The Emotional, Uncomfortable Classroom

Public displays of emotion from people of color are unwanted in the national discourse because they cause white discomfort, argues Jasmine Harris, which results in stagnant class discussions that are detrimental to student learning goals.

May 11, 2018
 
 

Someone recently told me a story about a white male professor at a top-ranked college crying during a class discussion of race. While lamenting previous misunderstandings of white privilege, he offered absolution to his white students with similar claims. This story was told as one of redemption, and as an example of an appropriate approach to addressing racism.

I wondered aloud if my tears, those of a black woman and sociology of race professor, would be received similarly. I often teach content that strikes a personal nerve that makes me profoundly sad or angry, but I’ve never cried in class. I don’t have that option. I cannot perform expertise and be allowed a range of emotions, much less be applauded for them. This distinction led me to consider how, if at all, we manage emotions in the classroom. To what end?

Let’s consider another example. President Trump uses Twitter almost daily, providing a live look at his emotional state. Would President Obama be received similarly for using Twitter to air grievances? Would Democrats reimagine him as a direct, no-nonsense everyman? Probably not. Adia Harvey Wingfield’s analysis of being black in the workplace revealed black professionals’ inability to engage negative emotions in work settings and reliance instead on positive feelings and congeniality as identity maintenance. We are not free to emote candidly. So Trump, a rich white man, gets to be strong for showing anger, and Obama doesn’t get to show emotion at all.

Public displays of emotion from people of color are unwanted in the national discourse because they cause white discomfort. In the classroom, where emotions are generally avoided, racial bias that sensationalizes feelings expressed by people of color reaffirms this disparity in who gets to express emotions and reflect on emotional responses. Students and faculty of color are asked to compartmentalize our emotions, while our white counterparts can explore a range of them freely.

This imbalance in emotional value ensures neither students, nor faculty of any race, learn to engage emotions as teaching and learning tools to improve conceptual comprehension, application and analysis of difficult racism content. Stagnant discussion and stunted emotional intelligence result and are detrimental to student learning goals but difficult to overcome. Uncomfortable learning values emotional reflection from all students and faculty members, regardless of race, to identify the foundations and impacts of reflexive desires to avoid intense negative emotions in the learning process.

The average student has much to learn about racism, yet discussing racism is the quickest way to get a predominately white classroom to fall silent. Conversations are often sterile, detached and devoid of the emotions driving conceptual processes of power and policy associated with racial topics, in part because students are rarely asked to grapple with their emotions in the classroom. Some arts and humanities courses permit emotion work, but it’s confusing for students to understand, empathize and interpret the emotions of others when, in other classes, they’re discouraged from emotional reflection. These mixed messages ensure limited emotional intelligence. So instead of retaining emotional reflection tools, students detach from or deflect emotions, especially those spawned by the discussions of race. Without emotional engagement, students have difficulty analyzing and applying the course material, because they just don’t care beyond their potential grade.

Neglecting emotional content makes little pedagogical sense. We acknowledge humans are innately emotional but ask students and faculty members to tuck their emotions away neatly during discussion. Teaching preparation may anticipate emotional responses to certain subjects, but classroom culture encourages students, especially students of color, to maintain objective distance. If they cannot, and experience strong emotions, they’re more likely to leave than subject the group to raw, uncensored feelings.

When racism and white privilege and supremacy come up in class, many professors stress these concepts as systems of power, discouraging overpersonalization and direct emotional connections. Permission to detach ignores negative emotional responses and silences subjectivities. Instead we should invite students to explore their acrimonious emotions. I’ve found that, in the process, many of my students have uncovered not just sadness or anger but also shame, guilt, fear and envy -- emotions not at the top of the mind -- requiring them to make connections between their socialization and initial responses to statements about race or racism.

So why do many professors stress depersonalization in racism discussion, then? Because it offers protection from common and damaging accusations of hyperliberalism that accompany discussions of racism. When, like me, the professor is also a person of color, the rhetoric intensifies. Students are more likely to accuse me than a white, male professor of racial bias, so I must detach from the material even as it describes structures impacting me.

In the Trump era, these same students feel permitted to write off information that makes them feel bad as “fake news.” They perceive content eliciting unpleasant emotions as manipulation. That impedes students’ ability to synthesize bigger-picture implications of specific cases explored in class. It also makes me a target for accusations of “white racism.” Inviting uncomfortable emotions into the classroom helps neutralize background assumptions between marginalized faculty members and students through the emotional exploration of snap reactions to racism topics. When both faculty members and students identify primary emotional responses and their potential roots, more productive conversation occurs.

Emotional exploration can begin by simply asking students to reflect on what the assigned content made them feel before ever engaging what they thought. Emotional repression prevents many faculty members from using this simple question as a discussion entry point in the sciences, where a historical dependence on silence is preferred in lieu of actual dialogue. But anchoring emotions to the text prevents an emotional free-for-all that feels more like therapy than education, lessens the desire to repress emotional responses and encourages reflection of emotional detachment from racism. Walking tours, localized in-community research projects and community activist engagement are useful tools I suggest for faculty members looking to incorporate emotional response into discussions of race in their courses

Recently, we’ve seen the power of emotional reflection work for the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the aftermath of the deadly mass shooting in February. Those students have processed their experiences and attached emotions within the public Second Amendment discourse, continued synthesizing negative emotions within an institutional framework and, in real time, asked what structures influence their emotional responses. They’re using emotions to anchor their learning and generating social change in the process.

But this is also an example of the race-based emotional privilege in public spaces that Wingfield warns against. These students are allowed to feel and explore a range of emotions because they’re white. Many of the victims were white, too, and the collective conscience around the death of young white kids is inherently empathetic. Black people are not afforded the same humanity. Similar public support for emotional reflection, synthesis and engagement among young black people mobilizing the Black Lives Matter movement never materialized because American society doesn’t value their emotions. The black students at Stoneman Douglas received only a fraction of the attention of their white classmates. Why weren’t they allowed to explore the devastation of their experiences in a public forum?

National amnesia about the history of racism represses attached emotions and limits collective empathy in public dialogue. In the classroom, this willful ignorance translates to long silences and open disengagement from discussions in which white students’ comfort is privileged above all else.

In contrast, stressing the value of emotional reflection across racial lines creates emotional equity among students and faculty members where there is usually none. Likewise, using the classroom to unpack emotions generated by our complicated racial history forces students beyond that which feels comfortable. From that discomfort real learning can begin.

Bio

Photo of Jasmine HarrisJasmine Harris is assistant professor of sociology at Ursinus College, where she teaches and writes about race, class, gender and the academic experiences of underrepresented minorities in higher education spaces. She is also the co-founder of HuesBox. You can follow her on Twitter @DrHarrisJay.

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