Sociology Class with Professor Sharp-Grier

In an effort to engage, inform, and enlighten our community of Newsymom readers, we are introducing an ongoing series of articles to highlight  issues of civil rights, social inequities, and racism called A Mother’s Revolution. By providing readers with insights, education, and information, we hope to engage our readers in a thoughtful conversation that can lead to enlightenment and positive change in our communities.

An important part of this effort to promote change is to listen to the voices of people of color. Newsymom will be publishing articles that highlight the accomplishments and perspectives of area leaders who have worked to create positive change in every aspect of our communities. Our first, Plugged In: Turning Up the Volume for Those in a Changing World, interview is with Martina L. Sharp-Grier, Sociologist, Author, Public Speaker, Assistant Professor at Stark State College.

Education is a foundation of our democracy and a key to stability and progress in our communities. Educators play a crucial role in helping citizens acquire the knowledge it takes to face fundamental challenges and make informed decisions that benefit the common good of our communities.

Martina L. Sharp-Grier is both a colleague and friend of mine at Stark State College. In her role as both a professor at Stark State and a public speaker, she has helped countless students and professionals, including myself,  grapple with complex and uncomfortable concepts connected to race and racism. As we have a national conversation on race and inequity in our country, Martina’s experience as an educator, Black woman, and mother, as well as her expertise as a sociologist and academic can help to provide some insight for those of us who are eager to learn. When we know better, we can do better.

Q: Recent protests over the killing of George Floyd and so many other black men and women at the hands of law enforcement or vigilante citizens, as in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, have prompted national discussions on racial bias and systematic racism in our criminal justice system. Some of the information is new to white Americans, why do you think this is?

A: That’s a really complex question. I am of the mindset that there are several phenomena, systemic and individual, historical and contemporary, that have contributed to the majority group’s perceived lack of understanding – and knowledge – of racial bias (I say perceived because I believe that people know what racial bias is, and why the movement started. They just don’t know how to articulate it). 

Systemically, our educational system has done a pretty shoddy job of illuminating the actualities of how our nation has simultaneously embraced and eschewed racist institutional practices, customs, and mores, and our sociocultural systems have denied BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] the forums to honestly and openly discuss what those practices, customs, and mores have yielded, longitudinally.

This “double whammy”, in concert with other cultural and structural phenomena, has made it difficult for persons who are not affected by systemic and cultural racism to actually grasp the magnitude of what it means to live in a racist society, and has silenced the voices who have knowledge to share. The misnomer that “racism is dead” hasn’t helped, either…

Individually, we have “decided” that racism is 

1) defined by those who aren’t affected by it; and

 2) something only perpetuated by people who are card carrying members of the Ku Klux Klan, or some other White Supremacist group. 

The combination of these two “decisions” has all but voided any real discussion of racism, a cultural reality into which we are all socialized, and negated the racism embedded into law enforcement, medical, educational, economic, and political institutions. 

We are quick to turn a blind eye to the individual acts of microaggressions that BIPOC experience daily, and we dismiss as “bad apples”, police officers, teachers, doctors and nurses, loan officers, and political figures who behave in racist ways, despite clear evidence – contemporary and longitudinal – that institutional processes have allowed these “apples” to proliferate. 

Q: As a sociology professor, what are key concepts that you teach in the classroom that apply to the issues highlighted by protestors? Also,  how can sociology help us to better understand the dynamics surrounding the protests and some people’s adverse reactions to them?

Sociology is a science which  allows for the analysis of what is actually occurring in society. Sociological researchers use multiple methods of research to find out what the trends are, and to report on what social trends and systemic outcomes. 

Regardless of the amount of education that a sociologist has attained, all of us has – at the very least – a working knowledge of how to conduct social research, including collecting data, compiling reports, and analyzing trends and outcomes. Oftentimes, when sociologists and other social and behavioral scientists provide information on what is occurring in our social realm, laypersons are quick to deride the information, saying that it is opinion driven, as opposed to factual. We, as sociologists, take great umbrage to such derisions, as we take pride in being as unbiased in our research as we are able. 

A: The current protests really do highlight so many of the concepts, theories, and conversations that I teach to my students and highlight in my public speaking. Issues such as:

Power (access to, control of, and manipulation of resources for one’s, or their group’s, benefit)

Status (a person’s position and role in the social system)

Stigma (“blemish” assigned to one’s identity)

Social Control (social systems enforcing expectations of behavior)

Exploitation of Labor (unfairly co opting and using the labor of persons)

Dehumanization (seeing persons as/equating persons to animals)

Stratification (the ranking of individuals/groups based on race, sex, gender, class, ability, etc.)

Socialization (the acquisition of culture – norms, customs, etc. –  throughout the life course)

Social Location (the sum total of a person’s race, sex, class, gender, etc., that defines their life experience)

A person’s social location really defines everything else – their access to power, their potential status attainment, whether or not they are stigmatized or dehumanized, where they rank in the stratification system, how their labor will be used, and what kind of socialization they receive.

All of these things are being highlighted through the BLM movement; but, what the Floyd case brought into stark reality is that for BIPOC, the level of social control exerted upon them via the institution of Law Enforcement is, both anecdotally and statistically, disproportionate to the level of offense and to the policing of non BIPOC. 

Tangentially, the disproportionate numbers of BIOPIC persons infected by, or who have succumbed to COVID-19 reflects on the same concepts that I listed above, but speaks to those items within a healthcare setting. Truthfully, I could teach an entire course on, “The Intersection of Race and 2020” lol.

Q: You teach Cultural Studies, which is both a transformative and sometimes painful experience for students. I’d love for you to share some of your experiences in the classroom. What topics do students most struggle with accepting or discussing? How do racial dynamics play a role in your class discussions?

A: For the most part, my White students have a difficult time understanding that racism is not an individual thing – that it is a systemic process that is undergirded by prejudice + privilege + power. The privilege part is what usually causes the most consternation because they don’t understand that they have it. 

They also have a difficult time coming to grips with the reality that because racism is a system that is undergirded by privilege and power, BIPOC cannot be racist. Rather, they can be bigoted, prejudiced, and individually discriminatory. We often take a great deal of time to dissect these terms (and their sub-definitions: there are actually 3 types of prejudice and 4 types of discrimination). 

My BIPOC students seem less confused about these topics and are often quite shocked that their White counterparts are so confused by them. Because my class is sometimes one of the only places where they have felt free to express themselves (I imagine, because I’m a Black prof), I sometimes have to remind my BIPOC students to be patient with students for whom this information is new. 

Q: How do students react when presented with information that is counter to their world view or ideology?

A: In actuality, the responses of my students run the gamut. Often, my White students are super uncomfortable, and it shows on their faces. Some don’t come back to class and/or drop the course and take it with a prof who is not BIPOC. 

Others ask loads and loads of questions, which is exactly what I want!

I’ve had some tell me that I was racist because I don’t shy away from vernacular, concepts, and/or real-world occurrences that are directly related to the subject matter being discussed. For instance, I had a student actually lodge a complaint to my dean against me because I used the term “massa” while discussing chattel slavery. 

I’ve had students who actively and vehemently attempted to discredit me, my discipline, and the material being presented – in open class. Truly, responses are a mixed-bag and are honestly different from class, to class.

Q: What approaches do you take in the classroom to allow a fruitful and honest discussion on difficult topics?

A: I use the Socratic method of teaching. I generally lecture to give students the jist of what certain concepts and/or definitions are, and then I encourage open and honest dissection of phenomena.

 I generally disallow opinions to flow. Instead (and, this really allows analysis to happen, as opposed to the spewing of one ideological context or another), I ask them to think about the topics/concepts/occurrences through a theoretical prism. I always ask, “What else?”, and encourage layered analysis.

 I also try really hard not to discount someone’s standpoint, even if I wholeheartedly disagree with how and why they came to their understanding. My goal is not to tell people how to think; rather, it is to GET THEM TO think

Of course, if there is an incorrect recitation of facts, or if there is some skewed perspective offered, I’ll interject, but I generally only interrupt to ask probing questions, without providing my own analysis (That drives my students nuts! Some have gotten savvy enough to ask directly what I think, but I always frame my analysis in sociological context, so they very rarely get my personal standpoint). 

Q: As a Composition instructor, I always say I wish everyone could take my course because it teaches critical skills and concepts like understanding audience, analyzing and identifying credible sources, logic, and critical thinking. I would also consider Cultural Studies to be a course that I wish everyone could take. 

What key ideas/concepts/skills/knowledge do you think would benefit citizens as we grapple with this historical racial reckoning? 

A: Actually, to begin with, I hold dear the same types of knowledge that you outlined, and wish all students could acquire them. They are supremely beneficial to social justice work! Critical thinking, information literacy (knowing which sources are credible, and understanding how to get to those sources), logic, and data (information) analysis are the tools that citizens need to begin to understand that may be relatively difficult to grasp. 

I also think that a basic vocabulary lesson on the differences between key concepts (race v ethnicity; prejudice v discrimination; racism v bigotry; sex v gender; sytemic v individual; etc…) would help frame the discussion.

Lastly, I honestly believe that giving people the historical context to understand why folks are so exasperated, scared, and upset would provide a necessary backdrop to the current movement, and would – possibly – allow people to see what the inceptors of the movement desire. 

Q: In addition to teaching at Stark State, you also conduct workshops about microagressions. This is a concept that is new to many people. Can you discuss the role microaggressions play in our understanding of race, racism, and systematic racial inequities? How might understanding the nuances of racial bias help us to move forward?

A: Microaggressions are knee-jerk digs, jabs, and insults lodged at minoritized people. Having a discussion about them is often difficult, because they are – usually – lodged without intent of malice. However, they are rooted in socialized and internalized racism. Let me give some context:

American culture and American society was founded on the notion of racial and ethnic superiority and inferiority (chattel slavery, Indigenous persons being killed and/or expelled from their land, etc.). That’s a difficult thing to rest with, but it is true. As such, ideas of racial and ethnic superiority and inferiority have been folded into our customs, mores, folkways, perceptions, beliefs, and structures. In other words, we are socialized into this system of superiority/inferiority. 

When I say we, I mean ALL of us – everyone has received the same messages about certain racial and ethnic groups. We know the stigma that is placed on these groups, and we understand the stereotypes associated with them. We learn these things as children and choose to accept or reject these notions. Even if we choose to reject them, we are still influenced/affected by them. Because they are cultural, even if we don’t subscribe to them, we may inadvertently carry them. This is called Implicit Bias. 

Implicit bias is subconscious and often causes persons to behave in ways that don’t reflect their conscious understanding. So, if I see someone who appears to be of Asian descent and ask them where they are from, I am unconsciously reinforcing a stereotype or belief that persons of Asian descent aren’t American. If I tell a Black person that they speak well, I may mean no harm, but am tacitly reinforcing the stereotype – through my surprise – that Black people – in general – are inarticulate or unlearned. 

Again, I may not consciously subscribe to these beliefs, but because I was socialized into them and carry them, they sometimes rear their head and are, in fact, vestiges of the racist system into which I was born. There are three types of microaggressions that I’ve written about:

  1. Microinsults – backhanded compliments (you’re so articulate; you speak English well, where are you from; you did so well at ______ I’m so surprised).
  2. Microinvalidations – discounting the experiences of BIPOC (don’t be so sensitive; why are you playing the race card; all lives matter)
  3. Microinequities – differential treatment given to those who are minoritized (without intent)

Without intending to, individuals who wield microaggressions are reinforcing stereotypes and misperceptions of the minoritized and therefore engaging in what is called “othering” (making a category of people “the outsiders”). Because people don’t intend to engage in such othering, when BIPOC (who know what it is that they are looking at) “call it out” for what it is – racism – individuals feel as though they are being unfairly categorized as racist. 

Q: What do you wish more people knew or understood as we grapple with this difficult and often painful national dialogue?

A: I honestly wish people knew enough (vocabulary, etc.) to have conversations from a standpoint of knowledge, as opposed to a standpoint of assumptions. The reality is that non-BIPOC have not had to learn anything about the realities of being minoritized, and that’s not their fault – from a structural standpoint. 

From an individual standpoint, I really wish people would care enough to familiarize themselves with the sociocultural, historical, and contemporary realities of BIPOC. A little knowledge breeds understanding, and understanding breeds change.

Disclaimer: “The opinions in this article are my own and those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of Stark State College.”

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