Chapter 15. Opportunities Everywhere

Chapter 15.

Opportunities Everywhere

Whether we like it or not, we all figure in the trouble that the trouble around difference is about. The bad news is that no matter who you are, the trouble is your trouble. But that’s also the good news, because it also gives you the potential and a reason to do something about it. (Johnson, 67.)

In my desire to help eradicate racism in America I learned that the responsibility for a racist society rests with all its citizens – not only with those who, being dark-skinned, bear the physical marker of “race.” How many times a day must a visibly dark-skinned person think about, talk about, be injured and diminished by, racism, while a light-skinned person doesn’t have to give white supremacy a second thought? In a purportedly democratic society, such injustice – a daily burden for most visibly ethnic Americans – must be challenged. (Tusmith,125)

The most terrible thing I can make myself say about white people is also the most wonderful. Somewhere, however buried and refracted by guilt, the truth lives in our souls. We know what we are doing. It’s why we are susceptible to improvement. (Schutze, 18.)

By presenting her personal journey in unadorned, incisive prose, Moraga teaches us to stare down the “oppressor,” the enemy –her message the more urgent when the enemy is, above all, ourselves. The intensity in such writing demands our attention as socially responsible readers, as foot soldiers for social change. (Tusmith, 117)

My personal commitment to taking on the role of ally has focused the social justice orientation of my work. Dottie, and all my other students in very intentional ways, are the recipients of that renewed commitment on my part. I have realized that my action is fluid with regard to this “commitment” because subtle acts of systemic injustice are not readily obvious to me. As a member of the dominant, privileged, academic culture in this country, I cannot see what others can so readily feel. Violations of dignity can go unrecognized by me unless the dignity that is violated happens to be my own.

There’s a sliver of my ACOA inheritance that reinforces my positioning here as well. As a kid, I was protected from much of the drama that surrounded my life by learning not to feel it. I carry some of that obliviousness with me today. Not wanting to expose myself, one way of protecting feelings, has meant I’ve been cautious about entering debates. On the other hand, when I do enter a debate and participate fully, I am often asked how I felt about what another participant did. Didn’t I react personally to a statement, or look? Well, no, not really. Not only may I not have taken the statement personally, it may not even have registered as something derogatory!

Most of the time, though, my feeling intelligence is working pretty well and I think I’m getting better at registering affronts to my friends of color. This means as an ally, if I travel with my eyes really open, I have daily opportunity to engage situations of institutional racism, daily opportunities to decide what to do about it, daily invitations to act.

Action takes several forms. Action can be proactive, predetermined, planned. This kind of action would include my work with Dottie, and my other students. This is the stuff I control, I teach about, I frame for others. Action can be reactive. I find myself in a situation and I am unsure what to do. Action can also be learning-in-action. I find myself in a situation and I try to learn more about just how the racism inherent in that situation is playing itself out.

Once awake, we have all kinds of opportunities to expose trouble and do something about it. These examples from over the past year are everyday examples of what I’m trying to say here.

Learning-In-Action

My 19 year old daughter Kyla has of late begun to talk with us at the dinner table. It has not always been so and I love hearing her talk about her day. Us is myself, Ann, my wife, Amarido, Kyla’s good friend and the father of their daughter, Cianya, my granddaughter, who sits in her high chair directing most of the interaction among us at the ripe old age of two. On the skin color palate, Ann and I are white. Of the group, we are most easy to identify. Kyla is not quite white. Her biological Mom is white and her biological Dad appears kind of coffee colored in the one color photograph we have of him. Amarildo is ginger skinned reflecting his Cape Verdian heritage, and Cianya is kind of midway between her Mom and Dad. Light cream with a touch of café latte. Why do I go through this taxonomy of family’s skin color? Because tonight Kyla chooses to talk about a movie she had seen in class today. A movie that very much involved the color of skin, race, position, self-identity, and how racism in America “colors” our perceptions of each of these tags.

The Color Of Hate portrays a group of men sitting in a circle, pealing back the layers of pain and anger and suffering that most all of them feel as “people of color” in these United States. The film evidences racism’s effect in each of their lives, and by implication, our lives, the lives each person at my dinner table lives. Even the one white guy who questions the anger that others in the group feel and then use in their confrontation with him. He hasn’t a clue that his expression of incredulity is exactly what pisses his group members off. He does not know nor has he chosen to educate himself about the enormous energy it takes just to make it to the end of any particular day for most people of color in this country. I’m reminded of the T-Shirt that says on the front, “How was your day?” and on the back, “Fine. I made it through another day in racist America.” For the white guy, hey, he’s even hired some people of color and they’ve been his good friends. They weren’t angry?!

Kyla shares that the film wound down close to the end of class and to fill the short space of time remaining, the teacher asked what people thought about the film. She shares that still, with all that was portrayed in Lee Moon Hua’s stark, emotional portrayal, “you could tell from the questions that some people still just didn’t get it.” When I asked how she knew, she said one of her classmates, a young woman of color, had shared she didn’t feel comfortable on campus. She didn’t like not being recognized for who she was. “People are always asking me if I’m from Columbus, assuming I’m one of UVM’s affirmative action students.” After an uncomfortable pause, a young white woman responded that she didn’t even know what or where Columbus High School was. A few other comments. Time runs out. Class ends.

I’m sitting there listening. My mind is doing time travel down six different paths at once. How is Kyla feeling about this interaction? Why does she share this portion? Does she side with the young woman who offered her feelings to all to hear or with the white student? Does she side with anyone? Does she draw any parallels with conversations she had at Milton, her old high school. I remember car talk with her on long drives back to Vermont where she shared she kept her mouth shut as the only student of color in those discussion groups. The white kids didn’t know what they were talking about when they were talking about race relations at the that school. That’s what she told me then. When I asked her if she’d drawn the parallel, she’d forgotten our car talk. I’d never forgotten it. I remember almost its exact words. And at that moment, sensing a confusion I didn’t feel, Ann moves in to the dinner time talk to help me clarify what Kyla was talking about.

The Dad side of me thinks Kyla feels the disconnect in that classroom. She sees that many students see this film and draw their own conclusions about what’s going on, who has a right to their feelings, who doesn’t, and on and on. She has her own ideas about what drives the behavior in the video but that isn’t what she chooses to share. Perhaps she doesn’t want to share which she herself may not be sure about. As her Dad, I believe she isn’t sure about where she stands with some of what is portrayed. Hell, I’m forty years older and I’m not either. I’m not sure I ever will be sure about these questions of positioning and responsibility because this isn’t a wisdom that comes from age. This is a wisdom that comes from a conscious understanding of how racism works in America. And in America, because I am one of the privileged, this wisdom is not really mine. This is America, and like the white guy in the film, what I see and understand even with Kyla is shaped by my history of growing up as a white male guy who’s privilege and rural parochialism has masked societal dynamics that are painfully obvious to others.

The learning side of me simply observed how nice it would have been had that white student merely said, “Tell me more.” to the young woman who didn’t like being perceived as “an affirmative action student.” “Tell me more. Let me learn from you. I have no idea what you really meant when you said those words. Tell me. Help me understand! Being recognized as a category must have really felt awful!” But instead, the response was something like, “Well, that’s not me. I don’t even know that school.” End of conversation. White girl rejects everything the young woman who’s not from Columbus shared. Risk taken. Personal feelings exposed. Statement rejected. Episode done. No clue as to what was really communicated. Everyone, it seem to me, feels discounted. The white student is left wondering how it is the young woman could possibly have thought she’d have made the “affirmative action student” assumption. The young woman who was brave enough to share in the first place is left naked in the room with her feelings rubbed raw. And Kyla watches all and learns once again at this predominantly white institution that it’s dangerous to expose yourself in class by revealing your feelings and thoughts in conversations about race, racism, and the collective us. Especially if you aren’t sure just what your own identity is. Kyla learns once again it’s best to duck and keep your head down.

Bonnie Tusmith, an academic like me, writes how racism shaped her growth and development as an academic activist. Her essay is an interesting juxtaposition to my own activist becoming. She begins her essay with a story about a decision she consciously made – one of my “reactive” decisions – to reciprocate a Black colleague’s racial challenge in mirrored fashion. She models cultural sensitivity and cultural strength to younger versions of herself seated at her table. She ends observing that racism will end only when all citizens take on the responsibility of dealing with a trouble that belongs to all of us. Love, she suggests, is the capacity and desire to listen to, to try to understand, and each other’s stories. It is only through the telling of the stories that we can be of honest, authentic help to each other.

Her essay enlightens me. I share her narrative. Through it, I glimpse her world, a world I was ignorant of until I read her words. Her anger helps me “see” her frustration at the invisibility she feels as she stands before the Black/White debate that too often defines “racism” dialogue in this country. I understand better what the negation of her daily experience with racist acts must feel like to her. I understand her decision to stand up and become a visible brown skinned foot soldier for social change. She makes sure I know that racism goes way beyond the Black/White debating society that so often owns and defines racism discourse. I recall my own journey to move beyond envisioning racism in more simplistic, categorical black/white terms.

I am relieved at the validation I feel from Tusmith’s. I need reassurance. How do I know what’s going on in Kyla’s brain? How do I know how she’s interpreted the racist attitudes and prejudices that lay just beneath classroom discourse? With all these thoughts going on in my brain, accompanied by my own considerable measure of self doubt concerning the “correctness” of my reflection on my daughter’s story, it is almost as if Tusmith has heard me! Being heard in this shared cross color narrative is what helps anyone feel more validated in someone else’s heart, even if the other person in revealed only in words. Tusmith’s words help me feel real in the same way the Skin Horse expresses his sense of reality to the Velveteen Rabbit:

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.

Tusmith equates story telling, love, and deep listening, the kind of listening where you hear inner emotion as well as the external narrative. Her words move me and reaffirm that my story as well is important in our ongoing dialogue to deal with our “trouble.”

This quiet observation defines love among humans as telling and listening to one another’s stories, thus affirming the value of life. The caveat is that someone has to be listening. 126

When I first began Tusmith’s essay, I assumed that once again, I was going to experience criticism as a white person from which there would be no escape. Understanding, yes. Guilt from accusation, no. I got a surprised. More than anything, I want desperately to put my words in Kyla’s mouth and get that class conversation going in a different way. I want the young woman, left exposed, to feel my power of healing. I’d like my young white sister to realize how much she has to learn by digging deeper, wanting to know more about the other person rather than listening only to protect herself and render judgment. But none of this is within my power; not with Kyla, and not with the two young women.

What is within my power is to listen better, and to test the utter vulnerability of this new kind of love with those around me. My students. My friends. My acquaintances. This disposition to listen and to question and to understand, especially in matters of race with people across the color spectrum, isn’t about being right. It’s about needing to understand what life is like for someone other than yourself. I will learn as I listen, and just maybe that’s what this foot soldier business is all about.

Reactive

I am a member of our University’s President’s Commission on Racial Diversity. As such, I’m privy to email that circulates occasionally with stories of racial conflict at UVM. This note came through the electronic airwaves last Thursday: “Please share the attached letter with anybody who tells you that racism is not ‘that bad’ in Vermont.”. Marie-Claire, a colleague and an affirmative action officer at UVM, had asked her colleague Ricardo, a faculty member of my department and the long time director of UVM’s Trio programs, to do the sharing.

The letter is a formal complaint Marie-Claire had filed with the manager of our local Michaels, a national chain of craft stores. In the letter, Marie-Claire lays of the details of an incident that happened to her and her three-year-old daughter while they shopped at Michaels. Michaels is the kind of store that has that friendly cluttered look. It is filled with rows and rows and shelves and shelves of items, some tiny, some not so tiny, some individually positioned on shelves, many poured into bins. It isn’t a store where finding just what you want is easy. But the store has a personal, friendly feel to it. Craft work is that way. It’s personal, and it has its own unique human charm. Their inventory of plastic flowers, scrapbook paper, pens and crayons, molds and holiday decorations must run into the several thousands. So it was natural that Marie-Claire was having a bit of trouble finding just what she wanted. I’ll let her letter tell what happened.

“I came out of one of the aisle of the Kids’ Crafts section to find two white female employees engaged in a lively conversation with a customer. I approached them and said ‘Excuse-me, would one of you help… ?’ I did not have time to finish my sentence because they both walked away from me. I stood there frozen, in shock and unable to believe what had just happened.”

The incident left her shaken. Carol, another employee had seen the incident unfold and took Marie-Claire to the store manager. In a subsequent letter to the store manager, Marie-Claire recounts the experience:

“I told you what had just happened and shared my conviction that your employees walked away and refused to assist me because I am black. I told you how deeply hurt I was by the behavior of your employees: I was teary and shaken just by recounting the incident. I also told you how great Carol had been and that she should not have to apologize for somebody else’s unjust and racist behavior. I am proud to say that I never raised my voice while talking to you, despite the deep and searing anger that was coursing through me; anger at those two employees who for no other reason than the color of my skin judged me unworthy of their time, anger at all the white people who are trying to convince me that racism in Vermont is not as bad as minority people make it sound.”

My feelings are jumbled. Upon first reading, I’m not sure whether the note has come from Ricardo or from Marie-Claire. My first reaction? Denial. I want to focus my attention at the electronic distribution path. I think I intuited that something awful was to follow and I really didn’t want it to disturb my calm and productive Thursday afternoon. At the same time, I’m feeling grateful that the other employee, Carol, had been there for Marie-Claire and her daughter and had taken direct action in the incident. At least, I told myself, Marie-Claire experienced immediate interposition by an advocate and had a place to go in the chain-of-command to lodge her complaint and follow-up demands. That felt good to me and as a white person in this mostly white state, somewhat smugly I noted overall progress to myself on these racial issues. Second reaction? Justification. Vermont has more Carols today than ever before and to me that is a sign of progress, especially for a state where I’d venture to say the majority of people don’t think we have racial problems of any particular magnitude or who might excuse such an incident by reasoning, “what do ‘they’ expect when they come to a place like this?”

And then Marie-Claire’s forwarding sentence re-emerged in my consciousness.

“Please share the attached letter with anybody who tells you that racism is not ‘that bad’ in Vermont.”

What did that phrase mean to me? I assumed I’d received the forwarding because I am on the Commission. The e-mail was distributed to the Commission list. Beyond that obvious fact, however, is the intimation that I am an “anybody” “who tells you that racism in not ‘that bad’ in Vermont”. Was she assuming that I was inactive in my daily lefforts to witness and bring to light potentially racist behaviors? Was she thinking I especially needed the prod? Third reaction? Autonomy.

What was my responsibility now that I, Charlie, had her forwarded information? The “cool,” anonymous medium of email had become hot and personal for me. There I was, in my doubly conscious world, wondering what she and Ricardo would be thinking of me and whatever response, if any, I chose to mount as a result of receiving this letter. I was unable to think clearly about how to respond without simultaneously processing how my response would be received by my friends of color. On the other hand, in-your-face racial intimidation was not unknown to me.

When Ann an I were younger, twenty-one years younger as a matter of fact, we’d taken our precious, newly adopted, one year old son to Burlington’s City Hall Park for an early morning bagel. The day was what we Vermonters like to call a “Vermont Life Kind Of Day.” The air was clear, the sky intensely blue, the breeze fresh and ever so cool on our skin, the early summer birds cacophonous in their morning invitations to mate. There we were, sitting on a blanket with Justin, munching our cream cheese and garlic bagels.

I saw him coming from the corner of my eye, a vision of dirty blue denim, shuffling towards us in a zigzag kind of motion. A greasy engineers cap sat awry, high on his forehead. His face was etched and craggy, filled with premature lines of aging, of a difficult life lived . He came close, stopped directly in front of us, and began. What came out of his mouth was racial invective I’d only experienced once in my life, on my one foray into the South, twenty years earlier, to march the last day of the 1965 Selma to Birmingham voting rights march. It took a moment grasp what was happening. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I looked up to make eye contact but it was tough to make out the details of his presence because his features were silhouetted against the intensity of the blue morning sky.

But make no doubt about it. The Nword and stream of epithets directed at us let us know that he didn’t like the fact that these two white people had a child of color as one of their own. What was interesting to me, and I remember I had the thought clearly even in the midst his diatribe, is that his remarks were directed in large measure at Ann. His twisted reasoning was that she had whored herself and produced this mutant offspring and I somehow had ended up with her as partner in this unholy trio.

Once I’d figured out that this crazy man was unarmed, I began to move from my seated position of total submissiveness to take my stand. I can remember wanting to attack forcefully and take the guy down at the knees with all the power I could muster, a power honed by eight years of high school and college football. I knew I could hurt the bastard good. At the same time was the opposite overwhelmingly protective desire to shield Justin from the awfulness of the moment. He, innocent that he was, looked back and forth from the man to his Mom and Dad, saying, “Nice man, mommy, nice man.” I decided against physical confrontation because that would make an even bigger impression with my young son than this guy’s words. I reasoned to form a seal between the man and my family, grab his arm, and move him on his way. As I rose, I saw our protagonist was not alone. He was accompanied, another man who decided to act at the same moment I’d settled upon my course of action. He called to our tormentor to get away from us. He did. Whether it was that he’d had his moment, whether it was the call to disengage, whether he’d sensed my own growing outrage, whatever it was that made him move I’ll never know. The apparition shuffled off towards his buddy muttering he’d like to put “all of us in his car crusher in Milton .”

Ann was so upset she almost threw up in the midst of her tears. I looked anywhere for a cop. And Justin started asking what was the matter? This was our first family experience of overt racism in Vermont. We did nothing with it except to internalize the emotions that came from the sudden attack. That was enough. From that moment on, my psyche had changed. I knew beyond comprehension, that I was now a target, that Justin was a target, that Ann was a target, and that at any moment we were vulnerable to other random attacks. The emotions of that moment still play through my mind when a racial event seems near.

What’s interesting to me is to compare this moment with one that had happened ten years earlier. My first wife and I had been out for a Sunday drive, a drive with our two young children (Justin’s older stepbrother and stepsister). These two were two and three years old and were car seated in the back seat of our van. We were exploring the Vermont countryside and had just come upon a T in the road. Not knowing quite where we were, I’d stopped, started forward, and stopped again. My indecision was troublesome to the large, obese woman driving the old rusty Pontiac. She, too, was trying to negotiate the stop signs and my indecision bothered her. She leaned out the driver’s window, pointed at me, and shouted, “Why don’t you get the hell out of here and go back where you belong. We don’t want your kind around here.” I even think I remember a rifle barrel in the car, cradled by what I imagined to be her son, riding shotgun next to her. She evidently had seen the New York State plates on this VW van and had drawn her conclusions about who we were. I remember being surprised then but not shaken, certainly not as shaken as I was by the City Hall Park confrontation. I’d laughed the incident off, dismissing her and her kind, with all the certainty and confidence that was mine by position: my white, male, middle class, professional and privileged, position.

These two memories flooded my thinking as I pondered my reaction to receiving Marie-Claire’s email and my thought about what response I would make, if any, to her comment, “Please share the attached letter with anybody who tells you that racism is not ‘that bad’ in Vermont.”

What I understand about being an ally to my brothers and sisters of color is that I can’t make life feel any better for them. All I can do is to name trouble when I see it, even if I’m unsure whether or not I’m one of the troublemakers. So I have taken as my course of action to witness (when I choose) incidents that I think reveal racial prejudice, incidents that are demeaning (again from my point of view) to the descendents of the African Diaspora. The choice is mine. I can be asleep or awake. I can see it or not. I have the choice to respond or not. The good news for me, I suppose, is that I’m committed to doing something and that I do act. The bad news for me of course, is that I’m not running around asking for a litmus test from a person of color before I act. I act only on my own judgment and pray that I get it right.

I decide to take action, one, because Marie-Claire is a colleague; two, because the incident itself was terribly troubling to me, especially because the more I thought about it, the more my own personal memories began to engage my anger; and three, because I felt responsibility in what happened to her. My sense of responsibility is indirect. It is a responsibility that occurs through acknowledging the interlocking web of shared responsibility that institutionalized racism presents to all of us. I now know that Whites have to act, especially when requested. This letter was a direct, electronically face-to-face request for action.

I had a range of options. I could go to Michaels’ myself and congratulate Carol. I could go to Michaels and confront the two women who had denigrated Marie-Claire. I could go to Michaels and talk with the two women who had denigrated Marie-Claire and try to work with them to show them the error of their ways. (Maybe there really was another explanation? Maybe they weren’t being overtly racist?) I could write my own letter to the President of Michaels and support/demand/whatever Marie-Claire’s request for written corporate antidiscrimination policy. I could support Sue while simultaneously letting her know I was holding her feet to the fire as well. I could stand out in front of Michaels with a “Michaels Supports Corporate Racism” sign every Saturday for a month. There were lots of possible actions. Was there a right one?

I think the point is not which action is right or wrong or how best might I move Michaels? I think the point is to do something. Act. Period. So I wrote Marie-Claire. I haven’t the slightest idea whether it was the right thing to do or not. But it was a right thing to do. Only time will give me some indication of that. But I’m getting more comfortable with the idea that what I do ought not to be measured by the fact of how many other people agree that it is the right thing to do. What I choose to do I choose because of what I think and feel. I have learned the only behavior I can control is my own. Just (pardon the replication of a much more well know corporate invocation) do it!

It wasn’t a long letter. In it I shared my anger, I expressed my support. I acknowledged my connectedness to our nation’s history of institutionalized racism. I told her a bit of the City Hall Park story, and I apologized to her, her husband, and her daughter “on behalf of the ignorance that breeds this intolerable behavior .”

And yet, the desire to know was this an okay thing to do, still lingers for me. I’ve not heard one way or another. I remain unsure whether my words were comforting, supportive, or revealing of another kind of ignorance to which I am blind. Being a conscious ally is tough work to do alone, especially if I want to be right. If I just want to be out there doing something, anything, then it’s not so tough. It just takes a willingness to be wrong and for a guy with my history, that’s not a problem.

There Are No Shortcuts

I’d written at the outset to this chapter that I have daily opportunities to engage in situations of institutional racism, daily opportunities to decide what to do about it, daily invitations to act. In no way do I wish to leave the impression that because I am aware of the opportunities, and because as a teacher I can plan a process of instruction mindful of issues of social justice, that I get it right. If you accept a model of teaching that attempts to draw knowledge from the students in order to provide more authentic and inclusive classroom discourse, then the instructional environment gets messy. Dialogue has to be structured in a way the accounts for participation. To do this well takes pedagogical knowledge, planning, and classroom time. Going for deep learning is not an efficient form of instruction. Effective, yes. Efficient, no.

Groupwork is one way to advance classroom discourse that is more inclusive and inviting of all students, when done correctly. Although groupwork has potential for learning, talking and working together with peers is the source of a whole series of problems. Neither children nor adults necessarily know how to work successfully in the group setting. American culture, in particular, provides very few opportunities to learn group skills (Cohen, 3).

I use groupwork a good deal in my teaching. I spend time trying to get it right. And sometimes, I assume the class has “got it” and I can take short cuts with my method. Inevitably, when I do that, someone gets hurt. Unless I actively try to control participation, a rich-get-richer and poor-get-poorer form of social darwinism takes over. I can see it happening.

It was the end of class. Time was over and students were moving out of the room. Our room is an up to date technologically capable lecture room. Tiered, all eyes front. Comfortable chairs. Attached but moveable, left and right and front to back, even a bit of leaning capacity to them.

My time was occupied by a student across the desk from me. We were talking about a late assignment or something that had occurred in class. I don’t quite remember. There’s usually a crush of students after class who want to share something or ask a question and quite honestly, when its over I can’t quite attach what was discussed with who offered the brief conversation. She came in from the side and waited there expectantly in the kind of pose that not only says I’m next but also when are you going to finish up with the one you are talking to now? I could feel her energy. It was heavy, focused, and charged.

I finished. There was a slight pause as she moved obliquely to face me.

“Groupwork!!?” She said. I can’t get words to describe the tone. It was not quite disparaging. Not quite disdainful. But enough of both of those terms so I knew things hadn’t gone well.

I’d put two of our smaller work groups together that day. Two work groups that hadn’t worked together before. Each of the pairs had worked on the same set of questions during my previous class. All I wanted them to do was to share together the main points they’d derived from the previous discussion, decide on the three or four main points they wanted to report to the larger group, and do it.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Do I detect that something didn’t go well?”

She looked at me and not quite spitting out her words noted that no one in her group had offered anything to the assigned discussion. They weren’t prepared, they didn’t offer information. No one took on an organizing function to get the task done. Taking on the responsibility to make sure they were prepared to answer, I’d imagined she’d pushed the group to comply with my request.

“They were ‘Whatever,’” she said with a frustrated edge and a toss of her head, eyes flipped upward in an accurately mocking mime of the behavior that had angered her.

“I finally did it myself. Here are our answers.”

“The discussion didn’t go well?” I said, reflecting the obvious.

“They just didn’t care. It’s was all just ‘Whatever.’ ”

I immediately flashed a little anger, and a lot of frustration myself. This particular young woman had announced to me within our first two classes that she didn’t like groupwork. It didn’t work for her. When ever she’d done it in the past, she’d ended up doing most of the work.

Her experience was that of the Social Darwinist. The strong took over, the weak kept quiet. The work got done. She resented always being put in the position (or conversely, having to take on the position) of doing lazy people’s work or the work of people who “whatevered” their way out of it. So I’m thinking what we had going in this present situation was the self-fulfilling prophecy doing its very predictable thing, once again.

But there’s another thing that I think was going on with this group as well. This particular student is a bit older than the rest of the students in this class. She also is from a different program. She is a more mature person in terms of University experience. Though she looks like most everyone else in this largely white, dominant culture class, her life experience has been very different, and my observation is that because of this, she communicates in a way that is very honest and direct and even brusque. Others who have grown up in more refined households might look at her communication as opinionated and negatively critical, in tone if not in content. So I can imagine one other dynamic operating in this group is a kind of insider outsider/passive resistance thing going on.

Others in this group may have been caught short by my request, even though it was written out and everyone had an agenda with the task written upon it. Cryptically, no doubt, but written out nevertheless. It was 8am and I’d asked them to be into this reconfigured interaction early in our seventy-five minutes together. For some of them, sleep deprived, and probably wishing they could be somewhere else, my task was pushing the limits of expectation . Grudgingly, they would have been more willing to sit passively through a lecture. But I was requiring them to talk and work together, to think, analyze, and synthesize information from the previous class that to many of them must have felt like months ago. Not only were they facing this requirement, in addition I was asking them to do this with a group member who was actually serious about the task, who pushed them, and who probably pushed them in ways that from their perspective were sharp, denigrating, and offensive.

And finally, there’s at least one more structure operating in this scenario. We are in a room that is set up for lecture, not group interaction. So these eight people are seated in chairs that are bolted to tables that are bolted to the concrete floor, all facing forwards. Half of them, one whole group, the group of passive resistors, had to sit in these forward facing chairs and if they wanted to look at their group partners, turn around in seats that didn’t turn around very well. So there they are, draped over wood that cuts into their fronts or backs or sides or backsides, probably knowing they should be facing each other, feeling uncomfortable for reasons of physical orientation as well. When a peer who really isn’t a peer starts to push you in this kind of situation, it was easier for you not to comply, to look away, disengage, and move into “whatever” mode. After all, they’d learned from years of school based training that passively resisting in this way meant a self appointed leader would represent them well enough in front of their peers.

So here we are. Most of the group feels uncomfortable for these reasons: its ungodly early in the morning (hasn’t the teacher read the research on adolescent learning?), the task is unclear, the terms are still vague and uncertain to me (cause I really haven’t engaged this content yet), the seating sucks, and this stranger is making me feel put upon because actually, her message is what I really know to be the case – if you were going to ask for honesty here. This is a group task and I’m supposed to be helping out here even though I don’t really know or care about what’s being asked (its just too early!), and I don’t really know how safe this new group is –(who are these other people?). What I really know is that if I just don’t make eye contact, chat about the Red Sox riot to the one or two people I do know and not do the work. The stranger person pushing us will do the work and get it done. She’ll even report the results of our discussion when we share with the whole class because she is concerned about looking unprepared and ignorant. I can hide and I’m safe in my hiding. Let her do the work if she cares so much. I’ve got the power to not participate. The only power she has is her own. She has no status whatsoever in my eyes! What difference does it all make, anyway? Whatever!

Easily, I could say the group was awful. These irresponsible college kids were just too damn cool to get involved. Here I’d put together a great morning for them. We’d had at least three different activities going on, purposefully designed to get them moving and thinking and talking. I’d had the music on when they came in so they had an invitation to get out of their eight o’clock numbness through some pretty cool sounds (my assessment of course) and we were digging into social development content that was really interesting. So of course, I could say that what happened was their fault. Just another example of students going through the motion of their education. They knew better. This wasn’t the first time we’d done group work. They knew about roles and rules and working together and reporting out. All they had to do was transfer those behaviors to this new task, with these new people; take a little responsibility to engage the content, the discussion, and the reporting to the large group. Instead, I was left feeling I had to hold their hands one more time.

Sound familiar? Probably. It was sure familiar to me. I felt anger that morning. I was angry at the group for being so disengaged. This was an 8am class and typically, I rise at 515 am on these 8am teaching days to make sure I’m ready to go. I expect the same from my students. I was angry at this young woman because I’m sure she said things in a way that put off her group and by this time in her life, she should know better. And I was angry at myself for not doing the last final bit of preparation that would have avoided this situation all together. Sure, most of the class had worked out well. But I wanted it all. I hate it when the normal processes of disengagement take over and get sanctioned by the very fact that they happen in my room. I don’t like it. I won’t have it.

Improperly done groupwork occurs just as much in higher education as it does in the public and private schools. Sure, students could have done what I’d hoped, and in fact, many in this class did. But this one young woman, standing before me, was a spokeswoman for all that can go wrong and often does when university faculty strive to innovate their by using small discussion groups to get their students actively engaged with their content. And when it does go wrong, we faculty are quick to name the crash a learning problem. We are quick to place the blame on the student. Their failure to thrive in groupwork is their fault.

Well, it’s not. This was a teaching error. It was a teaching error that had consequences for this student just like the improperly handled discussion about The Color of Hate was a teaching error for the students in that classroom. In this case, the young woman was white and of a different social class than her more advantaged peers. This example serves to point out that the social processes that define our society outside of school define the society inside of school unless we are diligent and unrelenting in our efforts to alter their negative consequences.

Ending

Assumptions about race, class, and gender permeate relationships in American society. If we are teachers, knowledge of our own social positioning and the effects of that positioning on our professional offers us the opportunity to be more inclusive and equitable in our teaching. Seeing is the first step. Knowing your story and how you got to where you are today is another step. Knowing the stories of “the others” is equally as important. Knowing the consequences of social positioning on what you see and do is what this book is about. I go to sleep every night a little bit smarter about my vocation. I hope my actions show this. My life at this point is not living out a teacher’s that’s been set through years of experience. Am I effective as a teacher? Perhaps. The real answer for me at this point of my career is seeing every day as a bunch of small steps on a journey that in this society, will not end soon. I invite my students to walk with me and to teach me as I teach them. I offer to you the same invitation.

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."

Leave a Reply