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Teaching tough topics: Dr. Linda Chavers speaks on diversity, racism in classrooms

By Miranda Wilder, Staff Writer

Frances Pontes/STAFF Dr. Linda Chavers talks to students on Wednesday as a part of #BlackLivesMatter. The talks featured comments from educations outlining the difficulties of incorportating racially sensitive topics into classes.
Frances Pontes/STAFF
Dr. Linda Chavers of Phillips Exeter Academy talks to students on Wednesday in the MUB during the #BlackLivesMatter In Our Classrooms event, a part of the Sidore Lecture Series.

The University of New Hampshire held its most recent Sidore Lecture Series event called “#BlackLivesMatter In Our Classrooms” Tuesday night to spread awareness of racism in academic settings, hosted by Jessica Fish, the director of the UNH Center for Global, Race and Diversity Studies. 

Dr. Linda Chavers of Phillips Exeter Academy spoke first on her article “An Elegy for Michael Brown,” which was published in Dame magazine at the end of last year.

While Chavers first titled the article “An Elegy for Michael Brown,” editors changed the name to “This is what it means for me to teach your white privileged children.”

Chavers disagreed with this change and, ultimately, the magazine changed the title back to what Chavers originally proposed.

Chavers’ inspiration for the piece came from her background in journalism, her boyfriend (a journalist who covered Ferguson) and her own outrage towards racism in the United States.

“It bothered me psychologically that I had to beg my boyfriend to leave Ferguson because they were shooting people, arresting journalists,” Chavers said.

Reactions to Chavers’ article varied from hostile, to gratuitous, to the questioning of her ability as a professional teacher, she felt a sort of anger and confusion at all the feedback she was getting.

“My anger, my mourning of this boy,” she said. “Many boys, many bodies was perceived as angry. It was perceived as angry and my commitment to fairly teaching was called into question. My commitment for providing a safe space for children in the classroom was called into question.

“Parents were concerned. ‘Will my white son feel safe in your class? Will [Chavers] be able to balance what she teaches?’” Chavers said.

Aside from the criticisms, however, she was presented with an ongoing public gratitude in the form of compliments and correspondence, which confused her. After having so many people tear apart the injustices her article spoke out against, she wondered how there could be so many unheard voices expressing the same opinions she does.

“It’s rewarding, yet it’s isolating,” she said about this gratitude.

She wished others would voice their opinions publicly too, to help create an even larger movement.

Courtney Marshall, an assistant professor of English and women’s studies at UNH, commented on the criticism that Chavers received.

“People want to derail you and turn you into an angry person,” Marshall said.

Marshall found it frustrating to create a syllabus around what films, topics and discussions students may or may not be able to handle.

She also feels that as a black female professor, she is often mislabeled as intimidating in her student evaluations.

“You’re either this very scary black woman that kids come to cry to or the sassy one,” Marshall said. 

Chavers added that it is sometimes frustrating when making a curriculum that won’t come across as offensive.

“If you are talking about race issues,” Chavers said, “You have to say it with a smile … Are you too complacent? Are you not complacent enough? It’s like a very, very complex orchestrated dance that never ends.”

A panel discussion followed Chavers’ remarks, which included three students who are also members of the Black Student Union. The students were Janice Disla, Myles Parker and Robert Richard-Snipes.

Also present was Otis Douce, the director of Cultural Competency and Global Diversity at The Hun School of Princeton in New Jersey. He finds it difficult to spread change on an individual level by getting past society’s implemented views. Douce is also the former coordinator of multicultural programming at the UNH OMSA office.

Chavers recalled one instance when a transgender female came to her office to come out to her. While Chavers was completely open to the idea that a student felt comfortable enough to come to her with something like this, she had to ask why. The student told her it was because of the Ferguson piece.

This may not have been related to Ferguson or Michael Brown, but it reinforced her belief that she is progressing as a black female writer in pursuit of change, and that she is in fact, spreading that change through her work.

“It’s about helping those who care, even if it’s not specifically what I wrote about,” she said.

CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Dr. Linda Chavers titled the article, “This is what it means for me to teach your white privileged children.” Dame magazine gave the article this title, while Dr. Linda Chavers titled her article with the now standing, “An Elegy for Michael Brown.”

CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized Otis Douce as a “black teacher familiar with race issues in the classroom.” Douce is the former coordinator of multicultural programming at the UNH OMSA office and is the current director of Cultural Competency and Global Diversity at the Hun School in Princeton, New Jersey.

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