrain is so unsettling, so unknown, that the project is in actuality, quite a big risk and the feelings, therefore, more natural. I also begin to think that because I have these feelings, the topic is an important one to write about. If I have these feelings, what about all the other teachers of no color who desperately want to do something about how teachers unknowingly promote social injustice in the classroom but can’t quite get a handle on how to go about it. They, too, may have these feelings.

Maybe any white person would experience a psychic tremble at the thought of jumping into this discussion of participation in constructing our country’s racial past and present. After all, it wasn’t too long ago the racialized beings in the world were THEM, not Me. What they hell am I doing trying to turn the THEM into ME. I’m reminded of something Shirley Hill once said about a white gospel choir in which I sang. She commented to a

friend, “Now, they even want to take this away from us. It just makes me so damn mad.”

Now I was pretty clear how that comment made me feel. Guilty. And worse than any old guilt, it was White guilt. Here I was trying to enjoy myself, sing with the spirit, even project an appreciation for the gospel music so many Black singers and congregations had brought to us and Shirley gets to the utter core of her reality and accuses us of stealing. Accuses me of stealing. Stealing! Me!

Those feelings in the pit of my stomach, the psychic tremble when thinking about jumping into the discussion of my certain historical collaboration in constructing the institution of our country’s racism, maybe these are all just other kinds of signs of my own guilt. “Good intentions, excused.” That’s what Albert Ellis said the function of guilt was. Feeling bad about not doing something about an issue, a situation, a certain context you know should be different but you just haven’t gotten around to do something about it. Feeling guilty lets me off the hook. That’s the snapshot Ellis would make of these dynamics.

When I write about how privilege has framed my perceptions, choices and behavior, I begin to see my complicity in keeping me on top and others not on top. Not necessarily consciously (although there have been times when I have knowingly used my privilege to gain advantage for me or my family), but effectively nonetheless. The guilt comes when I choose to go beyond the blinders of my white world and acknowledge how others have to live and how our system of political power works to keep inside groups influential and self-serving and groups on the outside, ineffectual and powerless.

What is so interesting about this position, and perhaps even key to removing myself from the guilt spotlight is my fuller realization that I’m here by the roll of some genetic dice. Regardless of my skin color or place of origin eons ago, my biological parents borned me into the upper middle class professional culture of the borough of Manhattan in New York City and my skin pigmentation guaranteed me sure access to all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities there of.

I know I have a racial past as well as a racial present and racial future. My white guilt knows my contribution to it. My unquestioned, unrecognized, and if I keep to my own kind successfully, unchallenged contributions. When I make that step into the spotlight, then I have to rationalize complicity in everything from growing up on stolen land to daily letting others witness injustice to knowingly allowing racially biased instructional events pass unnoticed in my classroom because I need to get on with other subtleties of content. Let me tell you, staying out of the spotlight, hiding in the murkey shadows of awareness that define unexamined systemic racism is a whole lot more comfortable to do, especially because I am the dominant culture and the dominant culture sets the standard for what’s right, proper, and spozed to be. Plus, I don’t have to feel guilty in those shadowy places of unexamined behavior. “Just do it!” is a catchy phrase. Live your life. Don’t worry, be happy. Well, happiness all depends upon whose “it” you are just doing. Just doing my “it” comes at great expense to all those people shoes “it” is excluded by my “it.” And because they are on the outside looking in, they are a whole lot more aware of what my “it” looks like than I am.

So coming to terms with the way my own whiteness, male whiteness, even, a double whammy in terms of privilege, means I have to begin to live within a brutally honest zone of self definition in order to be clear about who I am, the who I want to be, and how I want to represent myself to others. Most particularly, to the other younger white versions of my self who are thinking they might want to be teachers someday.

That honesty plays out something like this. The truth of the matter is I’ve never slurred anyone racially. The truth of the matter is I didn’t advocate for separate but equal facilities in 1894. I didn’t cause black army units to be segregated in 1942. I didn’t make decisions that gave young black learners outdated facilities and decades old schoolbooks in 1936. I didn’t sell anyone into slavery from the Charleston Slave Market. And for damn sure, I haven’t thrown any ropes over tree branches to lynch anyone across the entire 350 years of domination by people of my skin color of our darker skinned counterparts. I haven’t avoided public facilities used by Black Americans or people of any other ethnic group for that matter. I haven’t ignored or hurt children in school because of their skin color. I make it a point to say hello to everyone I pass, especially people who I think might appreciate the recognition and greeting. The list could be endless. Its point is that I have not been responsible for past grievances.

Except for one thing. Look at that litany of “haven’ts.” The events that ring truest are those that are historically placed. I wasn’t alive when they happened. I hear this a lot from my students these days. Racism isn’t my problem. I wasn’t alive when all those awful things happened! But guess what? We are alive now. Institutionalized racism is part of the fabric that defines the ways in which we are all living together right now in this country, all of us. It’s absolutely true I didn’t cause anything to happen before I was a mote of DNA. It’s also absolutely true that I am most surely a participant in all the ways systemic racism augers to keep me on top politically, economically, socially, and even it might be argued, professionally, now. Dominance has been confirred on me, as Peggy McIntosh so aptly suggests. Power, whether I sought it or not, is mine to wield. And the standards of what’s spozed to be, were set by people who look a lot like me.

So this shifts the white guilt dilemma just a bit, since I’m being brutally honest. The greatest guilt to be had in all this is not the guilt felt from my historical past, but the guilt felt from my failure to act in the historical present! And that means stepping into the spotlight. Is claiming to have avoided public facilities used by Black Americans really mine to say? Is claiming not to have ignored or hurt children in school really my judgment to make? And that saying hello thing. Who’s to say my making sure I say hello to Black students on campus especially is appreciated by them? Maybe they get really tired of having to make me feel good by responding back? Once I acknowledge the fact that just because I judge a situation to be right in a certain well meaning way, doesn’t mean it’s in fact, right! My Black friends might receive my actions in quite a different way than the way I intended them.

What this means for me, of course, is that the world under my feet suddenly, for as long as I choose to stay in that spotlight, shifts composition from bedrock to ooze. My footholds are reality shift dramatically. I can never again infer that what’s right for me will have beneficial consequences for my students, for example, especially my students of color. Certainty becomes a negotiated reality. What I can hope for is an agreement that some portion of what I declare may have a kind of universal truth to it, but I have to be ready to understand that from another perspective, the some portion looms large. They will have their portion of truth as well.

Standing in that spotlight of white awareness means I acknowledge myself as a multicultural being, one among many, not a representative of the standard around which all things are judged and enforced. Standing in the spotlight means I stand less as an expert but more as a witness to my own place in this really interesting world and in my witnessing what it is like to be me, comes my kinship with others as they work to define their place in their own particular spotlight. My witnessing means I am an ally and a friend, but not a participant in your reality. The only reality we can participate in is the one we create together in our present and future moments.

Maybe Shirley would say the same about these efforts of mine. “Leave the analysis of racism to us.” You caused it with your history of deliberate lawmaking and mindless adherence to the racial totem pole. You can’t possibly figure yourself out. Leave it alone. Let it be. Don’t mess with what you can’t change. She makes me think maybe it’s plain wrong for to take on this deconstruction of my racial past. This process is best left to those who have a racial past. You haven’t a clue. Leave the deconstruction to us. Let us alone. Don’t stir things up.”

But that doesn’t sound right to me even in this state of sweaty hesitation. Shirley’s is old thinking, right for a time perhaps, and maybe even still right for now in circumstances that are more safely viewed from a far away distance. Leaving the work of deconstructing racism up to the descendents of the African diaspora has a necessary protective quality to it, especially (I imagine) for Black Americans who are reminded of their separate status by daily acts of maginalization that happen again and again and again. What is it the T-Shirt slogan says? “I made it through another day.”

But that attitude won’t help us move along together and from my privileged perspective, doing this work separately has only kept us separate. Retreating to our separate lunchroom tables helps us lick our wounds and helps us recharge our own separate group identities. But not working on this together won’t help us figure out what’s going on between us. Retreating to our separate lunchroom tables won’t help us learn how to live together, work together, play together, argue together, be honest with one another together.

What’s kicked me over the edge now – in terms of race – is simply realizing what it was I had to do through the intervention of a model. Of course it helps to know something of the academics of White studies. But that’s natural. I am an academic. But I can do that and never get out of my reading chair. Worse, I can learn all that stuff and keep it in my head, and never behave differently except by telling everyone how much I know. But that isn’t the point, at least it isn’t the point for what many of the black students I’ve read would have me do. The point is not to be an expert in the field, but to be expert in myself. What is important is to know my story from the vantage point of race and privilege, to be able to share it comfortably or uncomfortably in class so that I prepare the way ahead for others in my class to do the same thing. That’s what I’m told makes a classroom safe and honors the contributions of others. Getting up close and personal about what happened to me, what I learned from those experiences, and how that learning changed and deepened over the years as I learned more is what I should be doing. That’s the point. Forget the demons that sap my courage. Just tell them my stories and what I’ve learned from them. Introduce them, tell them, interpret them as best I can, and leave them open for others to ponder. That’s what I can do best.

The purpose of this book is not to put that past and present into an abstract context. The purpose of this book is to show what I learned from this past and how it affected my teaching what I’m learning about this past now and how I am bringing that into my teaching. I think I’m the best teacher I ever was right now in my career. I think many of my students would agree with me. I think this is so because the reflection on my racialist past informs decisions I make as I teach today. I’m not saying I’ve arrived or that I’m the world’s greatest teacher. I am saying that consciously attending to my racialist past makes me do different things today in my classes. This story may be useful for other teachers who continually work to get better at this craft. There are a lot of us out there and I think we could afford to communicate with each other more than we do. This book, despite my feelings of uncertainty, is my attempt to do so.

In all actuality, when that little boy goes back into his room and my adult side reasserts itself, when I put Old Mr. Shame back in his chair, I hope that what I have to say stirs controversy. I hope others do get incensed about how long it took me or how blind I was or how little I really understood about being in the role of “other” in this American culture. Advancing the dialogue about how racism formed the approach to teaching of one white teacher in this American society may be a very good thing. Showing how one white teacher got smarter about his whiteness over the years and changed his teaching will be a very good thing. Advancing the dialogue about where white teachers stand in the face of the ever shifting pigmentation of American society will be a very useful thing. Advancing the dialogue about what white teachers can do in the face of the ever shifting pigmentation of American society will be a very useful thing.

I’m the only one that can do that. No one else can do this work about me. Only I can do this work about me. Will it benefit others? Maybe. Who knows. My task is not to worry about and just tell the stories the best I can. That may be enough. That may plow enough personal terrain that now lies fallow and untouched in other white teachers who can connect to my experiences. Turning it over may permit other stories, their stories, to take root, to become obstacles that get tripped over in their own life terrain. When you trip over something, you tend not to do what led to the tripping, twice. But I can’t decide that. What you do with what I put before you is not my decision. That’s up to you. My job is to identify the yeasty stuff in my life in terms of these issues of race, culture, whiteness and teaching and just tell them the best I can. Just get on with it. Don’t wait ‘til I’m fully awake. I may never be fully awake to all the ways racism and whiteness affects what I do. But I can never be fully asleep again and how that plays out for me now should be worth something to someone.

Published by

Charles Rathbone

Retired. Emeritus. Conducts a seminar on university teaching to doctoral students in the Rubenstein School of Natural Resources once a year. Board Member Vermont Interfaith Action, volunteer and advocate Burlington Bike Project, UDL consultant VSA Vermont, photographer, married, four children, five grandchildren, and one Golden Doodle. Embracing life, all of it. "Today is tomorrow's past."

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