February 09, 2006

Teachable moments

We were reading bell hooks’ memoir Bone Black. One student, an eighteen-year-old woman from a small town, did not like the book. It made her uncomfortable. The ideas and the style were very different from the books she had read in high school, the books she had been taught were the standard for what good literature was.

"I don't think it's written very well," she said. "The only reason she ever got published is because she was poor and black."

Ah, yes. She’s got a good grasp on the publishing industry. It's just so much easier to get a book published if you are poor and black.

I grew up in a conservative small town, and I know where this attitude comes from. A young person will toss a statement into a conversation without even thinking: "It's hard for a white man to get a job nowadays because of affirmative action." Someone else will nod in agreement. "When there is a job opening, it is sure to go to a black person."

"This happened where you live? All the jobs went to black people?"
"Well, all the good jobs."
"Where do you live?"
"Small Town in Middle of Nowhere."
"How many African-American kids were in your graduating class?"
"Um .... none."
"Are there any African-American families in your community?"
"Uh .... no."
"If there are no African-American people in your community, how is it possible that they are taking all the jobs?"
"Uh ...."


apstraight said...

Oh... It hurts because I so well remember being that person, not yet ready to look honestly at the mistruths I had so readily accepted (and there were some doozies).

Thank God (I mean this in every sense of the phrase) for professors who cared enough to challenge my assumptions and were willing to engage me in the untruths in order to help me see and learn...

Your students are blessed..

peripateticpolarbear said...

oh my. and of course the next question is how many black people are in that class? (and what did they think about her comment?)

You're a good teacher, but of course we already knew that.

Bardiac said...

Good job.

Interesting student response, though. Usually my students find hooks very approachable, despite the fact that most of my students are white. Unfortunately, that approachability sometimes means they don't read as carefully.

Stroll said...

Nice post, I know those attitudes well, especially the idea that being black gives you a societal "sympathy" advantage in our modern times.

bell hooks is one of the authors I read in college that has stuck with me through the years that I still think about often. Her ideas about "anhedonia" in particular explained so much to me about myself (a white man) and others.

ccw said...

I've heard this before and have always wondered how that attitude sticks when there are usually only a few, if any, African American families within the small conservative communities.

I hope that your students took away the important lesson of what you were saying.

jo(e) said...

PPB: That particularly class, like many on our campus, was entirely white. And I suspect the student would have said something different if there was even one student of color in the classroom. White students in an all-white classroom feel entitled to say all kinds of things. At least it gets the ideas out into the open so we can discuss them and look at them critically.

jo(e) said...

Bardiac: My students usually do a terrific job by the time they have to write a paper on bell hooks. I think Bone Black works really well with first year students.

Some of the students do come to college with the attitude that "good literature" consists of books written by white men, and I do find some initial resistance because the memoir is unconventional. It takes some prodding to get them to see the themes woven into the book. What is nice is that I also have students who just absolutely love the book and say so enthusiastically ....

Lisa V said...

Around the time Bert and I were married Jesse Jackson was still viable in many minds as a presidential candidate. At our wedding reception there were members from both sides of our family having a conversation about this. "Well he might be a good president, but you know there is no way they (the blacks) will treat us (the whites) as good as we have treated them." Everyone nodded in agreement. Bert and I were both stunned. We both walked away saying "Yea, we treated them so well." Our only consolation was that it was at least members from both sides of our family so we had to share the load of shame together. They were all from the same all white small town.

Cleis said...

Reading this, I feel a twinge of nostalgia for being in the classroom and being able to challenge uninformed attitudes like this student's. I found it rewarding, to be a white woman challenging racism in this very concrete way and having a demonstrable effect on people's prejudices. I was (am) good at it. It was such an effective way to be an ally to my students of color, too.

Queen of West Procrastination said...

Bravo, jo(e). I cheered when I read your response.

What I don't understand is anyone can look at her all-white small town and think that the (non-existent) blacks are getting "all the good jobs." How does that work?

Yankee T said...

Thank you for correcting people. I once had another adoptive parent tell me that she knew I adopted African American girls because "they would get a free college education." Um, yeah, sure...everybody knows that all black women in the US go to college for free, right???


Sam Chevre said...

Great response, Jo(e)--but I have a somewhat different perspective, largely as an answer to #10.

In most small towns (at least in the mountain South--my home--and I suspect the same is true in the North) there are fewer "good jobs" than there were 30 years ago (defining good as "stable enough and well-paid enough to buy a house"). People looking for good jobs, overwhelmingly, have to go to cities, which have more different ethnicities--and people of other ethnicities have some of those good jobs. So it is easy for people to think that the reason there aren't good jobs for them, where there were before, is that "those people" (with those being whatever "other" group you wish) have taken them.

Yes, there are lots and lots of fallacies in this reasoning, but it is fairly easy to wander into.

RageyOne said...

Excellent response Jo(e)!

We have to try and dispell the wrongs that people have one person at a time.

EmmaNadine said...

I had a student in class today say that poor people are that way because "they choose to be mediocre."

Lovely attitude there, Skippy.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of an autobiographical paper I had students at my last university write... I had many comments like this but the one that really stuck out was in this truly terrible paper when finally the author asserted that she *knew* she would have got into Harvard had she been a person of color.
Ah yes, Harvard, the Howard of Massachusetts.
It terrifies me and I'm glad to see my arguments back are similar to your's. I wondered whether they were effective, and I'm glad to see they could be.

Sarah Sometimes said...

I always enjoy reading about your teaching--and reading people's responses. This is not so directly related to your story, but... I admitted to another adjunct the other day that I felt hesitant about teaching Southern writers, Flannery O'Connor for example, to my multiethnic, multiracial students because I am afraid to deal with race in the classroom. He said, "I think you should teach a whole course on those writers and announce to your students, 'I am teaching these writers because I am afraid to deal with race.'" One day maybe. I am still relatively new at teaching, and self-conscious, and scared. I can see how once you jump in it would get easier.

Piece of Work said...

Well if it's not the blacks, then it's definitely the illegals. Can you imagine that white people are the MINORITY in Los Angeles.

The horror.

Leslee said...

The world is so big! When you grow up in a small town you don't think it's so big. Then you go out into the big world and things are as everyone in your small town said they were. This is the problem I have with going home to my small town. They have NO clue what's outside their city gates!

I'm glad to hear that you're pushing their boundries a little each day!

lostinthemiddle said...

More like "ah HA!" (the last word of your post is "ah").

And, THIS is excatly why affirmative action laws are important. If having just one non-white student in the class would have gave the student pause, made him/her think for just 2 seconds before voicing such an idea . . .

And, of course, THIS is exactly why teaching texts by a diverse group of writers with diverse ethinic and cultural backgrounds is SO very very important.

Yea. Jo(e)! I hope your students get (eventally anyway) what an important thing it is that you offering them in your course.

Anonymous said...

As usual, I am amazed by you. What a great job of confronting the racist attitude in a patient, compassionate way.

I tend to lose my temper and say something scathing, which is utterly unproductive.


HeyJules said...

That was so well said I have nothing else to say...except this -