The internets have been abuzz this week over a small publishing house’s plans to print a version of the Twain classic Huckleberry Finn in which all instances of the word “nigger” have been replaced with the word “slave.” A representative of the company in question defends the decision as one intended to get the novel into more classrooms — too often, he says, schools and colleges are unwilling to assign Huckleberry Finn because of that word, and that word alone.
I’ve posted on Twitter about this controversy a few times, mostly to mock the idea of bowdlerizing the book, but a response I got from Parker Ross, who tweets as @PRossibly, brought me up short:
@studentactivism In high school my teacher read Huckleberry Finn out loud in class and said the slurs really loud. Super uncomfortable.
Ross doesn’t say, but I strongly suspect that the teacher in question was white.
As a person who teaches American history on the college level, I address the country’s traumatic racial past in my classrooms on a regular basis. And as a white person who teaches American history in classes made up primarily of students of color, I come to such moments with a particular perspective and a particular set of challenges.
You can’t teach American history in any serious way without talking bluntly about lynching, about slavery, about anti-immigrant sentiment, about malign policies toward Native Americans, about the deployment of racism as a tactic of terrorism and a instrument of social control. But for a white professor in a mostly-not-white class, such blunt talk can be not just awkward but perilous.
I had a student a few semesters ago who was training to become a teacher, and student-teaching in a middle school classroom. The class she was assigned to was made up entirely of black boys, and the teacher was an older white man. When he got to the point in the semester when he was to discuss slavery, he stuck his nose in his notes, read them verbatim — and as quickly as possible — and then moved directly into a quiz. No discussion, no engagement, no opportunity for his students to address their intellectual and emotional reactions to what they had just heard. My student — a black woman — was appalled. She said that for the rest of the class session, the anger and the confusion the students were feeling was overwhelming. They were, she said, traumatized.
I was of two minds, hearing this story. On the one hand, I shared my student’s anger. If you can’t handle that kind of a discussion, you have no business teaching history in such an environment. Period. On the other hand, I could identify with the teacher’s fear.
Most white people are anything but comfortable talking about race in mixed-race settings, particularly in circumstances in which they are occupying a position of authority. As a white person, to get up in front of a classroom of students of color and tell them about how race works? It’s weird. It’s frightening. It’s uncomfortable.
Even weirder, even more frightening, even less comfortable is to then open up the floor to discussion. Will you be contradicted? Will you be attacked? Will you be revealed as ignorant? Called a racist? Lose control?
And it can be particularly scary for a white progressive. We’re encouraged to listen to the perspectives of people of color. We’re reminded to allow people to speak for themselves about their own experiences. We’re taught to take our privilege seriously, to acknowledge the gaps in our knowledge and our experiences, to take in, to absorb, to defer.
In my experience, we receive far less guidance — in either academic or organizing milieus — in how and when to construct our own autonomous identities as white people engaged with issues of race in multiracial environments, white people who are working not just as mentors to other whites or as allies to people of color, but as independent anti-racists with the experience and confidence to broach hard questions in potentially difficult settings.
As I say, I’ve had quite a bit of experience with this. I’ve taught dozens of classes that dealt with the history of race, including several in which I was the only white person in the room. In the second part of this post, I’ll be talking in more detail about my own experiences as a professor, giving specific attention to the problem that prompted the new edition of Huckleberry Finn — the use of racial slurs in academic discussions.
Update | Part Two of this series has been posted here.