In a couple weeks I will return to my classroom and continue my second decade of teaching at one of Florida’s universities. Despite the recently passed HB 7 Amendment (Stop WOKE Act), I will not adjust my curriculum to remove readings or discussions that make students “uncomfortable,” and I will not claim that systemic racism, sexism, Homophobia, Islamophobia and other forms of oppression do not exist. I will not “whitewash” our country’s history or downplay the challenges and oppression that so many people still experience, especially those who are women and/or members of the BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities.
Instead, I will do what I have always done. I will select creative work from writers from all sorts of communities, and require students to read their stories and discuss the work and their themes. Some of these themes are difficult and can make many of us uncomfortable, no matter how we identify or what community we belong to.
But my students aren’t the snowflakes Governor DeSantis assumes they are… and neither am I. Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us that “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are wrong, but that they are incomplete. They make the only story the only story. Those of us who can go to college do so, in part, I hope, to broaden our view of the world. And my students come to learn how to tell their own stories, and one of the ways we teach that is to study what other people have done.
I deliberately select work from members of marginalized communities, because many of my students have yet to hear those voices…and many of my students belong to those communities. Recently, among other works, my students read “Heavy: An American Memoir″ by Kiese Laymon and poems by Danez Smith. These two authors deal with race, class, whiteness, sexuality, politics, family and body image. Smith’s work also addresses homophobia and police brutality, as well as other “uncomfortable” topics.
HB 7 (with its clever moniker Stop WOKE) is obviously created to protect the white, straight student who is theoretically made to feel “guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress”, such as the project of law lists it in one of its “specified”. concepts” which seeks to refute that anyone is privileged or oppressed. But my white and straight students aren’t reacting the way DeSantis or his constituents fear.
In a discussion post on “Heavy,” one student wrote, “I feel like it was such a great insight into a world I know nothing about.” Another commented, “Hearing stories through memoirs in your own voice is a great way to open the eyes of so many people who don’t understand what it’s like to be black in America (or a woman , or part of the LGBTQ+ community, etc.), and lets them experience first-hand what they have to go through every day and how we should use our voices to demand a safer environment for everyone who lives here, regardless of race, sex or sexuality. “They weren’t “indoctrinated” by me. They were enlightened by someone else’s story.
“Too often, members of marginalized communities sit silently in class as white people express shock at their experiences. And, yes, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also necessary.
In truth, I worry more about my students from marginalized communities feeling “psychological distress” with my reading lists and class discussions. As one of my students said of “Heavy,” “I lived that book and heard other stories from my mom. Instead of informing me, it just reminded me of real world pain. Too often, people from marginalized communities sit silently in class as white people express shock at their experiences. And, yes, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also necessary.
If we have any chance of uniting our country and finding a way to reasonably discuss controversial topics—while actively working for change—educators must show how. Politicians – and corporations, lobbyists, media groups, etc. who feed them (and are fed by them) – are the only ones who benefit from our discord. So it stands to reason that instead of promoting an education system that seeks to include everyone’s experiences, DeSantis’ recent legislation seeks to silence experiences that do not fit an image of America that has never exist. It’s just another strategic move in a culture war that no one wins – except perhaps those considering a presidential bid.
I don’t want to make those accusations. In fact, I don’t want to write this essay…and I definitely don’t want to use a pseudonym. I’ve never even considered doing it in the past, and I’ve posted a lot of stuff that took courage. I believe in authenticity and transparency. But I worry about our governor’s willingness to punish those who even consider opposing him…no matter who else might be negatively affected. I can live with the professional and personal backlash. I can accept that these remarks can justify my dismissal. Opposing – and actively resisting – this law is worth getting fired.
But I worry about the scrutiny it will bring to my colleagues and about cuts to my university or the humanities in general. DeSantis has already proven that he doesn’t care if students are victims of a political war. And students will suffer from budget cuts.
Yet, I cannot be silent. I cannot be objective about how the history of the United States is inextricably linked with genocide, slavery, white supremacy, and sexism, to name just a few of our country’s ills. And I can’t be “objective” to claims that history no longer haunts us today and that groups of people are not privileged or oppressed based on systems that have been in place for centuries. previously.
This is patently untrue, and Governor DeSantis knows it. He majored in history at Yale University. He does not act out of ignorance. He acts for political purposes. It deliberately ignores marginalized communities and attempts to condemn them to a future as burdened as the past. He rules only a percentage of the citizens of this state where he is sworn to serve us all.
He also underestimates young people in Florida. Even if educators were to agree to be silenced – if we stopped attributing and discussing material that “embraces, promotes, advances, instills, or compels” students to recognize privilege and if, out of fear, we pretend to be “objective” about racism and other forms of oppression and their sources — our students are already aware of the problems that so many people face here. They live, work, study and learn side by side on some of the most diverse campuses in the United States. More than a few of our universities have undergraduate populations of which almost half are from an ethnic minority group.
And when these students enter my class? For those who may not be aware of the America that exists for so many, they will learn more…and I won’t pretend to be “objective” about oppression and privilege. I would never tell a student that they are “responsible” for acts “committed in the past by other members of the same race”, nor will I tell them that they are guilty of acts that occurred before they were even born. . Of course, they are not. But we are responsible for recognizing how we contribute to this system and understanding who benefits. We have to face it – and ourselves – before we can all commit to working for change.
What about the student who shared her story with us? I’m not going to tell him that his experiences aren’t valid or try to sell him an image of America that never existed. Even if I wanted to tell her that oppression is just a “theory,” she wouldn’t believe it anyway. She saw him.
It is not indoctrination. It is education.
As long as I’m allowed in a classroom, I’ll do my job.
I wish Governor DeSantis would do the same.
Beth L. Matterson is the pseudonym of a college professor and writer in Florida. Matterson writes poetry, memoirs, and sometimes fiction. She would much rather spend time with her dog than write an essay like this, but she notes, “I lose sleep when I consider an America where so many people are silenced, and we become more concerned by our comfort than by our learning.
Do you have a compelling personal story that you would like to see published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here and send us a pitch.