My Town’s Lowly Movie Theater

“Oh my god, aren’t you freezing?” asks a young woman standing next to me in line for a movie. The movie theater is Statesboro, GA is so small the box office is between the two entrance doors. I turn toward her and see she is dressed like Randy from A Christmas Story (you know, “I can’t put my arms down!”). “No, it’s like 60 degrees.” I reply politely with a bemused look on my face. Bouncing on the balls of her feet to generate warmth, she says with bemusement equal to mine, “Okay? But it’s November and I’m freezing!”

Sitting in the movie theater, it occurred to me; this is the most approachable illustration of relative deprivation that I can think of. When it hits 60 degrees in the spring damn near every student on campus has flip flops and shorts on, but when the thermometer drops to 60 degrees in the fall it’s not uncommon to see people dressed for a blizzard. It’s the same 60 degrees, the only thing that changes is your relative assessment of how cold/warm it was just a few days ago.

Ultimately, this is a simple illustration of relativity, but from here it’s not a giant pedagogical leap to relative deprivation.

The first week of a sociology class is tough. One of the first things many of us teach is the Sociological Imagination, or the idea that our individual lives are affected by social forces. I’ve found that students either don’t understand what that means or they think that “only other people” are affected by social forces. To illustrate the concept and to show them that it affects them personally I have this dead simple activity.

Ask your class to break up into groups of 3–5 and answer some question (the question is irrelevant to the activity). Tell them that each group needs to identify one member to be the leader and another member to be the secretary who writes down what is said. Let them work for about 2 minutes, just long enough that every group identifies a leader and a secretary.

This is where I tell my class to stop everything and stand up (I teach 300+ students so, that many students standing is a sight to behold). With the whole class standing I say, “Ok, if your group is all male or all female sit down now.” After about a third of the students take their seats I say, “Now if you are not the leader or the secretary, sit down.” “Great, now I want all of the group leaders still standing to come up to the front here and stand on the left side of the stage. And all you secretaries still standing can stand on the right side of the stage.”

As the students file down the aisle and take their sides an awkward laughter slowly builds. “So what trends do we notice in these two groups?” I ask the class. It doesn’t take long for the students to notice that there are almost no male secretaries and only around a 1/3 of the leaders are female.

“So, like I was saying, our individual choices are guided by social forces and cultural values. Do you see what I mean now?”

Below is a guest post written by Paula Teander (@Sober_Sociology) from Wake Technical Community College.

“Why do you think the number of women having babies outside of marriage has increased?” I asked my Sociology of Family class. Knowing that students often blame pesky teenagers for these increases, I set the trap and waited for the first one to take the bait. The students were surprised that only 7.7% of out-of wedlock births (in 2008) occurred to girls under age 18. Then I brought up that non-marital births were actually higher in Scandinavian countries. “Is that because they’re all cold countries?” asked a particularly adept student. “What an excellent observation,” I said seeing a golden opportunity to point out the difference between correlation and causation.

In my excitement to draw the connection to causation I quickly said, “Did you know that ice cream sales and the incidents of rape are positively correlated.” A stunned silence came over the class; I thought they were mesmerized by my counter-intuitive gem. I went on, “It’s true, as ice cream sales go up more people are raped.” I went up to the whiteboard and drew out the relationship on a xy graph. I spent the next few minutes describing what a spurious correlation was, and how in this particular example it was the heat of summer affecting the increase in both.

It was at this point several students got up and walked out of class.

My face warmed and I could feel the blood surge through my veins as my heart raced. I quickly reviewed in my mind the last few things I had said. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around what had just happened. I thought to myself, “why would they just get up and leave?”. I had a sinking feeling in my gut. I was confused, shocked, taken-aback, and anxious. All of these emotions engulfed me as I stood before my students.

Shortly after class I found that it was my discussion of rape and ice cream sales that inspired the students to walkout. . I spent the whole weekend thinking about what I did wrong, and what I could’ve done better. I was heart-broken, as the very last thing I wanted to do was alienate my students. I sent an email to the class explaining how teaching is a two-way street and that our classroom was a learning environment for everyone, careful to include myself.

Communication errors, which often result in hurt feelings, can occur for a number of reasons. Sometimes students’ stop listening and hear only pieces of what we are saying. Other times the timing and delivery of what we say is horribly “off.” Performers and comedians make their living off of delivery and timing, not a small thing—especially in the classroom.

Because I’d been using the ice-cream/rape example for years in my classes (sans walkouts), I suspected that timing and delivery played some part in the walkouts. My students were simply not ready for a methodological discussion at that exact moment, and my poorly timed example literally came out of left-field to many of them. But after discussing this matter with a former student of mine, I couldn’t help but take something else from this experience.

My former student admitted to me that she remembered the ice-cream/rape example very well. She also told me that she had heard the same example used in her Psychology class. I asked her if she could remember her initial reaction, and she told me “I first thought it ridiculous that someone would bring this kind of example up in a classroom!” She also confided that she had had a painful experience in her past, one involving sexual abuse. I began to question just how many other students had felt this way throughout the years. Although this particular student was eventually able to wrap her head around the concept, and even now agrees that it is a great way to illustrate correlation and not causation, it made me question the value of using an example that could trigger such a response.

I’m sure most of us use Trigger-warnings in our classes, although we may not actually call them that. If you show a video with graphic scenes, violent content, profanity, or sensitive topics, it’s probably always a good idea to warn the students about this in advance. A trigger warning is basically anything that lets your students know that the up-coming content could “trigger” an emotional/physical response, or maybe that the subject matter might make them feel a bit uncomfortable (not necessarily a bad thing in a learning environment, and certainly a hard thing to escape in a Sociology class). Anyone who reads feminist blogs has come across “trigger warnings” before graphic images or descriptions of rape or violence to women. I recently read that being triggered is like having an allergic reaction, or “an involuntary reaction to a substance which can vary from severe discomfort to serious debilitation and endangerment.”

I learned quite a bit from this classroom experience, and learning isn’t always a bed of roses. I’m still debating whether I’ll ever use the ice-cream/rape example in my classes again, but when/if I do I will make sure that the timing and delivery is right. Knowing that the word (rape) itself can trigger painful memories for some students, memories so vivid that they literally feel their heart-rate increase, they struggle to think or breathe, gives me pause. If I choose to use it, I will most certainly give the class a “heads-up” by saying something like “I’m about to give you an example that involves the word “rape,” but it is in no way meant to scoff at, or downplay the seriousness of rape—rather, it is being used to make us think critically about causation.”

Standing in the wake of the economic devastation created by the 2008 housing crisis, the world wanted a neck for the noose. The way the rich and socially powerful parried the responsibility for the sub-prime meltdown onto low income home owners, especially homeowners of color, is one of the most illustrative examples of hegemony and how our problems are socially defined. I feel a moral obligation to teach this in my social problems courses.

After the crash of ’08 the question on everyone’s mind was, “how on earth did this financial crisis happen?” One popular answer, if not the most popular, was, “people who have no business owning homes bought houses they couldn’t afford with sub-prime mortgages.” In a sense this logic is saying the economy fell apart, “because of the greed of irresponsible poor people.”

An Inside Job

Another answer to the “why did this happen” question should be, “because no one paid attention to banking regulations, loan practices, etc. because they are mind-numbingly boring.” They are supremely important, but painfully boring. Thankfully, there are some fantastic resources to help you teach your students about the ’08 housing crisis. There are many, many more, but I feel Griftopia and Inside Job
balance depth of coverage with approachability best.

GRIFTOPIA

Matt Taibbi is one of my favorite writers and political reporters[1]. He wrote an astoundingly approachable book on the banking shenanigans leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. I read it cover-to-cover and as a financial lay person I felt I understood the crisis to a depth I couldn’t have previously imagined.

I used Griftopia’s third chapter, Hot Potato: the Great American Mortgage Scam because it connects the individual level story of a man, with the pseudonym Eljion Willams, to the practices of large banking firms such as AIG and Goldman Sachs. Each step along the way Taibbi shows how each player in the financial system was incentivized to “put a torch” to the players one rung beneath them.[2] Taibbi asserts that the answer to, “how on earth did this financial crisis happen?” should be, “because it was profitable for the socially powerful actors and institutions.” Taibbi connects the individual level with the macro level and at the same time shows us how decisions at the institutional level had a cascading series of consequences at every level of our society. For this reason alone, it’s a must read/teach.

INSIDE JOB

The Oscar award winning film Inside Job explains the complexities of the credit crisis in a simple yet compelling manner that feels closer to a “who done it” mystery than a film about financial deregulation. Narrated by Matt Damon, the film interviews some of the industry leaders and decision makers who were in the driver’s seat as the economy went over the cliff.

At times I writhed in my seat as the filmmaker scathingly interrogated the reckless leaders and decision makers. At other points in the film we hear from the academics and analysts who warned of the unsustainability of the deregulated market (who were at the time dismissed as Chicken Littles).

Given that I showed this film at the university level, my class and I were most interested in the film’s argument that the economics/finance/business side of higher education has been co-opted by corporate America. To quickly summarize the point; these professors are highly compensated to serve on boards or in another advisory capacity for the big banks and then they publish research that legitimates the practices that best suite the needs of these same big banks. After showing the film my students were on the edge of their seats, ready to vent their frustration and no more so than the frustration they felt about the role academia played in the collapse.

Teaching How Power Hides In Plain Sight

In my search for videos about the housing crisis I was recommend the video below. I watched the first few minutes of it and was enthralled. I was set on using the video, but not because of what the video overtly teaches, but for what it teaches subtlety.

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

I told my class I wanted them to watch the video closely and that I was going to ask them a peculiar question afterwards. As the film ended I asked them if anything they saw in the video seemed incongruent with what they read about in Griftopia or what they learned from Inside Job. They sat perplexed and answerless. So I ponied up 10 extra credit points to anyone who could analyze the film to find thematic discrepancies between the clip and our other class material (directions here: Word | Pages | Pdf)

The class struggled to find any discrepancy. When they came back the next day many of my students protested saying they, “watched the video over and over and there’s nothing.” I threw the clip on the projector and fast forwarded to the seventh minute. Here the video posits that the “turning point” of the credit crisis was “irresponsible” home buyers who bought a “big house” they “not surprisingly” defaulted on.

The videos seems to suggest that the sub-prime home buyers purchased homes they couldn’t afford because they were greedy and/or irresponsible. It doesn’t acknowledge that many of these sub-prime home buyers were victims of predatory lending practices (see Broke, USA for more on this) or that many sub-prime borrowers actually had credit scores that warranted a prime loan (which would have saved them loads of money). Recently Bank of America paid a $335 million settlement to avoid going to court and face charges of what Attorney General Eric Holder described as, “systematic discrimination against blacks and [H]ispanics”

Finally this ignores that predatory banking practices often sold loans at one rate and then used a variable interest rate to ratchet up the rate quickly; in doing so they would “put a torch” to the family, as Taibbi puts it, to collect on the insurance money. All of these behaviors were incentivized by our social institutions and that is painfully overlooked in this film. This is not to say there was no greed or irresponsibility at the lowest level of the banking system, of course there was, but to tell half the story is… wait for it… irresponsible.

And that’s just what was said. Given that this was supposed to be a “visualized” accounting of the crisis, we should expect that a great deal of intent went into the selection of the images used to depict it. I put the slide below up on the screen and asked my class to break it down:

Comparison of responsible vs irresponsible family

They quickly noticed that “irresponsible” home buyers were fat, had lots of kids, smoked and drank alcohol. If you look closely at the video, the children of the irresponsible home buyers wiggle on screen, which could be interpreted as they are less well behaved. Again, if you find yourself saying, “who would put that level of attention into something like this?” I would argue, a graphic designer who was visually depicting a story.

What’s remarkable about the video is how easily the mischaracterization of the poor went unnoticed. Some of my students reported watching the video, “over and over,” but couldn’t find a thing. And they weren’t alone the video was featured on NPR’s Planet Money and was watched nearly 3 million times without drawing much ire.

After our discussion they saw it clear as day. We then talked about conflict theory’s argument that power hides in plain sight and they got it. We finished by talking about the tenet of conflict theory that argues that those with social power use it to deflect blame away from themselves and onto the less powerful. It was a fantastic conversation to end our discussion of the housing crisis.


  1. I struggled with deciding between political reporter and political commentator. Taibbi walks the line. I find his writing to be honest and grounded in evidence, but he is not shy about drawing conclusions about his evidence. And when he does so he is not shy about bashing you over the head with it. When I taught this I felt compelled to bring this up with my students before they read it. I wanted them to read the piece for it’s information, but if they disagreed with his summations, no biggie.  ↩

  2. I’m not going to go into detail about Taibbi’s assessment of how the financial crisis unfolded. I am “out of my league here, Donny”. What I want to focus on here is why you should read and then teach this book. The credit crisis is a profoundly complex problem that I’ll leave to my Taibbi and the other great resources to explain. I promise you they’ll do a better job than I ever could. I did, however, check the book with a few of my finance/econ colleagues and they told me that Taibbi’s evidence checks out.  ↩

  3. One notable expcetion is a great critique offered by Gwen Sharp over at SocImages. Read it here.

Everyday in the United States school children are exposed to rags-to-riches stories. Children gather round on the rug and listen to the teachers they adore read to them about “self-made” men like Abraham Lincoln. They learn from their history and social studies books that the United States is a meritocracy where anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they are willing to work hard 1. Over the course of their public education students learn this lesson well; work hard, take advantage of your opportunities, and you will certainly be successful. By the time students come into my 101 class this is a painfully unremarkable story. When I recount it in class their response is a unanimous, “Yeah. Duh. So what?”

“Is there anything wrong with teaching school children the world is theirs for the taking? You just have to work hard?” I ask them. Typically my students struggle to find a single issue with teaching the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ideology. “Is it true?” I ask them “Can anyone be successful as long as they work hard and take advantage of their opportunities?” Nearly the entire class smirks at the obviousness of my question. Someone responds with a, “Well, No.” “No? And yet we teach it to our children without a second thought. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”

“What would a conflict theorist ask here?” “Who benefits?” someone chimes out. “Yes, that’s right. So who benefits if we tell everyone in the United States that they can get ahead if they work hard, despite that being at best only partially true?” A hand pops up, “Those who are already successful benefit because it makes them look good.” “Exactly. Ok, now let’s ask the inverse. Who suffers?” Perplexed silence fills the room for the next 120 seconds. “Anyone? Take a shot at it.” No takers today. “Ok then, help me with this: If I am a child and I hear my teacher tell the class that all you need to be successful is a good work ethic and my parents are wealthy, then what must I think about my parents?” “They worked hard?” says multiple students simultaneously. “Yes, of course. And what if my parents struggle to put food on the table? What if I know for certain that my family is not successful or worse what if I know that my parents are poor? Then what would the ‘bootstrap’ myth tell me about my parents?” A single hand raises slowly, “Then your parents must not be hard workers.” “Think about that for a minute. What a powerful lesson to teach our children. If your family is rich, they earned it. If your family is poor, they’re lazy. Why on earth would we teach that in school?”

From here my students are ready to explore stratification, hegemony, justifying rationales, and all the rest of it. It’s starts with an innocuous story and ends with a class on the front of their seats, needing to know more.


Footnotes:

1. Loewen, James. 1995. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: The New Press

What's a Social Problem

The photo above is on the projector screen when I turn and start class by asking, “What is this a sign for? That is, where would we see this sign and why would it be put up in the first place.” After some bewildered looks students state the obvious, “those signs are along the border.” “The border of Georgia1“I quickly ask. Students laugh softly, “No the Mexican border”. “Why?” I prod them. “Because that’s where all the illegals come from.” “Oh, I see,” I turn and point to the screen in the front of the room and continue, “Who can tell me what ‘social problem’ if any this sign could be associated with. That is, what name would we give to the social problem this sign reflects.” A chorus of voices says, “Illegal Immigration”.

I nod and say, “What if I told you that this social problem you call ‘Illegal Immigration’ is part of a grand story that powerful people in society have been trying to get you to believe? What would you say?” After a healthy pause I follow, “Could anyone in the class tell me the story of ‘Illegal Immigration’?” The silence in the room becomes deafening as my students turn and look around the room with perplexed looks on their faces. “Well then I’d like you to do some research and come back to me next week and tell me if you’ve figured out the story.”

The Research on “Illegal Immigration”

“Illegal Immigration” or undocumented immigration, as I’ll be referring to it, is a hot button issue that has been consistently in the news media for as long as I can remember. However the issue seemed to hit another peak in public attention when Arizona passed a highly punitive state law to enforce federal immigration policy. This was only furthered by the passing of copycat laws in Alabama and Georgia (just to name a few). Given all the media attention there is a lot of great resources out there for teaching the controversies around this social problem.

My students love it when I can pair academic sources with popular media. They really love it when we use multiple mediums. I’ve created an “immigration media collection” that includes the following. The collection is designed to present conflicting arguments from the opponents of and supporters of undocumented immigrants.

  • “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” by Jose Antonio Vargas (Story featured in The New York Times Magazine).
  • An audio podcast of a NPR Fresh Air Interview with Vargas & Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. Vargas goes into further detail in his half of the podcast and Krikorian talks about why he feels Vargas should be deported.
  • A CBS Evening News report on how Georgia farmers are struggling to farm without undocumented immigrants.
  • An episode of 30 Days where a Minute Man lives with an undocumented family. See below:

30 Days: Immigration from MacQuarrie-Byrne Films on Vimeo.

I pair all of these popular media with the chapter on immigration from our course textbook and it creates a powerful pedagogical tool. Students seemed to be really thinking about the issues deeply. Many students said it was only after they watched the video and read Vargas’s story that they wanted to know more about the facts and sociological research surrounding undocumented immigration. So, at least in this case, popular media created a hunger for scholarly research.

The Stories We Tell About Undocumented Immigration

After spending a week on undocumented immigration my students were primed to break down the narrative behind the social problem. When I asked, “What is the story or stories well tell about ‘illegal immigration’ in the United States?” My students quickly pointed to the border and that image I’d used to start our entire discussion. “The border isn’t the only problem.” I asked them to tell me more. “Around half of immigrants over stay their visas, so we could build a wall to the heavens and it wouldn’t end the problem of undocumented immigration.” I was impressed.

“What else,” I asked. There was a long pause before someone said, “The story we tell is only half the story.” With a prompt from me the student continued, “We only talk about the undocumented immigrants and we rarely if ever talk about the corporations that employ them.” “Bingo,” I replied. For the rest of the class we talked about conflict theory’s argument that powerful social actors use their influence to define social problems as being the responsibility or fault of the least powerful in society. “It’s all in the name,” one of my students said. “‘illegal immigration’ says it all. The problem is the ‘illegals’ not the employers who bring them here.” “Right,” I began, “we call it ‘illegal immigration’ and not ‘non-citizen exploitation’. Both names are apt, but as a society we’ve been convinced to focus on the former.”

While my students were feeling particularly anti-corporation I asked them if they play a role in undocumented immigration. Multiple heads shook left to right and someone mustered a, “No.” “What sectors of our economy do undocumented immigrants work in? That is, what jobs do they tend to have?” Quickly a list forms, “Farming, meat packing, factory work, landscaping, and housework,” were shouted out. Then I asked, “If undocumented laborers are paid an unfair wage for harvesting food or manufacturing products, does this not make them cheaper?” The obvious answer came easily. “Do you think that any of you have purchased any of these products made cheaper by undocumented immigration?” No one said a word, but heads slowly nodded. “So in that case all of you have directly benefited from undocumented immigration. You’ve had more money in your pocket because someone didn’t get paid what they should have, right?” The answer didn’t come as easy this time.

What I want my students to learn is that the story we tell about undocumented immigration is a simple one that blames only one group; the group with the least social power. In reality undocumented immigration is terribly complex and each of us in the United States has been either a victim or benefactor of harsh state and federal immigration policies. Once students accept that the world is far more complex than we are told it is on the news we can start to develop their sociological imagination.


Footnotes:

1. I teach in Georgia.

Dinner!

“Why do you eat what you eat?” I ask my students. After a long pause filled with students giving me bewildered looks someone says, “because it tastes good?” I press them to dig deeper in hopes that they will see a connection to the social world, but almost always they are unable to. My students are staunch believers that what they eat is purely a matter of choice and even an expression of personal freedom. Sure, they say, your family may develop your taste for certain dishes as a child, but that is just your family eating what tastes good to them. Nothing sociological going on here.

Food is a powerful sociological issue because it connects our physical bodies with nature, the economy, and indirectly with every social institution. Food production is public policy, a cornerstone of our economy, and always present in the media. Simply put, food is culture. And yet many students never think twice about it. Thus making it a prime target for teaching sociology.

“Divided We Eat” by Lisa Miller is a Newsweek article that provides students with a great introduction to the issues around food and social class1. The article talks with epidemiologist Adam Drewnowski about the social factors that influence our food choices. As we discuss the article as a class I ask my student to examine food from a symbolic interactionist perspective and my students quickly draw connections between what we eat and how we express our class position.

“In America,” Drewnowski wrote in an e-mail, “food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all.”-Miller, Newsweek

After our discussion I pass out an activity I created (download pdf here) that has my students create a food journal for a day and analyze it. Many students were now able to see the connection between what they eat today, what they ate growing up, and their social class position.


Footnotes:

1. Thanks to Chad Gesser (@profgesser) for Tweeting this article into my world.

“How many people do you know who openly consider themselves to have a racial bias in their worldview? How many people do you know who consider themselves racist?” Tough questions for a early morning sociology 101 class. The class sits silent. Furrowed brows and questioning looks greet me as I continue, “Well then. Isn’t it strange that in a world where almost no one considers themselves racist we see vast racial disparities? If there are almost no racists, then who is responsible for creating racial inequality?” This is how I start my week long discussion of institutional racial discrimination.

In my Soc 101 classes I teach race over the course of three weeks. Week 1 focuses on the social construction of race, how race is still an issue worthy of our time, and individual prejudice & discrimination. Week 2 is spent on providing students with evidence of institutional discrimination. We conclude our discussion of race by watching The Color of Fear and discussing how we can end or mitigate racial disparities.

The Axes of Discrimination

I break down discrimination across two axes or spectrums. The first axis addresses how discrimination can range from overt or intentional acts all the way to subtle or even unintentional acts of discrimination. The second divides discrimination between individual acts of discrimination and institutional discrimination. Students can always help me with subtle and overt examples of individual discrimination, but are stumped to think of a form of institutional discrimination. The overt institutional discrimination example I have above is a sign outside a Sundown Town which formally barred people of color from being within city limits after dark. A more subtle example of institutional discrimination is the use of standardized tests to justify educational inequality.

The Importance of Institutional Discrimination
Institutional Discrimination is the unequal distribution of rights or opportunities to individuals or social groups that results from the normal operations of society. This is the bias in the system that comes from how our society is structured. Institutional discrimination is not the result of some bigot using his or her power to hurt minority groups. These are disparities that are created by people who are doing what they are supposed to. From this vantage point it’s easy to see how people could be totally oblivious to the fact that they are creating inequities. The people who carry out the policies that discriminate often do not intend to hurt minority groups and see themselves as moral upstanding citizens.

But this is only half the story. Now we know how people could be oblivious to the institutional discrimination they create and enforce, but now we need some evidence that institutional discrimination is creating real racial disparities. I spend an entire 50 minute class providing evidence that contemporary institutional discrimination exists for minorities in our economy, in housing, in our education system, in the legal justice system, and in our community. You can download my lecture notes and see all of the empirical findings of sociological research that I share with my students. Below I share some of the highlights:

Institutional Discrimination in the Economy
Gif Created on Make A Gif
Students are floored to realize that the boards of the Fortune 1000 corporations are so gender and race biased.

Institutional Discrimination in Housing
I show the video Race the Power of an Illusion 3: The House We Live In, which sets the bar for outstanding sociological films and for the lengthiest title in history. The video clearly and concisely explains how the federal government sanctioned the suburbanizing of the US racially via redlining, blockbusting, and residential steering. Truly a must see film for every sociology student & teacher.

Institutional Discrimination in Education
I have a couple of great YouTube clips and activities for educational inequality which I wrote about previously in a post you can read here

Institutional Discrimination in the Legal Justice System
In addition to the research findings I share with them about racial profiling (listed in the lecture notes), I also do the Racism and the Death Penalty activity I discussed a few weeks back.

Institutional Discrimination in Our Community
Finding recent local examples of institutional discrimination can be challenging, but the Kids Count study is a great resource for educators in the U.S. Each year The Annie E. Casey Foundation collects data on various social indicators of childhood wellbeing. If you go the to “data by state” page you can find excellent data about the state you are teaching in. I am currently teaching at Georgia Southern University, so the facts I shared with my Georgia students are below:

  • Leading cause of teen deaths (age 15-19) by race and gender: White females & males: car accidents, Black females: Medical issues, Black males: Homicide
  • The Infant mortality rate for Black infants (12.7 per 1000) was three times that of Hispanic infants (3.7 per 1000) and nearly twice that of White infants (6.5 per 1000)
  • Black (21%) and Hispanic (22%) students are more likely to fail state reading tests than their White (8%) or Asian (7%) counterparts
  • Black (18%) and Hispanic (16%) students are twice as likely to fail state math tests than their White (7%) counterparts
  • 88.2% of Asian students graduated from high school on time, followed by 77.5% of White students, 65.5% of Black students, and 60.3% of Hispanic Students in 2007

“Will This Stop Racial Disparities?”
When I was in elementary school I remember we had a multi-cultural day every year (which begs the question, what were the rest of the days if not mono-cultural days). All I remember from these multi-cultural days was that we were told, “Everyone is equal” and we always learned about the Civil Rights Movement as though it had solved or ended racial discrimination and disparities in the United States. I don’t think my multi-cultural education was an aberration. Recent publications suggest that this type of, “We’re all friends/Everyone is equal” education is pervasive in the U.S. and ineffective. This type of education promotes a individualistic focus on race, racism, prejudice, and discrimination. It tells our young people that to end racial inequality all each of us needs to do is quit being a bigoted jerk. A lengthy discussion of systematic and institutional discrimination crimination is the only remedy to this narrowly focused multi-cultural education.

After our 50 minute tour of institutional discrimination in all its forms I put the slide above up on the screen and ask my students, “Will this stop racial disparities?” After a beat, a chorus of no’s come from the class. We spend the next week exploring systematic solutions to the systematic problems of institutional discrimination.

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.

Resources:
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

Discussing economic inequality can be tough for a couple of reasons. First its depressing. Second it’s hard to express with words/statistics. I created a couple of slides and a video to teach economic inequality visually. My students actually laughed out loud at the video. This is still a work in progress, but I wanted to share with you what I have at the moment. Enjoy.

If you like this, check out the website that inspired me

Here is the YouTube video:

Here are the slides

Resources:
Download Slides