White Places and Diverse Spaces

Note:  This is a post about Whiteness.  It will occasionally make reference to specific white people.  However, Whiteness ≠ “specific white people”.  To learn more about this difference, start here.

I’m standing in front of two of the oldest buildings on campus.  They date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, their grand Roman/Gothic architecture solidifying their presence as institutions of serious, disciplined, higher learning.  Inside, as is typical of buildings like these, the walls are lined with portraits of former Heads and Chairs.  All of them were old, all of them were white, and almost all of them were male.

A (white, female) colleague has kindly invited me here for lunch to help me get acquainted with this place, as I’ll be teaching here next term. We enter the “younger” of the two buildings, and I find myself in a small lounge area that is laid out with tea, coffee and cookies, expressly for retired professors.  A doorway from this lounge leads into the main dining room for current faculty and students.  This room is, essentially, a smaller version of the Great Hall at Hogwarts, where the faculty eat on a dais up at the front, while the students eat below them.  The only difference is that the food doesn’t magically appear on the plates (house elves not being common around these parts). I immediately register the power differential such an arrangement indicates, and take it as yet another sign that I have entered a world steeped in Whiteness and privilege.

My colleague and I are joined by her husband and three international students from China.  Her husband informs me that he and his wife usually eat at the professors’ table (which I was also welcome to do) but, “sometimes we like to come down and eat with the students”.  (I can practically hear Just Mom’s voice in my head saying, as she has many times while I was growing up, “That’s mighty White of you!”)

The conversation during lunch is perfectly pleasant.  We discuss the Chinese students, my colleague marvelling at how well they speak English.  We talk about the equity studies course I’ll be teaching, and about how well (or not) previous instructors have handled students’ resistance to discussions of power and privilege.  We talk about my colleague’s research and teaching in China, and her amazement that they don’t even have conversations about equity because they don’t believe it’s necessary.

After lunch, I wait for my colleague in the retired professors’ lounge.  There are about six professors sitting on the armchairs and sofas arranged in front of the (unlit) fireplace, all of them living embodiments of the portraits on the walls:  old, white, male.  I tune into their conversation right around the time one of them is talking about the word “willy-nilly”, and about how he feels that it doesn’t get enough use in the everday:

Old White Prof. #1 (paraphrased):  “So, I try to insert the word ‘willy-nilly’ whenever I can.  You know, like in a translation of Erasmus.”

Old White Profs. #2 – 6: *har har har, chortle, chortle, chortle, hee, hee, hee*

I can only shake my head, both disconcerted and amused by the complete, unapologetic, Whiteness of the academy.

I was disconcerted because I had become acutely aware of how easily I had adapted myself to conform to the Whiteness of my environment – the way I spoke, my tone of voice, my body language – especially during lunch.  I’d become a chameleon of sorts and, quite frankly, it scared me a little.  I guess it had been a while since I’d been in a place as White as this one, where I had to code-switch so intensely.  And, even though I know how valuable a skill code-switching is for a person of colour in the academy, on that day, I was strongly reminded that having this skill comes at a great price.  (Sara Ahmed writes powerfully about this here.)

On the other hand, I was amused because I also knew, with absolute certainty, that I didn’t have to consign myself to the academy’s Whiteness if I didn’t want to.  Maybe this is because I’d never really planned to be a professor (though I’d always planned to get my Ph.D.).  Or maybe it’s because my socialization into the academy as a graduate student was somewhat atypical, having studied in a space that still ripples with its radical-sixties-anti-establishment ethos. 😉 Maybe it’s because I’m in Education, a “hybrid” field that is both applied and theoretical; therefore, I was regularly in the company of people who had entered academia with goals other than a faculty position in mind. Or maybe, finally, it’s because, seven years post-Ph.D., I’ve already had a successful career, in my field but outside (traditional) academia.  Whatever the reason, becoming a faculty member has only been one of many possible career options for me.

So, what does all this mean for my teaching of equity studies next term?

I once attended a conference at which Linda Tuhiwai Smith was the keynote speaker.  One thing she said has always stuck with me:  “Diverse students change the space they’re in.”  She meant this both figuratively and literally: non-normative identities cause a reaction in normative spaces (even if only subtly), just by virtue of their existence.   Lately, I’ve been thinking that Smith’s maxim applies to teachers, as well.  I have been told by more than one person that the “conservative” students who take the equity studies course can be quite disruptive and difficult.  I’ve been thinking a lot about how I will handle this if it happens in my class, not least because my presence as a woman of colour changes the space of the classroom in ways my students may not like.  In addition, as I commented on Tricia’s latest post on “teaching while Black”, this will be the first time I have taught an equity-based course that is required for students to take.  I will not have the luxury of “preaching to the choir”, so to speak.  In her post, Tricia points out how important it is for faculty – especially faculty of colour – to have collegial and institutional support when they are teaching courses that raise issues of systemic privilege and marginalization, especially when faced with resistance (and even rage) from privileged students. The Whiteness of the academy, however, often means that that support is not there.

I don’t know that this will necessarily be the case for me.*  What I do know is that I am going to treat my teaching experience as a bit of a test case for thinking about whether, and where, I apply for tenure-track positions:  how my colleagues, and the institution itself, respond to resistance from privileged students will tell me a lot about the kinds of support I will expect from a university where I might be tenured.  It will also tell me a lot about what my limits are, in terms of the compromises I will make in order to get tenure.  Whatever my “findings”, I’ve realized how powerful it is to be in a position where I can conduct this kind of experiment and, therefore, how grateful I am to be here so (relatively) early in my career.


* I certainly plan to find out, though.

8 comments on “White Places and Diverse Spaces

  1. I’m fascinated by this post. Why not just be yourself, let the students (even the ones not in choir) be themselves and let the chips fall where they may? You’ll know soon enough, then, whether the university wants you, whether you want it – and perhaps also learn how great or small your desire is for tenure.

    • Thanks for your comment! I am planning just to “wait and see” what happens next term; I know I can’t predict or control who my students will be. I guess what’s different about teaching this time is that I’ll have to pay attention to the politics of the instituion in ways I haven’t before, because I’ve always had the privilege of teaching equity courses where the students were already on board with the subject matter. That’s one of the benefits of not being on the tenure-track: I only teach what, and when, I want to. 🙂

  2. I think it’s great that you are thinking through this so carefully! I’ve noticed a huge difference in how students approach required courses, regardless of the subject matter. The advice to “just be yourself” is great in theory, but I’m glad you understand just how tricky that can be, especially in the classroom, especially when you’re teaching a subject that requires so much of students. Looking forward to reading more about your experience.

  3. […] I still want to apply for faculty positions?  (I’m still ambivalent about that, btw, as my previous post can attest.)  If so, I need to ramp up my teaching and my […]

  4. […] I don’t like (writing and teaching under pressure; dealing with departmental b.s, and the pervasive Whiteness of higher education; having to live in a town where I’m not happy or comfortable just because that’s where I […]

  5. […] I’ve written here before, my socialization into the academy seems to have been quite different from other grad […]

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