Teaching is Self-Reflective.

About three weeks ago, I began teaching my first class for prisoners at a local state prison. The course is on structural violence; mapping out the social and cultural mechanisms through which power and privilege move in our world, and through which violent inequalities are (re)produced. On our first day, I used racism as an example to introduce some of the introductory concepts. We spent a lot of time talking about unconscious racism; the way that racialized ideologies become so culturally ingrained that people instinctively respond differently to others based purely on the color of their skin, without even knowing or realizing it. Me included. I come from a multi-cultural, multi-racial family; shouldn’t I be immune to a culture of racism? I don’t believe anyone in Americana is. For example, when my aunt tries to return something at a store, she is usually confronted with many questions, and is often unable to complete her return; she is black. My uncle, her husband, can take the exact same item to the exact same person at the exact same store, and is usually able to return the item right away without question; he is white. This person who treated my black aunt differently than my white uncle likely does not recognize this racialized response; it is not rationalized racism, but rather an unconscious form of cultural violence.

During our second week of class, the theme of unconscious racism came up again. One of the students said he respected me for being so direct, open, and honest, and would therefore be the same way with me. He reflected on the previous week, our first meeting. Our class is about half white, half brown. During our first day, he noticed that I spent about 80% of the time looking at the white students and only about 20% of the time looking at the brown students. All but one brown student had also noticed this, and about half of the white students agreed. If someone was to ask me how evenly I distributed my attention among the students, I would have genuinely believed that I shared it equitably; I never would have imagined that my attention, the sign that I deeply care and am interested in my students, was inequitably distributed along racial lines. Some of the men said they left the first class feeling angry, until they realized they do the same thing. When they go to the chow hall, the yard, anywhere, they look for “their people.” We go where we are comfortable. In Americana, that tends to be with our racial group, especially in institutionalized settings.

My inequitable and racialized distribution of attention among these men was completely unconscious. How do I know that I will not do the same in a classroom of young learners? Would a young brown child notice if I am spending more time engaging with their white peers? Would they feel de-valued, less worthy of my attention and care? Would they have the courage and power to say something, like my student at the prison? I do not want this to happen. Therefore, I must engage in a never-ending process of self-analysis, self-critique, and self-reflection. I must always challenge my expectations, question my practice, and remain open to critical (and uncomfortable and upsetting) evaluation. Only then can I ensure that my practice and pedagogy reflect my passion for equitable education, an ethos of caring, and social justice.

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One thought on “Teaching is Self-Reflective.

  1. ponderinged says:

    I find your comments and experiences during this educational journeyat a prison fascinating. Both your courage and insight are respectable. As you note in this passage, being able to address and be aware of our own short comings is an essential piece in treating all individuals better.

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