I just finished teaching my intro anthropology course on Thursday afternoon. At the end, the students heartily applauded me.
Every year, between 30% and 100% of my students are indigenous women (I’m never totally sure, because I don’t take a survey, and random chromosomal sorting and centuries-long interbreeding mean that you can be half Ojibwa and look like Cameron Diaz): Cree, Ojibwa, Dakota, Metis — you name it.
My indigenous students are extremely diverse intellectually and culturally. Some of them grew up telling their friends they were Italian in the hopes of avoiding getting called a dirty Indian. Some of them grew up declaring, loud and proud, who they are. Some of them grew up thinking they were of pure French stock, and only later found out the dirty family secret that they were Metis.
Some of them are energetically engaged in shamanic rituals. Some of them are fiercely Christian. Some are quiet atheists.
What my students were applauding was that I’d kept a strict classroom environment (so the douchey cellphone-wielding students don’t interrupt us), provided a welcoming discussion environment (so the dedicated students can engage verbally in the class), provided clear evaluation criteria that incentivize learning, entertained them with jokes and anecdotes, and helped them understand interesting phenomena in human nature and their lives.
What I find is that my indigenous students (and everyone else) are fascinated and empowered by my course if I drop hints along the way explaining how their own experience and their family’s history of anarchic indigenous traditions, recent domination by the state, discrimination by everyday racists (and very often, internal cultural breakdown and internalized, self-hating racism) connects to broader phenomena of human nature and cultural diversity.
Throughout the course, I make sure to cover a few cultures that have similar experiences of anarchic tradition and colonial oppression. There are some striking similarities with the once-nomadic Ju/’hoan of southern Africa, for instance.
And when my students eventually start raising their hands to say “Hey, that’s just like on the Indian reserve I grew up on!” Or “Is that like what happened in Canada to the Aboriginal people?” I encourage them enthusiastically: “Yes, that’s exactly right!” By the end of the class, when we actually do talk a bit about North American indigenous cultures, these students are confident and curious enough to engage fully and bring their personal knowledge to bear.
I developed this technique based on the good things I learned from the privilege-oriented leftists I went to grad school with. Actual aggression (especially by states and state-backed corporations) against the indigenous people is one layer of the problem. Hostile racism and other douchey attitudes (especially by state officials and rightists) are another layer. But there’s a subtle, third layer, which is patronizing racism (especially by academics and leftists: “Oh your people are so in tune with nature! So egalitarian!”) and the assumption that only experts have the ability to explain “exotic” cultures. Layers 2 and 3 can be stupefying and degrading even when they aren’t violent.
So if the professor goes into the classroom and (as some of my colleagues do) starts talking right away about how evil Western cultures are and how dignified and beautiful indigenous cultures are, the students can fall prey to that third layer. They never develop their own voice and vision.
If you go in and lay down a bunch of conclusions and facts to memorize for the test, the students never get the incentive do their own intellectual work of asking how their own individual lives connect to the broader themes of academic study. Maybe they adopt the prevalent academic interpretation (capitalism BAD!). Maybe they just shut up and don’t share their vision with the class because they know it’s not “what the teacher wants to hear.” Or maybe they simply decide that they must not really know what their own life means.
So instead, I like to drop some breadcrumbs and let the students do the detective work.
Yes, yes, yes, “privilege” is all around us. And yes, yes, yes, I’m a white dude privileged to teach in this environment. But what makes my classes work, for me and my students, is not some guilt-ridden confession session about privilege, nor some moralizing lessons from me, lecturing them on how valid their life experience is, and lecturing the white students on how privileged they are. Instead, what works is to set up the incentives for my students to study hard and talk lots, and then to set up the clues so they can do the work of connecting the dots on their own.
Furthermore, “privilege” guilt sessions and “antiracist” moralizing have a very high rate of turning off the white folk in class, because they feel (somewhat rightly) that they’re being attacked. So, 9 times out of 10, they lash out or dumb down their own voices and visions. But when I drop the breadcrumbs, the white students can connect the dots too. And because I use fun, discussion-based classes, they can discuss the evidence and discover the truth step by step along with their indigenous peers. Fun is a better motivator of learning than guilt.
I do hope that my teaching leads in the long run to some liberation in the NAP sense. But I am certain it leads to some liberation in the psychological sense of shaking off the subtle, sneaky, racist, collectivist assumptions that tend to sneak into classrooms.
Originally published at Liberty.me.