Ecumenism/'Identity Politics'/'Single-Issue Movements'(Re: religion)

Jonathan Scott jonascott at
Thu Jun 4 13:19:44 PDT 1998

Kenneth Mostern wrote:

"Ultimately, these facts [effectiveness of a white male to teach African American lit] require a psychoanalytic theory to explain them."

Wojtek Sokolowski writes:

"That witchcraft? I think the status generalization theory will do nicely, and has the added value of being empirically verifiable. In essence, the theory says that people with dominant social status charecteristics (e.g. white male) are perceived as more knowledgeable and competent, or in the theory's lingo, their status is 'generalized' on the perception of their competencies.

"It is easy to see that process at work with your white students -- they simply see you as more competent than a black teacher. For Black students, being white may not be a dominat status characteristics, especially when it comes to the subject of African American Lit -- they may even see your whiteness as disadvantage."

An interesting dynamic that you [Wojtec] seem to look past is what I like to think of the "defection effect." As a teacher of African American lit at a big state school (Wayne State in Detroit), I find that the Black students in my courses often use my skin-tone (which is on the lighter side of the phenotypic spectrum, although I'm not "white" in any cultural, political, or social sense, by my own choosing) to make the point to their white peers that race has nothing to do with alleged skin color.

Of course this doesn't happen with all the Black students I teach, but it happens regularly enough. Not once has a Black student expressed concern that I'm at a "disadvantage" in teaching African American lit because of my phenotype. And I would know, since the chair of Africana Studies, Melba Joyce Boyd, gives me all kind of feedback on what the Black students at WSU think about me and my teaching, when they don't tell me themselves.

What I'm getting at is the unself-conscious use of the word "white" in dialogues about identity and culture and politics. If a teacher shows his or her "whiteness" in the teaching of African American lit. (or any subject in the humanities, for that matter), then they are either (1) asserting white supremacy, directly or indirectly, depending on the context; or (2) trapped in what Dr. DuBois called "the White Blindspot," which prevents a full recognition of Black equality. Damn straight this will be seen as a disadvantage!!

The "defection effect" is the example of a European American "authority" (teacher, mentor, guide) defecting from the "white race" right in front of the white students' own eyes--right in front of the class. What this allows for is a hands-on validation of the argument that white students need to give up being "white" if they want to understand the Black books they're reading. And moreover, that they can't use the argument that their "white" skin makes it impossible for them to really "get it." It refuses to let them off the hook. This kind of argument has been used more than once in my courses by Black students, and it always opens eyes and ears. You can tell by the way the white students react. More often than not it is a liberating moment for everyone.


Jonathan Scott

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list