Teaching Race with Lisa Anderson-Levy: Intersectionality, Paradigm Shifts, and the Ubiquity of Whiteness

The word race doesn’t even matter. What we’re talking about are the relationships of power. So if that’s what we’re talking about, okay, so use culture or use ethnicity, the thing we’re referring to is how different bodies are understood not to have the same kind of access to resources or to citizenship or to exercising rights in a particular context with relationship to the state or other kinds of institutions.
–Lisa Anderson-Levy

I first met Lisa Anderson-Levy, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Beloit College, at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, where she was a panelist for the roundtable “Lessons on Race, Power, and Privilege at Predominantly White Institutions.” Held only a week after the U.S. presidential election, the panel was timely but also timeless, emphasizing the inequities of power and privilege that impact how students, educators, and administrators experience higher education. Anderson-Levy examines such power relationships and their impact on knowledge production, both in her research on racial and gendered identities and in the classroom.

In November 2017, Anderson-Levy sat down with me via Skype to speak more about her role as an educator, how her research influences the methods she uses to teach about race and racism, and her advice for white anthropologists and educators. She also shared some of the teaching tools that she employs in her classes, including a writing prompt that helps students reflect on experiences of whiteness, as well as several recommended readings.


Laura LeVon: What drew you to pursue a career in both anthropology and feminist studies?

Lisa Anderson-Levy: Moving to the United States drew me. I did not grow up in the United States. I grew up in Jamaica. And thinking critically about race was not something I did before I moved here, because I was not racialized in the same kind of way. I’m not trying to say I didn’t know about race; let me be clear about that. I knew about race, but my body was not racialized by the society I lived in in the same way. Moving to the United States—and some of the early experiences I had when I first got here—that’s what piqued my interest and thinking about race: recognizing how all-encompassing and powerful it is in this country.

LL: Is there a particular experience that comes to mind?

LAL: When I first moved to the United States, I lived in a suburb of Chicago. I was a bank teller. And I would have white customers come into this bank—in a predominantly white suburb—and ask about my accent: “Where are you from?” I would tell them. And more than one person said some version of the following: “Oh, thank God you’re not black.”

At first, I didn’t know how to respond because I didn’t know what that meant, given my embodiment. But after it happened half a dozen times, I came up with a response that was something like: “Okay. Actually, I do consider myself to be black.” To which one person replied: “Yes. But I mean, you’re not like our blacks.” And that got me thinking, “what?” So there are different ways to be black. Well, what does that mean? What does it mean that she said our?

LL: What about feminism and gender studies? Some of your work has been on the intersection between racialization and embodiment in terms of gender as well as class.

LAL: Women and gender studies actually came up for me in my research as a methodology. I went looking for methodologies that would allow me to center intersectionality in my work and women and gender studies—particularly the work of black feminists—provided that frame.

LL: Having these different experiences, using these different critical theories in your own work as a researcher of social identities, how have your findings influenced your pedagogy?

LAL: Quite a bit actually, because what I had to do was begin to figure out how to talk about these things and teach them in an intersectional way, as people live them. Which is tough, right? I explain to students that when the syllabus says we’re dealing with gender, for example, we’re also dealing with race. We’re always already mixing it up because nobody’s lived experience is linear. The impact on my pedagogy has been the recognition that intersectional work requires a recursive learning process, one that presupposes that because people experience the world intersectionally, our teaching must take this complexity into account. None of these social identities exist in isolation. So, figuring out how to get students to keep all of those balls in the air—I think that has been the biggest impact.

LL: Is there an in-class exercise that has helped you to teach students how to keep those different balls in the air?

LAL: It depends on what level of course. For upper-level classes, I give a take-home assignment. I have them do an autoethnography. Though they foreground one identity or another, they always have to examine, talk about, and analyze their experiences in an intersectional way. The kinds of in-class activities we do in the intro-level courses are exercises that I know other people have used. We’ll go outside and do the line exercise around privilege, where people are moving forward and backward; I like that one. It’s embodied. I adjust the exercises I use to make them more intersectional.

There is another short writing exercise that I do at the intro level: I ask students to think about, for example, how they learned race in their families. I ask them to write a couple of lines that then become the foundation for a conversation that we have in the course. I ask the same for how they learned gender, and how they understand what’s normal in terms of social class.

LL: It seems to link back to the fuller autoethnography exercise, where the aim is to discover and reflect on your own self, your own experience, as it ties into larger societal issues that can be explored through anthropology.

LAL: Right. Maybe I should call it autoethnography “lite,” because this is the short paper in the class. While the idea is for them to reflect on their subjectivity, they really focus on a sliver.

LL: When you use these assignments, what are some of the challenges or surprises that come up?

LAL: One challenge is how often I am surprised—and I guess I shouldn’t be—at how rarely white parents talk about race. This comes up every semester because race is a component of everything that I teach, but my reaction continues to be “wow, not at all, not in any context?” Another challenge is that, often, white students can’t see the impact of race on their own lives. In other words, if you have never thought about whiteness, it’s really hard to identify where it starts and where it ends. On an intellectual level, when they are reading the assigned articles, it might make sense, but then to apply it to themselves, to their own experiences, it’s difficult for them.

L: There’s that blindness, where you’re not able to see that your own privilege is involved in so many interactions.

LAL: We also get a lot of students at Beloit who identify themselves as “third culture.” That means that they’re, for example, U.S. passport holders who grew up in one or two other parts of the world, outside of the United States, and haven’t lived here for most of their lives. They have come back to the United States as young adults for college. For some of those students, as well as some students of color who have either been adopted by white parents or who have one white parent, talking about whiteness can be very challenging. Many of them believe it to be some kind of betrayal, or believe it means that since we’ve critiqued the horror or violence of whiteness, this means they shouldn’t love their parents. It’s really a complicated thing for many of them. They feel like the critique demands that they distance themselves from their families. It’s as though critiquing structural whiteness and its operation personally indicts individual white people, which is not necessarily the case.

LL: Going back to your point about white parents not speaking to their children about race, is that something that could change in the wake of this rise in populism based on whiteness as an identity? Do you think that, in the future, students will begin to see and talk about whiteness as a racial identity?

LAL: I hope so, although because of the ways that middle-class whiteness casts childhood as a space of innocence—where children don’t need to learn about certain things because it’ll be too harsh or unhappy—that makes it hard for me to imagine that things will change dramatically.

I mean, most of my students are thinking about whiteness for the first time. Not all, right, because this is not typically true of students of color. And there are a few white students who come in having had some kind of conversation in high school about whiteness, but it’s very few. Most are thinking about whiteness for the first time. And they’re not always happy about it; they feel accused, personally indicted.

LL: Let’s move beyond the classroom. As a researcher and as an activist, what are your main aims in engaging topics like race and racism and the intersectionality of racism with sexuality, gender, and socioeconomic status?

LAL: So, what is my agenda? Paradigm shifting. I think it’s important for white people to think critically about whiteness and its operation all the time. I think it’s important for them to think about the ubiquity of the operation of whiteness and how it matters in their performances of gender, in how they understand themselves as members of a nation, in what kind of social class they perform, in how they perform sexualities. I’m not trying to say that it looks the same in every location, because it absolutely doesn’t. But our histories don’t dissolve and go away because they are inconvenient or challenging. If you were raised in the United States, you are a part of that history— that history is in your social DNA and race and, in this instance, whiteness does inform everything you do!

In fact, I would say that the ubiquity of whiteness means that it informs how people of color understand ourselves. It informs how we perform who we are because whiteness is so normalized and tied to middle-class expectations around, for example, certain kinds of behavior. So my agenda is saying: “Okay. Here’s the big unseen. Let’s see if we can see it and talk about it and analyze it in order to understand how it operates.”

LL: My last question has to do with anthropology itself. The majority of anthropologists in higher education are still white, and anthropology departments still tend to be white public spaces. My question is, in your experience, do subjects like race and racism become the purview of faculty of color? And, if left to professors of color to teach with white faculty not engaging in these subjects, is students’ exposure going to be limited? Is there an unfair placement of extra labor onto faculty of color in these departments?

LAL: From what I hear from colleagues at other institutions, that’s definitely true. I know that in my department, we’ve tried to do something different, where students are going to be required to think about not just race, but structural power more broadly in every intro-level class. We have three of those: an introductory course to cultural anthropology, to archaeology, and to physical anthropology. So they encounter these ideas in all of those places.

At Beloit, race is dealt with from those different subdisciplinary perspectives. And my white colleagues who don’t study race per se have been willing to participate in those conversations. At the intro level, for sure. Some of them integrate structural power into their pedagogies even more than that. So, while I know this experience isn’t generalizable and while it is still imperfect, because not everyone feels comfortable exploring race, I would say that most of my colleagues are doing some of that work in their various classes.

LL: Is there a strategic pitch to make to white academics by saying “we are looking at race in the context of power dynamics”? Such a focus is important to many contemporary research projects. Might that be a way to make white faculty more comfortable talking about race, to position it as an intellectual question that moves away from the personal embodiment of whiteness?

LAL: See, that’s a struggle for me. Because while that pitch could be part of it, I actually do want white colleagues to be uncomfortable. I do want them to recognize that even if every student and every faculty member at their institution is white, these conversations are still important and should still happen. Right? Because race is one axis of difference, and even though everybody may be white in a given space, they’re still different by class and by ability and by whatever. So I don’t worry about people being uncomfortable. They should be. And they should just get over that.

LL: I appreciate that. Before we finish, is there anything else you’ve thought of? Anything else you would like to share to encourage people to talk about these subjects, to feel uncomfortable and to learn from it?

LAL: I think that white anthropologists need to pay more attention to the emotional labor that their colleagues of color do. Because if you and I teach about race, for example, there is a way that your whiteness—and we all know that this is true—will grant a particular kind of legitimacy and objectivity to the material. On the other hand, students often encounter me as having an agenda, as though you as a white person wouldn’t.

LL: Right. I wouldn’t necessarily be seen as angry just for bringing up the subject. Or as having a political agenda.

LAL: Right. And so race, sexuality, gender, ability, and so on are all a part of every course I teach. One of the changes that a colleague and I made to the cultural intro course when we arrived at Beloit was to put race at the beginning and at the center. We begin with stories of race in the discipline and how the discipline arranged itself around stories of race. These stories of race are our origin stories; they are our disciplinary legacy. Rather than running from them and trying to cover them up, lay them bare. Embrace them and help students to understand them.

LL: Right. This is at the center of the story of what anthropology is, and what its aims and agendas have been over the decades.

LAL: Absolutely. I think white anthropologists from all subdisciplines need to pay closer attention. They need to interrogate their own issues around race, about who it is we expect to do that work and what undergirds their fear of talking about race or about whiteness in particular. We also need to stop acting like this is less rigorous, or less intellectually demanding, than other kinds of work. White colleagues need to figure out how—in the classroom, in the department, and in the broader institution—to be accomplices with faculty of color. I don’t like the term ally, because not only does it signify a superficial engagement, but also you can only be an ally around issues that don’t belong to you. We all participate in and do race, so none of us are allies. I prefer the term accomplice, because an accomplice has their feet in the mud while an ally can stand on the sidelines and hand you a paper towel or something without getting muddy. An accomplice is in the trenches. A person with whom it is possible to work through issues. An accomplice recognizes that they have skin in the game. Pun intended.

Recommended Readings

Harris, Cheryl. 1995. “Whiteness as Property.” In Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, edited by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, 276–91. New York: The New Press.

Morrison, Toni. 1992. “Romancing the Shadow.” In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, 29–59. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Pierce, Jennifer. 2003. “‘Raging for Innocence’: Whiteness, Corporate Culture, and the Backlash against Affirmative Action.” In White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism, edited by Ashley Doane and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, 190–214. New York: Routledge.

Smith, Andrea. 2013. “Unsettling the Privilege of Self-Reflexivity.” In Geographies of Privilege, edited by France Winddance Twine and Bradley Gardener, 263–79. New York: Routledge.

Srivastava, Sarita. 2005. “‘You’re calling me a racist?’: The Moral and Emotional Regulation of Antiracism and Feminism.” Signs 31, no. 1: 29–62.

Writing Prompt

Each student is required to meet with Anderson-Levy before writing the paper.

This assignment was designed to provide you with the opportunity to explore the role(s) of whiteness in your own life or in your community, however you define it. In what ways do you perform whiteness in your daily life? In other words, how does whiteness shape the choices you make on a daily basis? In what ways is whiteness expressed in your daily life? Please use the readings from class (or any others you see fit) to assist in your auto-analysis. Though this is a reflective piece, please do not forget that analysis of your experience is crucial. Please do not opt for facile explanations; I want you to think through your data (your experiences) and carefully consider how to make connections to in-class discussions and readings in order to arrive at thoughtful conclusions.

In-Class Exercise: Think-Pair-Share

This exercise, which LeVon developed as a way of extending Anderson-Levy’s writing prompt, is meant to help facilitate class discussion on questions raised by the prompt and to help students draw additional connections to the readings.

First, have students jot down individual responses to the following questions. Assure them that these initial responses are private, and are just meant to help them think about the concepts.

  1. What is whiteness?
  2. Do you identify as white?
  3. What is a choice you made today that might have been affected by whiteness? What was your decision, and what was the outcome? In what ways did whiteness matter?

Now, ask students to form pairs. Inform them that this time, they will be working on responses to be shared with their partners, followed by the rest of the class. However, students do not need to write their names on these notes; the whole class does not need to know who made each individual comment.

In pairs, have the students answer all three questions again, this time discussing the reasons for their answers with their partner as they write a second set of individual responses. Consider providing sticky notes to make these responses easier to share.

Once each pair is done, have the students bring their second round of written responses to the front of the room and stick them on the board, if possible. Ask if anyone wants to share a second-round response and their reasoning with the class. If there are no volunteers, select some of the notes to read out loud.

Finally, go through the responses and place them into categories as a class. For example, you might devise different categories for when students focus on structural descriptions of power dynamics versus when they describe power strictly in terms of physical or mental attributes.

If time permits, ask students how the examples that surfaced during the exercise relate to the readings and the writing prompt. At the beginning of the next class, return to a few of the responses that did not get discussed, inviting students to determine in which categories they belong.