Charlottesville and the Myth of the Neutral Classroom: Racial Literacy in Age of Trump

08/18/2017 04:30 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2017

My husband and I are taking a break from dorm shopping and brunching at the Carriage House in Ithaca with our daughter who will be starting her second year at university. Yes, it's that time of year when parents are dropping their kids off to college. And as I listen to my daughter and my husband discuss assembling her Ikea desk, I keep thinking of Heather Heyer. She was the hero/activist who was killed in the Charlottesville terrorist attack when a car drove through a crowd of mostly young college students and activists who were protesting the white nationalist march through their college at the University of Virginia campus. I wonder if Heather Heyer’s mom knew when she kissed her daughter goodbye that it would be the last time she would see her. Did she know just how proud the world would be of this young activist? I must admit I harbor a fear that wasn't there before the Charlottesville terrorist attack. And I’m sure I’m not alone as parents of Muslim, Jewish, African American, Asian, Native American, gay, transgender and other marginalized groups must be sharing the same fears. Suddenly we cannot assume that the activism of our college kids will be safe at institutions of higher learning.

David Love quotes Ali Michael, the director of K-12 Consulting at the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, when talking about the current climate in academia: “Does the political climate produce millennials that feel so free to be racist on social media and in public, or is it because of Trump, for example, that people are being more out with their racism, or is racism something that people are feeling more willing to express and then Trump is feeding on that and also stoking it? Or maybe it’s unrelated to Trump.” In helping to provide answers, Michael refers to a book by sociologist Joe Feagin and Leslie Picca called Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage. The researchers developed a theory of “backstage” and “frontstage” racism, in which whites have learned to be more socially correct and less blatantly racist in public, but still very much racist in private. Invoking Beverly Daniel Tatum, a clinical psychologist and the president of Spelman College Michael states that white people don’t choose to identify as white because they feel their options are limited. “You can be racist; you can be ignorant or you could be colorblind,” Love quotes Michael. Michael notes that of the three categories Dr. Tatum uses there has to be a fourth way. “We have to let people know you can at least try to be anti-racist. That’s another identity option, because what white people do is they don’t even identify with their whiteness. They don’t see it as connected to them. And they don’t see it as something that benefits them, and so it’s kind of hard, because it’s an invisible identity that they’re not willing to get.” According to Michael part of the solution is that higher education programs need to create more culturally competent instructors and college professors: “Being racially literate should be a requirement for any educated person in the 21st century,” she insists.

As a professor who teaches a course on ‘Philosophies of Race’ I grapple with similar issues. Is it possible to teach in a way that people will not be violent toward one another? In an attempt to make students racially literate how can educators begin to undo racism and future oppression through the classroom experience? I tackle these issues by creating spaces for dialogue where students are engaged in authentic discourses on the nature of their positionality. They critically reflect on their own experiences of oppression. This involves taking a hard look at how racism, classism and sexism offers to some unearned privilege, while others—along with the knowledge and experiences they have—are undervalued, ignored, institutionally and systemically discriminated against or just misunderstood.

Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance” (Marcuse, 1965) argues that educators have an obligation to be intolerant toward policies, attitudes, and opinions that oppress people, threaten to limit human rights, or promote racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice. Sam Miller echoes Marcuse’s concerns when she argues that classrooms should not be “safe spaces” when teaching under the current climate. To have a liberal discussion, we must be illiberal toward social injustices including the white nationalist attacks in Charlottesville, VA. As Miller correctly articulates “when violence is on the horizon and hateful propaganda dominates the media and the public sphere, teachers cannot afford to be neutral.” There is no room for discourses of “neutrality” to factor in the face of Donald Trump’s Muslims ban, the detainement and deportations of undocumented immigrants. And most recently his “many sides” comment when white nationalists were chanting a Nazi slogan of “blood and soil,” followed by “Jews will not replace us,” as part of their march on the University of Virginia campus. The terrorist attack in Charlottesville as depicted in the chilling documentary by VICE on HBO are all examples of very real threats to real people, which should be denounced as intolerable to our ideas of freedom and equality.

Unfortunately classrooms continue to reinforce a multicultural framework of tolerance, where teachers often are hesitant to condemn issues of racism, sexism and xenophobia by adhering to a neutral lens taking into account the ‘let’s all get along’ approach, as Mills claims. As educators we must confront the concrete political realities of our times in our classrooms. Only then can all marginalized students be truly free in the fullest possible sense.

Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, jr., and Herbert Marcuse, A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), pp. 95-137. *A revised version of this essay was presented as part of a panel at the Philosophy of Education Society in April, 2017at their annual conference in Seattle, WA.

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