I teach and do research on issues centering on identity and diversity. As the fall semester is coming to a close, I had the benefit of watching my students, many who started the semester ambivalent about difference and the need for diversity and acceptance, come full circle. Through presentations and last words, they expressed how life changing the opportunity and challenge to think about difference differently has been. Their embrace of diversity and each other (across race, class, gender, sexuality, religious and ability difference) has been transformative.
At the start of the semester I warn my students that learning about diversity and various methods and strategies for communicating about and across difference can be challenging. I tell them that when your concrete ideologies are compared with other concrete ideologies, it is not easy. I remind them that unlearning discrimination and prejudice will be difficult and uncomfortable. I encourage them to be open and open-minded and to trust the process. I tell them I am not their homegirl and therefore not invested in them “liking” me (so I will not be moved or persuaded against pushing them to fully engage the material, whether they like it/or me/or not) . Likewise, my mother was never interested in being my friend while I was growing up because she was busy raising me, teaching me right from wrong, and tempering my bad ass attitude because I thought I knew everything I needed to know to get along in the world (SN: Now that I am grown, my mother is my very best friend, and I am grateful that she was a parent when I was growing up, which is what I needed, not a friend). I ask them to question what they think they know and to be honest about their prejudices. I tell them we will have good days and bad days and that we will experience a range of feelings from ambivalence to fear to anger to confusion to excitement to curiosity to embarrassment to rage to sadness (and back to ambivalence again). I ask them to take what they learn and utilize it in their lives and relationships. I challenge them to hold others accountable in the way that I (will) hold them accountable. I beg them to not be silent in the face of discrimination of any kind (anymore).
In the classroom, I expect silence, discontent, frustration, rolled eyes, elevated voices, misunderstandings, anger, sarcasm, disrespect, and distance as we discuss taboo topics of class(ism), racism, sexism, homophobia, sexuality, ability and the various intersections between them.
I struggle through moments of the wrong things being said (and deciphering what the right response is), defensiveness, divisiveness, strife, self-imposed segregation, and blind allegiances. It is a practice of patience…and stamina. But teaching is repetitious (and frustrating/exhilarating/terrifying at times), and I am accountable to every potential representation in the room. There are particular rules in my classroom space. Students must filter their words. When someone says something offensive or problematic, I interrupt them immediately to correct them and explain how and why their word choice, regardless of intent, may be harmful or hurtful. I love on them, require their acknowledgment and accountability, and encourage them to be mindful of the impact of their words. I require them to listen to each other and not just respond reactively, or echo like minded individuals without being thoughtful and reflective. I put them in uncomfortable situations. I give them readings to make them uncomfortable. I share personal experiences to make them uncomfortable. The discomfort pushes them to think about what they are feeling and why. These are all teaching moments.
The first few weeks we juggle extremes and trade silences while they decide if what I am saying is bullshit or brilliant, because it challenges everything they (think they) know. And I worry that they will be offended rather than changed and/or walk away from the experience with the same stereotypic mindsets they started from. But then it happens. Unexpectedly and unannounced, they get it! I can see it in their eyes, read it in their posture, and experience it in the roundabout way that they become easy with one another and less judgmental. Our conversations become longer. We tell transparent tales and connect in the ways that we are alike, astonished sometimes that we are not nearly as different as we look/seem. We look at each other instead of avoiding glances. We listen to each other’s stories instead of passively hearing each other’s words. And while I can never pin point when it happens, there are miraculous moments when brave students share their truths, when public stories give us the opportunity to have private conversations out in the open, and when misjudgments, stereotypes, and mischaracterizations are corrected through conversations that prove missing each other on purpose misses the point and wastes opportunities for connection.
If ignorance is bliss, it is also dangerous and we are accountable for what we know. We are also responsible for having difficult conversations. Because of this, we will occasionally be misunderstood or attacked for standing up and defending our passions. And that is okay. I feel that we are called to love people past (in)difference. And like I said, I am not their homegirl :)
And while teaching (classes and the larger public) is not always easy, seeing the benefits of the effort (which takes time, sometimes a lifetime), reminds me that it is always worth it!