You Can’t Teach What You Don’t Want to Know

Fighting a culture of racism, sexism, ageism, and other -ism's

Note: adjunct faculty and full-time historian, Harvey Whitney, short interview below story!

I’m telling you, this place is the most racist place I’ve ever been to. September 10, it was Latinos and Blacks. And then September 11 came, and it’s Muslims. It’s a list. I top the list.” — Vera, college student, in the film, If These Halls Could Talk.

“The belief is if one knows and accepts oneself one can do better – self-esteem and self-worth. Especially in an academic setting where there may been a history, family or negative educational experiences.” — David Browneagle, teacher, mentor, drummer, Spokane Tribe.

Three months ago, I watched that first cut of Lee Mun Wah’s film – If These Halls Could Talk – at a mostly white (81%) campus in Vancouver – Clark College – where my wife and I were only two of three adult whites at a workshop Lee gave at the school. It was a real poorly attended screening and workshop where catered food couldn’t draw people to hear this innovative filmmaker and multicultural expert talk about the big D – diversity

In my book, having put on dozens of events at colleges and also in the public realm, I know “bad turnout” is a product of poor leadership and planning, as well as prejudiced staff and haphazard application of what it means to be diverse in the workplace, in communities and especially in the classroom.

All the colleges I have taught at, including SFCC, SCC and Gonzaga, have many tools or frameworks around cultures of inclusion and exclusion. However, I’ve confronted faculty, staff, students and others hostile toward many diversity measures, telling me they do not see the importance of participating in events like Lee’s all day and evening workshops to deal with the reality of the colleges’ and country’s changing demographics. The reality is more minorities are attending colleges and our PK12 schools, and across the country, there is a flurry of ideas on how to make staff, administration and faculty more like the students they service and educate.

Yet hostility comes from the denizens of white culture. This overlay of identity and diversity also covers LGBTQ citizens and those who have intellectual and physical abilities different than the mainstream. The state of diversity in the Inland Northwest is, well, not so healthy.

More Than a Numbers Game

Minority enrollment at Clark is 19% of the student body – the majority being Hispanic and Asian – and less than other schools in the state, at a 28% minority enrollment rate across Washington. For SFCC, minority enrollment is 16% of the student body (majority Hispanic and Black). For SCC minority enrollment is 14% of the student body (majority Hispanic and Asian). Gonzaga claims a 20% minority cohort (majority Hispanic and Asian). Then, Whitworth’s minority numbers top at 19% (majority Hispanic and two or more races). Finally, Eastern seems the most diverse, at 36%, but with an interesting grouping of majority minorities – Hispanic and a category called “ethnicity not known.”

Here’s Spokane County, by the numbers (2012) compared to the state:

                                      Spokane Co            Washington


Black or African American alone, percent 2012



American Indian and Alaska Native alone, percent



Asian alone, percent



Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone, percent



Two or More Races, percent



Hispanic or Latino, percent



White alone, not Hispanic or Latino, percent



 Foreign born persons, percent, 2008-2012



Language other than English spoken at home, pct age 5+, 2008-2012




Many of my friends over the past 57 years have taught me the role of history in my own future, and how understanding “the people’s history” of the United States or of any country makes for a more truthful, just and far-reaching education. Diversity of voice, not just the perspectives of the “victors.” We may have a mixed race leader of the country (he’s called the First Black POTUS) but people of color, races other than white, and those citizens disenfranchised from and underrepresented in society are in a monumental struggle even now, in 2014.

The new Jim Crow is the title of New York Times’ best-seller by Michele Alexander; her book’s subtitle — Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness — ties into debates discussed in two recent Spokane Living Magazine issues.

Classifying and then counting citizens by color goes way back to the Revolutionary period. “Color” was deeply galvanized around legal status and citizenship rights of Americans at the time. Article I, Section 2 of the US Constitution parses out three groups for purposes of taxation and Congressional apportionment: “free persons” (including indentured servants), “other persons” (a euphemism for black slaves), and “Indians not taxed” (those living beyond areas of white settlement and control). Slaves were counted as only three-fifths of free persons, while “Indians not taxed” were not counted at all.

Identity is One-Third Politics, One-Third Culture, One-Third Justice

This is a time when gender, sexual identity, those with Asperger’s, people older than 50 years and so many other individuals who identify outside mainstream or dominant communities are looking for a society that is more equitable and where level playing fields persist.

Fox News or any number of other pundits and politicos may jumble up their thinking around saying “the United States is not a racist or race conscious country … and if you say so, then you are playing the race card or identity politics.” But for most non-white citizens, privilege, deference, the rights of association, movement, and the pursuit of happiness are hard fought and many times infringed upon.

Our schools, like the various branches of the US military, have been staging grounds and experimental labs where racial integration and gender “equality” have been big projects, not always successful.

When speaking with Spokane’s leaders in diversity and multicultural engagement, the glass is probably half-empty, especially when talking about Native Americans.

When asked, What is the state of diversity in public schools and the area in general, Pam Austin, going on a quarter century working hard on diversity support, education programs and Indigenous people’s counseling at SFCC and Spokane Public Schools (she’s a member of the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe of Montana), was blunt:

“I don’t think they have a state of diversity. In Spokane, I know that there are diversity committees in the schools, colleges, big business. But, for the 24 years I have been here at SFCC, and for all the work I’ve done and all the committees I’ve served on, I can say the state of diversity has not changed.”

I’ve worked with Pam Austin for 10 years and count her as one of my mentors and she sees me as an ally. What Austin says about her work at both the college and in the Spokane Public Schools is not so far from my own perception of the majority culture for which I am a part.

“The majority culture never thinks they are racist,” Austin said. “It’s alive in Spokane, though.” She’s spent more than several decades working on diversity committees, working for the Medicine Wheel Academy, and heading up summer immersion and other programs for Native youth, and she can count the number of allies on both hands and feet.

Culture + tradition = education

“I feel like I am in a different world.” That’s how Pam Austin characterizes those high brass meetings and committee work in general. “I interpret things differently. Maybe that’s the difference in learning styles we hear about (white contrasted with Indian). I get lost in all the words.”

This is the nature of a legalistic, regulatory, bureaucratic world that, unfortunately, education has chomped onto hook, line and sinker. “It’s not just me, though. My sister is a lawyer and my good friend is an administrator. They both say to me, ‘I don’t know what they are talking about most of the time.’”

Austin is a trained counselor and administrator both at SFCC and Spokane Schools, working to assist Native American youth to navigate the system, find help with college — both financially and intellectually — and to work to make sure youth do not lose their culture, their footing, their sense of purpose or their lives.

I was reminded of the limitations around white man’s language when speaking with David Browneagle, who has been working with Spokane college students and those PK12 youth at the Medicine Wheel Academy, a program that was started in 1994 and ended three years ago.

My question seemed prescient: What does Spokane need to learn about native America culture?

David Browneagle, with roots in both the Ho Chunk Nation (father’s side) and Spokane Tribe (mother’s side), made it clear how adding an “s” to culture is important:

“One thing is when one speaks of a ‘tribal culture’ it is singular. When one speaks of Native American culture, in general, it is cultures, plural.” David Browneagle also triggered my own background tied to multilingualism and multiculturalism: My own roots working in places like Vietnam, Mexico and with my friends from various tribes in the US Southwest and South – Mescalero Apache, White River Apache, Tohono O’odham, Yaqui, Tigua, and many more.

“See” the person before asking the person to reveal himself or herself. I sent Browneagle, 60, a set of questions and introductions via email because I was on a short timeframe. Here’s what David, probably considered by many as a tribal elder, said:

“Again, sad that we shorten our time to ‘know’ one another to sharing and communicating. The questions you provided were your document to somewhat of an introduction. . . . Time is invaluable. Taking time to know someone and taking time to speak and listen to someone is more valuable. That moment, memory, words shared can be kept forever … time just keeps ticking.”

I was on white man’s time, rushing to the powwow he and his Medicine Wheel drummers were participating in at the Coeur d’Alene Casino, and failing to spend real time “with him.” We have since talked via phone, and I explained that I had actually taken some training from him years ago (in person, face-to-face) when I taught at SFCC.

Historical Trauma and the State of Reparation and Reconstruction

Both Pam Austin and David Browneagle know the real challenges Native American youth face here in Spokane and throughout the country: Disconnect, self-image, family separation, dysfunction, housing, employment, recognition, peer pressure, mobility, drugs/alcohol, gangs, self-awareness.

However, the strength of the Native American youth is connection to what they see and feel in those that care … opportunities to see the positive in Native American country via role models, positive accomplishments,” David Browneagle says.

“Fortunately for both Native Americans, they can count as an ally an African-American transplant from Cleveland who works at Whitworth as a head honcho of what is known by most institutions of higher education (and in some corporations) as the “Diversity and Intercultural Relations” office.

Both a Whitworth history teacher and vice president, Lawrence Burnley deftly fielded my proposition that as a country, the United States can’t really move forward in inculcating diversity without acknowledgment and empowerment of Native Cultures, and what is considered a genocide against millions of First Nations peoples.

“The simple truth is that we can’t,” Burnley said. “There cannot be any substantive movement toward achieving diversity as I’ve defined it apart from addressing the realities of the Indigenous Peoples of this land. Their voices, lenses, and stories, along with others, must be at the center of any and all meaningful discourses in our efforts to create a just and inclusive society and world.”

Like being fed a bad diet, living in a harsh and polluted environment, operating under constant stress, and breathing the unending fear of being thrown out, those experiencing racism are under attack from many fronts, and systemic change has to occur.

“Diversity is not about achieving outcomes for a particular demographic,” Burnley states. “It’s about establishing a structurally embedded process that equitably includes voices, perspectives, and interests of communities and identities that have historically been marginalized and excluded. It’s about helping people at every level of education – formal and informal – to critique realities of power and unearned privilege, and to understand and deconstruct the cause of persistent social and economic inequities in our society. ‘Diversity’ is about ‘inclusion’ and developing the capacity to reconstruct systems and structures that has as their desirable outcomes justice and equality.”

The enlightened ones and those that walk the talk, they see what it takes to redress a culture and system of privilege by, for, toward and because of the white and white male society. It’s not an easy sell for youth who are grappling with five or more runaway trains coming at them at 60 miles an hour: climate disruption, student debt, education and public welfare systems taking nose dives, the majority of private capital and power held in fewer and fewer hands, and the nature of the new part-time and precarious job prospects.

“Working at a private religious college poses its challenges and advantages for Larry Burnley, but he has hope: “The prophetic tradition, the tradition of being committed to justice, requires that one be willing to speak truth to power. It means being willing to sacrifice and to be driven more by the cause of realizing justice for all people and less being motivated by one’s own advancement as defined by the accumulation of wealth, material goods, and abusive forms of power.”

The question of how we become more intercultural and culturally sensitive-competent-compassionate isn’t always a white man’s project for change, according to Browneagle: “Not just the white people but all people, even Natives. “My experience was when I was willing to look at me, acknowledge the good, the bad and the ugly … study my history and all that we and I have gone through and acknowledge what I have and not have, to look within and without was when I finally was able to look at others and realize they have all of this themselves. One can’t make anyone become, one can only be the example of whatever one believes, and when on chooses will they

New Focal Planes from Which to Focus In

“We all need to be exposed to different lenses,” that’s the mantra of diversity thinking and those advancing diversity and cultural competence in higher education. There also has to be cultural support systems in place, Burnley insists, pointing out that Whitworth might recruit an African-American professor from say New York City, but without working with that woman’s family dynamics and her cultural experiences, then that recruitment might not be successful as the teacher might not want to end up living very long in Spokane

The depth of field can vary even amongst diversity conscious folk. Pam points out some subtleties: “I’ve been discriminated against all of my life. First, as a native. Then as a native woman. And then as a large native woman.

Additionally, she experienced a few dreams squelched by her male-dominated tribe. Austin got into the Kellogg Leadership fellowship program to groom folk like her to be a president of a community college. Stone Child College was hiring a president, and tribal law states that first a tribal member would be considered as top candidate (Austin was an enrolled member of the Small Shell Chippewa). If one did not apply, then a tribal member from another tribe would be next in line. Finally, a white or Hispanic women might be next in line. The male-dominated tribe, board and chief of Pam’s own tribe hired a white man who didn’t even live in the area.

The college student quoted at the beginning — from Lee’s documentary, If These Walls Could Talk — is a Palestinian-Israeli living in the USA. Vera is not accepted by racist Zionists, not by racist Americans, and finally not by other Arabs who view her passport stamped “Israel” as her birth country as enough to delegitimize her

Vera, like so many other youth of color I’ve been lucky to have taught, is a powerful voice for the persistent racism of America.

Powwows, Drumming, Jingle Dress, Fancy Shawl, Youth Learning History

The casino on the Coeur d’Alene reservation funnels millions of dollars into the area on and off the reservation. Economic development, direct jobs, service sector support, spin-off industries, construction, taxes, and money donated to the hospital expansion are the casino’s “gifts” to our region.

“With the gaming dollars the tribes who were ignored in the past now have economic power to request to be at the table and to be asked to the table,” David Browneagle said. He was drumming at the pow-wow inside the casino’s convention hall when we met. While the casino/resort claims to generate 500 jobs and $20 million in profits, Browneagle is realistic about his fellow tribes: “Sad to say, there is still a high unemployment rate for those tribes who don’t have the gaming wealth.”

I talked with the parents of Taneesha, 10, and LiliaMae, 6, who came all the way from Toronto to participate in dancing at the casino. Jenine and Todd Nicholas are active in sharing their culture and other cultures with their traditional dancer daughters.

“We’re mainstream Indians,” Jenine said, who is Ojibwe, “but we want our children to know their culture and other cultures.”

Todd, the girls’ father, is proud of his dancers, and his own roots, pointing out his lineage: Iroquois and Oneida clans from New York and Wisconsin. The Nicholas clan travels to twenty pow-wows a year so their daughters can know themselves, know their futures, know their histories.

Browneagle ramified the point that knowing is about going beyond the classroom; Indian history is not even covered half seriously in school books. “Again, this is why the people themselves must be responsible to teach their tribal and family history. These are the books we learn from: A world history book in my class provides two and a half pages with a picture and we are sharing the six pages with the African experience!”

End of magazine story

Note: First published in Spokane Living Magazine.

Now, an interview with an internet friend and fellow adjunct faculty, who also writes for DV.

Harvey Whitney is working on his dissertation in history at Florida State University. He has taught US history, Western Civilizations, and Modern Global history at Tallahassee Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, and Howard Community College, the history of western science at Florida State University, symbolic logic at Ohio University, and digital multimedia and graphic design at Sanford Brown College in Boston, MA. ((Read other articles by Harvey.))

Hi Paul,
Been busy with dissertation, comics strip, and art. Here ya go.

PKH: Are colleges doing real stuff around diversity and power privilege and inequity training, curriculum design, integration?

HW: Funny that you ask about diversity and colleges. I was at my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Richmond, last spring and I graduated from there more than twenty years ago. The campus was still as white as snow: exactly like when I was a student. Of course that is an isolated case and I’m not sure if this issue confronts private universities like Richmond. Richmond still has trouble attracting minorities despite their committed efforts in doing so. However, I think that you still have income disparities that are based upon race and given the fact that a college degree is now not a ticket to success or even guarantees that you can obtain a McJob, the cost of a private school is highly scrutinized these days by minorities but when minorities do not see anyone like them on campus when they visit the school, then the school just might lose out on attracting the prospective minority student.

Curriculum design is something that should be left in the hands of teachers and instructors: those on the front lines delivering course content. Unfortunately today, course design is falling into the realm of professional staff, staff who were education or curriculum design majors in college, who have no idea of your subject matter, and think that any subject can be effectively taught using some prefabricated, cookie mold or theoretical model or software program. As a recovering philosopher and current historian and cultural analyst, I naturally have profound dislike of theory and abstraction and in terms of technology, instructors should be able to determine their own best methods: if they believe technology will help, then fine, but they should not be force fed Blackboard or PowerPoint if they do not want to use them.

PKH: What are the biggest challenges you’ve seen as an African American male in the higher education realm?

HW: There has been racism at all levels in higher education. I have had faculty who doubted my competence to be in academia* and at the graduate level, I have suffered from a lack of support and competent advising services. That’s on the graduate student side, although that was not the case when I was a graduate student in the 90s but more recently as a graduate student in the 2000s. As an adjunct instructor, I have had African American students who thought I should have been lenient with their work, simply because they were African American: got to look out for our own, right? Students just did not understand that I had to treat everyone equally or that would be the end of my gig. But I’ve discovered that as an African American male, you can even be kicked to the side of the road for holding students to a high standard. I had an African American student once who missed a midterm review session and tried to make it my responsibility to provide her with the study materials that I passed out in class on the day she was absent. I was not going to deny her the materials but I did ask her why I should give her the materials since she failed to provide documentation for her absence and also failed to inform me in advance of her absence. Remember, I did not deny her the materials but asked her why I should grant her these things when other students put forth the effort to show up. Apparently, she mistook my questions for a denial of the materials and went to the department chair to force me towards an action.

The chair, without reading the email exchange that I had with the student, declared that I had engaged in an inappropriate behavior by denying the student the materials. It was my place to ask the student why they did not appear to be taking the requirements of my course—namely, attendance—seriously, so I was naturally annoyed that the chair thought that I could not be trusted to hold the student to a standard of responsibility, or rather it seemed that to do so would be frowned upon. Our schools are failing—both at the pre-college and collegiate levels—not because of competence issues but because the student as consumer model usurps authority from the teacher. If we are going to go sink or swim with this model, it seems to me that there is no need for teachers. Let the students teach themselves. As an African American male teaching in college, I have always felt that my decisions in running a class have been second guessed by administrators or countermanded outright more so than those of my colleagues who are white.

PKH: The New Jim Crow by M. Alexander is making some waves. Discuss where we are in USA around race, racism, white dominance.

HW” I think progress is being made perhaps more in non-academic circles than in academic circles. Look at where we are in terms of PhDs in the sciences where African Americans who have PhDs in the hard sciences are miniscule.

The one thing that I am concerned about is racial profiling. I recently came back to Florida to work on my PhD at Florida State University which actually has a fairly large African American student population. Since I’ve been here, I have been accosted three times by campus police asking for my identification. I’m not really a big hulking guy (only 5’4″), don’t weary hoods over my head, or anything like that but it is really fascinating that after the Trayvon Martin killing, cops in Florida still feel the need to harass African American males. But that’s Florida for you. We have a large private prison system here in need of laborers so that’s how this overt racism in profiling African American men is “justified”.

PKH: Thanks, Harvey, and here, weigh in: “Union Event Focuses on Adjuncts’ Role in Changing their Own Working Conditions.”

HW: Good to see that our movement, the adjunct movement, is growing. Not only is the future of higher education at stake but the future of adjuncts. We are not going to be able to pay off our student loans working for Walmart wages at universities and colleges!

Note that I have a BA and two MAs and had an experience where a faculty member in my own department questioned whether I had the competence to be doing history: after I had passed my comprehensive exams in history.


Paul Haeder's been a teacher, social worker, newspaperman, environmental activist, and marginalized muckraker, union organizer. Paul's book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years (now going on 17 years) of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. Read (purchase) his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Here's his Amazon page with more published work Amazon. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.