I am a white middle class heterosexual male sociology teacher. I teach about inequality that I benefit from. I teach about inequality that I can mindlessly recreate both inside of and outside of class. I teach about inequality that some students deny exists and some know on a first name basis. From the outside this could seem hypocritical; I could appear a fraud. Have I chose the wrong line of work? Can white teachers teach race and ethnicity? Can middle class teachers teach economic inequality? Can male teachers teach gender inequality? Can straight teachers teach sexual inequality? They can and they must.

I’m let in & taken at my word

As a white middle class male heterosexual teacher I walk into my class room and when students lay eyes on me they more often then not have their preconceptions of what a professor is going to look like met. My collard shirt, my wedding ring, my clean shaven face all reassure them that I am what they were most likely bargaining for. I fit the stereotype of a professor and subsequently benefit from it. When I talk about inequality students take me at my word. They don’t say to themselves, “well of course you would say that you are _______”. When a person of privilege asks, “why are things this way; why are things so unequal” the taken for granted aspects of our culture are more easily knocked down from their perch of sacredness and honest exploration of the status quo can begin. (Messner 2000).

For students of privilege I can use our shared cultural experience as an illustrative example of how inequality is created. When I tell my students how I mindlessly hurt someone with my own prejudice I can role model how to grapple with and acknowledge privilege. For all of my students I can be an example of someone who stands up for social justice and does not tolerate intolerance. I can show them that no one is inoculated from being prejudice, discriminating, or holding biases. I can stand before them not as a savior with all the right answers, but a fallible educator with some of the right questions.

I’m obligated for countless reasons, but here are two of them.

First, racism is not people of color’s problem, nor is misogyny women’s problem, nor is homophobia the LGTBQ community’s problem, etc. The oppressed and exploited are not responsible for ending oppression and exploitation. They are inextricably linked to it and certainly most affected by it, but it is not their responsibility to mitigate it. As an individual who begrudgingly benefits from exploitation and oppression I am obligated to work to end it. If you believe for one second that you benefit because of your social position (regardless if you seek it out or not) and you believe in social justice, then you either feel obligated to do something about it or you feel cognitive dissonance. If what I’m saying sounds to you like “white guilt” or one of it’s equivalents, then I ask you, how is cognitive dissonance treating you?

Second, research suggests that faculty of color and women are disproportionately assigned to teach what’s called in the biz, “required diversity classes”(Perry, Moore, Edwards, Acosta, and Frey 2009). These classes on race, gender, sexuality, and inequality are tough classes for any teacher. Subsequently this makes the tenure process, for which course evaluations are a component, more changeling for anyone who teaches them. Assigning faculty of color and women to teach required diversity classes recreates inequality and reflects the “oppression is the responsibility of the oppressed” mentality discussed above. As a person of privilege I am obligated to share the burden* of teaching these courses

Minding Your World View

Teaching inequality from a place of privilege requires me to be constantly reevaluating my world view, how I structure my class, and how I interact with students. Privilege is often automatically extended to the privileged. Bias emerges not from consciousness, but from being unconscious about how your world view is slanted. To understand your privilege and how you benefit from it you have to think outside of yourself. You have to imagine how your words and actions would appear to someone who does not experience the privileges you do. Its complex, convoluted, and at times maddening. But the burden of dealing with privilege is minuscule compared to the burden forced upon those without it.

Teaching involves power and so it has the potential to recreate inequality. All teachers must be mindful of this. You must be willing to own up to your mistakes and learn from them. You must be honest with your students about the privileges you hold and your humanity. This is the only way to reduce inequality, make your community a better place, and change students lives.

*For the record. I don’t see teaching diversity as a burden, but a privilege. I prefer teaching required diversity courses as I love interacting with my students on material that is challenging and at times controversial.

Perry, Gary, Helen Moore, Crystal Edwards, Katherine Acosta and Connie Frey. “Maintaining Credibility and Authority as an Instructor of Color in Diversity-Education Classrooms: A Qualitative Inquiry.” The Journal of Higher Education 80.1 (2009): 80-105.

Messner, Michael A. 2000. “White Guy Habitus in the Classroom: Challenging the Reproduction of Privilege”. Men and Masculinities 2:457-469