I've learned over my years of teaching that whenever I enter a room full of students and take a look around, I'm only getting the tiniest bit of those students' stories from what I see. Then when students speak and/or share more about themselves through written assignments or class discussions, I may understand a little bit more about them, but I still only have limited access to the full picture.
I've come to think of it like this: I need to navigate a ship (the classroom environment, what I'm teaching, every member of the group's sensitivities) through a room full of ice bergs, and I can only see what's above the surface with no idea what's below. It's sometimes very difficult to ascertain students' personal sensitivities, backgrounds, and needs if I don't somehow create a space where students feel comfortable speaking to me about those elements of their personal experiences. I don't know what's below the surface, and I can't know unless students feel comfortable sharing.
I've thought that I've been doing the best I can, but after recent events on college and university campuses over the last two weeks have gained wide media attention and after listening to a public discussion at NYU on diversity and inclusion, I feel discouraged and unclear about the work that I do in my classrooms. Students of color are angry, upset, and clearly in a lot of pain while they're trying to learn, and that's counterproductive to the learning process. Based on stories they're sharing now, there are plenty of reasons to be upset and to be making demands for change. We as faculty have a lot of work to do when it comes to creating and sustaining more inclusive classrooms for students of color.
I also try to think carefully about how class and socioeconomic status play into a discussion of privilege. How assumptions about my class background are largely based on the color of my skin and my gender. I try to take the privilege that comes from my skin color and my gender very seriously in my interactions with other people. I sometimes feel that people are less interested in considering that my current socioeconomic status may not reflect where I came from, and may actually be far more complicated than my skin color and gender might indicate. I haven't found a way to share that in any kind of public way, and maybe that's part of the problem.
It comes down to telling our stories, right? We only know about other people what they choose to share with us. Beyond that, we easily fall into the trap of making assumptions based on past experiences, stereotypes, or what other people tell us. When people are comfortable enough to tell their own stories in the way they want them told and other people take the time to listen and hear the story, then we might start to get at the crux of all of these issues.
One size does not fit all. Blanket policies can help, but we have to build spaces where conversations flow more freely. That's the way to melt the ice bergs. And then the path through rough seas might get a little less bumpy.