Pedagogy of the Oppressed? Teaching Race in the University Classroom

Last Thursday the College Teaching Effectiveness Network and a few other graduate student organizations co-sponsored a workshop for graduate students on Teaching Race: Challenges & Opportunities in the Classroom. A panel of three (Latino/a Studies professor, white history doctoral student, and Black American intergroup relations specialist) discussed the opportunities and challenges to a PACKED room of white, black, Asian, and Latino/a American graduate students. It sounded like they try to teach race and/or racism without making any students (white students or students of color alike) uncomfortable, victimized, or accused. The goal, they stressed, was to understand how the state (and not individual whites or Blacks or Asians or what have you) manufactures race by constructing these falsely racialized groups and pitting them against one another in a Social Darwinism/survival of the fittest type of competition. However, towards the end of the discussion, a few graduate students of color brought up a different point: “If white students enjoy racial privilege for most of their lives here in the United States, would it be so bad to be uncomfortable about race for like two minutes during discussion section? Doesn’t tiptoeing around the ideas of race/racism privilege white students by being overly concerned with their comfort, while discounting the fact that the students of color need our classrooms to be safe spaces to discuss such issues?”

A really interesting discussion followed; some white graduate students misunderstood and thought these TAs were purposely trying to make white students uncomfortable. No, not at all. The goal is not to makeanyone uncomfortable, but to provide a safe space where people can honestly bring their concerns and issues to the table, especially since the university environment otherwise does not provide or encourage that safe space (students have had to fight for every single ethnic studies program or student support service not only at UIUC but at all other universities – starting with the Third World Liberation Front student strike for more relevant education at San Francisco State University). Otherwise, we’re not going to have an honest discussion at all. However, if making a student of color feel safe comes at the expense of white students feeling a little uncomfortable, some TAs were willing to let that occur. One pointed out that it could be part of their learning process and experience. Not purposely, not

maliciously, but with the hope that these moments of discomfort will help everyone be honest and work through these issues so we can move towards a radically transformed, truly democratic university environment.

Freirean love, folks.

I don’t know how the discussion ended because I had to leave early (and I don’t think the goal was to reach a consensus), but overall it was really good and I hope helped all of us think more critically about what andhow we teach. Personally, as a woman of color who researches and teaches two marginalized topics (Asian American Studies and children’s literature – “Aren’t you making a big deal out of nothing? They’re just children’s books!”), the workshop really helped me think about how to negotiate the challenges while examining my own positions of privilege. I had a couple of white students in my Asian American Children’s Literature course last semester, and that definitely kept me on my toes in terms of too freely expressing how I feel about white authors who write children’s stories about Asians and Asian Americans. (It’s not that white authors can’t write about Asians Americans, but too often their voices drown out the voices of Asian Americans themselves. Anyway, that’s a whole other can of worms.)

Teaching race is never going to be easy; race is too complicated and bound up in so many other factors. But something we can do is continue to have these discussions, listen to one another, and critically think about and reflect on our own positionalities and attitudes.

Some resources:

Adams, M. and Bell L., & Griffith, P. (eds.) Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: a Sourcebook. 1997.

Butler, J. (ed.) Color-Line to Borderlands: The Matrix of American Ethnic Studies. 2001.

Chan, S. In Defense of Asian American Studies: The Politics of Teaching and Program Building. 2005.

Gale, X. “The Stranger in Communication: Race, Class, and Conflict in a Basic Writing Class.” in JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory 17: 53-67.

Hendrix, K. “Student Perceptions of the Influence of Race on Professor Credibility.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Speech Communication Association, San Antonio, Texas. November 1995.

Ladson-Billings, G. “Silences as Weapons: Challenges of a Black Professor Teaching White Students.” inTheory into Practice 35(2): 79-85. 1996.

TuSmith, B., & Reddy, M. (eds.) Race in the College Classroom: Pedagogy and Politics. 2002.

Vargas, L. “When the ‘Other’ is the Teacher: Implications of Teacher Diversity in Higher Education.” inUrban Review 31: 359-383. 1999.

Vargas, L. (ed.) Women Faculty of Color in the White Classroom: Narratives on the Pedagogical Implications of Teacher Diversity. 2002.

On another note, I haven’t been as active blogging as I anticipated, and my exam starts this Friday, so I probably won’t post much in the next month. Sorry to leave you with such a heavy topic in my last post, but here’s a little something to make up for it:

My Brother and the Porsche

Once upon a time, there lived two siblings named Sarah and Sam. Sam was in the army so he lived in Stuttgart, Germany with his wife, and Sarah lived in Los Angeles, California. When Sarah graduated from UCLA, Sam called her from Stuttgart and said, “I’ll send you anything you want from Germany… but not a BMW or a Benz.”

Sarah replied, “Actually, I don’t really need anything. Please send me more of that delicious German chocolate.”

Sam said, “Sarah, I’ve sent you a ton of chocolate already! Think of something and let me know.”

So Sarah talked with her parents, and her dad suggested, “Why not a porsche? They’re made in Germany.”

Sarah didn’t realize that; for some reason she thought they were French. So she called her brother Sam and said, “Oppa, I want a porsche.”

He paused, and said, “Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”

A few weeks later Sarah recieved a small box in the mail. It was from her brother! She eagerly opened the package… and pulled out a small, chocolate porsche.

Keep a Poem in Your Pocket

Last night I had a conversation with a friend about the types of books we like to read. We mentioned novels, biographies, short stories, poetry etc. I was sad that we both didn’t have much time for leisure reading, so last night before I went to bed I flipped through one of my favorite collections of poetry: A Family of Poems, compiled by Caroline Kennedy for children. I was fixated on “Keep a Poem in Your Pocket.” The words may appear simple, but they’re rich with meaning. They really speak to the value of what a poem can do for your soul: “you’ll never feel lonely.” That’s what words are to us. Words give meaning to life. Words comfort us. Words feed our souls. Words are our friends. 

Keep a Poem in Your Pocket

Keep a poem in your pocket

and a picture in your head

and you’ll never feel lonely

at night when you’re in bed.

The little poem will sing to you

the little picture bring to you

a dozen dreams to dance to you

at night when you’re in bed.


Keep a picture in your pocket

and a poem in your head

and you’ll never feel lonely

at night when you’re in bed.

– Beatrice Schenk de Regniers

Quoted from A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children, collected by Caroline Kennedy

Words Matter

Today I was once again amazed and convicted at how much words matter in communication. My pastor is going through the Book of Luke and today’s sermon was Luke 9: 10-17 Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand:

10 When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, 11 but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing. 

12 Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.” 

13 He replied, “You give them something to eat.”

They answered, “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish – unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.” 14 (About five thousand men were there.)

But he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of fifty each.” 15 The disciples did so, and everybody sat down. 16 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to set before the people. 17 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.

Have you ever wondered when was the exact moment that the food multiplied? I can’t tell by reading the text in English. My lazy interpretation would be that the baskets were bottomless; where else would the extra food come from? Now, I can’t read Greek, but I trust my pastor when he says he looks up words. So he studied this text in Greek, and in “16 … then he gave them to the disciples…” the word “gave” is translated “έδωσε” which means to give and to give and to give… in other words, to keep giving. Therefore, as recorded in the original text, the bread and fish multiplied in the Lord’s hands, and he kept providing bread and fish for the disciples to share with the crowd.

abercrombie and fitch


a bread crumb and fish

amazing words

Amazing God!

Reader’s Response

My friend Crystal posed some interesting questions on my blog, so I’ll answer them in the form of another blog here. Crystal, I apologize for the delay… it’s been a hectic week. (note: Crystal is an international graduate student from China, hence her first question about growing up reading all Chinese books.)

1. I grew up reading all-Chinese (characters and figures) books but haven’t learned that I (Chinese) am the kingfish. Do most Korean children in Korea grow up reading all-Korean books? Do they all think of themself as the kingfish?
Good question. My IPRH Youth Literature Interest Group is devoting several reading sessions to international youth literature, so we’re learning about the state of children’s literature in other countries, which unfortunately has not yet developed to the status of that in the United States or England. In most cases, each country’s children’s literature represents the majority culture – Chinese children will read about Chinese society, Korean children will read about Korean society and so on. There are a few cases, such as in the Caribbean, where there might not yet be a substantial body of works (my friend Sujin Huggins does research in this area) so a lot of what comprises “children’s literature” is literature from other nations – the US and UK.

Furthermore, the trend is that books published in the United States are translated into other languages and republished in Korea, in China, in Japan, in France, etc. The United States translates very few books from other countries. Thus, the U.S. exports its ideas of whiteness, values, cultures, etc. into other countries, whereas other countries seldom have opportunities to import their ideas, cultures, values, etc., into the United States. In other words, the flow is almost entirely one way.

It is healthy for children to see themselves reflected in the books they read. However, in the United States the majority culture is white and we have a history of discrimination and prejudice (slavery, Jim Crow laws, anti-immigration laws of 1882, 1824, etc., Japanese Internment, race riots, institutional racism, hate crimes, etc.) I’m not saying that other countries don’t have their share of social ills, whether they be racial or class-based or sexist or what have you. But in the U.S., there’s been a history of bias and prejudice, and unfortunately it often gets perpetuated in children’s books. Thus, white middle-class children in the U.S. see mirrors of their white middle-class lives reflected in children’s books, and minorities see windows of white middle-class children’s lives. Minorities rarely see mirrors, and white children rarely see windows. This reinforces the notion that what is normal in the United States is white middle-class. Think of the Dick and Jane books, or Nancy Drew series, or Hardy Boys. They portray “All American” characters, and people of color who are written into Nancy Drew, for example, are stereotyped, passive characters instead of multifaceted characters with personality, humanity and dignity.

2. If there is such evil White privilage, why do so many Korean families immigrate to US with “providing good education for their children” as a reason? If they all did it out of ignorance of the problem, why don’t they go back to Korean after they find out the problem?
After World War II and the Korean War, the United States posited itself as a kind of “saving” nation. That image is still popular today, with the rhetoric that the U.S. is saving Iraq and third world countries (supposedly saving them from themselves). Many Koreans came here to pursue the “American dream” because opportunities for education and upward social mobility might not have been available to them in Korea. The Horatio Alger myth, perpetuated in more than 60 books about Ragged Dick and other characters, tells us that we can make anything of ourselves in the U.S. if we just apply ourselves. These types of messages permeate our society. Okay, so once we get here, we realize that the U.S. does have massive social problems and they’re not going to go away just because we can make more money or get into a better school. Well, why should immigrants, or descendents of immigrants, have to “go back to Korea”? That is not a solution; rather it is a defeatist attitude and doesn’t do anything to promote social justice or equality. We have just as much a right to be here as anyone else, and we can, and we have, and we will continue to promote social justice so that all people – whether they’re white lower income or black middle class or Korean upper class – can enjoy the same freedoms that the United States offers.

It’s easy to see the phrase “white privilege” and feel uncomfortable. We don’t say “white privilege” to point blame and make white people the enemy; we say “white privilege” with the understanding that whiteness is also a social construction of a group that historically has been privileged over other socially constructed groups in this nation. Looking at the legal history of this country makes that immediately apparent. For example, in California white laborers were so scared of Chinese immigrants that they passed laws such as “it is illegal for men to have long hair” (thus forcing Chinese immigrants to cut their queue) and “it is illegal for men to carry water across a stick on their back” (thus Chinese immigrants would have a tougher time transporting water for their laundry businesses) and “it is illegal for a Chinese person to marry a white person.” Clearly, white folks in California in the 1850s had issues with the new Chinese immigrants and passed laws to keep them economically and socially inferior.

3. If you look at the percentage of Korean Americans among all US citizens, and then the percentage of Korean American college students among all US college students (especially in the good college), do you see a “Korean privilage” or a “White privilage”?
This is frequently the argument of those opposed to affirmative action, and I welcome opportunities to discuss this topic. About 4% of the U.S. population is comprised of Americans of Asian descent. More than that are represented in many top tier universities across the nation. Is this an overrepresentation? Is it unfair to white students? No, because college is not the end point. When we look at numbers in the workforce, at the percentage of Asian Americans who are politicians or managers or CEOs or what have you, the percentage is far less than 4%. Asian Americans may be overrepresented in college, but their degrees are clearly not garnering them the jobs – and the salaries – to match. At the end of the day, the white male still makes more money and has the higher position.

That’s it for now. You don’t mind these questions, right?

Of course not. You ask interesting and important questions, and it helps both us think through these topics.

Also, in my post about Harriet the Spy’s intense hatred for math, Crystal asked “Yeah, I have to agree that it’s a very rich and rhetorical description. But if it is from a literature or movie for children, is it educational? Does it do more harm or good to the kids who already (or may potentially) hate math?”

Children’s literature began as an educational tool (primers, books on religionm etc). It still teaches something, but not in the blunt, didactic manner that it used to. Is Harriet the Spy teaching or encouraging children to hate math? I doubt it. Children who love math will continue to love math, and they’ll probably think Harriet’s a little odd for not liking it. Children who hate math will continue to hate math, but they’ll absolutely love Harriet (as I did!) because they can identify with her. The children who hate math in this world need to be able to see themselves reflected in children’s books so they know it’s not weird for them to hate math. Furthermore, it’s important to look at the story as a whole. Harriet the Spy is a fabulous story.

A counter argument to this may be: “Okay, so what if there’s a fabulous book but it contains stereotypical images of Asians? Then would you still say ‘It’s important to look at the book as a whole?'” This argument is like comparing apples with oranges. Math is not a human who is going to be offended that Harriet hates it. An Asian American such as myself finds serious offense in books that portray Asians with orientalist images.

A story cannot be fabulous if it contains stereotypical images of any culture out of context. It loses its right to be fabulous.