Teaching about racism in an Obama USA

I am about to start a section in my Introduction to Philosophy class on race and racism in America and I am stymied about how to handle the topic with Obama on his way to the White House. Just days before the election The Economist endorsed Obama. Among the many fine and sensible things they had to say was what I think was this less than fine or sensible comment:

“At home he would salve, if not close, the ugly racial wound left by America’s history and lessen the tendency of American blacks to blame all their problems on racism.”

It would take a book to unpack the assumptions in that one sentence. For a start here are three: (1) That one man could lay hands on the US and heal its racial wounds; (2) That these racial wounds are relegated to US history and not contemporary US culture and institutions; and (3) that African Americans blame all their problems on racism.

These assumptions echo challenges I face in my classroom. Many of the challenges we face are dependent on the local cultures in which we teach. In my school, most of the students aren’t just White, they’re blond. In a racially diverse class at what I will call White U, there are at most three or four students of color.

In my local culture, being ‘polite’ means that Whites pretend that race (with no comprehension that whiteness is a race) does not exist. The trouble is that if race doesn’t exist, then neither does racism. Up until now, institutional racism was a relatively straightforward state of affairs to demonstrate. Statistics were my pedagogical ally: differences in arrest, conviction rates and penalties for crimes, differences in housing availability and pricing, differences in socioeconomic status. The numbers paint a racist picture that broke through my White students’ privileged shells. Denying the consequent ran its course.

I am afraid that the fact that most US voters picked Obama will swamp the history and the numbers, will erase the difference between personal and institutional racism and will reinforce what many of the White students who come to my classes believe, that racism is a sad part of our history, but not part of their present reality.

My question for you is about teaching. How do we celebrate Obama’s amazing victory, a victory for the United States and a victory for people of color in the United States, without minimizing the work that is yet to be done, and without erasing the racial injustices that are part of our everyday life and institutions?

Feminism and labels

Most readers will have already seen this poll by the Daily Beast evaluating attitudes towards gender in the past election cycle, but I’m curious about your thoughts. In particular, the statistic that only 20% of women are comfortable calling themselves “feminists.”

Some points to discuss:
1. The legitimacy of the poll (sample size, margin of error)
2. The implications of the poll
– Is this evidence that “feminist” is a dirty word in our society?
– Or, have so many feminist goals been reached that “feminist” now wrongly connotes an extremist?
– Is it important to call oneself a feminist in order to support gender and sex equality?

Sex With Trafficked Prostitutes=Rape

New UK law proposals today:

New prostitution laws to be set out today will mean a plea of ignorance is no defence for men facing prosecution for buying sex from a woman who has been trafficked or is being exploited by a pimp.

Under proposals to be published today by the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, a man who pays for sex with a woman who has been trafficked or is under the control of a pimp could face a charge of rape, which carries a potential life sentence.

A couple of quick thoughts: (1) It’s interesting that ignorance is no defense, since I’m not sure that’s the case with standard UK rape law. (Anyone out there know? I haven’t got time to check.) (2) One wonders how much effect this will have, given rape conviction rates in the UK (5.7%, last I checked).
Thanks, Edna!

CFP: Hypatia Special Issue


Announcing a Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Conference and Special Issue:
Feminist Legacies / Feminist Futures

Hypatia has been published as an independent journal of feminist philosophy since 1986; Volume 25 will appear in 2010. To mark this significant anniversary—to celebrate the accomplishments of Hypatia, its founders, editors, and contributors, and to consider where feminist philosophy is headed in the next twenty-five years—the current editors will host a Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Conference at the University of Washington in the Fall of 2009 (October 22-24), and the final issue of Volume 25 (Fall 2010) will be designated a Special Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Issue.

Submissions are welcome, for both the conference and the Special Issue, on any topic in feminist philosophy addressed by contributors to Hypatia in its publication history. We encourage a forward-looking focus that draws on retrospective assessment to envision future directions: what issues are emerging, what lines of inquiry are taking shape, what questions need attention, given the trajectory of feminist philosophy evident in the articles, reviews, symposia and special issues published by Hypatia since the mid-1980s? You might, for example:
– identify a paper or debate published by Hypatia that especially influenced you (positively or negatively) and assess the implications of its insights, its lacunae, its implications for future directions in feminist philosophy;
– if you are a Hypatia author, return to a paper you published in the journal and assess how thinking in this area has changed, what new directions are taking shape;
– consider how, and why, some topics that were prominent in early issues of Hypatia have continued to set the agenda for feminist philosophy while others have been reframed or set aside: how has work on these topics evolved and where it can be expected to go in the future?

25th Anniversary Conference: October 22-24, 2009
Simpson Center for the Humanities, University of Washington
Deadline for conference abstracts: June 1, 2009
Please submit a 1-2 page (250-500 word) abstract for your proposed paper to the Hypatia editorial office, clearly identified as a Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Conference submission.

25th Anniversary Special Issue: to appear as the final issue of Volume 25 (Fall 2010)
Deadline for special issue submissions: November 16, 2009
Please submit a manuscript clearly identified as a Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Special Issue submission to the Hypatia editorial office; see the Hypatia website for detailed submission guidelines. Special Issue submissions need not originate in the conference.

Hypatia editorial office: hypatia@u.washington.edu
Hypatia website: http://depts.washington.edu/hypatia/