As I complete the first term of this fall semester with my students at Mercer in the Professional Studies Department, I am heartened, as I was last fall, by yet another class’ ability to engage the tough work of the course focused upon the intersection of race, class and gender in America.
Though I have taught courses such as this for more than three decades, I am always amazed at the willingness of my students to engage the text and the challenging notions that confront them as they read and discuss a wide variety of essays on many subjects. Subjects that are not usually the ones that are being discussed around the average dinner table. Topics such as white privilege, the construction of sexuality, race, class and gender, the many faces of discrimination, homosexuality, immigration and religious prejudice.
While these are critical issues that affect the quality of our daily lives, they are often embedded in less than positive conversation in more places in our country than we might like to believe. Many of the essays in the wonderful book used for this class reflected in very powerful terms how race, class and gender prejudice impacted the lives of many of its victims.
Many of the essays challenged all readers to pay more careful attention to the ways in which people who represent difference can be projected into being the other and made into a villain in some way.
While I am the primary teacher in the room, I feel very strongly about the fact that we taught each other a great deal as we engaged the text, ideas and many deeply held feelings about the issues being discussed. I cannot say enough about the ability of the students to join the conversation and to stay with it even when it was uncomfortable.
For instance, several white students talked about not having heard about the notion of white privilege. An idea that was introduced in the early 1700s to aid the ruling white men in their effort to prevent the formation of collaborations between poor whites, Native Americans and enslaved blacks. The idea of white skin was promoted as something to be valued above nonwhite skin. This idea continues to be a part of the fabric of our society and while many are unfamiliar with it, its power prevails.
I was delighted to see students engage this tough subject with respect, passion and a desire to understand it and to explore what it had to do with them as they go about living their lives.
Along with this was the challenging notion that human beings constructed many ideas about gender and then established categories of dominance so that men and women would not have to be treated as equals and that God did not have anything to do with these ideas that trouble us so much as we try to allow women to have their deserving place of equality on this planet.
Many of my students found it difficult to imagine a world without male dominance, but they stayed in the conversation. And as they had to assess which essays impacted them the most during the term, they went back to the essays on gender because of the challenges those essays provided to their ways of seeing the roles of males and females.
It is hard to begin with a new group of students each term without wondering if there is really a way to truly travel to any new understanding regarding all of these tough issues.
A student sent me an e-mail after a class a few days ago to say, thank you to me for helping to create the environment for the open, respectful, honest and passionate conversation that we were having. I thank my students for being willing to be in the conversation.
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.