Friday, December 5, 2008

Teaching Feminist and Race Theory: problematic assumptions and positive transformations

I teach feminist and race theory to five students, four of whom are white, none of whom are female. Yet, for all their lack of diversity, they understand the philosophical relevance of gender and race. Critical theory for them, however, was remarkably new when they began. While they began their studies with me in order to broaden their perspective in social and political philosophy, none of them had ever reflected on some of the contemporary social structures and implicit patterns of thought that are implicitly sexist and/or racist. None of the students were sexist or racist when they entered the course, and they would have been quite defensive about being labeled as such. Yet, on campus, and in other classes, this was the challenge they faced.

Two of my students were called out by a group of women in a class as being sexist for trying to discuss gender! My question then became, how does a group of well-meaning white guys sincerely trying to understand gender and race theory get called sexist (or racist)? Which then led me to the question, how does a group of well-meaning white, male students of critical theory not see the structural patterns of oppression that are implicitly sexist and/or racist? That is when I finally realized the difficulty of teaching feminist or race theory. There is a quasi-principle of inverse proportions at work affecting our students’ investigation of the structural patterns of oppression (and this seems true regardless of their race, or gender): the more perceptive the student is to the marginalization and exploitation of one group, the more likely he or she neglects to see the structural patterns of exploitation and marginalization at work in their own thinking.

Let me proffer an example. In the context of explaining Iris Marion Young’s “Five Faces of Oppression”, one of my students attempted to draw out the implications of Young’s work by exploring the exploitation of migrant workers by large corporations. During his explanation, someone made a quip regarding a previous night’s episode of a new television show called “My Big Redneck Wedding”, where couples from the rural United States get married in non-traditional ways on television, such as in the woods wearing hunting camouflage. The students burst into laughter at the ridiculousness of the couples on the show. I was shocked. Could these students not see that the couples on the show were themselves being exploited for the wealth of the television network and the entertainment of a few? In fact, no! The obvious had not occurred to the students, that their own thinking had been unintentionally inculcated by patterns of thought that, in fact, had given rise to both the marginalization and exploitation of some unfamiliar social group.

Our students come to us with a wide array of hidden assumptions. They also find philosophy liberating as they begin to see patterns and structures of thought in a new way. Watching their fledgling philosophical experience grow into a real passion for philosophy is probably the best part of teaching, but it also has its down-side. Like any passion, the more intense it grows, the more myopic it makes us; and, hence, the less likely it is that our most passionate students will reflect upon their own hidden assumptions. When teaching critical theory, it seems important to draw the students’ attention back to their own patterns of social thinking, and not let them just critique the obvious patterns of social injustice. We should not only reveal the implicit patterns of thought and social structures on a macro level, but also guide each student individually to help her see her own hidden layers of oppression that might (and probably do) exist. (For an interesting and fun look at our students’ hidden assumptions, take a look at Beloit College’s 2012 Mind Set list. How many implicit patterns of social structure can you find hidden within?)

Exposing the hidden patterns of oppression and marginalization within ourselves and our students is uncomfortable, and I have not yet discovered an easy, simple way of doing this. Any suggestions here would be greatly welcomed! One method I have used, however, is to find a “safe” social group that I can generally assume all (or most) students will find humorous and “different”, such as “Renaissance Fair Devotees”, “GenCon Goers” or (like myself) “Buffy the vampire Slayer fans”. Then I try to explore the ways in which the students’ humor is systematically structured. So far, I have found that the students begin to see that their humor depends upon certain hidden structures of thought underlying the concepts they have about that particular social group. They, then, begin to recognize how patterns of oppression might be hidden and unintentional, yet structural and systematic, just like the patterns necessary for their humor. From here, I have been able to introduce them to the main topics of critical theory regarding structurally derived social injustices. I have found through this process that while my well-meaning, white, male students are not sexist, they have begun to understand the complaint of those feminists who complained that they are.


  1. Interesting post, Jason.

    I don't have much experience teaching in this area, but here's an idea for an exercise that might work. Have each student write down a joke or quip about a specific group of people. It should be a joke that the student genuinely thinks is funny. Collect the jokes. Distribute a handout in which the students' jokes are anonymously interspersed them with your own examples of humor that show the patterns you're talking about. Use that handout as the basis for discussion. (For a double-blind version, after the students turn in a joke they find funny, have them turn in a joke that exhibits the patterns you're looking for. Don't ask them which is which.)

    The biggest problem I see here is that the kind of humor you're really after (I take it) is the off-the-cuff quip. To catch that kind of humor, you might have them keep a journal for a week or two of things that they say or hear in conversation.

  2. The most interesting aspect of this is how self-absorbed and myopic is the entire field of feminist and race theory. I am critical both of your methods and your goals, either of which you may accept or reject.

    Because while you complain to young learners how difficult life is for someone who is not white and male, millions of non-white non-males are out in the world ignoring, sidestepping, or overcoming the hurdles placed in front of all of us, striving, excelling, and winning.

    With the assumption of systemic "oppression", you doom all who buy into your world view to a life of learned helplessness. All of their hopes and dreams must go into cheating the system which they have been told oppresses them, or into the ballot box, which is cheating by official means.

    Because individuals are not bound by the nature or the common limitations of the groups to which they belong. It is profoundly racist or sexist to say that they do.

    I was struck by your statement that the students coming in had a remarkable lack of diversity, listing as your only evidence that four of them were open-minded white males. That displays an amazing lack of introspection, even hypocrisy. Because I'm sure you would agree that people are not defined by their skin or gender.

    On another level, by stating a priori that there is "systemic oppression", you as the authority in the classroom establish that principle as an inarguable tenet of the class. This puts the student on the defensive. That's great for establishing the power of the teacher in the classroom, but not great for actually learning anything other than that racism and sexism are bad, which your students already seem to have known coming in.

    Further, it makes the students feel guilty for being who they are. If that is your goal, you're nothing but a jerk with a lectern.

    So I will assume it is not your goal. But it appears to be your major accomplishment.

  3. Loren, I feel the need to intervene here: We have a well-established tradition here at ISW of civil discussion of issues related to the teaching of philosophy. Commenters are of course free to criticize posts, offering reasons and evidence in support of such criticism. However, name calling and questioning the motives of those who post or comment is not in that spirit of civil discourse. I would invite you to express your claims without recourse to such remarks.

  4. I apologize abjectly for the name-calling, which was uncalled for and counterproductive on several levels. I let my emotional reaction to the subject matter get the better of me.

    It should be clear that like Jason's students I revolt at the implication that a white male per se is responsible for oppression, as I do at the notion that black men are "shiftless" and lazy or Jews rule the world through control of Swiss banks.

    These are not mere straw men. Identifying the scapegoats of class economics or behavior and then ascribing group characteristics of those scapegoats to the individual is no better in one case than another.

    I also believe that such faulty logic, when given the authority of the podium, ultimately damages the reputation of the academy as a whole.

  5. I have no experience teaching this material, so forgive me if my suggestion sounds hopelessly naive. I'm wondering whether it might be counter productive, at least at the start, to be focusing so much on whether the students are or are not sexist or racist and on their learned patterns of thought.

    One of the lessons I emphasize over and over again in my philosophy courses is that the focus of our discussion is not going to be them - not their feelings, or opinions, or backgrounds, etc. etc. Most students have been encouraged to devote endless hours to dissecting themselves at an age at which such self-reflection tends to yield cliche rather than genuine insight. Getting them to analyze something other than what they already think or feel turns out to be surprisingly difficult. But it is equally clear that it improves their critical ability. Why should a course on gender, race and economic structures be about the students?

    I ask this question knowing, of course, that the course is devoted to their learning and so is about them in that sense. But learning what? I suspect they will learn more if their eye is trained to the world rather than themselves. Now, one hopes, as one does with all courses, that the end result of expanding their conceptual resources is that they will bring them to bear on themselves in a critical way. But it may be that asking them to do so too soon is not a great idea.

    Caveat: in my advice, I would like to warn against always using examples of persons or groups of people that the students already identify (consciously and unconsciously) as other. It looks like you don't do this, which is great. Otherwise a patrician air of self-satisfied upper class liberalism tends to get inculcated (I say this, of course, as an upper-middle class liberal myself).

  6. I have to say that I don't see how this question:

    " ... how does a group of well-meaning white guys sincerely trying to understand gender and race theory get called sexist (or racist)?"

    leads straight to this question:

    " does a group of well-meaning white, male students of critical theory not see the structural patterns of oppression that are implicitly sexist and/or racist?"

    Of course, I see the link, and I'm sure that you have more information about the incident than I do. I can well understand that, out of respect for your students, you are making a legitimate decision not to reveal all the details.

    But there are some other questions that could be asked.

    Two men raise gender issues. The remarks they make are perceived as sexist. This could indeed indicate that the male students were blind to their own involvement in structures of oppression. However, it could also mean that the students who made the accusation were too ready to jump on any remark made by a male about gender issues as sexist.

    The Big Fat Redneck Wedding example raises similar concerns. I haven't seen the show, but I wonder whether it is so obvious an example of exploitation. Do the participants know what the show is called? If so, they probably expect that people will laugh at them, and are comfortable with that. There are people who enjoy engaging in absurd behaviour, especially when weddings are involved, knowing the people will find it amusing. To assume that participants are being exploited supposes that they are gullible, and lack any sense of how others perceive them. Maybe this is true (I know that the type of exploitation you are talking about does occur), but it is not the only possibility.

    My worry is whether a laudable eagerness to find and overcome genuine structures of oppression will lead to students finding such structures even where they don't exist.

    Again, I admit that I don't have sufficient knowledge about the particular cases in question.

  7. In my experience, this discipline has a lot more in common with religion than with actual philosophy. Accepting certain tenets is presented as a moral duty - "accept them if you want to be a moral person"; not "accept them if you want to get the world right" as in philosophy. One must cleanse oneself of the original sin of prejudice, which everybody is infected with.

  8. Thank you, everyone, for your keen criticisms and objections. I shall briefly comment on a few points to clarify what I think will motivate the discussion forward and keep the various threads separate. Let me be clear though: I do not intend to argue for the merits of feminist or race theory, nor do I pretend to be an expert. The purpose of my post is to highlight a potential problem in teaching feminist or race theory, not to defend them. Mine is first and foremost a pedagogical problem. And I don’t think the problem is peculiar to critical theory either.

    In the spirit of Nietzsche, Philosophy is dynamite! It is by the nature of what we do as philosophers, not just what we say, that makes the world explosive. The main point of my post is to highlight the fact that teaching feminist theory, or race theory, often causes discomfort and/or vicious ire in our students. The reason seems to be that our students assume many things about the way the world works that is in conflict with the ideas presented. In my experience, though, this is not something to avoid, but to explore. Their assumptions can be utilized toward real and positive transformations. (It is also possible that such transformations will never take place, or that we will never find or understand our students’ hidden assumptions, and maybe not even our own). Now to say this does not mean that we make our courses “about” our students, as Becko perceptively warns against. As a pedagogical tool, however, it is sometimes helpful and profitable for our students to examine their own thinking. Ethics courses often run this way. A professor will raise an ethical dilemma and ask her students to respond to it. The professor, then, will ask the students to articulate the reasoning behind their response. What I am proposing in asking students to explore their own implicit patterns of social thought is no different. And similar to teaching ethics, asking them to do so is not to make the course about them, or to take their eyes off of the world, but to help them fix their eyes firmly upon the complexity of the world in which they live. Thank you, Becko, for making sure this point was stressed. And thank you David Morrow for your interesting and creative suggestions. I shall try them and let you know what happens.

  9. Ben Murphy makes a number of important observations on which I wish to comment. First, it is a good question how the question“ ... how does a group of well-meaning white guys sincerely trying to understand gender and race theory get called sexist (or racist)?"

    leads straight to the question:

    " does a group of well-meaning white, male students of critical theory not see the structural patterns of oppression that are implicitly sexist and/or racist?"

    My point here had little to do with the actual event, but was rhetorically meant to say that well-meaning, non-minorities might be called sexist or racist because of the patterns of social thought in which they unknowingly participate, even though they are not personally racist or sexist. And this is true even with students of race or feminist theory. The point is about social structures and is not about the personal beliefs or values of individuals. In fact, the complaint that, “I am a white male, but I am not racist or sexist. How can someone say that my thinking is?” misses the point. If oppressive patterns of social thought or unjust social structures exist, then whether or not we accept them is irrelevant. The question is whether or not we unknowingly participate in them, which feminist and race theory says we sometimes do. (That certain structures of social thought exist is a tenet of social theory, whether right or wrong.)

    Second, Ben remarks that, “Two men raise gender issues. The remarks they make are perceived as sexist. This could indeed indicate that the male students were blind to their own involvement in structures of oppression. However, it could also mean that the students who made the accusation were too ready to jump on any remark made by a male about gender issues as sexist.” This raises a difficult intellectual problem of verification, but it also raises a difficult pedagogical problem. I think that the pedagogical problem, however, is easier to tackle. In teaching race theory or feminist theory, I try to convey the validity of the arguments and methods to show the value of the pursuit, not to determine who is or who is not sexist or racist. (I also try to explore certain problems of the pursuit, such as the potential to turn everything into a race or gender issue. Yet, teaching the arguments for feminist or race theory is not the same thing as making everything about gender or race, as some have supposed.) I find it important, therefore, to distinguish the personal from the structural. My method has been to show how social structures work. Then to show how humor reveals that we all rely upon assumed social structures and patterns of thought that arise from the social structure. Never would I think it wise to implicate a student as sexist or racist. Someone may not be sexist or racist, but that fact does not exclude the possibility that she may participate in social structures or patterns of thought that implicitly are. Hence, I manage this difficulty in the classroom through the use of humor in order to show how implicit patterns of thought work.

    Third, Ben hits upon an important criticism of race and feminist theory that needs to be stressed while teaching it: that it is possible to see patterns and create structures that do not exist. Some patterns, however, do exist and are observable; this is obvious and I think can be shown. But Ben highlights an important pedagogical fact: unless we also can show the limitations of any theory, we might not have yet really taught it. This consideration should also answer Loren Heal’s concerns.

  10. In response to PFlWHL's comment: I think those doing other kinds of philosophy have equally "religious" commitments. The idea that logic is -the- tool, that it is coextensive with, or simply is philosophy is an assumption I have encountered. This assumption unfortunately can lead to a disturbing myopia, in that the question of who is being served by a given logical argument (which I take to be, in a really small nutshell, the purpose of critical theory) is not asked. An argument is made, it's deemed watertight, or not, and then the philosophy-doing stops. I think there's a pretty obvious parallel to religion here--logical coherency is the end of the road, whereas God is the end of the road in religion. And I think, frankly, that the average person questions God a lot more than logic.


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