Understanding Identity Politics in a Classroom

When I taught at Penn State and Temple universities, my classrooms were mostly White save for a handful of Black and Brown faces.

The toughest thing for me to come to grips with was the fact that I was a person of color teaching students who had rarely interacted with minority educators. Those dynamics were apparent early on at Penn State, when students thought they could get away with being casual. On one occasion, one of my students sauntered into class 20 minutes late and said, “Sup dawg” before taking his seat.

As I became more comfortable at Penn State, where many of my White students admittedly had little interaction with minority groups, I realized my legitimacy as an educator was based on my experience as a journalist. As a result, I would use stories from my time as a reporter – from covering pro football, political races and murders –  as a way of making the classroom material more tangible. Some of my students, including those who might have felt uneasy about learning from an Indian-American, stayed in touch with me long after they completed my class.

At Lincoln, there is an interesting racial dynamic that I never took into consideration. The majority of the professors in my department are White and over the age of 50. When I joined this fall along with two of my African-American colleagues, we were the first non-White educators some of these students had for classes.

About two weeks ago, one of my students told me he noticed some of his peers weren’t taking my African-American colleagues as seriously as they took my class because of an assumed informality between students and educators of the same race. I asked him how I fit into the equation since I was neither Black nor White.

“That’s the thing,” he replied. “They don’t know how to respond to you.”

That took me aback, but it made me realize my Otherness was a factor in my interaction with students. I have always based my classroom manner on respect. Moreover, many of my students have complained – or raved – that I’m the toughest professor they’ve had. But because Lincoln students haven’t been taught by professors who are non-White AND non-Black, identity politics are played out more subtly.

For example, when I was making a reference to the rapper Lil’ Wayne in a class, some of my students laughed. One even asked me what I knew about Lil’ Wayne, thinking I was some geek who never heard of him. I explained that Lil’ Wayne has been popular since I was in college in the 1990s, reminding them I had grown up on hip-hop before they were born.

I learned that beyond legitimizing myself as an educator by narrating my professional experiences, I had to walk a fine line between being the Other in the classroom and someone whose experience was in some way similar to theirs. I realize some of my African-American colleagues have a tougher line to walk, which has helped me to understand how identity and cultural experience define the teacher-student relationship.

I also know that I can’t try to be “too hip,” because my students are smart enough to see when their professors are trying too hard to relate to them.

I guess I can’t make any more T-Pain or Drake references in class. At least I can blast my 1990s rap music on the 40-minute drive home, recalling the days when I wasn’t such a nerd.