What I Don’t Know Can Hurt Me

The times, they are a-changing.

There’s an issue we’re teasing apart into different filaments at the college. Diversity at Kirkwood is at an all time HIGH. Coolness and awesomeness! We have lots of students from different countries. We have lots of students who speak different languages.

We have lots of students who are coming from rural subculture. We have lots of students who are coming from urban subculture. We have lots of racial diversity. Finally!

This is the first time many of our white students are interacting with diverse populations. Come to think of it, this is the first time many of our teachers are as well. This five-year period has seen an incredible spikes. We’re recruiting abroad and in the Chicago areas, and Iowa is bringing in immigrants.

BUT what we haven’t seen to get us ready for all this? A scaffolding support system that helps us all get along. In reacting to a fight in the atrium, we hired a stone-faced security guard. It had become a gathering place for black students. Now, it’s not. Instructors complain of how loud our Islamic students are, our black students are, and our Hispanic students are. Cultural norms are rubbing each other along raw edges.

If there’s one thing the Internet has taught me in recent years, it’s that you can’t decide your own culture, ethnicity, socio-economic class, any aspect about you is “base-line normal,” and everything else takes you into exotic country.

As a professor, I feel it’s important for me to get educated. Most efforts at Kirkwood start modestly, and our modest beginning appears to be a reading circle.

While I am not an expert on all language and international issues by far, my job gives me a real head start. Every day I interact with students, and they teach me. I try to give them what they need to negotiate their experience here. They help me negotiate my experiences with them, and with other members of their culture. We’re not talking about xerox here. We’re talking about experience as another tool in the box. When I deal with the next Guatemalan, I don’t have to start over, entirely.

I find that the issue of US race relations is touchy at our predominately white school. I find that there’s a lot of intentional and unintentional xenophobia in our ranks. One of our English teachers is trying to mitigate that with a reading circle specifically focusing on collegiate interactions with men of color (there was a study done on several campuses. It’s a good place to start.)

The instructor is a good teacher for the course. She is not black or a male, but has a lot of solid experience and interaction with many minority students, especially black males. She’s sought out discussions, she listens, and she learns. We have another teacher just like her in the reading circle. Heal (the leader) cares enough to start the circle. She wants to get us all to acknowledge our privilege and even attend a privilege conference.

I thought that the ELA coordinator at the college should go. (Yes, that’s me.) It’s not the same diversity I deal with, but I do see the obvious implications for my pedagogy and administrative practices. Also, to some extent, I can keep the whole reading circle from devolving into a superficial foreign fair level, or from that lumping of diversity that sometimes keeps us from talking about race relations, or religious interaction by focusing on this issue being culture, not language.

This is the point in the journal entry when most white people will talk about their familiarity with minority, and why they feel empathetic. Not going there. What I want from this workshop is to LEARN, to listen, and to become a better teacher, not to mention a better human being. I know I can’t see all my cultural biases. I’m inside the damned culture! I’m learning to look with new eyes.

So I’m not talking with these teachers about my own experiences. I’m hear to talk about men of color and how higher ed works or doesn’t work for them, the obstacles they encounter.

Last week during our first class, there were 5 white women, and 1 Spanish woman in the reading group. I’m trying not to judge their responses, and this is hard for me. They did spend a lot of time talking about how they understand what it is to be a minority, almost a justification for the whole white privilege thing (look, Ma, I’m underprivileged too!) They proposed strategies to interact with males of color that struck me as very white and middle-class, although I’m not sure why. The suggestion was that we ask black males why they’re dropping out of our classes. Why did that strike me as a middle-class white approach? Certainly, mind reading has never answered the question. But it hit me wrong.

Everyone’s got to start somewhere. Me too. I’m not nearly as knowledgeable as I like to think I am. I’ve got to turn on my tolerance, even for my fellow classmates.

So, here I go. I’m in a class focusing on how we can assist males of color in higher ed institutions. I’ve committed to go to my first privilege conference in April. And I’m going to activate my consideration circuit as much as I can, because after telling a woman in class I thought her response to a question was so very white and offending her, I need to be aware it’s pretty early in the course to separate emotions from cultural anthropology.

Anyway, any advice those of you familiar with privilege or racism want to hand over, I’m listening. Politely, I might add.


Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

4 thoughts on “What I Don’t Know Can Hurt Me”

  1. Whatever color the guy is, look at the family he grew up in. Was a dad around? If there is no father figure in the home, there is probably a son living on the edge. If the dad or mom was around, did he/she value education? Then again, if we blame family for all our problems, we get caught in the victim mentality and validate things like… drop out of school.

    Find mentors for these guys? Could help.

    So what is the motivation to break the cycle? I think it is colorless and has to come from within, when you’ve already reached adulthood.

  2. I believe that background plays a huge factor, although I myself am proof that background can be overcome.

    One of the things that left me thinking during the class is that one of the things we don’t realize is the privilege we get, the lack of assumptions because we have white faces. The idea of colorless-ness is one I think we’re going to think long and hard about.


  3. Yes,
    When you look different than 80% of the population, you get stared at, sized up, or you might get that uncomfortable “niceness” from the majority group towards you. To get a sucessful job as a minority, you have to have a thick skin, no pun intended, I’m sure.

  4. One of the few things I regret about growing up in rural Iowa is the lack of diversity. Because of this I am always wondering if I am too polite or not polite enough or if I am staring or look like I’m averting my gaze. After spending a quarter century try to recondition myself, I am still embarrassed by my ineptitude in this department.

    The most important thing I have learned is that many things Americans consider to be race issues are class issues.

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