Obstacles To Teaching About Racism And Sexism

Discussing structural racism in the classroom recently made news when a professor who lectured on this topic was reprimanded for making white students feel uncomfortable. The Slate article reporting on this makes a number of excellent points, which I’ll summarize here and apply to other educational situations.

Article author Tressie McMillan Cottom points out that “When colleges and universities become a market, there is no incentive to teach what customers would rather not know. When colleges are in the business of making customers comfortable, we are all poorer for it.”

We know that gendered and racist micro-inequalities and micro-aggressions persist in academia, which is ironic because the ivory tower is supposed to be a place of free thinkers and intellectual inquiry. As Cottom demonstrates, it can be a dangerous thing for professors to tell their students that sexism and racism exists when the students don’t want to acknowledge it. Students who are confronted with this kind of thing may not know how to deal with it: “A white student may feel discomfort when it’s pointed out to him how he has benefited from structural racism, but to compare that discomfort to discrimination is a false equivalency. Hurt feelings hurt, but it is not oppression.”

It is an unfortunate trend in education to treat students like clients or consumers, whose hurt feelings must be appeased and soothed, rather than treating them as what they are: students. Knowledge-seekers. Learners. When you’re there to learn, by definition you don’t know things yet. You especially don’t know yet what you need to know. It is the job of the educator to convey knowledge and skills to the student, whether or not those are on warm-and-fuzzy topics.

If we ignore something that has the potential to make us feel bad, it doesn’t go away. Ignoring racism (or, disingenuously in my view, claiming to be color-blind) doesn’t make it go away. Ignoring sexism doesn’t make it go away. As sex educators and scholars of sexuality know, ignoring HIV/AIDS doesn’t make it go away.

As scholars, teachers, sex educators, and bloggers, we have the responsibility to teach our students about everything from how their bodies to work how society works, using fact-based approaches to help demystify all the crap out there (what my gender studies students have taken to calling “Hollywood sex education,” which is to say, very little in the way of actual education, with a lot of flirtation and fluff layered on top). Unfortunately, the increasing trend in structuring university learning on the business model, with students as clients who must be comfortable and happy at all times, interferes with this mission.

I don’t see an immediate solution to this dilemma, other than persevering with clear-cut learning goals, keeping our students in the loop about those goals, and attempting to create a classroom climate of respect and tolerance. I’ve managed to include some uncomfortable topics in my folklore and gender studies classes and I haven’t gotten in trouble yet for it, though goodness knows I might be benefiting from white privilege or something similar. As I keep telling my students, though, if it’s something people do, it’s worth studying, no matter how “good” or “bad” the topic, or how trivial or uncomfortable it may seem. Perhaps using that style of framing may help others, or perhaps not. I hope that all teachers who work on dismantling hierarchical systems in their classrooms, or drawing attention to the plight of minorities, find ways to keep doing such good work regardless of how exactly they do it.

About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.