Teaching discomfort at UT Austin

Gloria González-López

Editor's note: This column was submitted to the Texan by a member of the UT community.

“What is your tribe?” an adult White woman of modest appearance asked me with authentic curiosity and a tone of respect as we shared the elevator at my mother’s nursing home before COVID-19 hit Texas. To her question, I simply replied, “I do not know,” feeling some sort of shyness, but deeply honored to be identified as Native American. “Are you Egyptian?” a man of color cleaning the entrance of one of our women’s restrooms on campus asked me with a similar, genuine curiosity last year. I replied with a soft smile and a gentle “No.” Being perceived as Indigenous or Middle Eastern is not new to me, and these experiences always fill my heart with special joy; my beloved paternal grandfather had both Indigenous and Middle Eastern ancestors. 

Life has informed my pedagogy. “Please look at my face with curiosity, can you find the Indigenous in me?” “Can you find the Middle Eastern?” “How about the Spanish, can you find it?” is an exercise I have used at times with my students when mestizaje as a concept emerges during our discussions on invasion, colonization and sexual violence across Mexican cultures. Many of my students rarely wait to share their own experiences of racism and discrimination as part of everyday life. Helping them explore connections between their own lived experiences of racism with research and critical theorizing on race, for example, has helped me explore ways to learn to teach about these sensitive topics. I know some inspirational professors of color on campus who use innovative pedagogies as well for the same purposes. 

From my students, I have learned to feel comfortable enough to use my own life experiences and shift from being “politically correct” to exploring an “emotionally correct” approach in class — being vulnerable while speaking one’s inner truth with compassion, honesty, self-respect, and respect for others. This professional evolution has helped me become sadly aware of the contrasting discomfort and apprehension — and at times visible fear — that some White professors and officials in positions of power and influence experience when the topic of race and racism comes up in our informal conversations, but also in more formal meetings and dialogues on campus. “White professors” includes United States Whites, as well as Whites from other nations, including those from Spanish-speaking countries. 

Today, writing this essay felt exhausting, but the “pedagogy of discomfort” proposed by scholars Megan Boler and Michalinos Zembylas gives me hope. Their approach is cited by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva to close his thought provoking reflections about racial justice in his moving article “Feeling Race: Theorizing the Racial Economy of Emotions.” Bonilla-Silva explained what such inspirational pedagogy would look like: It is one “that teaches Whites to ‘step outside of their comfort zones and recognize what and how one has been taught to see (or not to see).’” He argues, “Sociologists of color love sociology, but coping with White rule and its emotional repercussions is tough.” What would the pedagogy of discomfort look like at UT? 

González-López is a professor in the department of sociology.