By Judith McDaniel with Tim Fraser-Bumatay, Daniel Herrera, and Ryan Kelly1
The four of us are all teachers in face-to-face classrooms, and we have all needed to have difficult conversations about race with our students in those classes. Some teachers would maintain that it is “better” to have these conversations in person in order to monitor how the students are doing and ease them over the rough spots.
All of us have also been part of an online classroom in which we needed to have those conversations about race and ethnicity as we discussed Shakespeare’s Othello and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Is one format — online or in-person — better than the other? While our response won’t be definitive, we can say that our online discussion did succeed in creating an “immediate and vital community of learning” as we insisted in Part 1 of this series. And for each of us, the learning in this class carried over to the face-to-face classes we teach.
Thinking about Othello
In addition to reading Shakespeare’s play, I assigned several critical articles that discussed race in the play. Kim Hall’s “Beauty and the Beast of Whiteness” and James Aubrey’s “Race and the Spectacle of the Monstrous in ‘Othello’” seemed to be the most provocative.
The issue of beauty, virtue, and monstrosity
The discussion prompt for the question about Othello asked whether Hall’s portrait of “beauty and the beast of whiteness” gave the reader a path into considering Othello as an Elizabethan might have seen him. Tim’s immediate response was “[Yes,] an in-depth look at style would tread upon the contextual setting of the play’s conception, for if one were to question why Shakespeare chooses words such as ‘beast,’ ‘horse,’ and ‘ram’ to describe Othello, it would inevitably lead to 17th century cultural opinions of Africans.”
Alongside that view of course is the parallel portrait of Othello as the most noble and honorable man in the Duke’s court. When Shakespeare introduces the “Moor” himself, he presents “an intriguing character who breaks from the stigma; he is calm, courteous, and even noble.”
But is he? That was the question that lingered. Ryan suggested, “Perhaps Othello is one of those characters who is built up with his serene and noble nature, only to be torn down with his jealousy. Like fear, jealousy is a primitive emotion, bestial even.” Tim agreed that for an Elizabethan, perhaps the “entire point of the play is to slowly return him to the bestial nature that the Renaissance audience is used to, and in the final scenes of the play, Othello is reduced to a monster who suffocates his wife before taking his own life.”
Daniel was intrigued by the fact that Othello’s “slide” back into monstrosity “happens in less than a few days. This is a man who claimed to love his wife and vowed to protect her, yet he is so easily corrupted by Iago’s words that he kills the very person he loves.” He concludes, “I know that the play is supposed to show the fall of a good strong man from grace, but I really don’t see him as a strong or good man. He is so insecure of his relationship with Desdemona that, with some lies, he decides to kill her instead of confronting her and asking her side of the story…. I love this discussion.”
Taking it personally
As we looked at critics who were angry at the way Othello, as a black man, was portrayed, Ryan admitted, “In a way I’m a little jealous. I wish I knew what it was like to identify so strongly with a part of myself or to feel so much pride in something that I take things like this to heart. I guess I only identify with being Irish and a Vermonter. But while I have been to Ireland a few times and listen to some Irish music, much to the chagrin of my friends, I am too far removed from that part of my family’s past to feel the connection that Polk does to his race. And while I proudly flaunt a shirt that reads ‘Vermonters: the few, the proud, the extremely attractive,’ I certainly do not take it to heart when anyone gives me grief for being from the sticks.”
And this naturally led to a discussion of the concept of whiteness and to more personal exchanges about race. Tim admitted, “There’s a certain awareness I have to have to navigate in my mostly white world. Because I understand I look relatively threatening (some people still lock their car doors if they see me walking on the sidewalk past their cars as they wait for a green light!), I need to be sure I always have a friendly smile at the ready and a sense of humor to break the ice. This constant awareness gets a little tiring, so when someone says something insensitive about my skin color, the resulting indignation is tainted by the seeming futility of it all.”
For Daniel, human nature is a constant — “unpredictable, beautiful and destructive at the same time.” He understands that his white students believe they have “earned” their position in society and that it would be hard for them to understand how much of their privilege is a result of skin color.
Probably because of their earlier conversation about gender, Tim was able to ask Ryan whether she was aware of sexism in her life. “It’s been recently revealed that you are a woman, so isn’t that a comparable source of pride you can bolster yourself with against the waves of ignorance that believe you’re sub-par to men?” And Ryan is able to admit, “Now that you mention it, I do encounter sexism.”
Reflecting on Othello Conversations
Tim: I can think of two instances when being able to think about my response informed my part in the discussion. The first instance happened while comparing Hall’s criticism with Shakespeare’s primary source. Having the time to churn it in my mind, to find the words that would give my thoughts shape, made the difference. I think about how this discussion might have played out in a face-to-face classroom, and, speaking for myself, I’m sure that my response wouldn’t have been as cogent as they were online. I need time to digest new information, and in a conventional classroom setting, the pace of the discussion can sometimes leave my thoughts partially “digested,” something that didn’t happen in our online forums.
The second instance when I was thankful for having some time to mull things over happened with Ryan’s admission concerning her feelings of identity. I had read her comments on my lunch break one day, and for some reason, they intrigued me. I remember thinking, “Ryan is such an informed person, so self-aware, there’s got to be some point of contention she’s had to deal with in the past.” Then it hit me. When I was finally able to respond to her, I couldn’t wait to see her response — either she had never had to deal with sexism and her part of the world is an enlightened area of awesomeness, or she did have her own battle with bigotry so commonplace that it didn’t warrant any mention in the initial discussion. Either way, the end was in part a result of having had time to think about what had been said — something that doesn’t come as quickly to me during in-person discussions.
Ryan: I think this was a discussion that was actually made better in the online discussion format. It was probably one of the most difficult entries I wrote throughout the program because I wanted to be very careful with how my words came across. Coming from a place of white privilege I did not want to sound demeaning or like I did not understand the serious effects of racism. I still don’t think my response reflected exactly what I was thinking, and I really worried about how Tim and Daniel would respond because obviously our life experiences have been so different. But because I had the time to really think before I responded I think it came out better than it would have in a traditional classroom where I would have been speaking off the cuff.
I was also glad that Tim reminded me that I am a woman because sexism is something I notice very easily. I have been pretty lucky to not have to deal with many major personal incidents, but it is something that I work very hard at to get others to recognize, from my students in my Women’s Literature class to my friends (who probably get really sick of it). I think this whole conversation was really important in just reminding me how important it is to put myself in the shoes of others because perspective is everything. I’m glad I was able to have these conversations with Tim and Daniel because their perspectives are so different from mine.
Daniel: Reflecting upon these discussions, I would not have been able to talk about white privilege in a regular one-to-one class. Race is a daunting topic to discuss because of the balance between fear and appropriateness that exists in most of our minds. As a Mexican American, I know that words of identity are powerful; so to discuss white privilege with my professor and classmates in a face-to-face class would have been terrifying and impossible. But in an online class, I have time to reflect about what I wanted to write. That reflection time is crucial for intense and profound academic discussions because you read and evaluate each person’s words and thoughts.
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1Tim Fraser-Bumatay, MA, teaches Junior English, Science Fiction, and the remedial course, Collection of Evidence (redubbed Comics of English) at Snohomish High School, Snohomish, Washington. Daniel Herrara, MA, is an 8th Grade Teacher at Southwest Jr. High in San Luis, AZ, and Adjunct English Professor at Arizona Western College in Yuma, AZ. Ryan Kelly, MA, teaches English at Windsor High School, Windsor, Vermont.
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