Recently I was lucky enough to take part in a workshop held at Villanova on teaching and race led by George Yancy. I wanted to write about that experience then, but my projects and teaching duties kept me from it, but it was one of the most exciting events I have been able to experience since I was a graduate student. Yancy spoke with such an honesty and with such conviction, but also with real philosophical wonder, that I couldn’t help but feel excited about the ideas in a way that I haven’t been able to in a long time. Part of the excitement came from feeling some vindication about how I conduct my courses and the kind of place I try to construct in my classrooms, especially regarding issues of race, gender, and sexuality. For example, whenever I teach Malcolm X I spend a good deal of the first lecture trying to get them to take apart my position. I tell them that I am speaking of experiences I don’t have access to. I admit that I am a racist, that what we are doing is not about feeling good, but confronting the reality of racism in our world. And to my black students I invite them and try to empower them to interrupt me, to speak to their experience, to shut up the white guy talking. It’s a difficult pedagogical line to walk, between abnegating one’s authority as a teacher (which can end up in the students not actually engaging with their work, not taking seriously the demands of the class, etc) and creating a space where I am vulnerable and demanding that they too be vulnerable. But I walked Yancy walk that line in our workshop and later in his public lecture and I saw how powerful and important it was to create a space that is both safe and vulnerable. A space where racists can feel “safe” to say what they think, but where that will be challenged, where they will be forced to start a process of confronting their racism. More than anything I learned something from Yancy, something very powerful, by watching his performance — I learned that a kind of honesty is a powerful teaching tool. He was so brutally honest. Naming his own sexism, for example, refusing to shy away from the real words we use, refusing to shy away from the truth, always facing it and demanding, through his performance, we face it too.
Many of you will have read Brandy Daniel’s recent post at Women in Theology about her rape, the despicable responses of the theological academy she finds herself in, and her own vision of her vocation involving parrhesia, a term that Yancy also referred to throughout the workshop. I am currently teaching Mary Daly in my Exploring Religion class and whenever introducing a new text I like to spend time creating a background, not just for the thinker, but in terms of the general environment that the text was written in and what the text was responding to. I decided, after speaking with Brandy, that I was going to pass out a slightly edited (for length) version of her blog post. Because with Brandy I also learned something about what it means to be an educator. It was, in part, the same lesson that Yancy taught, but with Brandy I was reminded that the honesty has to be a personal honesty. I want to bring attention to something really special about her post. She goes through such great pains to be a kind of marker of grace. She never names the people who have hurt, and in part that’s because of the fucked up boys’ club mentality of academia where she needs to protect herself, but it also speaks to the same kind of gentleness I saw with Yancy. I am sure that Brandy is going to be attacked; it is especially troubling that the professor who responded so reprehensibly to her rape had the absolute, unbelievable gall to make this an issue of her “theological vocation” and I would expect that some other white theo-dudes are going to come along and spout off their own self-righteous attempts to shame her. But yet, Brandy remains honest and gentle in her post, without lying to herself about what could be coming. I hope that she can do this without harm coming to her and know that the only way for that to happen is for all of us who are educators in religion and philosophy to address our endemic rape culture. I learned from Brandy that we have to make ourselves vulnerable if we want to educate. I hope my students also learn from her.