Academic journal article Making Connections

Stirring Up Trouble: Teaching Race at a Southern Liberal Arts University

Academic journal article Making Connections

Stirring Up Trouble: Teaching Race at a Southern Liberal Arts University

Article excerpt

Each fall I teach a course titled "Critical Studies in African American Literature" at Austin Peay State University, a 12,000-student body university in Clarksville, Tennessee, a military town 50 miles northwest of Nashville on the Kentucky border. Though "the Peay" (as it's often called) is Tennessee's designated liberal arts campus, many of the students think that "liberal" is a pejorative spoken only by those who have "not found salvation in the teachings of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior," as they have told me many times. Most semesters I begin the course by having students watch The Color of Fear, a 1994 documentary about eight men on a weekend retreat as they struggle with issues of race, gender, ethnicity, and class. Early in the documentary, David, a white man, tells the two Latino and two African American men that their fears of driving through his northern California town for the filming of this documentary are "unfounded." As these four men of color attempt to convey to David the fears that enveloped their bodies as they encountered the suspicious stares of the white men driving their pickup trucks with gun racks in the back, David continues to reiterate-each time more stubbornly than the first-that their fears are "unfounded." Later, when asked what it means to be white, David chuckles, telling the men that he's never really thought about what that means.

Frustrated, Victor-a thirty-something, caramel-colored, bisexual black man with short dreadlocks and green eyes-screams at David: "Do you know what it means to be white? Being white means never having to say you're sorry. It means never having to think about what it means to be white. It means being able to tell me that my fears about white men in pickup trucks are 'unfounded.' Goddamn it! I'm sick and tired of this shit!" Victor emphatically pounds his fist to emphasize his words, spit spewing from his mouth as his anger rises with each word. It is a scene that always makes my white students uncomfortable.

What was earlier in the film just one white man deliberately and methodically dismissing the concerns of four men of color has shifted abruptly to becoming a commentary about the invisibility that so many black Americans feel. My students have suddenly been hushed into silence by Victor's anger. Before, they were quietly laughing at what they interpreted as David's ignorance; now, they are not so sure what to think about Victor's "angry tirade," as they often call it. I have often wondered whether Victor's point got lost because his rage had made my white students so uncomfortable, but I know that Victor speaks for many African Americans, especially those of us who have been told by white people that our fears are "unfounded." I silently cheered on Victor's anger, knowing that I have also wanted to scream these same sentiments to my "well-meaning" white friends who would tell me that "I was just too sensitive" when it came to matters of race. "Why can't you just forget that you're black?" they often asked me.

As a follow-up assignment, I asked my students to write an essay of at least three hundred words on what it means to be white, and I told them nothing else but that. A few students asked me what I meant, and I repeated the assignment-to write what they think it means to be white. The white students usually look at me with confusion, frustrated by what they see as my lack of guidance. Every semester I wonder if I will lose my white students because they will be so angered-or insulted-by my assignment that they will drop my class. My black students, however, almost always know what to write. During the next class session, I asked the students to read aloud what they had written. Some of the white students have told me how difficult the assignment was for them, because they had never thought about what it means to be white. A white woman once wrote that she shouldn't have to write about what it means to be white, that she took African American literature not to examine her own race but to read black literature. …

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