Perhaps I should have known better when I chose to teach The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to my 151H class. For Wednesday, when we started the book, we had a delightful author presentation by three students, which gave us background on the book, the author, Henrietta, HeLa, and more. It was a truly excellent example of an author presentation and why I like to have students do them. I was so proud of them. Then, I gave my students a copy of Peggy McIntosh's classic "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" and we read it in class. I asked them to free write a little, react to what they'd read, and in the last little bit of class we came back together and talked about their impressions. To my everlasting bafflement, the consensus was that there was no such thing as white privilege and if there was, it was not a bad thing. I was so completely speechless that I had very little to say in response. Fortunately and unfortunately, we'd run out of time and we'd continue in the next class (today).
I've been struggling for the last two days about how to accept that what we're going to be talking about with this book is going to be a process--and it's going to be a longer process than I expected it to be. To be honest, I expected that we would read McIntosh's article on Wednesday, my students would be shocked to recognize themselves in some of those statements, and that would be the disorienting we needed to talk about the book and all the issues that it raises. When that didn't happen, it's required some serious work in directions I didn't expect.
Today, I walked into class, prepped with some things I wanted to say, but really apprehensive about the way that this class would go. These are smart students--it's an Honors class--all white, and from what I've gleaned from their conversations, conservative nearly to a one. That's been disconcerting. So I put a timeline on the board:
- 1920: 19th Amendment
- 1932-1973: Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments
- 1929-1974: North Carolina Eugenics program (Oregon went till 1981)
- 1954: Brown vs. Board of Education
- 1955: Rosa Parks arrested
- 1965: Voting Rights Act
And I made another list:
- Issues of Consent
- Reproduction/Reproductive Rights
We talked through the first list, made sure everybody knew what we were talking about. 19th Amendment was women's right to vote--yes, women have had the right to vote for less than a century. We talked through the two medical programs. Education desegregation. And still another ten years for the Voting Rights Act to be passed. And I brought up how these issues are still not resolved. I had them talk through voter suppression efforts in this election cycle that are disproportionately affecting poor and minority voters that statistically lean Democratic. I talked about women's rights and women's rights over their own bodies still an issue (most hadn't heard Richard Mourdock's comments on Wednesday). These are still issues.
Then we listened to a NPR interview with Harriet Washington about her book Medical Apartheid--in which she talks about scientific racism and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments. Here's the interview (it's about 12 minutes):
After the interview finished, I had them find a moment in the chapters we read for today where they stopped, paused, moments where they had a specific, solid reaction to what they read--it didn't matter what it was, what mattered was the pause. I had them write about that moment, putting it into context with the interview, with history, etc. We didn't get enough time to talk about what they wrote, but they have a Think Piece due on Monday, so that should be very interesting. We went to the beginning of the text to start with the epigraph from Elie Wiesel, taken from a book on Nazi experiments--and we talked about what frame of mind that particular quote and its accompanying context put us in. I spent specific time talking about my students' specific reactions to what was written, laying off the ideas of white privilege. As class progressed today, I began to understand the actual process of this and to be heavy-handed about it at this point would be counter-productive. I asked them how they felt reading the scene where Henrietta goes into the bathtub and feels the tumor on her cervix. My students admitted to being uncomfortable. I asked why Skloot might want us to feel uncomfortable. I asked why Skloot used clinical terms like cervix and vagina and uterus, instead of more comfortable euphemisms. Why would Skloot want us, as readers, to be uncomfortable? Maybe it was my imagination, but I think I saw their synapses firing in different ways.
We talked about gender and reproduction in these chapters, the particular moment where the doctors in the Johns Hopkins hospital viewed the public charity ward as a research base, simply because the patients were not paying for treatment and serving as research subjects (even without their knowledge or consent) was justified. I could have hammered home white privilege here, but I didn't. About the only time I mentioned it was when Henrietta and Day moved to Sparrows Point to work in the steel mills, where black men got "the jobs white men wouldn't touch." This, I told my students, is white privilege--the luxury of choosing what job you will have and what jobs you will not touch. This still exists. There are still jobs that white people will not do. And that is an unaccountable privilege that is not shared by other races and ethnicities. And then I dropped it.
I don't know what's going to happen on Monday. My stomach is still in knots from today. Maybe I should explore this feeling of being uncomfortable in my own classroom and see where that leads me. At the very least, this should be an incredibly interesting Writing Project.