A class lead by a cisgender, straight, white man isn’t necessarily always bad. But it’s probably not great, either. These attributes all but guarantee that he has never experienced systemic oppression — being denied services and opportunities, receiving unequal pay, constantly fearing for his life in otherwise safe situations — based on the premise of his racial or gender identity.
These experiences shape an individual’s perspective of the world, how it works, and how it doesn’t. Regardless of how thick the textbook, how comprehensive the curriculum, or how many degrees he’s got behind his name, a cis, straight, white man cannot truly connect to the discriminatory experiences that many minority students live. Attempting to learn from and engage with a professor who doesn’t understand you can be exhausting.
I am a woman pursuing a degree in political science, a field largely dominated by men nationwide. At the UW, 25 of the 38 instructors, as well as both the department chair and co-chair, are men.
Every politically focused class I’ve taken has been taught by a man, and this has without a doubt impacted my learning and overall interest in the courses. In one of these introductory classes, I didn’t read a single text written by a woman. As an asynchronous class in the midst of COVID-19, there was no element of classroom discussion where I could hear thoughts and feelings in line with my own.
The class was about men, for men, taught by men. I wasn’t a fan, to say the least, and my already dwindling academic motivation became nonexistent.
As a university that employs over 4,700 instructors, the UW’s faculty demographics are concerning. When only 4.6% of instructors are Hispanic, 2% are Black, and less than 1% are American Indian or Pacific Islander, my lack of experience with diverse professors is in no way unique — in fact, it’s commonplace.
Junior Juan Torres, director of the Queer Student Commission (QSC) of the Associated Students of the University of Washington, could attest to the feeling of being underwhelmed with the UW’s attempts at diversity.
“Seattle is such a diverse place,” Torres said. “I feel like everyone is so open with their queerness or their culture, and it feels like such a welcoming and vibrant area, but I don't get that sense from UW. I feel like it's the opposite, and it's counterintuitive.”
As a biology major, Torres described his student experience brimming with predominantly cis, straight, white men — with a notable exception of one gay chemistry lecturer.
“He was still cis and white,” Torres said. “However, it’s progress.”
According to Torres, the lecturer created a learning environment like no other, beginning each class with a short history lesson about an individual who has contributed to the field of chemistry, with specific emphasis on queer, BIPoC, and other underrepresented narratives.
Learning from someone who shared a common identity impacted Torres’ understanding not only of the material, but also of his own place at the UW and within higher education.
“Sometimes my expectations are simmered down because I have the feeling that I can’t enter certain spaces, so seeing a queer professor in those spaces seems revolutionary to me,” Torres said. “I'm a first-generation student, and I’ve never seen any queer [professors] or [professors] that represented my identities. So it feels revolutionary to me, and it really motivates me; I feel like my enthusiasm skyrockets.”
Junior Eddy Castillo, however, experienced quite the opposite in one of his political science classes on international relations. Initially expecting a class on global political alliances or international trading systems, Castillo, who is Latino, said he was faced with a reality that we all must eventually accept: the weird obsession many straight white men have with war.
“[The class] was all about war, and it was [a] white man teaching it,” Castillo said. “I felt like the class was mostly white guys who'd say, ‘I feel comfortable sharing my devil's advocate opinion, and no one is going to challenge me on it because that’s how the power structure works in here.’”
Castillo said this uncomfortable racial dynamic in the classroom directly impacted his success in the course, as he had no confidence to ask questions or a desire to pay attention to such narrow-minded information.
That same quarter, Castillo took another class in which he felt connected to the material like never before. He credits this to professor Alexes Harris, a highly accomplished Black female professor in the sociology department.
“I had never felt more engaged in the subject matter of a class than in this class with her,” Castillo said. “And it was because we were talking about poverty and racism and jail, and so I knew that her relationship to this subject was a lot more personal than the other professor’s relationship to war.”
Even in a 400-person lecture, Castillo said he was routinely raising his hand to ask questions and share his own thoughts.
“She would look at me, and she would actually acknowledge me,” Castillo said.
A diverse faculty isn’t just essential to the well-being of students, though. In the words of Torres, it’s “common sense.” While high school prepared us for college, college is supposed to prepare us for the workforce, for reality. Reality is not a monolith of cis, straight, white men — not by a long shot.
Reality is intersectional: composed of hundreds of ethnic groups, thousands of unique cultures and languages, a spectrum of sexuality and gender and ability, and so much more. And the UW has a responsibility to reflect that.
Reach contributing writer Sydney Lyman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @syddlyman
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