“But professor? You’re not white, you’re German, right?”

By Emery Petchauer

As a proverbial “vanilla brother” (as my Dean affectionately refers to me) at an HBCU, on the daily I am in a position to experience and explore racial identity and its implications on classroom pedagogy. This applies to my own racial identity, that of my students, and how we co-construct one another. Occasionally, such rewarding conversations are prefaced by a tentative, “No offense, but how come white people always…?” from a student (a blog entry for another time). In one such conversation, however, as I attempted to nuance, well, why white people always…, “Keisha” responded by saying with seriousness and slight confusion, “But professor, you’re not white, you’re German, right?”

 

As I mused on this comment over the next few days and its implications on classroom pedagogy, I considered two important details.

 

First, Keisha was biracial, which made me contemplate how her own racial identity shaped how she constructed mine. In fact, later in the semester she told me that she had German ancestry, which added further complexity to her judgment about the categorization of my German/Austrian surname as “colored.”

 

Second, in this particular class, students were aware of my knowledge and experiences in hip-hop due in part to my research on the topic in conjunction with education. Consequently, I wondered how hip-hop as a form of (sub)cultural capital and performances thereof may have mediated her negotiation of my race.

 

These details brought me back to one of Bakari Kitwana’s theses in Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop (which, really, is about much more than white kids): that there is a “new racial politics” emerging with and through the post-baby boom generation (i.e., the students who sit in college classrooms today). Many anecdotes such as the one above may be more emblematic of these new ways that young adults are constructing race than they are of collegial or youthful ignorance. Other anecdotes many professors could cite from their classrooms that might be (re)considered in this light are the “why-would-I-major-in-Black-Studies” comment; the “people-aren’t-really-racist-anymore” opinion; or, most recently, the “if-Obama-can-do-it-everyone-can-do-it” argument.

 

Though it is easy to attribute such anecdotes to ignorance, what are the pedagogical implications of believing that new ways of constructing race among ethnic minority students are, at least in part, responsible for such anecdotes or the one above with Keisha?

 

Effective, culturally-responsive pedagogy starts where students are. Consequently, learning is more meaningful when faculty members work in student-centered classrooms to understand how it is that students construct their own racial identities and those of others. Whether we agree with these new racial politics among students or not, they can be useful educational starting points that can implicate discipline-specific material and facilitate integrated rather than compartmentalized learning.

Dr. Emery Petchauer is an assistant professor of education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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