When I read that Das Janssen had become the first out trans prof at Chicago State University I was truly happy. Chicago State is an HCBU and there have been issues regarding these schools and their tolerance of the LGBT community. I believe however, that some of this has been magnified to confirm the mendacious social myth that Blacks are uniquely anti-queer. I am quite certain that every single university/college has issues regarding tolerance of the BLGT community, whether or not they have an GLBT alliance on campus; they simply are not as widely reported.
I was even further delighted to read the following comment from Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
“There is a myth that Black people don’t like gay marriage or LGBT people. I know that there is some difference in the numbers [ between Blacks and whites on the issue of marriage equality ] but I think that that’s all just hogwash. There are white and Black people who are tolerant of LGBT people, and higher education has become a great place to transition.”
So far so good right? An HBCU has hired an openly out trans man, and the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality has been very open about challenging the idea that Blacks are more hostile to the TLBG community than Whites, what’s not to be thrilled about? Read on because there is plenty.
But it isn’t Janssen’s gender identity that gets the most attention in class; it’s his race. Janssen, who is white, simply “politely corrects” students who may refer to him as “she,” but aggressively challenges his students “who don’t want to be told what to do by white guys in ties at the front of the room.” Being one of those white guys in ties at the front of the room, Janssen tells his students that they’d be better off listening to him because he’s trying to tell them how to resist just that.
Part of his overall experience at Chicago State has been a lesson in “what it means to be white.” Janssen, who enjoys hearing “white jokes,” never knew before coming to the university that “there are stereotypes about white people” because of growing up, he noted, in a predominantly white environment on military bases across the country and later in southeastern Virginia. But above all, Janssen’s concern is not with race or gender identity, but with knowing that his students are able to learn philosophy from him.
Is it really any surprise that a man who chose to dedicate himself to the study of the thoughts of musty White men (read: philosophy), has no idea the impact of Whiteness on students of colour? The very fact that he can openly admit that he grew in an “all white environment,” and had no idea that “stereotypes existed for White people” speaks volumes.
This is the very same man that now stands in front of a classroom largely made up of students of colour, and believes that he can challenge the hegemony of White masculinity. The fact that he does not consider race something that needs to be focused on, is yet another example of his undeserved and unacknowledged privilege. You cannot challenge what you do not understand. It seems that there is always some reason, or excuse to avoid confronting race directly.
Das seems unable to comprehend why his White face at the head of a classroom at an HBCU is disturbing to his students. Throughout the education process, it is White teachers that enforce Whiteness to students, despite the sham of inclusivity during Black History Month. History means teaching the oppressors good works, in which the success of Whiteness are promoted as good, despite the history of violence, rape, murder, lynchings, land theft etc., Even story time during the primary years is filled with White images, and this purposeful erasure is not lost on Black students who must look to their parents to counteract the violent erasure that constitutes education.
To walk into an HBCU classroom and see a White man teaching philosophy, is simply a continuation of the racialized education system. For generations, the only thoughts society thought worth remembering or even studying, were that of White males, thus making philosophy the musings of dead White men. A White man cannot teach a Black person how to resist Whiteness, because this is something the average Black child learns to do from birth for the purposes of self preservation. Lessons on Whiteness are far more valuable for White people, because they have been able to avoid the knowledge of their active collective participation in oppressing bodies of colour.
Das has served as a teaching lesson. He stands as evidence that it is quite possible to be marginalized in one area, and have unacknowledged privilege in another. This surface level conversation on anti-queer attitudes in the Black community erases those who are Black and members of the LBGT community. It is further compounded by Das’ attitude when it comes to interacting with people of colour. No matter how educated a White man becomes, he can never be considered an expert on culture as it relates to people of colour, because lived experience will always trump that of book learning. The White TLBG community may see this as a positive gain, but perhaps the students at Chicago State University may have been better served by being taught by a Black BLGT person. Race, gender, sexuality intersect and they cannot, nor should they always be represented by Whiteness.