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Taking It Personally

Blog

08 Mar 2016
Stories from the Front
Tags: anti-racism   |   white privilege   |   critically reflective teaching

My father, Lloyd R. Westfield, spent the majority of his career as a school psychologist with the Philadelphia public school system. He loved his job, and by many accounts, he was very good at his job. I have vivid memories of him, one summer, as an adjunct professor for Temple University, teaching a course on abnormal psychology. His unanticipated challenge was that with the introduction and exploration of each psychological malady, students “diagnosed” themselves as having each abnormality. Dad said it was like watching children try-on high heeled shoes, sequined church hats, feathery boas, and bright red lipstick in their mother’s closet – except - these garments were distortions, emotional problems and diseases. The stress and duress of teaching students who were primarily doing self-serving analyzes was exhausting for my father. When asked to teach the course the following summer – he declined.

Something similar happens in the adult classroom when teaching about issues of white supremacy, systemic racism, domination, identity, and societal violence. Students try-on the social maladies of injustice as if trying on personal garments. In turn, their classroom engagement is reduced to gazing into the mirror looking for personal fit and failure. If the metaphorical garment somehow fits – they are ashamed. If the metaphorical garment, from their own imaginary inquiry, is ill-fitting – they absolve themselves from personal responsibility. This venture into taking it personally turns into irresponsible reflection which serves to block critical reflection and hampers a sophisticated consideration for the issues of justice. Teaching in the disciplines of religion, culture studies, race theory, and gender studies means that all my classes are rife for the personal try-ons.

As a womanist, I am deeply committed to the construction of knowledge which comes from personal knowing, experience, and the everydayness of living. For me, this is the source of wisdom and hope. At Lynnes-Fatherthe risk of contradicting my previous paragraphs, I am making a distinction between knowledge production and playing at therapy; between reflecting upon personal experience and getting upset about the ideas we are studying because you think the ideas we are studying are directed at you in particular.

The obstacle to teaching, as I see it, is when the classroom is reduced to a place where students haphazardously “play” at their own personal responsibility, and in so doing, refuse to immerse into critically responsible reflection. Students, when taking ideas personally, use the personal as an excuse to be dismissive, judgmental, or just plain rude. Taking issues personally withers the exploration of the personal experience.

It is a challenge to differentiate between white people and the ideology of white supremacy. It is a challenge to differentiate between the ideas of domination (patriarchy, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism) and the lived choices of our brothers and sisters. It is difficult to convey to students that “….. (this) is not about you – personally” when, for so many, this is the first or one of the first conversations which provides information about the workings of systemic oppression.

I am not suggesting an emotional disconnection from study. On the contrary, I have vivid, visceral memories of moments when theory has liberated me - personally. As well, I can recall moments when theory has eviscerated me - personally. It is nearly impossible to remain objective in deep, meaningful study. What I have learned is not to give over to these super-charged emotional experiences, but instead sit with them and ask “what am I to learn?” The challenge of this kind of pedagogy is to teach students to sit with their own discomfort, and rather than wallow in anger or pity or pain - dare to press through to the new meanings, new learnings – to the change. Inviting students to have new thoughts about old ideas is inherently uncomfortable, likely tremendously emotional, and, if done successfully, will cause transformation of mind, body and spirit. Lingering with, being present to, students who are learning to sit with their own discomfort might be the most difficult aspect of teaching. Of course, I am speaking personally.

In what ways and how might we sit with students as they work through their discomfort with certain ideas? What does it mean to linger with students as they struggle?

In what ways/how does a professor signal a student that, while there is no room for “taking it personally” there is ample room to reflect on the personal experience?

Is it possible that we need to routinely refer students for professional therapy as they engage these large ideas of existence?

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Thanks Dr. Westfield for this article. The great challenge, as a white anti-racist male, within a diverse classroom is always being aware of my social location. At the same time, always being honest about this history of my body as it relates to other bodies. Yet even while seeking a constant state of awareness of social hierarchies as a student i must always remember that even when these social maladies of injustice do not fill i am still responsible. So your article is helpful as I am reminded that the work to be done is to “differentiate between white people and the ideology of white supremacy.” Being able to differentiate has allows me to enter into my world full family, and friends, who don’t even know they are wearing these social maladies garment, and witness to them a spirit of anti-racism rhetoric. This has allow me to engage in conversation that help them move from a state of social domination to a place of critical reflection and transformation. (Granted sometimes it is not that simple and I am reject). Yet it is my conviction, as white anti-racist male, that by clarifying my social location that I might be able to witness to a greater truth as the one up front (of the classroom) and as the student in the classroom. Thanks again.

  2. Dr. Westfield, I can truly say that this article speaks to me, personally. Coming from the context of an African-American Male who has witnessed injustice to others who look like me, (and often wonder will this happen to me) I take it personal when I see injustice. Learning in a diverse classroom setting gives a different vantage point for others to hear from. In my opinion, to enhance the conversation/discussion its best that we share what we take personal. I do believe that professional therapy may serve as a benefit to students but I think it is healthier for the student to affect what hurts them personally until those around them become socially aware of the pain.

  3. Dr. Westfield this is a very poignant post for me personally. All throughout my seminary journey I have had to sit with thoughts, theologies, and ideas that have not stood the test of time or the test of seminary. I have learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s difficult to discuss issues of racism, sexism and classism. It is hard to discuss issues of privilege. However, learning to wrestle with these issues could potentially produce new ways of seeing and experiencing the world around us. Wrestling in the classroom with others, when done in an honest and authentic way, though challenging can bring about healing. Thank you for sharing your experience with your father. It adds such a personal touch to these blog entries.

  4. Parker Loesch, I think you are brave for attempting to share anti-racism rhetoric with those family members and friends that are dear to you. I’m sure that must not be easy. I have found that rejection is sometimes a part of the process when speaking truth. I pray we can all find transformation in the difficult conversations we have.

  5. Thank you very much Dr. Westfield! This article has really made me think more deeply. Coming from an African background which has a history of slavery and colonialization, I understand the subject of white supremacy and domination. But I think we as students should be able to move from hiding behind the reality of the issues of racism, classism and other injustices done to the minority or the “voiceless” in the society and freely express ourselves in ways that expose the structural or the systemic evil. When we always address issues from the perspective of “personal,” though it’s good but we either leave a major truth or sometimes distort the rationale behind our expression. But thank you once again for this article.

  6. And I think I agree with you, Emmanuel; that you have witnessed done to others who look like you. That’s very true, and what we all need to understand is that what we tolerate we cannot confront, and what we don’t confront we cannot be freed from. In Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham jail on April 16, 1963, he said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Meaning, it does not matter who or where it happens we all have a share in the pain. Therefore it’s our radical fight for freedom.

  7. I agree with you Melaine. Seminary has definitely taught me how to be comfortable in the place where I am uncomfortable. My question then become if I am called to speak out to injustice every where why am I should get comfortable here? The issues that we as the leaders of the church and world face in the classroom often reflect what we will speak out to later on.

  8. For many years, I believed that racism was dying and that we would see an end to it within my lifetime. I say this because for all of my life, I had never experienced racism from a standpoint of the systemic problem that exists. I only knew from an individual (my own) standpoint. I never saw people denied employment because of race because the people I’d worked for over the years only wanted to hire those that will do the best work possible, race notwithstanding. I’ve seen plenty of people from all races and walks of life promoted or given positions of responsibility because they did the best work. I’ve worked for two different companies that had African American CEOs. So, from my perspective, racism was dying.

    But what I did NOT see or understand was systemic racism. As you state, “‘…(this) is not about you – personally’ when, for so many, this is the first or one of the first conversations which provides information about the workings of systemic oppression.” This is why I believe so many people, like me, deny that racism is a problem in this country… because they simply don’t see it. Like me, they see people of all races working in diverse environments and believe that the problems are all but solved. Systemic racism and oppression is vastly different from the racism of individuals. I only see it because I finally left my old world and came into this one in which this reality is taught. And I sincerely believe that if my former colleagues could somehow have their eyes opened, they would see it too. I still believe that it can be defeated within my lifetime; I’m just going to have to live longer than I anticipated!

  9. Emmanuel, I agree with your statement that “In my opinion, to enhance the conversation/discussion it’s best that we share what we take personal.” It is one thing to learn the facts about racism. It is quite another to be able to see and count the cost. One of the things about my seminary education that has been so valuable is the fact that I have been afforded to opportunity to see the vulnerabilities of others in such a profound and personal way. Thank you for sharing yours.

  10. I was that student in psych class who became convinced that I had every illness we discussed. I didn’t think much of the behavior, more than trying to calm myself by saying that this is what everyone thinks. Yet I have discovered that not everyone looks inwardly and considers their identity fully. That is a frightening endeavor and I believe that most are satisfied with surface level understandings of the self and so, when they are confronted with the possibility that they are not who they have chosen to believe they are, it angers them. Brick by brick, walls are built to protect themselves from the words of others and also make it impossible to communicate. This defensive reaction is pretty normal even if you take time to question your identity, but it takes a conscious effort to overcome it. I believe tone and presentation make all the difference in drawing students into reflection. Information presented without direct accusation starts the thought process. From there it is necessary for students to dwell in their feelings and perhaps the best thing a professor can do at this point is to reassure students that while the sins of the past may impact the future, they do not decide who we can be now.

  11. Melaine, your post reminds me of that first bib lit class I took here. All of us in that class were more than distraught as we had to face these ideas about what was fact and what was fiction in the bible and it felt like a personal attack on our faith. Little did I know that this was just a precursor to the difficulty of the studies to come. I believe you’re right about the potential for healing to happen in the classroom and there is a an awakening that can happen as we all work through the struggle together.