- Critiquing the Rhetoric of "Safety" in Feminist Pedagogy:Women of Color Offering an Account of Ourselves
"It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors."—Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed 42
With its emphasis on empowering students' voices and valuing experiential knowledge, and on collaborating and creating community, feminist pedagogy has long been understood as integral to the field of women's studies. Feminist theories and practices inform how we teach within a feminist classroom. Very little research has been done, however, to illuminate the challenges of embodying feminist pedagogical practices that address the locationality and subjective positions of women faculty of color. According to Christine Stanley, "[t]here is very little empirical research on the teaching experiences of faculty of color in predominantly white colleges and universities . . . [and] . . . most salient themes identified . . . relate to student attitudes and behaviors inside and outside the classroom" (19). In this paper, we critique the rhetoric of safety in feminist pedagogy. We use our own lived experiences and perceptions of safety, or lack of it, to disrupt and interrogate ways in which the hegemonic power of the dominant discourse in academic culture in general, and feminist pedagogy in particular, is embedded in constructing, naming, and defining feminist teaching and classroom environments.
In framing the critique of the rhetoric of safety in feminist pedagogy, we not only interrogate the dilemmas and challenges in the struggle to embody feminist pedagogical practices, but also problematize and share the strategies that we employ in teaching. We argue that like many other women of color and critical feminists, as stipulated by Kathleen Weiler in Women Teaching for Change: Gender, Class, and Power and Lucila Vargas in Women Faculty of Color in the White Classroom: Narratives on the Pedagogical Implications of Teacher Diversity, we also struggle with feminist issues in our lives and in our teaching. However, studies show that neither mainstream feminists nor academia adequately acknowledge the existence of these kinds of challenges.1 For example, women faculty of color constantly grapple with the rhetoric of "safety" in the classroom, a rhetoric which does not reflect their experiences. They are also confronted with a hostile and skeptical academic climate that forces them to constantly justify and defend themselves. [End Page 87]
As women professors of color teaching a class about women of color in a predominantly white institution of higher learning in the Midwest, we discuss our narrative experiences.2 According to Petra Munro, the process of narrativizing personal experiences does not merely illuminate women's lives, it also becomes an epistemological process of meaning-making. Daniel E. Polkinghorne argues that narrativizing is also a "narrative cognition" through which we know, construct, and understand the reality of the world around us (9). Therefore, we view narratives as storied ways of knowing through which we communicate trustworthy, valid, and useful knowledge about the reality of our lived experiences. And because the narrativizing process involves analysis, self-reflexivity, and making judgment, it becomes an important means through which to reveal and illuminate complexities of our actions, complexities which are often ignored as women of color.
The questions we raise about teaching and learning are embodied in the wider discourse, as articulated by bell hooks, about faculty of color teaching in predominantly white institutions of higher learning and what it means to teach in places of pedagogical as well as institutional marginality. In the attempt to locate our individual struggles and actions and to critique the rhetoric of safety, we hope to open up dialogues that speak to the connection of such struggles and actions within the larger political, educational, and social structures of power in mainstream academia and in feminist pedagogical circles.
Making this connection is important for two reasons. First, the experiences of women of color have been relegated to the academic cultural oblivion and "have remained private for far too long" (Stanley 22). In defining these experiences and struggles as personal issues, women are expected to deal with them privately. Divorcing struggles of women of color from the larger academic culture has worked to exonerate institutions of higher learning from the responsibility of formulating such issues as important...