Student Action at Stanford University, December 2014
BY DIANE WONG
When the Ferguson protests began in August, I had open conversations with friends about the extent to which we should engage our own politics in the classroom. How do we navigate the classroom in response to Ferguson? How do scholars of color talk about Michael Brown’s death in a predominately white Ivy League institution? How do we discuss structural racism and white privilege in the classroom without being reprimanded as a result? Many of us entered graduate school to make a difference in our communities and to make research more accessible to those outside of academia. It was not until we started to teach that we realized if we rock the boat a little too hard, there may be professional consequences — especially for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and other underrepresented groups.
Since we are faced with these obstacles before a discussion can even begin — how do we talk about Michael Brown in the classroom? How do we talk about the fact that an unarmed black person is shot every 28 hours by a police officer, security guard, or vigilantes? How do we talk about the fact that John Crawford was gunned down in Walmart for holding a toy rifle, Eric Garner was choked to death by the NYPD in broad daylight, Tamir Rice was killed by Cleveland cops for being on the playground, Oscar Grant was fatally shot by a BART police officer for going home on New Year’s Day, Ezell Ford, Kimani Gray, Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell, Darrien Hunt, Miriam Carey, Yvette Smith, Elanor Bumpurs, Tarika Wilson, and so many others who have been victims of state sanctioned violence against black people. These conversations are difficult to navigate and often painful for both educators and students, but open dialogues on race and structural racism need to happen in the classroom.
When I first started teaching three semesters ago, I was advised to keep my opinions out of the classroom and to present political issues in an objective manner. This was never difficult for me to do, since the courses I taught sections for rarely discussed issues of race, gender, or sexuality for more than a week. Instead, like many others who exist on the margins of academia, I found ways to express my thoughts on platforms like Twitter or in community-led discussions. However, we all know that even these spaces have never really been safe for scholars of color. To survive in academia as a woman of color who is simultaneously hypervisible and invisible makes Ferguson not only a difficult but also a professionally dangerous topic to approach in the classroom. At the same time, my relative distance from the fear and physical violence that communities in Ferguson experience has made me acutely aware of my own individual responsibility to speak out against racism and oppression during times like these.
To survive in academia as a woman of color who is simultaneously hypervisible and invisible makes Ferguson not only a difficult but also a professionally dangerous topic to approach in the classroom. At the same time, my relative distance from the fear and physical violence that communities in Ferguson experience has made me acutely aware of my own individual responsibility to speak out against racism and oppression during times like these.
Taking on the task of educating students about race and structural racism in a predominantly white institution places our own safety and personal livelihoods in danger, but this is precisely why we need to normalize conversations about race in the classroom. Many of us have access to institutional resources, dialogues in the classroom, and specific communities outside of academia that enable us to challenge misguided beliefs that structural inequalities or racial bias no longer exist. We need to recognize that even having the option to decide whether or not to discuss Ferguson in the classroom is a privilege, and that our failure to discuss the shooting of Michael Brown makes us complicit in a system of criminal justice that disproportionately harms black men and women. I encourage all scholars to use this time to educate each other and our students about the powerful impact of racism, specifically anti-black racism, in the United States. We need to learn how to talk about these issues in a productive and effective way that reflects the value of black lives in and outside of the classroom.
In a speech that Angela Davis made during her visit to Cornell University, she challenged her audience to think about the purpose of higher education, saying: “What counts as knowledge when it doesn’t make a difference in the world? You have to act as though you have the ability to change the world.” After the grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, I remembered her words and asked my students to participate in an open discussion on the events in Ferguson. Together, we thought about the issues that lie beneath Ferguson: racial segregation, concentrated poverty, racial disparities in law enforcement, mass incarceration of young black men, unequal educational opportunities, and other structural factors that are deeply entrenched in our society. Towards the end of class, many of the students told me that this was the first time they had discussed Ferguson in the classroom. A number of seniors who had been on campus for four years or more told me that they had never discussed race on campus, at all.
Those of us who have the opportunity to stand in front of a classroom cannot afford to ignore this conversation. If race is never explicitly discussed in higher education institutions, we cannot expect our students to understand how deeply race is woven into American politics and our daily lives. Georgetown Professor Marcia Chatelian created a #FergusonSyllabus on Twitter to collect materials and texts from educators to help us talk about Ferguson. After browsing through some of the resources online, I compiled my own list to provide an idea of what is being used to discuss the events in Ferguson. I hope that the curated list below serves as a starting point on how to bring Ferguson into the classroom. I welcome further recommendations in the comment space. The entire testimony of Darren Wilson and the grand jury decision is also available online.
Angela Davis On Violence from The Black Power MixTape
As we work through our own feelings on a personal level, the task of creating transformative spaces should not be shouldered on our youth — those who continue to stand on the streets in Ferguson, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and countless other cities. The nation has a lot of healing to do with the city of Ferguson, and it is our collective responsibility as educators to stand in solidarity with those on the front lines of struggle. Our solidarity must begin with transforming our classrooms. As Cornell University Professor Noliwe Rooks writes, we need to find better, and more productive ways to talk about race in the classroom, not fewer. We need to do our work of connecting the struggles on the streets to our classrooms.
Diane Wong is a doctoral student at Cornell University. She writes on urban politics, race, and gender. Her research has been funded by National Science Foundation, American Political Science Association Minority Fellows Program, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Latino/a Studies Program at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at @XpertDemon.