July 31, 2017
I am fortunate enough to instruct an InterGroup Dialogue (IGD) course centered on race in addition to my full time work as a leadership education coordinator. Teaching IGD has made me a better educator and has challenged my own self-awareness and understanding of identity and social justice. I am White, I work at a predominantly White campus, and students often tell me that IGD is one of the few spaces where meaningful conversations about and across differences occur. Each IGD section is generally co-instructed by a person of color and a White person – so facilitators can share different perspectives and lived experiences and so participants can have different people to connect with. Instructing IGD has prompted me to reflect on my Whiteness in new ways.
Since teaching IGD, I have become more critical about the ways we use the experiences and bodies of Black and brown students to facilitate learning for White students. Realizing that many White students only learn as much as they do because of the work, labor, and trauma of people of color has prompted a lot of internal conflict and reflection. Last quarter, students engaged in a privilege walk activity at the midway point of the quarter – the class was about half White students and half students of color. Since the focus of the class, and thus the privilege walk, was about race – the results were as I expected – most White students were pretty far at the front of the space, while most of the students of color were much further back. After the activity concluded we broke into groups based on where students’ physical location at the end of the activity. Since the results of the activity reflected the racial composition of the class, we debriefed in White and student of color groups.
I led the White group’s debrief conversation. I remember feeling surprised that so many students shared remarks of surprise and shock that there was such a disparity in the activity. These students were predominantly social science majors and we were at the halfway point of the quarter – White privilege was not a new concept. Several students remarked that while they came into IGD acknowledging that they had White privilege, the activity hit home for them in a new, more powerful, way. Some students were emotional, most were shocked. I realized that despite the intellectual explorations of privilege, power, and race we engaged in, most White students only truly began to conceptualize the real effects of racism and White supremacy when we used black and brown bodies to illustrate the point.
We came back together as a whole class to debrief – where the White group communicated their feelings and surprise. The second group, comprised of my co-facilitator and the students of color in the class, shared that their debrief conversation had been much different. Most of them knew exactly how the activity would play out before they even participated – so they spent most of their time together laughing and trying to make light of how an activity like a privilege walk only reinforced everything society had taught them their whole lives. Towards the end of the conversation, my co-facilitator brought up a point that has continued to sit with me as an educator. Even in spaces designed for dialogue and learning around social justice, students of color are still forced to carry the burden of educating White students – in the form of sharing stories and lived experiences; or by using the bodies of students of color, in activities like privilege walks. I am still working to unpack and sit with the privilege I have experienced as a White person in never having realized or acknowledged that truth before that class period.
Moving forward, as I design activities, discussions, and spaces for difficult conversations about identity I ask myself and my coworkers whether or not we are creating spaces where minority/less privileged students will be forced to educate privileged students. While conversations and interactions across differences are important learning experiences for all students, I think we can more critically interrogate the ways in which we design learning around identity, race, and social justice. I hope that we, as educators, can critically interrogate whose learning and safety we are prioritizing when we create opportunities for students to learn about social justice and engage across difference.
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Lauren Irwin is a Coordinator in the Center for Leadership at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She’s a proud ginger and cat mom who loves baseball, leadership, and the Handmaid’s Tale. Lauren can be reached on twitter at @Lauren_Irwin22 or via email at [email protected].
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