Back in the spring, my advanced English class was having a discussion about Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self,” and at one point one of the students leading the discussion asked a question and got a reply of “Oh well, I don’t know what it’s like to be a black woman.”
Now I usually stay back during class discussions because I want to let the students take the lead and see where it goes, but I was struck by the dismissive tone the student in question–a white male, by the way–had used when making the comment and when the group leading the discussion had a hard time coming up with a response, I said, “Well, of course you don’t. Which is one of the reasons we read writers like Alice Walker.”
The discussion continued from that point and went pretty well, but that comment continued to grate on me, especially a few days later when a similar comment was made while several students in the class went off on a great thread about what it’s like to have parents who were immigrants or who live in a bilingual household. This time, it was a snarky remark about how “this isn’t my experience,” to which I did my best to be diplomatic by offering up that it wasn’t my experience either (I’m a white kid from the suburbs of Long Island, after all), but I always want to hear these different stories and experiences from different perspectives. And to the group running the discussion’s credit, they shut him down right away by giving him one of the most epic death stares I’ve ever seen before moving on. I made a mental note to praise those students later while also making a mental note that the guy making those comments really needed to shut up.
Moments like this are what I think about when I read the latest tweet or post about the importance of student choice in reading and letting them read what they want to read, as well as the vast number of Dead White Male authors I have read and studied in my time. I touched on why DWMs are a default setting years ago and have also gone on about how it does not begin and end with choice, although I want to expand a little on the latter.
I assign reading. And I will readily admit this. Yes, I am working on a way to incorporate more independent reading, perhaps through more informed choice, but I don’t think I will ever not assign reading despite what trend pieces and tweets say. Why? Because of what I detailed in the first few paragraphs of this post. Like I said, I grew up on Long Island and my town was a very white suburb where the biggest problems ever faced were what to do with the kids who liked to drink the woods on a Friday night. The books I was assigned to read in high school, while very good, had a very common demographic characteristic and the reading that I did own my own rarely strayed from the comics/fantasy/sci-fi realm. While I did know of the existence of The Color Purple or The Joy Luck Club because they were boxes on the shelves of my local video store, I didn’t read anything by Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or any other non-white authors until they were assigned to me in college.
The reason? Partly my own immaturity and sheltered view of the world, partly because I had no idea that they were there. Perhaps I would have found them, but I have to say that maybe I would not have or I would have been dismissive of them the same way that student was if I had not been introduced to them and had gained the willingness to sit back and back and listen to those other voices and perspectives (and even then, Loyola College in Maryland was not a bastion of diversity). So as an English teacher, I want my students to see, hear, and read the voices that are unlike those around them and try to provide a diversity of race, gender, religion, and sexual identity in the course concept.
Of course, this is not easy and I have not perfected it at all. I am still having a hard time finding LGBT voices to share in class, and I could stand to just have more volume in that library, which is what I will continue to do as long as I’m an English teacher.