The Problem with Multicultural Academia

This Black History Month, I am forced to contemplate my time as a black student at Andover. In all honesty, I am grateful for the opportunity to attend such a prestigious institution that not only acknowledges its past as a bastion for privileged, elite, Anglo-Saxon males but also actively pushes against that. I still hold certain qualms, however, regarding my humanities education within the classroom.

In recent years, Andover has tried to make its various curricula more inclusive of historically underrepresented groups. This includes the introduction of texts and works written and produced by women, blacks, Latinos and Asians to English and History classes. These additions to the curricula are headed under the multicultural agenda. Though Andover has actively integrated multiculturalism into the classroom, it still comes off as a weak effort, in which we barely go beyond the surface of issues of identity.

As a black student, I have often found my experiences portrayed in material that we analyze during class. Whether in pieces by bell hooks, Toni Morrison or Chinua Achebe, I can often relate to the narratives evoked and the characters’ experiences. Poverty, systemic oppression, colorism and interpersonal racism are several of the many topics that come up during conversation around this literature. Those happen to be the realities that I and other black students have experienced.

My race and ethnicity makes me inherently underprivileged compared to white students. Most of my more-privileged counterparts, by default, know less about what it feels like to be discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity. I have often felt offended in classrooms where white students, especially those who might know little about the experience of those in the African diaspora, attempt to dominate conversations about multicultural literature.

While I am happy to see that white students are really engaging with material beside what is deemed “canonical literature” or the “standard curricula,” a certain level of caution must be taken when speaking on experiences that one is unfamiliar with. Conversations regarding black literature that I have heard in class range from comments about magical realism, a genre that uses supernatural elements to depict an aspect of reality, to questions about why these characters remain complacent in their struggles.

Though I try to remain patient with students who are not cognizant of the realities of minorities, it becomes a totally different issue when their lack of awareness evolves into blatant microaggressions and erasure of those experiences. This is very frustrating. No, a string of unfortunate events within a troubled black community does not equate to fantasy. Also, white people do not have the right to say that black people, along with other marginalized groups of people, are complacent in their struggles.

This speaks to a larger issue in the humanities departments: Some teachers struggle to facilitate and maintain constructive conversations about race in the classroom because they simply have not experienced racial discrimination. Most faculty members do not possess this background because racial discrimination is usually directed towards minority groups, and only 24 percent of the faculty at Andover are of color, according to the Andover website. If we do not have instructors who understand the oppression that minority groups have endured, classroom discussion would just be the blind leading the blind. To make discussions about racial discrimination against minority groups more effective and meaningful, we should try to recruit more teachers of color in the English and History Departments. At the very least, teachers should acknowledge their own lack of experience dealing with the topics with which they engage in class.

As abstract of a concept it may be, power dynamics often influence classroom discussion. Anyone who works intensively with multiculturalism understands that certain groups are more privileged than others. Such voices include those of white people, men and gender-normative individuals. In many of my humanities classroom discussions, however, teachers have not paid any attention to power dynamics, often letting those of privilege dictate conversations.

Privileged students need to learn when it is appropriate for them to speak on an issue and how they should go about it. For example, it is patronizing for a man to dictate how women should carry themselves. The same holds true for race and ethnicity. I find it problematic to have a white student “educate” me on black issues or “tone-police” me if I get frustrated over a comment they made that dismisses my experiences. Students who are privileged in identity should strive to understand the value of silence and active listening. I know enforcing such values would result in the discomfort and resentment of many, but I feel that this is a necessary step toward promoting equality on campus.

I feel that Andover often pushes its students to grapple with the nuances of privilege, but, in doing so, it falls short of actually teaching what privilege is. This is a problem, considering we have students of various backgrounds in our community. Alongside the debate on free speech, we are stuck in a rough patch. We must weigh the importance of maintaining the status quo against that of maintaining an equitable community. The former makes for underrepresented students of color and other marginalized groups of students to feel excluded in the demographic and in the classroom. The latter, though difficult to envision, is what our community should aim for.

Avery Jonas is a four-year Senior from New York, N.Y., and was a Managing Editor for The Phillipian, Vol. CXXXVIII.