The Perkins Perspective | Features | Winter 2013
Teaching While White: Reflections on 40 Years Teaching
By Tom Trzyna, PhD
The Educational Opportunity Program at the University of Washington: The first group of recruits sits in the classroom in quadrants. The black kids are in one corner, the Hispanics in another, the Native Americans in a third, and the poor whites in a fourth.
They keep at least a row of empty seats between them, and when they answer questions, they look at me, not each other, and they look at me with suspicion and disdain. Some of the classes become shouting sessions. Students from one group almost never speak to those in another group, and when they do, there is an edge. A Native American carefully explains to me why my family and I should return to Eastern Europe and get the hell out of his continent.
I have already had this and many similar conversations in Berkeley in the late ’60s. I break up a fight between black and white staff at the Oakland hospital where I work in 1970. After the fight, I take the poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ niece, who runs patients from the wards to radiology, home to her apartment in the Oakland ghetto. Gwendolyn paid for her niece to become a hairdresser. Her niece wishes she still lived in the Deep South where at least you understand the rules and who hates you.
Up here in the North people act nice and then turn out to be totally racist. At the hospital a white uniform usually identifies a white, though a few blacks have white-coat jobs. Blacks typically wear brown and do janitorial work and cooking. The Filipinos and other Asians wear blue outfits and work in the laundry, deep in the sub-basement. I never learn if the mortician wears black. Out in the landscaping shed, gardener Harry Paden keeps a copy of Jet magazine open to the picture of Emmett Till in his coffin, mutilated and rotten. Everyone calls Harry “Buck,” as if he is an animal. He abandoned his wife and his dead child after a gunfight with the Klan. He hopped a freight train for California in WW II and never went back. A farmer from childhood, he grows vegetables among the hospital flower gardens, where we sit and eat our lunch.
Seattle Pacific University. American Ethnic Literature enrolls as many as 70 in a section, usually with four to six African-American students. There are no Hispanics for years and hardly a Native American. Six graduating black students pose with me, telling me I am the token white. One black graduate discovers her heritage in the class, because black history, literature, and civil rights history were not taught in public high school, and she dedicates her life to reconciliation work in the church. A Nigerian student comes to me to explain the exhibit she has created to let African-Americans know that they are absolutely NOT African and have no right to any African tribal identity or images.
Sometimes there is stony silence in class. Sometimes there are nearly fistfights in the corridors outside. A male student pushes a female student against the wall and insists that she explain the comments she made about race relations during the class session. Jean Hanawalt, the white creator of the American Ethnic Literature class is a recent PhD whose husband, Frank Hanawal,t played a role in desegregating Seattle schools. He was principal at Garfield High School; he had to deal with Jimi Hendrix when Jimmy was an unruly kid. Jean calls herself a substitute for a token black, the next best thing. Frank teaches education classes as an adjunct.
Student behaviors, I think, fit the pattern that Elizabeth Kübler-Ross described for grieving. When members of the class learn about racial history and racism they bargain, deny, become sad, get angry, and rarely come to peace. They blame civil rights activists for the violence committed against them, point out the failings of Martin Luther King Jr.’s character, explain that racism is limited to the South, complain about the depressing books, ask why I selected various readings, protest Alice Walker’s womanism, challenge the connections among racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, demand a special review of the class.
We do an experiment one term, Dr. Martin Abbott and I, assessing the class eight times in a row, collecting essays on what people are thinking. We train evaluators to look for grieving behaviors. The students are, in fact, grieving. All the behaviors are there. We have a framework for understanding what we experience in class, but we don’t have an answer for their grief. I talk about the results at the beginning of each term. We present and publish the paper and watch it take on life over the decades. Another researcher replicates our work for her master’s thesis in Chicago.
The students start a minority organization. The administration is afraid we will have a radical Black Students Union. Steve Swayne and I lobby unsuccessfully for scholarships. Steve is black and the head of Campus Ministries. We go to donors. They demand that the university make a commitment first.
Students demand a cultural-competency requirement. African Americans still leave campus unhappy. Three of the four black students in the 2010 section of African-American Literature say they are leaving the university because they have had enough. We are all insensitive. We say terrible things. White students who watch black exploitation movies assault incoming black students with phrases and epithets drawn from the films.
And yet, in that same section, two black students give an oral report on black hair. They invite anyone to ask questions about anything at all. There is dialogue among all the races and faiths. There are Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Native Americans in class, refugees from Eritrea, Cambodia, and the Sudan. There is open discussion of life stories. It is not 1973. Neither is it paradise. Michelle Alexander has come to campus. It is absolutely, positively time in America for another Civil Rights movement because of continued discrimination and poverty, and yet class dialogue is amazingly open compared to past decades.
The Dickens cliché applies: It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. The progress is palpable. The deadlock and stagnation are palpable. Some of the leaders of the student minority group organizations take the class. Often they do not want to speak to the rest of us. Talking about the race problem in general has become easier, fluid. Talking about the situation on the ground at SPU remains hard, uncomfortable.
Forty years teaching race and I do not fully understand the complexity of my own socialization, my own participation in the patterns of privilege and discrimination. Forty years and I see free discussion where before there was frozen hostility. Forty years and all the same battles remain to be fought again. That’s reasonable progress. Truly, it is. It is far better than anything I could have expected when, as a 6-year-old child in Southern California, I was handed a city identity card that allowed me to swim in the civic pool. There were no blacks in my town. That card was a way of saying that I was white and allowed to swim.
I would do it again. I doubt I would be any smarter, or quicker to understand next time. I do NOT doubt the classes have made a difference.
Now we have the Ames Scholarships and the Perkins Center. We have a Black Students Union and several more clubs and groups focused on various minority populations: medical students, people of non-Caucasian backgrounds, people who want to talk about race, people who want to talk about sexual orientation. We have a faculty committee dedicated to this work. We have many black faculty members from the U.S., Africa, the Caribbean, though none who teach American-Ethnic Literature. Three of us teach the class now, Thorpe, Middeljans, and Trzyna, but our sections are smaller than they were in the past. I don’t see many male African-American students in the class, and that saddens me. Of course, we have more classes on campus that address these issues now. We have the reconciliation program. We have exhibits about white privilege.
I talk about what it means for a white man to teach this class. I know my liabilities. Still, there’s a lot I have learned over four decades that all of our students should know, whatever their race. I think every English major should be required to take the class, maybe every student. If not this one, then another that introduces people to racial history, minority literatures, art, music, leadership.
How long should reconciliation take? You don’t reconcile the conflicts of thousands of years overnight. The anthology we use is segregated: African-American Literature has a different book from American Literature. But then African-American culture in many ways dominates popular culture around the globe. Eldridge Cleaver nailed it in Soul on Ice. Once Elvis injected black music into mainstream rock and roll, it would just be a matter of time until perceptions changed. A long time. The time is coming.
Tom Trzyna is professor of English at SPU. He received his BA from UC-Berkeley in 1968, and received his MA and PhD from the University of Washington. He taught at the Ohio State University before coming to SPU in 1981. The article “Grieving in the Ethnic Literature Classroom” appeared in College Literature.
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