I Can’t Speak The Language

I think everybody ought to experience what it’s like to be the only one in a particular setting who doesn’t “belong.” As a white, hetero, abled, cis male for whom English is the first language, that’s not an experience I have often; in fact, it’s rare indeed that I find myself in a place where I am not “like” many of the people around me. The older I get, the more aware of that I have become, and the more attuned I am to the ways in which that reality so dramatically helps people who look like me. In the US, we live in a society that has always been structured around privilege; the last year’s spate of police violence against citizens in places like Ferguson and New York City underscores just how stark the lines of privilege have been drawn. The historically-constructed idea of “race,” the ways in which power is (mal)distributed, how privilege shapes every facet of our lives and those around us–I teach, read, speak, and write about these things all the time. But I am keenly aware that I do so from a privileged position–that is, I have not myself experienced the negative effects of how power and privilege work against those who do not look or speak like the historically-dominant class. So how do I effectively teach and engage with students who have those experiences? And how do I do so in a way that is empathetic and genuine, as opposed to fraudulent and condescending?

One of the things that makes me the most nervous writing this is the possibility that I come off like some bourgeois white dude who has “oppression envy” or seeks to appropriate others’ cultural identities. DUDE I’VE LISTENED TO BOB MARLEY FOR YEARS. I’LL GET UP STAND UP WITH YOU STAND UP FOR YOUR RIGHTS BRO. I’ve seen enough bright, chipper, affluent white evangelicals who spend a summer month on mission trips in the Caribbean or in Africa, bringing Jesus and Joel Osteen to the benighted native folk and thus freeing themselves of the onerous burden of ever having to give a damn about those people again. I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to be a privilege tourist. I don’t want to try to be the White Savior.

But I do want to fight privilege the best way I can, and that’s in the classroom, from my position as a college professor, to educate and advocate and work for a more just society. As an educator, I need to constantly check my own privilege in order to try and empathetically and genuinely engage and empower all of my students. I’m fortunate, I think, in having life experience to draw upon in doing so. My father was an Air Force officer, so growing up, I moved about every three years. I lived in Japan and Hawaii, as well as several different states. I went to eight different schools before I graduated high school. In retrospect, one of the greatest gifts those experiences gave me was the ability to make friends without getting hung up on trivial or superficial crap. On base, all of us kids learned to make friends quick–because every few months, someone in the gang was rotating out and someone else was rotating in. That’s just how it worked. Immersed in that environment, none of us thought twice about it. In retrospect, it wasn’t until I got to regular “civilian” schools that I started hearing about “race” and feeling pressured to see different people as “other.” By then, though, I was already conditioned to not care about that kind of stuff.

I wish I could recapture the purity of that mindset. I feel like the more I’ve aged, the more intense the pressure around me has become to be not just aware of differences–racial, gendered, cultural, whatever–but to somehow benefit from them, to play the privilege game to my advantage. It’s like inhaling poison with every breath. Small talk with another white male in line at the convenience store provokes a joke about Middle-Eastern clerks, a wink, and a knowing smirk. You’re in the club, man; you get to laugh at this dude’s funny-ass name. Ordering a burger at the fast-food counter with a new employee brings the guy behind me complaining that the employees need to learn English for crissakes, because they came over the border to work for us, then looking to me for affirmation. Walking downtown, passing a woman in a burqa pushing her infant in a stroller, then making eye contact with the older white woman behind her who slowly shakes her head in contempt–with the unspoken expectation for me to nod in commiseration. These damn Muslims. So different. And I want to scream at all of them: These are my students, these fast-food workers and Qwik Mart clerks and young mothers, working their asses off to pay for their education, and here you are shitting all over them and expecting me to co-sign. Well, I’m not in your fucking club.

But I don’t scream. I give a dirty look, or grow silent, or ignore. And I try not to inhale the poison. But is that fighting privilege? Have I made our society more just? Is it presumptuous for me to think I could do so merely by giving a snappy comeback to some ignorant fool who randomly crossed my path?


Today, I decided I wanted to cook enchiladas for dinner. So I went to the Mexican grocery store just up the street from campus. I go there a lot, because it’s close. Usually, someone there speaks English. Today, that wasn’t the case. I lived in Texas long enough to pick up some broken Spanish, but I was pretty maladroit trying to order at the meat counter. Then I went down one of the aisles for more ingredients and promptly knocked a bottle of ranchero sauce off the shelf, shattering it and spattering thick red sauce all over the floor. No one saw me, but I knew I had to tell someone. So I went up to the counter, but had no idea how to say “I’m an idiot and made a huge mess in Aisle 3” in Spanish. The cashier knew enough English to look over to where I was talking about, see the expanding lake of ranchero, then roll her eyes and sigh. I apologized, and offered to clean it up, but had no idea how to say so. She waved off my stammering attempts, rang up my items, and then grabbed a mop and trudged toward the mess. Feeling my face flush, and sensing the glares of the staff (probably an exaggerated sense on my part), I grabbed my bags and slumped out the door–but only after trying to push it open instead of pull (pro tip: “halar” means “pull”).  And I thought to myself, that’s what it’s like to be the different one, the new one, the “why-don’t-you-learn-the-language” one.

I guarantee that every one of my students has felt that way. The student who didn’t learn English until they came over to the States five years ago. The student whose closely-held traditions dictate they wear different clothing from their native-born suburban American classmates. The student in the wheelchair. The student whose dyslexia makes it nearly impossible to accurately read the text I project on the front screen. The student who left her abusive husband and has to leave early to get her kid from her sister’s house. The student who looks at a mathematical equation and once again feels a familiar tightening in their gut. The student who doesn’t know how to find a scholarly journal article and doesn’t know how to ask for help. It’s like another language. I’ll never understand this. Why didn’t I learn this when everyone else did? What did I miss?  

I can’t do this.

I could roll my eyes. I could heave a sigh. I could give a brusque answer. (Honestly, there are times I’ve done one or all of those.) But that just further cements the inequalities, perpetuates the informal networks of privilege, that I want to subvert. I have to check my own privilege. I have to help my students understand that sometimes scholarly work is in a specialized language that none of us knew at birth–I’m still figuring it out, too (and in the case of Hegel, I will never succeed). I have to find work-arounds. I have to leverage available technologies to facilitate and accommodate different needs. I have to differentiate instruction. I have to coach or encourage or have the come-to-Jesus talk. I have to do my job. I have to use the tools I have in my toolbox to help my students put the tools they need in theirs.

That’s why I’m such a firm believer in the necessity of those of us from privileged groups to experience being the other: because without the ability to empathize, I can’t do any of the above for my students, at least not authentically and honestly. And by being aware of, and sensitive to, the effects of privilege on me and those around me, I can do my best to untangle its complicated and complex web. But even more importantly, I can help my students discern and dismantle that web for themselves. THAT is the real work of education.


Further Reading:

There are a number of essential works in this area, and in general, the literature of Critical Pedagogy has shaped my understanding and practice here. But two collections I’ve recently encountered have really helped me think about teaching to subvert privilege: Paula S. Rothenberg, White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism, 4th ed. (Worth, 2011); and Kim Case, ed., Deconstructing Privilege: Teaching and Learning as Allies in the Classroom (Routledge, 2013). Both are excellent, and I highly recommend them.