Thursday, December 30, 2010

Race, Twitter and Melissa Harris Perry

This may seen like a sudden shift of topic, but it is, in fact, directly linked to my last post. In explaining my teaching objectives, I listed two examples of what I meant by "thinking, listening and being present":

It means learning to recognize that we each experience life from our own unique position in time and point of view, shaped by our identity. It means listening to others' opinions and experiences and being able to understand them in the contexts of their own unique humanity.

That evening, an example of this way of thinking played out on The Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC). Like many news organizations, the show included a segment on President Obama's comments about Michael Vick's second chance in the NFL. The host then brought in frequent contributor Melissa Harris Perry, a Princeton professor often asked to comment on race, gender and politics. In a very short time (actually three minutes less than she thought she had) Perry attempted to lay out the very complex history and multiple viewpoints involved in the controversy. I thought she did well, probably because it's a topic I already know and could fill in some of the blanks. Apparently the Maddow show audience did not agree. Her email inbox was flooded with angry messages, and her Twitter stream caught fire.

Professor Perry uses Twitter better than just about anyone I know, and she followed up her Maddow appearance with a series of 140-character posts that served as a mini-lecture on the nuances of America's racial history as played out most recently in the Michael Vick controversy. She even provided the slides from a class lecture/discussion that occurred when a PETA demonstration at Princeton angered African American students by comparing animal cruelty to slavery. The "twecture" and the class slides can be found at Mediaiate.

How does this connect to my post? We are fortunate today to have a multitude of ways to connect and interact with others, including people with very different lives and views. How well those conduits serve us depends on our own inclination to think and LISTEN to those views, and to understand that they come from real, living breathing people who are trying to tell us their "truths". The real truth -- if there is one at all -- may be theirs, or ours, or some yet-undiscovered truth. When we communicate only in one direction, or only with our own "tribe", it doesn't matter if we are speaking face-to-face or using the latest sophisticated social network. We do not learn.

Twitter can be an amazing tool for listening to a multitude of viewpoints, and for engaging with earnest questioners. Melissa Harris Perry has it right, in a tweet posted towards the end of the exchange:

Completely possible that I've explained nothing, but hopefully at least raised some questions. As always Tweeps provoke & engage.

Spoken like a true teacher!

Update: Professor Perry has posted her own follow-up at The

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