Talking About Race Isn’t “Impolite” and “Feminist” Isn’t a Dirty Word!

We were delighted to welcome Prof. Alyson Spurgas to SIUE this Fall, and now to the Women’s Studies blog.  Prof. Spurgas’s work is rooted in sociological approaches to sex, gender, and sexualities, but all of her research and teaching is informed by a deep commitment to social justice.  In this post, she reflects upon her experiences at SIUE last semester, and discusses the ways in which critical pedagogy at public universities is obligated to engage in projects that are explicitly feminist and anti-racist.  Please check out the links at the end of her post for more information.  

I arrived in St. Louis one week before Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the neighboring town of Ferguson, Missouri. About a week after that, I began teaching an introductory sociology course to seventy students—many of whom were not social science majors, and many of whom were first year college students—approximately twenty-five miles away in Edwardsville, Illinois. I have heard it said that Fall 2014 was a difficult time to teach sociology in the United States. If my experience is at all illustrative of the experiences of sociology professors across the country, then this is certainly true, and it may be especially true for educators who believe that an important part of pedagogy is to investigate the structural systems within which we live, and for those of us who believe that sometimes these investigations and examinations might result in critique, interrogation, reorientation, and intervention.

Die In

An image from the Silent March/MUC Protest on the SIUE campus, January 20, 2015

Fall 2014 may have been a hard time for educators at all levels, given the charged and heated political climate around the country, and the violently reductive way that the debate about Brown’s murder has been framed in media accounts, everyday conversations, and through the rhetoric in both of those domains, as well as the rhetoric at some protests and within the criminal justice system itself. I have heard many conversations about the shooting and its aftermath devolve into an extremely binary framing—some students (and many other people I’ve discussed the event with) made comments like: “I’m on _____’s side,” or “He was just doing his job,” or “I would have done the same thing.” Somehow, the issue has been stripped down to a “Brown versus Wilson,” or even a “Black versus White” dichotomy, with deeply troubling consequences for the national conversation regarding this tragedy—and thus the conversations in our classrooms, as well. This framing not only permeates our conversations, but it degrades the justice system itself, as became evident via the handling of the Brown case before, during, and after Wilson’s grand jury trial. Protests in Ferguson and around the country became increasingly well-attended, vehement, and explosive, and, in some cases, the response of “pro-police” demonstrators (for example the “#seaofblue/police support” demonstration in Cleveland, Ohio in December 2014) became well-attended, vehement, and explosive, as well. And so now it seems that we can add “police versus protestor,” “police versus criminal,” or even “[disruptive, violent] protestor versus [productive, upstanding] citizen” to the slate of reductive binary framings that have overwhelmed educators, students, and lots of other folks, and which have unfortunately led to knee-jerk, angry, and thoughtless outbursts and defeated silences. But what does “police” stand for in this framing? Who are the “criminals”? Why do so many of us think there is a difference between a “protestor” and a “citizen”? What is violence? And specifically, how do our students understand these categories? What do these concepts mean to them? How do they affect their lives? I suggest that this is what we need to consider in a thoughtful, honest way. We must examine how this framing, and, for too many, this binary lived reality, has come to be, and why it persists in our cultural consciousness, in our crime and job statistics, and thus in our material world. And I suggest this this is an anti-oppression project, and thus that it is also an anti-racist and feminist project.

As a new, untenured assistant professor, at a non-unionized public university in a state with an imperiled educational budget, it’s hard to know how to approach issues like race and the criminal justice system in the classroom. This is particularly true in a political climate wherein the issues have not only become framed according to reductive binaries, but also wherein it seems as though talking about race, violence, justice/injustice, and, too often, history itself is somehow considered “impolite.” Even more disconcertingly, I have gotten the sense from some that it is not only taboo to discuss these issues in a university setting, but that it is not useful, that it is inappropriate, or that it is not part of the education one should receive in a “proper” learning environment—an environment in which many students increasingly see their college experience primarily as job preparation, career counseling, or as vocational training in a neoliberal, cutthroat, and desperately bleak economic climate. It is not surprising that many students see things this way, in an age of standardized testing, stringent and quantitative assessment in education and the workplace, and after spiking across-the-board unemployment rates beginning with the “Great Recession” in 2007. Now, more than ever, for many students, the main goal of education must be to get a job and support one’s self and, in many cases, one’s family. This leaves educators—who have their own jobs to worry about keeping in a world in which academic freedom is increasingly a luxury[1]—in a very difficult position. And this is particularly true for the many teachers I know who still believe that education is about facilitating critical thinking, challenging the status quo, and fostering a truthful dialogue with our students. Professors who ascribe to this educational model were led to the university because we want to give our students the tools to change their lives and their communities, and to fight for social justice in whatever vocational path they ultimately pursue.

My questions and ruminations here are not only practical then, but epistemological and ontological. What is the purpose of education? What does it mean to educate? What does it mean to become educated? What is the difference between educator and student, and what is their relationship in regards to knowledge creation? Is it top-down? Is it instrumental? Or is it dialogic[2]? At the university level, and at a public university, these questions arguably have special import. I turn to Paulo Freire and also to my deep convictions to the sociological imagination as it has been advocated by a variety of thinkers and activists (and articulated in writing by C. Wright Mills in 1959[3]), as I consider the answers. In his fierce and illuminating Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire (1970) argued that students were more than simply “banks” to be filled with knowledge. Instead, he argued, the role of educator was to facilitate students’ journeys to their own communal liberation. Thus, he believed that education should never be—nor could it be—a politically neutral endeavor. Mills (1959) and others who have elaborated the sociological imagination make it clear that analyzing the world sociologically involves bridging different levels or strata of everyday life—from the “micro” to the “macro.” How can we connect our own experiences to historical and contemporary political economic contexts? How might we understand our own lives in terms of the larger social world, which is complexly structured by race, class, gender, sexuality, the ways our bodies move and look, and so many other social variables, or ways that we are sorted, privileged, empowered, disempowered, oppressed, pitted against each other, made to live, or left to die? For me, this utilization of the sociological imagination is a core component of how I think and learn, and thus, also how I teach.

At this point, a reader of this blog post might ask: “What does this have to do with women’s studies? With feminism?” After all, this is a women’s studies blog! But if we take women’s and gender studies to be a discipline that arose at the same time as a variety of other “specialized” disciplines—including African, African-American, and Black Studies, Native American Studies, Asian and Asian American, Latina/o Studies, and LGBT, Queer, and Transgender Studies, all of which are arguably pedagogies of the oppressed—we can examine all of them as emerging in a particular moment, a moment in which there was a strong tendency in the university, in the wake of passionate protests and hard battles fought and in some cases (temporarily, partially) won, to excavate and resurrect subjugated knowledges. In postcolonial frameworks and the terms of black feminist thought, this endeavor focused on valuing, disseminating, and instituting these “situated knowledges”—ways of knowing which arose from standpoints that had been actively neglected or devalued for too long[4]. It was about reinventing canons, or questioning and challenging the very notion or privileging of the “canon” itself. In an academic setting, these disciplines were born out of women’s and LGBT liberation movements, the black liberation and black power movements, and all of the battles of the Civil Rights Era: again, hard battles, fought and in some cases won (or those which we are still fighting and working to win, through our collective efforts). This fight to resituate and liberate knowledge, to give voice and illumination to knowledges from below, is a feminist project. And, I would assert, in line with the tenets of intersectionality, that any truly feminist project is always at the same time a radical project, an anti-oppression project, and an anti-racist project.

Now, six months have passed since Michael Brown was murdered and the repercussions of that state-sanctioned violence overtook the nation. On my first day of class this semester, in January 2015, I told some of my students that the coiners of the hashtag and activists in the related movement say “black lives matter” rather than “all lives matter” for the same reasons we say we are “feminists” rather than “humanists” or “equalists.” We focus on these violated peoples linguistically and discursively because we must fight, on the ground, for and with those who have been subordinated, mistreated, disrespected, and oppressed first. Once disparities are confronted and challenged and the playing field is truly leveled—in a world in which women still make 77 cents to every man’s dollar, a world in which women, queer, and transgender people are still disproportionately violated sexually, physically, and emotionally in their intimate relationships, by family members, and on the streets, and a world in which black Americans are still disproportionately poor, incarcerated, in ill health, and targeted, surveilled, brutalized, and murdered by police—it is only then that we can rightly organize movements around and fight for “all lives” and “humanity.”[5] As it stands currently, humanity is still divided up and valued or devalued according to hierarchies based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation and other embodied social variables. And this has everything to do with power imbalances that many of us seem to believe are fixed.

How can we reclaim education in these times, when political debates are reduced to “police versus criminal,” “black versus white,” “citizen versus protestor” or to other reductive binaries, when universities are too often degree factories, and when degrees are not always as valuable as we wish them to be for our students? How can we reinvigorate our universities, our classrooms, our conversations, and help our students to learn and make useful what will be relevant to their own lives and to their work in their own communities? How can we become more willing to learn from our students? How can we help our students get jobs and facilitate their careers and take care of their families and pay their bills while still allowing for vigorous, complex, relevant, historically situated, politically astute, and challenging debates in our classrooms? How can we do all of this while keeping our own jobs in a rapidly neoliberalizing climate in which intellectual freedom is not always a given?

In these times, it is more important than ever that we address these questions seriously, in our communities, with our partners, friends, and families, with our colleagues, with the administrators of our universities, and with our students. We must form alliances. We must recognize our privileges and listen to others who have firsthand knowledge of oppressions that we do not experience. We must speak our truths and work toward reconciliation. As a white professor, I know that I must call out racism as I see it, I must consistently check my own privilege, and I must follow the lead of my comrades of color. I must fight for justice for those who are devalued and violated based on their gender, sexuality, race, and other categories through which people are told their lives don’t matter. I must speak my truth in the classroom, and allow my students to speak their own truths. In these times, it is more important than ever to revision and revitalize our educational system in the model of critical pedagogy, in dialogue with our students. We must fight for this dialogic, critical, anti-oppression, and liberatory model of education. We must speak of what happens in the streets and in the courts in our classrooms, we must have difficult conversations that might seem “impolite” with our students, and we must do this because the public university may be one of the only places we have left to analyze how the debate is always more complex than “black versus white,” “police versus criminal,” or “protestor versus citizen,” and that the fight itself is also a fight to illuminate that complexity. We must do this because black lives should matter, and “feminist” should never be a dirty word.

One of the ways I am going to fight for the educational system I believe my students should have access to is through the SIUE Black Lives Matter movement. Will you join me?

For more information about SIUE Black Lives Matter, including an upcoming “Town Hall Style Truth-Telling and Reconciliation Dialogue”—an open dialogue which will be facilitated by activist-educator-scholars from different campus communities as well as SIUE faculty and students, including Dr. Spurgas, on Friday, February 27th, from 12:30 – 2:30 pm in the Missouri Room (Morris University Center) at SIUE—check out:

or email for more info!

[1] The hiring retraction of Steven Salaita from University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign (UIUC) last year is a case in point.

 [2] I use this term in the way Paulo Freire (1970) has defined it in Freire Paulo. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

 [3] Mills, C. Wright. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford.

[4] For an example of feminist standpoint theory as it articulated through black feminist thought, see Collins, Patricia Hill. (1990). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. New York and London: Routledge.

[5] Judith Butler, in a recent interview for the New York Times ()and Danice Brown, SIUE psychology professor, who recently gave a lecture entitled “Why ‘Black Lives Matter’?,” have made similar points. I draw from and am in conversation with their compelling insights.

2 thoughts on “Talking About Race Isn’t “Impolite” and “Feminist” Isn’t a Dirty Word!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s