The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Decolonize Your Mind: In the Classroom

Disclaimer: Article contains content that may be offensive or unsuitable for minors. 

Within three consecutive days this month on campus, I heard some of the most prejudiced bullshit by ignorant, white people that I’ve ever heard.

I can’t say I’m very surprised. Although Iowa City has touted its ranking on many lists as a liberal haven in the Midwest, prejudiced attitudes pervade our society, especially on a college campus with so many people from different parts of the world.

Wednesday, October 7th: While eating my sub-par pizza at Burge, I heard two kids next to me talking about international students, specifically those from China. They both agreed that Chinese students insisted on remaining anti-social and only hanging out with other Chinese students, making them “kinda racist.” I whipped my head around and squinted my eyes as if to say “Seriously?” and that seemed to shut them up.

Firstly, nonwhite people cannot be racist to white people because only the latter group occupies a privileged place in society benefiting from institutional structures. Only white people can be racist.

Watch this short, blunt for more information.

Secondly, people don’t owe you shit! The individuals you’re referring to probably knew that you’re an unfriendly, prejudiced ass-hat with whom spending time would not be enjoyable!

Refer to the graphic below for more information.

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These kinds of racist conversations probably happen thousands of times a day all across campus, but the more surprising and in my opinion, important, interactions occur in the classroom.

Thursday, October 8th: One of my classes required that students perform speeches regarding food advertisements’ strategies effectiveness. Because my TA showed examples critiquing the unhealthy nature of fast food and connecting that to weight gain, 75% of my class read speeches that drew a direct connection between unhealthy eating habits and all fat people, and denounced those body types.

This argument relies on a post hoc fallacy, and more importantly, makes certain assumptions about fat people that enforce western beauty standards and through fat-shaming. As someone whose body does not conform to western beauty standards, I sat through 13 speeches that expressed disgust with my body type, and also connected the shape of my body to poor eating habits.

I do not eat fast food. I will mooch a fry from my friends or get a cookie from McDonald’s, but my diet does not consist of regular trips to Burger King, Wendy’s or any other fast food place. I am also healthy, and the fact that all of these people including my teacher correlated my appearance which does not appeal to Eurocentric beauty expectations to my dietary choices pisses me the fuck off.

How dare you police my body and impose your arbitrary, oppressive expectations on me? How dare you judge a person’s life choices based on physical appearances you have been brainwashed to value over other ones? Fat people do not exist to make you feel better or act as a threatening example for you. There is no wrong way to have a body.

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My teacher, the only person with authority in the room, failed to say anything. I did not expect her to interrupt a speech to highlight the offensive nature of the topic, but she didn’t say ANYTHING! Not even after the whole unit ended! When I wrote about my frustration in my project feedback, she finally acknowledged how upsetting the content of the speeches may have felt to students in the class and simply said she “wondered how we can do better.”

Passivity seems to be the primary approach that TAs use to deal with difficult issues like these, since the same kind of situation happened in another one of my classes.

Friday, October 9th: The most incredulous example of racism I experienced that week happened in the classroom, again. During a discussion about postcolonial criticism, one white guy in my English class described the mass murder of indigenous people with European diseases as biologically “upgrading the Native Americans.” Another white guy immediately called him on his racist rhetoric, which I appreciated, but I wasn’t satisfied for long. The second white guy proceeded to pride himself on the number of nonwhite authors he has read, but when I asked him which authors he liked, he said the names were too long and confusing, so he “didn’t bother learning them.”

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In ten minutes, one white man erased thousands of years of the slaughter of indigenous people and somehow managed to frame it into the idea of American exceptionalism: the idea that this country has no colonial past and was founded on pure intentions. Then, another white man single-handedly disrespected all nonwhite author whose name had an unfamiliar sequence of letters, thereby disregarding the creators of literature which markedly reduces the influences of the texts. How fucking rude.

I impatiently waited for my TA to say something and ask people to choose their words more carefully, acknowledging the problematic discourse. However, he basically coddled the two men and told them mistakes were acceptable and to learn from them. That’s not enough for me.

I understand that a fine line exists between attacking a student and educating someone on their prejudiced ideas, but as an educator, he had a responsibility to figure out his role in those kind of situations and carry it the fuck out. As a woman of color in a predominantly white male class, I do not and cannot have the sole responsibility of being the spokesperson for all people of color and calling out racism, especially in an environment where I am outnumbered.

I met with my TA about my uncomfortable feelings during the discussion section, and told him that if that was how he would deal with slightly difficult interactions between students, I did not want to attend class anymore. He sympathized with my feelings and told me he wished he had been more prepared of what to say at the time. He also expressed apprehension about policing that sort of speech in the classroom, and worried about imposing his political beliefs on his students.

I’m pretty skeptical of that concern, but he does beg the question about how to separate the two. In my mind, the comments those two white guys made conveyed racist ideas and they offended me. They are objectively wrong. Others may not share this idea, so where does that leave us? This is a question that requires the attention of academia immediately.

According to this Guardian article by Rachel Williams, less than 10% of university professors are nonwhite which means that white professors dominate almost all conversations regarding race.

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If they cannot distinguish the forcing of their political beliefs from preventing prejudiced comments among their own community, college campuses won’t have this ability either, and nor will college classrooms: a place where students’ minds should stretch and expand and become educated.

Racism and prejudices still exist; that’s pretty much common sense. However, when supposedly educated people with authority allow these attitudes to pervade a setting like a classroom, the problem becomes systematic and arguably state-sanctioned. We must work to decolonize classrooms, where students and teachers should engage in productive, educational conversations. This task lies with academia, and needs their attention now.

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