Growing up I heard Rush Limbaugh from the radio in my father’s truck everyday. I took sociology my senior year of high school and on the day we talked about feminism, I said sincerely, “oh, I love feminism. I’m a total feminazi.” I looked around the room to cocked heads and furrowed brows. After a long pause I said, “amirite?… what?”
I was then and am now, a feminist. I was also wildly unaware of how my social location was affecting my world view. If Donald Trump started a Mr. Socially Dominant pageant I could enter. I am white, male, heterosexual, upper middle class, able-bodied, and young (despite what my students say). When I said feminazi in class, I truly believed the other feminists in the room would recognize the term and embrace me as one of their own. I had a lot of unlearning to do.
I’ve spent my entire life awakening to the world around me. Awakening to the experiences of people who don’t enjoy the privileges that are automatically extended to me. Typically I’m only guessing and typically I’m wrong, but I’ve been fascinated for years by the question, “what must it be like to not be in the dominant group?” In asking this question I’m really asking what is it like to be myself. To live with privilege.
If you teach sociology, then I don’t need to tell you that teaching privilege is hard, especially if you are teaching it to students of privilege. Because social privilege is extended automatically and often unconsciously, telling someone they have privilege is like trying to convince a fish they are surrounded by water. It would appear that the greatest social privilege the dominant group enjoys is the privilege to enjoy their advantage without having to be aware they are receiving it.
Sleeping Walking Through Racism
One of the privileges of being white is that you do not have to think of your experience as being unique or distinctive to your racial group. Many students, but particularly white students, when asked to identify their race will say, “I’m American”. When I teach culture it’s not uncommon for a student to raise their hand and say something like, “I feel like I don’t have a culture. I see all of these other people eating special foods, dancing at celebrations, and stuff like that and I wish I had a culture too.” Of course this is ridiculous, if we air dropped them into a foreign country where no one spoke their language, at their foods, or celebrated their holidays then their culture would jump up and slap them in the face.
My point is, being the default, the neutral, the unremarkable leads the dominant group to sleepwalk through their unique cultural and racial experience. We can see evidence of this sleepwalking in the common reactions white students have toward racism.
“There’s no solution to racism, we’d have to think about it all the time!”
Over and over again I’ve heard my white students say verbatim or in essence, “there is no solution to racism”. Which I, up till now, took to mean “there is no way we can mitigate racial inequality”. However I now believe I’ve been thinking about this all wrong. What I think my students are saying is, “there is no way to make race go away.” But why does race need to go away?
Being “colorblind” is popular because it simplifies the world. “If we could just stop talking about race- if we could stop thinking about it, then we could just move on” is a common refrain my “colorblind” students espouse. From the perspective of someone who actively ignores race, discussions of or any acknowledgement of race creates the problem. To solve racism, the colorblind believe, everyone just needs to join me in not thinking about race. Of course, the dominant social group would say this, because they are already the default in society. By giving up the word race, they are in effect ignoring all non-dominant racial groups.
Sleepwalking students want racism to go away. When you’ve effectively convinced them that racial inequality is real, they get caught in a moral cognitive dissonance. A good person doesn’t allow injustice to go on in their community, so if they accept racism as real, they are forced to do something about it, redefine themselves as a bad person, or mitigate the cognitive dissonance. This usually entails denial, rationalization, or throwing their hands up in defeat.
Over the years a few of my white students have said a non-colorblind world would be unfeasible because, “we’d have to think about race all of the time!” They are half right. We have to teach our students to embrace the complexities race, class, gender, etc. bring to our lives. Race has to be important enough that we honor everyone’s uniqueness, but not so important that we discriminate based upon it. I said that in my classes recently and a student groaned loudly and said, “well that’s not hard at all is it?”
I’m fond of saying anger is a common side effect of learning. When you awaken a sleepwalker they abruptly realize that the dream world they were just in is a fallacy and the harsh realities of being lucid to the world around them can make them angry. They want to go back to sleep. They want to return to the simple and comfortable dream world you pulled them from.
If I had one take home message for my101 students it would be, “The world is far more complex than we are lead to believe; embrace the complexity.”
To be uncomfortably honest I see myself in these responses. I know them from an insiders point of view. Being a part of the dominant group means you receive a life-long training in the justifying rationales that tell you everything is ok- everything is as it should be. It’s surprisingly easy to be lulled to sleep on the issues of inequality.
I angered people my senior year when I declared myself a feminazi, but I learned a lot about my social location, worldview, and my blind spots. In the years that have passed since that day, I’ve tried to open my eyes wider. I’ve tried to wake more fully, but I still have a ways to go.