White Male Classroom Privilege

This is an essay about code-switching as a college skill. It starts, though, with questions about privilege and clothing.

In a few minutes I am heading off to teach a class on Crusade and Jihad in the Middle Ages. We’ve just reached 1200 and I’ll be asking the students to break into groups and tell them to design the perfect crusade, thinking about logistics, theology, politics, military strategy, and so forth.

I’ll be wearing jeans and a comfortable grey shirt. I used to always wear “business casual” clothing – a button down shirt, nice slacks, comfortable shoes, often a sport coat (tweed yes, elbow patches no), and I did it on purpose. I wanted to put on my “professor” costume, to help students understand that in the classroom there was a kind of formality, to code-switch and model code-switching for them. Moreover, it just felt right.

But this year I am older and more tired, perhaps thanks to my wife’s work travel schedule and the stress of finishing a book (on a 3:3 load, while chairing a major committee, and the demands of parenthood). I acquired most of my formal wardrobe while I was on the job market 7 years ago, and I’ve put on a bit of weight since then. Some of my formal shirts are fraying and I don’t want to spend money on them. This year, it’s mostly been jeans and comfortable shirts.

In Inside Higher Education over the last week, two competing essays have weighed in on formality in the classroom, focusing on dress, among other subjects. First came Katrina Gulliver. She writes:

I am not your friend; I am not “Miss.”
Is it just me, or are we witnessing an epidemic of familiarity among undergraduates?
They’re all calling me by my first name. Is this happening in your classroom too?

She continues:

To add to the confusion, in most departments there is the species of (white) male professor, who wants to be seen as “cool” (you know the one, who shows up dressed like he’s come to mow the lawn), who invites all the youngsters to “call me Dave,” resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority. If you’re one of these guys: you are not helping the rest of us.
(For those who are going to slam me for being uptight, watch your privilege).

Will Miller retorted:

I am not your friend, but I do want students to feel comfortable approaching me. And I am not “Mr.” That would be my father.

Last week in this same space, Katrina Gulliver, made an argument regarding “an epidemic of familiarity among undergraduates” that directly implicated white male faculty for “resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority.” I have witnessed this alleged epidemic in my very own classroom; and I have — much to the chagrin of Gulliver — done nothing to prevent it. Some, in fact, may even accuse me of silently fostering it.

Who I am is a white, male, millennial faculty member and college administrator who prefers creating a respectful environment in which my students are afforded the greatest opportunity for success without worrying about the same interaction in other classrooms. I have been known to occasionally teach in clothes that I could mow the lawn in and apparently a student or two have at some point said I was cool. . . . I strongly believe there is no need to rest on my apparent genetic laurels. I may be a white male, but this has nothing to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom. And more importantly, I think it has little to do with why students can respect me despite knowing my first name and using it if they feel so inclined. 

So let’s deal with a few points first.

  1. Female professors have vastly more pressure placed on their physical appearance than male professors. In graduate school, I was shocked to discover that my female fellow TAs received comments – comments on their formal evaluation documents – on their clothing, makeup, hair, and general appearance. That has never happened to me. Moreover, I have heard men who receive the famed “chili pepper” on Rate My Professors (a site dying out with my students) crowing about it, because their students think they are hot. Women … not so much. This puts financial pressure on women, but also emotional pressure to put on their armor before standing before the classroom. Which leads me to my next point.
  2. Men, especially but not exclusively white men, can tap in to deep wells of assumed authority if they want to. Women have their own wells, but they tend to be linked to mothers and elementary school teachers, rather than power in the adult world. This is what privilege looks like. I tap into it all the time. It’s a shortcut for me – and you know, I sometimes need that shortcut. It’s not fair. I’m not sure how NOT to tap into it. Putting on a suit and tie would only enhance it.
  3. I think Gulliver’s assumption of motive – “wants to be cool” – is as unsupported as Miller’s more preposterous statement that being a white male has “nothing to do” with why he is comfortable. OF COURSE it is part of why he is comfortable, although surely not only that. And of course some people want to be cool. I don’t want my students to think I’m cool. I just like to get up, put on jeans, deal with my kids’ breakfasts, get them to school, put on a coat, and go – not stop and re-dress myself in something more formal (or dress formally first, and have my kids spill on me). I do want my students to think I am smart, organized, engaged, interested, interesting, demanding, and so forth. My white maleness helps a lot with that.
Mostly, though, my white maleness affords me the room to make this choice. I can de-authorize myself anytime I want. I sit on tables. I tell self-effacing jokes (and the students actually laugh at one in three of them, a pretty good ratio). I didn’t mind it when students started showing up at my band gigs because it wasn’t going to be a threat to my classroom authority. Heck, it might even make me cool.

I’ve got all the advantages: white, straight, male, middle class academic parents, etc. You name a source of privilege, I’ve got pretty much got it.  It’s a privilege that enables me to move easily in and out of formal modes. The question is what it means for me to take advantage of that privilege.

To me, answering that question requires thinking about my specific students. Many of them, first-generation students and first-generation Americans have trouble with formality. I don’t especially care if my students are formal to me (there’s that privilege), but I do think knowing how and when to be formal is a key life skill. On the academic side, formal writing is more precise writing, and I labor to guide my students beyond simple emotional reaction to texts. Formal reading is closer reading, rather than tl;dr skimming. I want them to write to me and address me as Professor Perry (I’ve surrendered Doctor, despite the Latin roots), so they understand that I – and that college – is not like highschool. They need to be able to follow directions.

That said, my students also need to know that professors are people you can ask for help, feel safe in expressing doubts and fears, pushing for comprehensible answers to questions, and generally engage with. We can’t be distant intimidating towers of knowledge, whether we wear a tie or not, especially as white male authority figures. Are my first gen non-white students going to be more able to engage with me if I erect barriers between them and me based on speech and dress? Is that going to help them learn?

And so I code-switch. I try to model code-switching. I try to teach it as a skill, right along with textual analysis and thesis-driven essay writing. I do it explicitly. I talk about it. I take authority and I give it back, I point out I’m doing it, I ask to think about what it means.

And that, to me, is the ultimate lesson. Be intentional in your decisions about formality or lack thereof. Don’t let the default win.

11 Replies to “White Male Classroom Privilege”

  1. M says:

    That's probably correct about women tending to be subject to judgments about their appearance/clothes etc.

    It's interesting to see a european person expressing these concerns about their "privilege". Does this happen in other cultures? It reminds me of a post by anthropologist Peter Frost about the origins of guilt culture within Northwest Europeans:

    These North Sea and Baltic peoples were semi-sedentary. Most of them lived from spring to fall in large coastal agglomerations where they fished, sealed, and collected shellfish. They then dispersed to small inland hunting stations (Price, 1991). Johansen (2006) has argued for a higher degree of mobility: “a number of small groups rotating between sites on a seasonal basis within a confined territory, but perhaps periodically aggregating at key localities.”…
    t was in the coastal agglomerations that Northwest Europeans began to develop social relations in a setting where most people were not close kin. Unlike farming communities, there seems to have been a continual demographic turnover, with people spending part of the year in small bands and then regrouping in much larger settlements. It was perhaps this fluid environment that made guilt more effective than shame, since shaming works to the extent that one continues to interact with those who have witnessed the shameful act.

    …But this raises another question. How did guilt become so dominant within these populations? What is to stop some individuals from exploiting the guilt proneness of others while feeling no guilt themselves? This free-rider dilemma may have been resolved in part by identifying such individuals and ostracizing them. It may also be that these semi-sedentary communities were conducive to evolution of altruistic behavior, as described by Maynard Smith’s haystack model (Wikipedia, 2013). According to this model, guilt-prone individuals are at a disadvantage within any one community and will thus become fewer and fewer with each generation. If, however, a community has a high proportion of guilt-prone individuals, it will have an advantage over other communities and thus expand in numbers at their expense. And if these communities disperse and regroup on a regular basis, the overall proportion of guilt-prone individuals will increase over time. "


  2. David Perry says:

    I guess I just don't see the guilt here. I am lucky. I take advantage of that luck. I'm aware that luck is a part of it and that the meritocracy is a myth.

    And then I think – what can I do best for my students.

  3. Aimée Morrison (digiwonk) says:

    Interesting post: thoughtful and nuanced. Thank you.

    I like your idea of being explicit about code-switching. I actually always talk about this with my students, because I'm white, cis-gendered, tall, thin, able-bodied, tenured, and 40: I want them to know that it means something different when I slouch on the desk and make LOLcat jokes than when they do, and we talk about why. We also talk at the beginning of the semester about how I want to be addressed and why, and how I do not want to see any input about my clothing, my hair, or my tongue ring on the evaluations. And I tell them why.

    So I have access to a lot of privilege, but I try to turn it into a teachable moment, at the same time as I try to talk about my vulnerabilities as a conventionally-pretty woman among a lot of old white guys who often mistake me for a secretary.

    I don't detect any guilt in your post either: just a sense of taking responsibility for a set of unearned privileges.

  4. David Perry says:

    Thanks for commenting Aimee. It sounds to me like we are approaching this with similar agendas and methods. At the beginning of my Medieval Women and Gender class this spring I pointed out that we were going to spend all semester talking about gender and power, and I would be one of two (now one, the male student dropped) men in the room the whole time … and the one with all the power, and asked how we were going to deal with that. It was a really productive way to start the term.

  5. David Perry says:

    Personally, Lisa, I recommend working hard for a more just and humane world in order to reduce the privilege of white men. 🙂

    At least, that's what I do!

  6. Katrina says:

    I'm flattered you took the time to post in response to my piece. I seem to have stirred up some very strong feelings. The comments ranged from supportive to extremely negative, with some veering off to denigrate Community Colleges, HBCUs, and other posters! But of all the pieces I've written (for CHE and IHE) it's generated the highest volume of emails – all from strangers writing with support. I even had a college junior write and say he agreed. I've never had that before.
    It's interesting that you choose to own your privilege, we all have privileges in different ways (if we're teaching in academia). You make a good point too about the role of white male authority figures and that axis of relationship to students who might feel in some way disadvantaged.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hm. Maybe this is a culture thing, as I'm a Brit and my experience is very different? Or maybe between prestigious and less prestigious universities? (I have no idea what the Oxbridge Uni's are like, but I can certainly imagine a more formal environment) mine was a less prestigious university and there was absolutely "an epidemic of familiarity among undergraduates" – it was encouraged.

    Maybe there's a difference in the liberal arts (I did English) compared to the hard sciences as well, I don't know. But women or men, ALL of my lecturers introduced themselves on a first-name basis. We also didn't have TAs at all. The occasional lecturer was also not above having a drink with you in the pub (or possibly conducting a discussion or seminar there) – they may not have been friends, but they were certainly friendly.

    Also the idea of "being down with the kids" goes out the window when you have mature students as old or older than the lecturers in the mix of undergraduates.

    I don't know how formal the dress was as a deliberate choice, as I honestly paid little attention. Which is possibly unhelpful if they were trying to deliberately signify something. Nothing stood out as particularly formal or especially scruffy either.

  8. Finetraces786 says:

    Thank you, Professor Perry, for sharing your insights on white male privilege in the classroom!

    This particular article strikes a chord with me as I am entering the teaching profession and I am a woman of color and a first generation American.
    That formality you mentioned is something I (to an extent) struggle with.
    Part of me thinks it is because I grew up in a different mental construct than most second, third, etc. generation Americans have and therefore have a different "standard" to compare myself up against. Another part of me simply struggles with understanding what are societal norms and expectations.

    And I find it fascinating that students have criticized female TAs for their appearance (I didn't get any at DU–but maybe it was because I was a chemistry TA and most people come in relaxed clothing to lab). In one school I worked in, a number of parents had expressed criticisms for how I looked like. I didn't understand why–if someone wanted to criticize me, wouldn't it make sense to criticize my ability to teach, my knowledge of chemistry, etc.? I guess dress/appearance matters a lot more than I thought it does.

    Your article really got me thinking about these different issues. Thank you!

    1. David Perry says:

      I think the differential between a grad school TA and an undergrad student may be more pronounced than between two undergrad TAs, in part because grad TAs often act as instructors of record.

      Thanks for commenting!

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