- Breaking Down the “Walls of Whiteness”: Strategies for Teaching about Race and Social Justice in a “Very Black Year”
“Defined by feel-good highs . . . devastating lows . . . and reasons to believe in a better day . . ., 2015 was beautifully, painfully and undeniably impactful for African Americans.”—Jamilah Lemieux and Rembert Browne
How does one teach an African American theatre and performance survey course to predominately white students during a particularly painful year of social injustice? While extrajudicial killings of black men and women have long been a critical topic within black nationalist discourse, African American dramatic literature, and everyday conversations among African Americans, this concern has only recently resurfaced within mainstream American media. Journalists Jamilah Lemieux and Rembert Browne mark 2015 as a “very black year” due to the efforts of African Americans to use social media to challenge white hegemony in US politics, culture, and entertainment (27). Indeed, social media provides an unprecedented platform for African Americans to upload videos, discuss issues pertinent to their lives, and respond to the world around them. The rise of social media has created an important ontological space for the next generation of African Americans activists and their allies; social media also breaks down spatial walls, allowing those who have little-to-no contact with nonwhites to actually view footage—from a safe distance—of extralegal killings of African Americans. While often intended to provide concrete “proof” of racial injustice, these videos also desensitize viewers to racial violence and are quickly co-opted to justify the assault on black bodies.1 Considering this current state of affairs, how can instructors put reluctant white students at ease so that they feel comfortable engaging with issues of race and social justice, yet also use race-based stress to challenge dangerous ideologies and behaviors?
I taught the survey course at the University of Oregon, a historically white university and college (HWCU), during this firestorm of racial tension.2 The term HWCU refers to “an institution of higher education whose histories, traditions, symbols, stories, icons, curriculum, and processes were all designed by whites, for whites, to reproduce whiteness via a white experience at the exclusion of others who, since the 1950s and 1960s, have been allowed in such spaces” (Brunsma et al. 719). As a HWCU, the University of Oregon continues to lack substantial black or African American presence among the administration, faculty, and student population. With a total enrollment of 24,125 during the 2015–16 academic year, only 472 black students and less than five black theatre majors enrolled at the university (Office of the Registrar). Before the class even began I knew that statistically, the majority, if not all, of my students would be white. Furthermore, as one of only twelve black or African American tenure-related faculty members, I also knew that few students had the opportunity to engage with a black woman intellectual (Office of Institutional Research). These factors alone compelled me to thoughtfully consider the impact of my own presence in the classroom, strategize [End Page 151] effective ways to teach sensitive subject matter, and find ways to engage students from a variety of standpoints about race and social justice.
Despite these challenges, teaching African American Theatre and Performance to predominately white students in a very black year became one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. I know that I am not alone in my efforts, as teachers of all races engage students of all races in conversations about the complexities of race and social injustice in the United States. While I draw from my own positionality as an African American instructor teaching white students, this essay is intended to serve as a resource for any instructor who wants to engage reluctant students (of various backgrounds) about the importance of race and social justice within the African American performance tradition.
This essay incorporates the sociological findings of David Brunsma, Eric Brown, and Peggy Placier; Robin DiAngelo’s concept of “white fragility”; and the pedagogical theories of black feminist scholar bell hooks to offer strategies for teaching about race and social justice from within African American theatre and performance traditions. In keeping with hooks’s theories...