Trauma Informed Pedagogy and Whiteness in the Classroom

Over the past few years, but particularly near the 2020 US Presidential election, I have gotten subtle, and not-so-subtle messages that being too political can be dangerous as a professor. Particularly because I am not protected by tenure, student feedback that labels me as biased can harm my job security.

This isn’t easy to navigate at the best of times. I teach ethics, leadership, developmental psychology, and sociology of the family. I can’t ignore the developmental harm caused by separating children from parents. To do so would be unethical. I can’t ignore the trauma and harm my students, and their families experience at the hands of ICE, racists, homophobes, Islamophobes, police violence, and a harmful justice system. Again, to do so would be unethical. The issues that have become front-page news directly affect many of my students. They tell me about them. I have heard many first person accounts of traumas that I will likely never face. While I have experienced this era’s stress, it hasn’t really affected me directly, mainly because of my whiteness. I did not earn whiteness, yet I get all the unearned privilege that comes with it. Most of my students do not and face dangers I cannot imagine.

I integrate current event discussions into all my classes because I believe it is irresponsible not to. In the process, I learn about the worlds in which my students live, about how campus policies and local politics and national policies affect them, about what they care about, what makes them happy, and what keeps them up at night.

I don’t consider a discussion of current events to be more political than any other aspect of public life. It’s just that, as has been said by women wiser than me, the personal is political. My students’ lives are deeply affected by the community, university, and country’s cultural and political climate. To ignore this fact erases them, causing further harm. It also disengages them from the learning process.

When the Black Lives Matter protests happened this summer, my institution listened to students and faculty and did some promising introspection. I hoped that this constant, low-level pressure would lessen. However, we were instructed to be as apolitical as possible in the wake of the presidential election.

This made me deeply uncomfortable, as I have witnessed the direct harm the current political and social climate has caused to my most vulnerable students.

Almost 95% of my students are women, and about 60% of them are non-white. They are the ones who have been most endangered by the policies and climate of the last four years (and the last 400).

Many of my students are or have been in crisis this year. I try to create a space in my classroom where they can relax a little. Where they can talk about their lived experiences if they want to. And where we all listen, and laugh a little, and think about the world from each other’s perspectives. Most are juniors and seniors worried about the future, worried about choosing a different path than their parents envisioned for them, and right now, worried about social violence and COVID. That is a lot to carry.

Yes, my few conservative white students are probably feeling pretty freaked out right now, much as I was four years ago. But I was never going to be the victim of increased social tolerance for white supremacy (because I’m white), Islamophobia (because I’m white), and the demonization of brown-skinned immigrants (because I’m white).

Part of engaging in Trauma-Informed Pedagogy entails knowing your own issues and dealing with them appropriately. The rules of processing trauma dictate that we take our trauma to someone who is 1) emotionally available, 2) has consented to hold our feelings with us (like a therapist or close friend), and 3) is not experiencing worse trauma than we are. Cognitive dissonance, like I experienced in 2016, and my conservative white students may be experiencing now, is very uncomfortable. It is not, however, life-threatening. I try to listen deeply to my students when they talk about trauma and not impose my own schemas on theirs in an attempt to relate.

I am not a therapist. But I am older, more financially and emotionally stable, and more experienced than my students, so I consent to hold space for them within the classroom boundaries and the teacher-student relationship while referring them to more qualified resources as needed. This is Trauma-Informed Pedagogy.

The mythology of false equivalency created over the last few years and further reinforced by social and mainstream media shows up like this:

Worrying about your Black child being killed by the police during protests is proportionate to feeling angry that a Black man was president.

Avoiding taking your kids to the doctor because ICE has been raiding your neighborhood and has put your uncle in detention is proportionate to being upset that gay people can get married.

Being verbally or physically attacked because you wear the hijab is proportionate to being upset that you are required to wear a face mask.

Physical danger and emotional discomfort are not proportionate.

False equivalency seems to be a pervasive byproduct of an era with continually mainstreamed racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, ableism, and misogyny. Feeling uncomfortable is not the same thing as being in physical danger. Moreover, being in constant danger due to increased tolerance for hate crimes and discrimination has far-reaching negative effects on mental and physical health.

Cognitive dissonance is the feeling that the world is not as it should be. We may experience it when someone says something in public we believe is false — when someone describes reality in a way we don’t experience. We feel it as tension in our bodies and perhaps as a flood of thoughts trying to defend or justify our position. It doesn’t indicate the rightness or wrongness of our position; it just is. We may also experience it as a symptom of intellectual and psychological growth. In Transformative Learning, a theory that underlies my pedagogy it is referred to as the disorienting dilemma. This happens when a learner is confronted with a viewpoint of the world, or perhaps themselves, which is new and uncomfortable. They must grapple with this discomfort as they test and then integrate the new knowledge into their world and self-view.

I experience cognitive dissonance when a Black activist criticizes white liberals on an issue I haven’t confronted yet. Over time, I have learned to lean into this discomfort, wait for it to pass, and then look at the issue without the need to rationalize my feelings immediately. Often, this causes me to grow just a little bit and to integrate some new knowledge into my world view. When I learned to do this, I stopped being as defensive when my demographic, white women, was criticized and learned to listen more deeply. This makes me a better person, a better ally, and a better citizen. Not perfect — not even close — but a little bit better.

I try to model this in the classroom by remaining receptive to criticism of what material I cover and how I teach it. If a student expresses concern that I am marginalizing a group or leaving out an important perspective, I will discuss it with the class, apologize if necessary, and adjust my approach. It’s not the responsibility of my students to fix my issues — I continue to engage in learning about systemic inequality and improving my practice — but when it happens, it allows me to model humility and flexibility to other privileged people and show that you can screw up and make amends and you will be okay. I try to show privileged students that discomfort is okay; marginalization is not.

Here is an example. I was teaching a class on families’ socioeconomics, and we were discussing current events, which included a wave of performative white supremacy online. A Black woman mentioned that some white people were posting videos of themselves drinking gallons of milk because they claimed that the ability to process lactose as an adult is a sign of racial superiority (rather than a random mutation). I laughed it off as too absurd to be real. Then I googled it when I got home. Yup. It was totally real. So in the next class, I publicly apologized for disbelieving my student and promised to do better. I ate some crow because 1) I totally deserved it, 2) I owed her an apology, and 3) other people need to know that admitting you are wrong won’t actually kill you.

The point of this story is not that I am a super woke white lady. Obviously, I’m not. It’s that I believe that teachers must model ethical, mature behavior, which includes owning our mistakes. (Note: ethics are messy) My Black and Brown students should not have such low expectations of white teachers that I am the best they can hope for. My conservative students should not be so brittle that they can’t handle some alternate perspectives. If I keep trying to be better, then maybe my minority students will expect more from me and my white students will expect more from themselves.

Cognitive dissonance is not life-threatening.

Racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and ableism threaten students’ health and projected lifespan. They affect my students’ likelihood of experiencing violence, the quality of medical care they receive, their job and financial stability, and their access to housing, all during a pandemic that endangers our species. So I cannot in good faith pretend that white students’ discomfort is equivalent to marginalized students’ lack of safety. They are not. I try to center the experiences, critiques, and stories of my non-white students because I believe it is unethical not to. Marginalizing at-risk students isn’t just unethical; it’s dangerous.

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy is not trauma-informed if we do not consider the ways that our social, financial, and political system does disproportionate harm to non-white people. In the aftermath of a contentious election and in the middle of a global pandemic, I cannot ignore this fact at the expense of my ethics, teaching, and, most importantly, my students.

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