Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Deep Distrust

Both male and female students do it.

They see me as an instructor, a role, and not as the person I am.

I can't think of one instance where the men and women who abstract me in this way are abstracting me in a positive way.

These are students who have come to distrust teachers, or, sometimes, it's a distrust of those with authority.

Of course, I see myself as trustworthy, caring, bending over backward to do right by my students; I'm on the students' side. I'm their ally. I do all I can to communicate these more personal aspects of myself as a teacher, and still, I have certain students, a small number, who persist in being sullen, defensive, distrustful, contrary, as if I am just like the other teacher or teachers who have done something to discourage or hurt them in the past.

For many years, this occasional phenomenon bothered me a lot. For years, I took it personally and wondered how I was failing to communicate that I'm a nice guy, a good person, not like those others.

What I really wanted was for these students to forget or let go of their past and see me for who I am, not as an embodiment of those who had hurt them in the past.

I've come to realize that this is a very difficult move.

I know, in part, because of the difficulty I have making the same move.

In my work, I don't trust people in power, namely administrators of our college. When dealing with administrators about matters of school business at LCC, I assume I'm being lied to, massaged, manipulated, shaped, patronized, spun, politicked, and that none of it occurs for my benefit as a faculty member.

Now, on a personal level, if I run into one of the few administrators I know, and when we chat about family or a movie or what we did over the weekend, I find these bosses to be wonderful, decent, and good people. That I don't trust them in their capacity to manage my work life has little or nothing to do with their personal character.

Or whether I like them.

Moreover, if any of these administrators is telling the truth in a meeting or a speech, I can't hear it. Because of their role, or their position, when they talk about budget or faculty workload or contract negotiations or their administrative philosophies, I hear lies and manipulations.

Administrators have burned too many people and programs for me to believe them, and, I repeat, even if they are telling the truth.

I should add that this distrust is not the result of my deliberations. I didn't sit down one day and reason my way, through decision making (or choice), to the way I feel. It's more primal than that, rawer. It's in my gut. I'm responding non-rationally (not irrationally). A defense mechanism is in place, a means of protection, and it originated, not in my cerebrum, but somewhere in the affective depths of my person.

If there were an administrator who wanted me feel differently, that person would be wanting me to deny history, to deny the abuses of truth and manipulations I've seen and experienced. That history is not in the past. It lives in the present and will carry into the future. That's the power of history. It's never over. We can't put it behind us.

I taught at LCC for about ten years with the college's only full-time, permanent black instructor. We became friends. I spent time in his home with his family, enjoyed his river cabin, sat down over Monday Night Football together, smoked cigars in his back patio, and had countless stimulating conversations.

But things would happen. Around hiring new faculty, say. Or around curriculum. My friend would become wary with me, angry, distrustful, accusatory.

It upset me. I'd worked my ass off to support diversity, had been deeply involved at another college as the faculty's Affirmative Action representative. I'd been instrumental in helping hire that college's first black professor. Moreover, not only did I think my credentials were good, he and I were friends.

Why the sudden anger, distrust, wariness, and intensity?

One day, I realized that it wasn't personal. He wasn't angry with me, per se, but with history, the general history of inequity between blacks and whites in our world, but also the history of the college, his long history at the college of being discounted, not listened to, accused of playing the "race card", regarded as marginal because he "had an agenda".

I began to realize that my friend was furious about any number of slights and indignities he'd suffered, as well as his family and community, and when he was wary and angry with me, a deep sense of protection was at work, as well as a deep desire for justice.

Countless times, after one of these incidents, my friend would explain to me what it was like to be a black man on the level of how he saw the world, what the workings of his consciousness were, how his mental processes worked. He told me that since he was educated in white institutions of learning, he'd learned to think like a white person and he succeeded at that; but, he told me, his mind was not unified. He was of two minds. Thinking like a white person was a way of moving through the white world, but primary was his consciousness as a black man.

I read an essay today by Mansfield Frazier, and what he wrote reflected what my friend had said to me almost word for word: "Indeed, the most damnable thing about being a black man in America is the need for the constant reading of mindsets and intentions when we encounter a white person we are not familiar with. Is he, or is he not, a racist? Did he mean what I thought he meant, or was it just my defense mechanisms working overtime? I can tell you that it's damn tiring, and potentially embarrassing."

The constant sizing up. The constant evaluating. The uncertainty. The constant pressing of the past on the present. The fatigue. It's how I am with administrators. I have students who size me up in much the same way. It's how my friend survived at LCC, but it was also what made him one of the most difficult colleagues I've ever worked with.

These thoughts and memories have been swimming around in my head ever since the news of Henry Louis Gate, Jr arrest broke.

For the full Mansfield Frazier article, go here.

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