As an educator at the university level, I feel an ethical call to push beyond imparting knowledge to helping students understand how knowledge is constructed and to help them engage with and critique the ways in which it is constructed in their contemporary academic and social context. Integral to this type of learning is the (re)presentation of identities and perspectives that are under-represented (if represented at all) in mainstream academic and social discourse.
But there are perspectives and identities that I am more comfortable speaking to than others. As a queer woman I’m quite at ease addressing the subjects of gender and sexuality with students. As a white woman, however, I am less comfortable speaking to issues of race and ethnicity for fear that speaking to might become speaking for, which is something I cannot do. So how do I incorporate the perspectives of persons who identify as racial minorities?
Popular (and not so popular) media are useful tools for bringing these voices into college education. But wait!, you might say, Doesn’t mainstream culture poorly represent ethnic and racial minorities? To be sure, there is a lot of problematic representation. However, even poor representation can be used as a teaching tool. When the so-called ‘Loud Music Case’ news story broke in 2014, I showed my class video of the news coverage and compared it to the coverage of other shooting in which the victims were white or the perpetrators were African American. This opened up a productive, if tense, conversation about language, discourse, social expectation and implicit bias.
Problematizing representation in mainstream media is only one way to use media to inform and stimulate discussions of racial and ethnic difference. It is also important to incorporate media representation created by people of color. An English Department colleague uses the autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi about growing up in Iran. In psychology courses, I have often used works of fiction such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Contemporary films such as Dear White People (2014) and Chi-Raq (2015) also offer a unique opportunity to bring in voices that are not usually heard in academic discourse.
Also important is the use of research about and (when available) conducted by persons from ethnic and racial minorities. I talk about implicit bias research and the black baby doll experiment. But the problem with research on under-represented identities is that, in most fields, this research is not prioritized nor made accessible to a broad undergraduate audience. And so the knowledge must be sought in less official or expected places.
“Alternative” forms of knowledge are not lesser forms of knowledge. They are powerful. They have the advantage of connecting students affectively as well as intellectually with perspectives to which they are rarely exposed. They also allow me to offer students an experience where marginalized voices speak for themselves.