Teaching a Lesson about Civil Rights

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in , , | Posted on 12:01 PM

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The course I'm teaching right now is a history of childhood in the US and dealing with systematic inequities which cause success in the educational system to be difficult for some children.

I have a revolving series of explanations for how that inequity affects everyone. Some of these explanations use Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, some of these explanations use narrative construction, some use complex systems, some use simple metaphors or various common experiences, or, in the case of last night's discussion in the bar, a polynomial of various exponential relationships representing factors in behavior and society.

In class, I talked about the construction of single, repeated, overarching narratives in history which indicate position, place, ability and what is considered natural or normal for individuals in various populations. I've been teaching the students a narrative of history which more concerns marginalized populations than the more commonly taught version. I made them re-learn history to talk about history as a constructed narrative, so they can see the dissonance.

And then I talked about the influences competing for attention in a multicultural classroom.

I'd like to think it was a thoughtful lesson. Certainly, from my point of view, many of my students looked thoughtful. There's always a danger, when discussions of hierarchy, hegemony and inequalities are the subject, for individual students to feel attacked.

To deal with that, I typically bring it up directly, and talk about the shared pain of cognitive dissonance as various groups discover themselves in history, and the shared burden of maintaining equity, even though the influence of society is to cause some of my audience to forget and to cause different groups to be unable to see each other or understand each other.

One of the gentlemen I was talking to last night pointed out that he knows about civil rights and privilege intellectually, but he forgets in every day life. The gentleman is a white dude, tall, highly intelligent (by my estimate, within the top 4% or so of the general population), a computer science graduate student and master programmer across many languages. He is handsome, well-dressed, funny and while odd as you might think, able to easily negotiate social discourse (if inclined to teasing). He has every reason in the world to not notice inequity. Instead, he has chosen to understand it, if intellectually, as a matter of ethics.

This conversation put him well within my 'like' category for people I deal with.

A point I made yesterday to the class and last night: it's a discipline. There's no position in which paying attention to non-dominant messages in culture is not a discipline. Part of that discipline is listening past that feeling of offense.

A new group member was listening last night to our conversation. His face told me that he alternated between worry, offense, understanding, confusion and frustration. At several points, I wanted to reach out and hug him. I don't have to be comforting, and chose not to comfort until the end of the discussion because I worry about the stereotypical 'women are for comforting' role conditioning interfering with getting the other message across.

As my partner told the table last night, when they teased him for speaking less, "She's more than able to take care of herself." He chimed in where necessary, but mostly listened.

What I wanted to say to the new group member is that it was okay. We're learning together; me, too. It requires the ability to be patient with multiple ways of seeing, with being wrong and with uncertainty.

And it is not easy.

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