Friday, September 16, 2011

Scenes of Racial Instruction

Working with African American students on a majority white campus, you always encounter these "scenes of racial instruction," moments where an authority (usually white) figure teaches a student what it means that they are black.

In a recent article, the writer Toure quoted the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who noted that "scenes of instruction" are found throughout African American literary discourse. According to Gates
For W.E.B. Dubois it was a little girl who wouldn't take his Valentine card. For James Weldon Johnson in Autobiography of an Ex‑Colored Man it was when the teacher said, 'Would all the white scholars stand up,' and he stands up and she goes 'No, you can sit down.' It's always a moment of trauma. There's always something lacking, a deprivation that makes you realize what being black means.

There are related scenes throughout the literature. I refer to them as scenes of racial instruction to qualify and highlight the extents to which race is at play in those moments.

The notion that the moments are filled with "trauma" is notable. Black students at my university regularly speak with me about those moments. Because I teach African American literature courses or because I direct the black studies program, they likely see me as an ally and think I can provide solutions. They're right only about the first part.

I often end up trying to convince the student that the white professor responsible usually was unaware that he or she was inflicting harm. Fortunately, I have worked hard to build credibility over the years as being firmly against anti-black racism and not simply for diversity, so the students tend to know that I'm not simply "selling out" when I explain that even though offending white professors were wrong, they are often unaware of about the extent to which they were causing damage or practicing forms of racism.

More than defending the actions though, I spend most of the time listening to the students discussing the lessons they've learned or have started to learn as a result of the incidents.

Related content:
A Lesson from a Scene of Racial Instruction: All Black People Are Presumed Friends

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