White Boy Remixed: Whiteness and Teaching Race
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This summer I have dedicated to reading that stack of books I have been wanting to read. The 4th installment (I will write about the other three books on my blog) was Mark Naison’s memoir – White Boy. Naison, a professor of African American Studies at Fordham University, chronicles his personal, political and academic journey, responding to those who have ubiquitously asked how he as a white man became a professor of African American Studies. With a tremendous amount of honesty, openness, complexity, and vulnerability, Naison explores his own history as a teacher, activists, and source of community empowerment. While the book chronicles a powerful story of the 1960s – the anti-war movement, the Panthers, Columbia, identity politics – it is a story of a dynamic man whose life and insights teach us just as he has taught his students for several decades. In telling the story of the “white African American Studies professors, Naison offers a narrative that highlights how whiteness matters but how it does not define or over-determine the arch of his life or career. It is a story that resonates with me on so many levels, leading me to want to share my own story.
Like Mark Naison, I have been consistently asked about my entry into Ethnic Studies. In my first class at Washington State University, I had a student that constantly wanted to know my story. The student could not understand why this White guy was teaching African American film – what had lead me to be me – In the course of the class, he asked “How I can to be the Eminem of Ethnic Studies?” While the class oohed and aahed, some thinking it was a slight against me and others thinking it was a point of celebration, I saw it as a good question, one that could lead (and did) into some important conversations. Another day I had a group of students who came to my office asking me to settle a bet about how I came to Ethnic Studies, each having a different theory – (a) I grew up in the Black community; (b) I had a Black girlfriend or a Black wife who had taught and encouraged me to learn; (c) I was just down. In fact, I have been asked several times if I have a Black girlfriend who educated me about blackness, taught me to be committed and down, and pushed me down my educational and career path.
On another level, I have been asked if I am a “culture vulture,” in the tradition of Elvis, in that I am “taking” and “impersonating” something that I am not, in my educational and professional choices. I have also experienced much celebration being a white guy in ethnic studies. Most often such comments reflect desires for colorblindness as a presumed end goal; that is, my presence in Ethnic Studies supposedly embodies the fulfillment of King’s dream or a sign of progress. A student once sent me an e-mail that said that world was changing racially, for the better, because the best rapper was white, best golfer is black, best basketball player was Asian …and their ethnic studies teacher was white. Not to be outdone, a student cited my presence in Ethnic Studies as evidence of colorblindness, to discount our discussions about racism and inequality. However, what the student failed to see is whether or not their teacher was White, or the president is Black, racism remains a constant.
I am certainly defined by my whiteness, whether teaching ethnic studies or driving through Colfax; yet my relationship to Ethnic Studies, social justice struggles, my scholarship, my pedagogy, my ideology, my gaze upon the world, and my understanding of racism/privilege/inequality is not overly determined by a monolithic white identity formation. As Bakari Kitwana argues in Why White Kids Love Hip Hop, “Each Person has a unique story that brought him or her to hip-hop. Looking at the micro reasons as well as the macro ones helps us make sense of a contemporary hip-hop scene in which a new generation is affected by America’s racial history and in the process is constructing a new politics.” In others words, my arrival to and place within the field of Ethnic Studies (or a larger racialized discursive field) reflects a myriad of factors and experiences, ones that are neither defined exclusively by nor immune from the realities of whiteness, racism, and contemporary racial politics.
I grew up in Los Angeles in a middle-class family that spent most of its income on schools, not so much because of concerns of “safety” or even the quality of education available in the public school system. I went to an elementary school founded by Hollywood Communists, including Charlie Chaplin. During my life, I have never gone to school where we did not call our teachers by their first name; I did not receive “grades” until the 9th grade. More instructive, both detention and the pledge of allegiance were completely foreign concepts to me until high school. This educational background clearly established a foundation but this only tells part of the story.
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