Juliette Polonsky, Pasadena in a during rally a local group calling itself Refuse Fascism rallies at City Hall in Los Angeles to denounce the violence and honor the victims in Charlottesville, Virginia August 13, 2017. (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Guest Opinion: UI professor controversy shows lack of critical thinking

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The backlash generated by an essay about whiteness highlights our fear of confronting our privileges and biases.

I’m new to Iowa City and liking a lot of it. The Ped Mall, the bike trails, the bookstores. The energy, the culture. While I don’t want to get distracted by labels, I appreciate an “intellectual” culture: one that thinks things through, looks for evidence and context, appreciates nuance and complexity. I generally see that here.

But because that’s the norm, it’s a shock when it suddenly goes missing. That seems to me to be the controversy over Assistant Professor Jodi Linley, the College of Education faculty member who was recently painted into a corner by College Reform, an agenda-driven higher-education issues platform, and subsequently subjected to a torrent of horrific hate speech on social media.

Linley delves deep into issues of implicit bias and structural racism. Let’s say you think (despite so many lab-based perception studies affirming it) that all this “implicit bias” stuff is hooey. I disagree, but I’ll accept that as your opinion, trying to see how it interlinks with your background experiences and cultural assumptions.

RELATED: Heading into what white means

But I’m less able to accept the view that in the age of Charlottesville and Ferguson, it is wrong or unnecessary to have our public university scholars working on these issues. Linley was maligned by Campus Reform for saying she aims to “deconstruct whiteness” in her classes. The article clearly equates “deconstruct” and “dismantle” with “destroy.” It’s not.

Deconstruction is an intellectual practice of critical thinking. It means taking apart — disassembling, dismantling — for purposes of careful examination all the underlying assumptions, beliefs, and even emotional reactions that influence, and at times drive, our conscious cerebral response to ideas and experiences.

Guiding students on a journey to deconstruct their whiteness does not require them reject their white identities. Indeed, in the opening to the essay for which Linley was attacked, she embraces her white identity along with other identity components (queer, able-bodied, cisgender, working class) which continue to inform how she moves through the world, past, present, and future.

Linley is also attacked for using the term “white ignorance.” This is a technical term in White Studies; it is not meant or used as a smear but rather as a reference to a lack of knowledge and awareness. Specifically, it refers to the “head in the sand” attitude. The allure of our own pleasure and comfort, together with the fear of what change might bring, conspire powerfully to prevent us from investigating — to keep us safe in our ignorance.

RELATED: Townsend: White privilege does exist 

This reaction is human. We need not be ashamed of it. But we also need not accept it as destiny. This is particularly because we can look at the experience of the more courageous among us who have pushed ahead into the uncertain change that follows investigation. We can consider what they have found. It is not discomfort, shame, misery, or even penury.

Indeed, it is a liberation, through ownership, of a long-lingering, unspoken shame. A wealth of personal, social, and spiritual opportunity that comes from honest and vulnerable re-engagement with one’s community.

We have to make room for the fear and anger; it is part of the equation. And we have to have responsible reactions to the hate, including lawful restrictions on personal threats and intimidation.

We need to speak up in favor of the journeys Linley describes not just out of respect for academic freedom but because of their critical — and positive — value for UI students and the UI community.

Aaron Marr Page,
new Iowa City resident

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