Whiteness in Academic Teaching

Let’s talk about the racism by “Vieno Vehko,” pseudonymous assistant prof from a USA Midwestern university. The author argues she, “finds it hard to respect a group that neither reads critically nor takes responsibility for its learning.”  This article is not simply about “millennials.” It is about Whiteness and how White academics expect to teach students like themselves.

The piece is racially loaded in a way White academics and students have missed in their critiques of the article to date. The author explicitly takes swipe at young people—but not equally. Race and class feature heavily in the author’s generational gripe.

She begins with skewering Susie for not looking up ‘lexical’ in the dictionary. People of colour can pick up that Susie is White.

The fact that “Vehko” doesn’t use racial/ cultural words to describe Susie is the first clue that, not only is Susie White, but Vehko is too. As you’ll see in this thread, White people only remark on the race for people of colour. But Vehko is also policing Susie’s White femininity. Susie irks Vehko for being “entitled” but also for “elaborately made-up brown eyes.” Here’s a norm of femininity in academia and how we know Vehko is a White woman: anyone wearing make up or “non-conforming” clothes is breaking gender norms. Susie is White and wears makeup which Vehko resents.

Regardless of what people of colour do, our “presentation of self” is negatively policed due to race. (Erving Goffman used this concept to theorise how our impressions of others are judged on dress, speech and other bodily performances.) In Vehko’s article, she introduces Louis, “a handsome young Black man in his mid-20s,” who wears “a black bandanna and leather jacket.” He is “sweet, soft spoken” and wants to work with “inner-city schools.” This is all Whitespeak for: Louis is Very Black.

What is Louis doing in this White woman’s classroom, Vehko wants to know? While White Susie is entitled and is presumed to spend hours on Netflix and social media, Black Louis is failing because he has to work fulltime. Many students have to work to survive, but people of colour often struggle to make ends meet.

Class and race intersect: Vehko, who you’ll see identifies as an older (White) woman, is incensed that a Black man would work fulltime rather than focus on studies. This bias reflects White privilege: Vehko could focus on study because that’s life as a middle class White woman.

Louis is also sexualised in a way none of the other students are in this op ed (“handsome Black man”) and otherised. He’s not a threat to Vehko’s whiteness because he’s soft spoken.

Yusef “a Saudi man” in his 30s with a wife and kids. This is mentioned to evoke his backwardness. He must be cheating. “In his culture, charm and small chunks of work are enough to gain a degree.” This racist stereotype is ludicrous but Vehko pretends to care about international students.

Stephen was presumed the ideal student until he got rude: “initially someone I looked forward to teaching…he was literate, upper middle class, White, male and studious.” Stephen’s whiteness only becomes remarkable because he exerted his male privilege over Vehko, a White woman.

This is a classic way in which White women participate in White supremacy. White men are their aspirational equal until they enact patriarchy. This is a perfect illustration of why Peggy McIntosh theorised white privilege, which was specifically about academia.

As the seemingly perfect White specimen let her down (the White man Stephen), Vehko shows her truest colour in her exultation of Linda. Linda is in her 50s and embodies the perfect student because she is Vehko: “I wonder if we share a kind of generationally kindred brain.”

Linda’s race us not mentioned but people of colour don’t need it to be. Vehko sees herself in Linda, who is not tech savvy but, unlike other “millennials,” Vehko says Linda is not “angry, frustrated and confused with my course and with me.”

Never mind Vehko’s article is about her own anger

Academics reproduce Whiteness in many ways. For White academics and students sharing this because they agree with Vehko, same as for White academics and students sharing this (rightly) put off by poor attitudes towards students, neither group has thought about what this does to people of colour.

Some White people are going to great pains to show Vehko exerts conservative generational stereotypes but they will never see themselves in Vehko who lumps all youth into the label “millennial” yet papering over racism and other discrimination of minorities in academia.

In Vehko’s article, a mid-20s Black man is criticised for working too hard (likely due to economic necessity) same as a Saudi man in his 30s is critiqued for having kids (a mature age student Vehko is distinterested in educating). Only the White woman mature age student is the ideal. Whiteness dominates academia in much the same way it does on Twitter discussions about this article, and other fields.

When we ignore whiteness we do so at the peril of the biases we bring to class/ lab/ workplace, writing off the potential of people of colour, whatever their generation.

For those who have avoided reading the piece doing the rounds due to paywall/ registration, here’s a free/ open access version.

This post was first published on Twitter.

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