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.