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A Strategy to Re-Humanize

The intent of racism is to dehumanize. Consequently, a prevalent strategy of racism is to convince caring people that non-white people are lacking - lacking in values, lacking in character, lacking in abilities, lacking in that which makes for good community, good neighbors, good teachers. Racism teaches that non-white people should be objects of suspicion and guile. What does it mean to be a Black woman professor when the uncontested lenses of racism are the basis of students’ knowing about Black women? What does it mean to use theological school classrooms to re-humanize the de-humanized? While in the grips of dehumanization, what strategies might a Black professor use to re-humanize herself so that her teaching might be effective? How does one gain trust when one is summarily deemed untrustworthy?

“.... like going to rat city in cheese pants!” This little known, but clever, adage describes some of my feelings about teaching as a Black woman.  I, like most Black women professors, have spent significant time developing coping strategies against the racism and sexism in my own classrooms. Racism works to truncate the imagination of the racist person. It thwarts the human spirit’s yearning to know and develop meaningful relationships with persons who would be strangers. As such, it is common that stereotypes of Black women permeate the thoughts and behaviors of my students when they first meet me. As a Black woman, I can be labeled and summed-up through only a few, well accepted categories: whore, shortie, mammie, superwoman, maid, Oprah, bitch, or welfare queen. The tricky-ness of stereotypes is that they possess a modicum of truth; on any given day I am one or two of these personas, and every day I am more, much more, than all of these personas. Being a Black woman in my own classroom has meant a constant project of helping my students to see past their initial presumptions of me and risk moving into genuine relationship.

I have learned that if I am not successful in humanizing myself in the eyes of my students then my classroom becomes a battlefield where they think they are in charge of me, and where I disagree.

I have come to understand that an effective teaching strategy when the racism and sexism is thick is to find ways to expand the narrative about Black women in the knowing of my students.

My task is to add to, or create anew, narratives of Black women which re-inscribe our Nancy2generative roles in society. I have learned that telling stories of my mother – Nancy Bullock Westfield - is a tool of my survival. It seems that narratives about family and family life are persuasive in expanding the racist/sexist imagination. Somehow, when I portray myself as someone’s daughter, my students see this as an invitation into a more authentic relationship in the classroom.  Sharing stories of my mother is an invitation to my students into a recognizable sacred space.  

When I tell stories of my mother in my classroom I can feel my tone of voice warm, I can feel the confidence she prayed into me rekindle. When I tell stories of my mother I relax and my energy grounds. While telling a story about her, I remember her love for me, and my body eases, my facial expressions soften. I rest deeper into my own body feeling more present and summoning authenticity. The telling of these stories make me feel less alone and less vulnerable because I remember my highest values of kinship and community.

Westfield-familyOf course, I do not tell stories that are sentimental, maudlin or nostalgic. The narratives I infuse are of the ways mother was a warrior, artist, activist, seer, healer, prophet, teacher, mystic, prayer warrior and political strategist.

I understand that my storytelling is an invocation of Nancy’s spirit summoning her values and protection into my classroom. I understand that my mother connects me to her mother, and her mother, and her mother, and her mother, so my generational responsibility is present in my classroom – working on behalf of all of us. I suppose it is easier to trust someone who honors mother.

And so, I continue to reflect:

As engaged teachers, what is at risk by sharing personal stories in the classroom? What is the measure of this kind of pedagogical intimacy?

What would it mean if administrators recognized the divisiveness of race politics in classrooms and assisted in creating an ecology whose hallmarks are equality, reconciliation, and reparation?

Nancy Lynne Westfield

About Nancy Lynne Westfield

Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D. writes about the religious, educational and spiritual experiences of African-American people, especially women. She is a womanist with a vocational passion for teaching, and an ordained Deacon in the United Methodist Church. This informs her work as Professor of Religious Education and Director of the Forum for Social Justice at Drew University Theological School, New Jersey. Her students say that her courses are creative, intense, and strangely fun. Nancy’s first book was a children’s book entitled All Quite Beautiful: Living in a Multicultural Society. Her published dissertation is entitled Dear Sisters: A Womanist Practice of Hospitality. Her books written in collaboration include: Being Black/Teaching Black: Politics and Pedagogy in Religious Studies and Black Church Studies: An Introduction. She is currently working on two books: one about racial identity politics and anti-racist consciousness, and a collaborative project about the mystical experiences of African American people. For more check out: https://lynnewestfield.com or follow her on Twitter @LynneWestfield.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Always good to read your blog posts Nancy, I always learn with you! Thank you for sharing.

  2. I may not be the most perceptive person when it comes to recognizing racism, but I do recognize human when I see it. In all my years in the corporate workforce, I always judged how good a boss was by how human they were. In other words, did they relate to people on a one-on-one basis, or did they just act as a corporate automaton spewing the company line. I would always be more motivated to work hard for someone if I knew about the person, if I had a relationship with them, knew about their mother, and heard stories about their children. That’s human. That’s where we’re all connected.

    I remember one boss I had, a white woman, who never spoke to me about anything other than the company for which we worked. She never mentioned her family, her life outside of work (presuming there was one), or anything else personal. If I ever mentioned something about my kids, she quickly brought the subject back to work. She wasn’t human and there was no motivation within me to work hard for her. One day, the company laid her off. No one shed a tear for her.

    To your point, it is the stories – about our moms, our families, our struggles, our joys and more that make us human. The fact that your stories help break down racism is, I think, a happy coincidence. It is understandable for people to withhold their stories, careful not to reveal too much. If we give too much information, or say too much, we become vulnerable. So, as I think about it, I guess there’s a great irony in the fact that in order for you to not become victimized by racism, you make yourself vulnerable. There’s great power in that.

  3. Thank you Nancy Westfield for your words on pedagogical intimacy within the classroom. As a white male I have been transformed by the stories of womanist, feminist, and queer theorist within the classroom. And while remembering an article I read a while back I find the these words are relevant, dehumanization is the first step towards violence. This violence has typically materializes towards individuals, communities and systemic structures who tend to be people of color, women, LGBTQ and all the intersection of the societal groups. I find within my Quaker heritage, narrative can be used as a profound tool and way of resisting violence connecting and re-connecting diverse people groups within the classroom. This process, I believe, creates a more authentic engagement between educator and students.

    This makes me wonder, in what ways might a pedagogical approach rooted in intimacy and narrative, further the collaborative and transformational work we call education? I am drawn to the same work Dr. Westfield offers in this blog that by offering “anew, narrative of Black women which re-inscribe our generative role in society” non-people of color (whites) might be able to adopt this suitable model for whites to begin/continue re-writing and re-imagining a narrative where white communities seek to be anti-racism, and anti-sexism within the larger society and the ecology in a classroom. What if we stopped teaching our children simply be “color bible” and taught our children to be voices of societal change. The product might be less violence in the world and more authentic love. Thank you N. L. Westfield for sharing your story.

  4. Peter Mantle: I find your statement “it is understandable for people to withhold their stories,” true and very complex. This fear of telling our stories is a real thing! In the context of a work place there is this pseudo-narrative that suggest that work and personal should be separate. But what is at stack in doing this? In what ways might this pseudo-narrative perpetuates a body-mind split? Could a pedagogy of intimacy create an environment of healing the body-mind split? But the fear of telling our stories is still a real thing.

    The fear of sharing our narratives is real and for a white woman boss, it is important to remember that women today are constantly resistance centuries of sexism in the work place. I can only imagine the stories she wished she could tell. For women in leadership, the moment they be vulnerable, is also creates a space for sexism to emerge. In that moment she may be unjustly stereotyped as “weak,” or “emotional” and in light of a work place could also get her fired because these stereotypes are not productive to a work place. Also if she was a man, it is important to note that “weak” would become vulnerable, and “emotional” would become Passionate. This is way sexism is a systemic problem. if she doesn’t tell her story she gets fired and if she tells her story she could also get fired.

  5. What is the risk of sharing personal stories in the classroom? Vulnerability! I like Peter’s point, in order to not be victimized by racism you put on your armor of vulnerability. I believe that there is more at risk in not opening up to your class. Opening up reveals to your students your humanness. When we find a common ground, even across racial, sexual, economic, and religious boundaries, these walls of hate and mistrust/misunderstanding begin to deconstruct before our very eyes. And once those walls begin to crumble, we are finally able to rebuild a more accepting reality. I can only speak on my own behalf, but my very best teachers and professors were the ones who were willing to delve into uncomfortable territory, it was only then that I too was willing to go down that road. Relationships are kindled by sharing stories, so please continue to share yours!

  6. Thank you Dr. Westfield for sharing your story! It is often hard to be fully human (and conscious of it) when dealing with people who don’t treat you as such. In my own personal life, when faced with this issue, I am the student or the employee but never have I been the one in charge. This is extremely difficult! Having the words of someone you love and respect to hold onto during those times makes it a little easier to make it through without devaluing the humanity of others, and even more yourself. It makes you feel vulnerable to even share this information because you don’t know how it may be used against you in the next time you are in a setting like that. I commend you for having the courage to share your truth!

  7. Peter: The way you began your post speak the truth that many people cannot profess. “I may not be the most perceptive person when it comes to recognizing racism, but I do recognize human when I see it.” Although I can’t make the same declaration with your first half of the sentence, it resonates with me. Having experienced racism on so many different levels, it’s important to remember that people of other races are still Human. They still have similar values and morals as everyone else. Thank you for being bold enough to say it!

  8. Thank you Dr. Westfield for this insightful and inspirational post. I am still very broken over the loss of my mother. A part of me is still struggling with accepting it. I find it hard to talk about it sometimes even when I want to. To hear how helpful it is for you to share stories of your mother and the power she possessed is encouraging to me. We are all someone’s daughter or son and that makes us human. Talking about my mother keeps her alive in my memory and keeps me aware of my responsibility to her legacy. I will certainly employ this as a tool of re-humanization and resistance from now on.

  9. Hey Nicole Kaufmann! I agree with you. Vulnerability can be a scary word but it is necessary if we are going to make progress in the area of social justice. Vulnerability in the classroom may be alarming to some people but it is a stepping stone to true healing and change. Show me your battle scars and I’ll show you mine. Opening up helps us to know we are not alone in this world and we are all in need of healing on some level. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Silence grants its own power to the one who wields it. I have often refused to share any part of my being that I feel was unearned by those in the shared space. It’s a funny feeling when you believe that you have no obligation to expose or explain yourself and yet you feel as if you must do so. It is expected of you because, you are the different one. Over time, I learned how to use the power of personal story to connect with others. In a moment of peace, I can share a story from my life with others and they’ll understand the complexity that is my humanity.

    I can appreciate it when people don’t have an especially strong desire to share the personal. I can also appreciate your invocation of your mother as I do this as well. Mine is mostly silent, but I do often think “How would mom fight this fight?” or “Would mom fight this fight?” She stands out as a figure who stood proudly and did not feel a need to be validated (as far as I could tell growing up). I’m not especially familiar with what strength lies in the men of my family, but I know well the strength of the women who have strengthened me.

  11. Melaine there is something significant about what you said about honoring your mother. That you have a responsibility to she who empowere(s)d you and how opening up connects and heals us. I remember sharing a moment with my brothers working at camp where we allowed a level of vulnerability unheard of before. One brother shared a struggle that was painful for him, but his vulnerability allowed us to share that he was not alone in that struggle. In that time I remember feeling more loved than I had in a long time because I no longer felt I was the only one in the struggle. I got to experience the healing you spoke of and it was transformative.

  12. Thank you very much Prof. Westfield about your thought on racism. This is an important topic and worthy of discussion. It is very obvious that the original intent of racism is to dehumanize the human race, more specifically the non-white populace. We are living in a society where injustice is the order of the day. And that’s an abuse to the human race and a grave sin in the sight of God. I personally think that the fight against racism must encompass all. It should not be left just in the hands of few people but all. By saying all, I mean religious groups, institutions and families alike. It’s a fight for freedom, freedom for all non-white people who are often seen and treated as second class humans.

  13. Thank you Melaine for sharing; you really awakened me to myself about the mention of your late mother in response to Dr. Westfield’s story of her mother. Memories of our past heroines/heroes are not dead stories but a living power that rekindle our quest for resisting structural evil. I think that re-humanizing begins with us (people who feel dehumanized). Like Dr. Westfield rightly said, “if I am not successful in humanizing myself in the eyes of my students then my classroom becomes a battlefield where they think they are in charge of me, and where I disagree.” But I thank Dr. Westfield for throwing light and action plan on these pressing issues in the society.

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