When I first entered the teaching profession, I was relegated to instructing introductory courses in religious studies. One of them was called, “Religion in America.” During the 16-week semester course, I spent one week on African American religious expression. Very few scholars in the area of religion and society would discount the significant role of Blacks in the history of religion in the United States.
At the end of the semester, a couple students criticized my class by commenting that I talked about Black people throughout the course! My department head came to me and told me that I needed to curb my discussion of African American religious experience in my classes. He did not ask me anything; he simply assumed that I did what the two students had reported!
Although I wanted to curse the ignorant chair, I calmly took out my course syllabus and showed him the schedule of subject matter that revealed the solitary week on Black religious expression. He then stated that maybe I needed to watch how I lecture during the other weeks and not casually or extemporaneously mention Blacks. I simply thanked him for the advice, and clearly sent the message that the conversation was over and what he had spouted was sheer nonsense.
The student population and the faculty at the university was overwhelmingly Caucasian. Of course, such a composition should not make any difference with the material in the course. It is fairly standard to present the history and culture of the United States in order to understand how religious expression developed, variegated, influenced and manifested itself in our society.
Moreover, this self-same head called me into his office on another occasion to ask me about the portraits on my wall. He informed me that a couple students who had visited my office shared their discomfort over the fact all my hung photos were of Black people. He averred that I was being insensitive to the students who were largely non-Black.
Realizing that the complaints were puerile and offensive, I decided that my being in his office could be a teachable moment. First, I told him that my photos were of major historical figures: Martin Luther King, Jr., W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Malcolm X and Shirley Chisholm. Second, I told him that I also had on my wall photo of Mohandas K. Gandhi, who was obviously not Black, but indeed a person of color. And third, I made it a point to look around at the pictures on his walls and then asserted all his personages were white!
Rather than be supportive of a faculty member in his department, this head immediately sided with the students with whom he identified were like him! Choosing and putting pictures of famous historical figures on my office walls were my prerogative. As a matter of fact, they could be conversation starters for visitors who were unaware of who they were. To challenge my choices because a couple students had expressed discomfort demonstrated his inability to inform the students of the beauty of diversity in our increasingly pluralistic society and in the already vastly multicultural world.
When teaching historical and sociological facts about the United States, it is imperative to discuss the variety of peoples present in the land and how they not only came to be here, but also survived, lived, and endured in light of their specific circumstances. Things happened in certain ways, which must be transparently explained and interpretations of which must be shared lucidly. To deny students the evidence-based research and the multiple and cumulative perspectives about what occurred because of the perceived, alleged, or real discomfort of students is intellectually negligent, morally deficient, and patently dishonest.
The oppression, discrimination, and exploitation of people of color since the early settlement of this already occupied land between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are not debatable. Moreover, the legacy of that inception has perdured throughout this country’s history. They have constituted a central theme in our body politic. Prejudice against racial and ethnic minorities was institutionally codified and legalized very early on, and the effects of that ever broadening malaise continue to infect our society today.
The multifarious dehumanization is lockstitched into the structures, processes , policies, and services of this country—making it both pervasive and seamless. Consequently, the disparities in reaching the quality-of-life indices as outlined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are largely defined, at least in the United States, along racial and ethnic lines. Hence, the argument alleging there is no institutional discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities historically and contemporaneously is utterly unintelligible, untrue, unfounded, and unethical!
Lately, there has been a lot of noise about “woke-ness.” On the one hand, it is a term that suggests that the story of the so-called American experiment is distorted by the omission of the persistent mistreatment of racial and ethnic minority groups; thus, being “woke” implies discerning that reality and making it blatant in any representation of U.S. history. On the other hand, it is a term derided by those who wish to conceal the historical truth and the current reality. Nowadays, like many other matters, the term has become a type of slogan for those who use the term— whether in exposing the deniers of the major elements of our history or in claiming that a discussion of our derogatory past and present regarding people of color is more destructive than constructive and enlightening.
Personally, I do not fancy sloganeering, for it is reductionistic and socioculturally sloppy. The data on how institutions affect people according to race and ethnicity are quite extensive and explicit—just as they are concerning sex, gender, age, ability, and so forth. If we are going to increase our level and quality of knowledge in the world—which seriously lags behind—we must deal with facts, evidence, and truth. Those who desire to keep these factors hidden are cheating present and future generations, and are demonstrating a level of immaturity, inhumaneness, and deception that is unconscionable!
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