When I first watched the videos of young, white fraternity brothers casually singing their song of racism and lynching, I was transported back to my own college days in the mid-80s. I can’t be absolutely sure I heard that song but it was painfully familiar in a sickening and repulsive sort of way. I sort of knew what was coming before they sang the next words, which makes me think it was buried in the deep recesses of my conscious.
My third grader is a white child in a Title I school in our town. She’s writing a report on Harriet Tubman for her Black History month project and has spent the week devouring information about Tubman and proudly sharing stories and facts about her life with our whole family. “Mom, did you know Harriet Tubman was a spy during the Civil War!” We have spent the week talking together about Tubman, slavery, and the history of racism in the South. As a white mother of two white daughters, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to educate my children about history and slavery and how each of these continue to shape the racism in our communities and in our lives.
It is imperative that I teach my children that their white skin is a privilege in a country where brown people are discriminated against in both conscious and unconscious ways. But, talking about privilege is hard, and not just for parents. For most people with privilege, talking about it makes us uncomfortable. Admitting that we have privilege seems unseemly at best, but worse than that, for many of us, it feels arrogant. The fact that people have difficulty even recognizing their own privilege is well documented and one of the reasons that privilege is so hard to address as a cultural phenomenon. For starters, how do I teach my children about social privilege without reinforcing social privilege? Well, its not easy, but it certainly won’t happen if we ignore it or pretend like we don’t have it.
A history professor at Northeastern University in Boston has just developed a tool to search the ubiquitous student rankings found at “Rate My Professor.” For those of you who don’t know ratemyprofessor, it is an online site where college students can go and “rate” their professors on a range of factors, some related to their teaching (and to student learning) and others, not so much (students can assign a hot chili pepper to those professors that the students find, well, “hot”). Because this rating system is voluntary, and not administered to all students in a given course, it tends to disproportionately draw students who either love or hate particular professors.
As a female professor, I have had my share of caustic student comments (on university evaluations as well as ratemyprofessor) that have taken on a gendered tone. But as a tenured, full professor, I have less concern for myself than for the deeply unsettling insight that this data exposes about how sexism is working in the classroom (for an example of this put the terms “smart” and “intelligent” in the search engine and check out the results). My concern is both for the learning environment and how students’ own sexism is negatively impacting the students in question as well as for the junior female professors who struggle with questions of their classroom persona, their teaching authority, and how best to embody what it means to be a smart, intelligent, and respected teacher and scholar in a world where those categories are still, too often, defined by male norms. A good friend and colleague is currently writing a piece on how women professors decide how to dress in the classroom for a teaching website, a question that, I suspect, is far more challenging for women professors than our male colleagues.