Asking Tough Questions: Ms. Marvel and Tokenism in the Classroom

I’m proud to say that teaching the first volume of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel in my college fiction classes has become somewhat routine. In each of the zillion times I’ve helmed an “Intro to Fiction” course, Ms. Marvel has always been someone’s first encounter with a “Muslim superhero” (I put that term in quotes because of the difficulty in defining that term) and it has always been someone’s favorite work of the semester. Most of our conversations revolve around how Ms. Marvel undoes stereotypes that pop culture at large attaches not just to Muslim figures, but heroes and villains more generally. Thus, Ms. Marvel becomes a tool that I use to help students look at the media they consume more critically, precisely because it is “outside the norm.”

ms-marvel

Recently, I had the privilege of guest teaching Ms. Marvel for a 300-level course. At my university, these courses are typically reserved for professors and senior grad students. Having never taught anything myself above a 100-level course, I was admittedly quite nervous – these undergrads were smart, sharp, and would keep me on my toes. They did not disappoint: while I didn’t have to go through my usual schtick of “here’s is why representation is important,” I did have to teach in a way that required me to adapt and formulate ideas on the fly. I’ve never been very good at that, even as a student myself. So, when a student pointed out that Ms. Marvel was problematic because of tokenism, I froze. In teaching 100-level classes, this point had never been brought up by my own students, and I myself had never considered it. I was at a loss for how to respond, and looking back, I’m still quite sure I made a mess of it.

The comment I received was from a female student of color who took issue with one of Ms. Marvel’s most striking splash pages:

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Her comments, as I understood them, can be summed up as follows: this image (and by extension, the comic) is problematic because Kamala is shown to be idolizing white heroes. Moreover, because she is Marvel’s only headlining Muslim superhero, she has to stand in for “the Muslim experience” and “the immigrant experience,” which is tokenism at its finest. She also claimed that by speaking Urdu, Captain Marvel in this image can be interpreted as appropriating another culture.

As a teacher, my aim is to push students to develop ideas, but I’m also highly aware that I’m a white instructor. I don’t want to talk over students of color. Part of this student’s criticism was jarring to me because it made points I myself had taken for granted: yes, this is an image of a brown-skinned girl idolizing white heroes. Yes, this comic does ask us to use Kamala as a stand-in for the entirety of the Muslim/immigrant experience (though I’m sure Wilson didn’t mean it that way – but our culture largely treats it that way).

But the part where I fear I made a mess of the whole thing was in my response. I had just talked about previous panels in which Kamala writes fanfiction – a set of panels, I claimed, shows her exerting control over a superhero narrative that has long excluded people like her (women, Muslims, people of color, etc.).

x0khgyo

When the student made these comments, I immediately pushed back and asked her how Kamala’s previous creative power fits in with what was happening in Kamala’s vision. I also asked how real-life instances of people of color admiring white heroes informed what was happening in this comic. I also asked if speaking a language is cultural appropriation, and if it matters that the vision Kamala sees of Captain Marvel counts as appropriation if the vision springs from her own head.

I felt like an asshole.

I can’t tell you why – looking back, I think these were perfectly legitimate questions, but I’m wondering if, as a white instructor, I should have been the one to raise them. The last thing I want is to look like I’m defending white supremacy – I don’t want my message to be “it’s ok that Kamala is worshiping white heroes [implied: because white heroes are great and heroes of color aren’t].” I also don’t want to appear as if I’m silencing a female student of color by asking them to complicate their views based on previous discussions from class that might alter or negate their points. I moreover don’t want to be perceived as a white woman lecturing a woman of color on cultural appropriation. Part of me also felt defensive that someone was criticizing a thing I loved, and that’s hard no matter what.

Even now I feel like I’m making this too much about me, so let me get to the point of my writing this post.

In America’s current state, academics are predominantly white and predominantly male. It shouldn’t be that way. As it stands, I personally have little control over hiring practices and racism/sexism in the academy. But that doesn’t mean teachers should exclude certain texts or topics because they might cause “uncomfortable” situations (for lack of a better term).

This post isn’t about me trying to assuage my white guilt. Instead, I want to extrapolate what I learned from this experience in the hopes that it will help other instructors, particularly ones like me who are relatively inexperienced and haven’t properly started their careers as college professors yet. Most of my insights will be geared towards those who teach literature, but some concepts, I think, can transfer to other subjects:

  1. If you are a white instructor, teaching works by people not from your demographic is going to be awkward, especially when your students are from marginalized demographics. If you’re doing it right, you’re going to feel like a fraud. After all, who are you to lecture students of color about their own history, culture, etc.? But the work is still important. Your comfort doesn’t matter as much as their exposure to works by non-white authors in the classroom. It also benefits white students because they, too, are exposed to more things by women, people of color, etc.
  2. Put more than one work on your syllabus that deals with various demographics. Seriously. Part of the reason why my teaching of Ms. Marvel got uncomfortable is because pop culture at large has privileged white male heroes, so Kamala Khan felt like the token Muslim woman of color who herself idolizes the same heroes our society does. Looking back, I would have pitched the comic differently – as the beginning or part of a continuing trend (in which figures like Miles Morales, Sam Wilson, etc. also participate) rather than a standout piece of fiction that’s exceptional in itself (as much I love to idolize it). Outside of a pop culture class, the same principle can apply: the academy relies on a small canon that is dominated by white male authors and figures. True, times are a-changing, but it’s too easy to fall back on the familiar. Again, our comfort is less important than the impact of putting “non-canonical” things on the syllabus to shake up the canon.
  3. If you’re teaching a course that is topic-specific, bring as much diversity into your classroom as you can. I get that in a Shakespeare class, for example, an instructor can’t necessarily teach A Raisin in the Sun without some disciplinary hearings from the department. It sucks, but we can’t always give the middle finger to a department. But you can read Shakespeare through different lenses: how does Othello comment on race? What if we use postcolonial theory to look at some of the history plays? What changes in interpretation if Julius Cesar is played by a black actor rather than a white one?
  4. Avoid telling students of color that they’re wrong about a work by/about people of color, especially when you disagree with them. Part of the reason I felt like an asshole is because I felt like I was telling the student that she was wrong. Instead, frame your discussion as a discussion (duh!). As teachers, we have the tendency to sound like an authoritative voice that molds discussion to reach a particular point we’re trying to make. Granted, we need to do that sometimes to prevent class from going completely off the rails, but in my opinion, it’s too easy to try to influence discussion so that it ends up an assertion of our own viewpoints. That’s not productive at all. I’ve found that it helps to ask questions rather than outright disagree with a student: “Can you talk more about that in relation to X?” or “How does your point inform what we discussed before?” I’d hesitate to say something like “how does your opinion change given X” or something – a blunder I made in my own experience. Looking back, I’d reframe my question as “How does our discussion about fanfiction nuance your point on this panel? Or are they two separate topics?” Without trying to get the student to come around to your point of view is important, and as instructors, we can learn a lot by listening. (Obviously, this is different if a student is factually incorrect – I wouldn’t hesitate to correct a student that said there were no people of color in medieval Europe; but we need to be careful to sort fact from opinion when discussing ideas.)
  5. Let students do more talking than you do. Part of my class experience was saved by the fact that I threw out my questions to everyone else, and so I avoided class being a series of conversations between me, the instructor, and individual students. Granted, this can be tricky because you may get some students that have viewpoints that are less “woke” than you’d like. But the upside is that students are more willing to talk to each other when there’s something they disagree on – they need little input from you as an instructor, and in a lot of cases, they can teach each other way more effectively than you can teach them.
  6. Acknowledge that you’re going to mess up and you’re going to disagree with or offend someone in almost every class. As people, we can’t please everyone, much less as instructors. Moreover, there’s an impossible expectation that teachers should be right about everything all the time. Students are going to react negatively to us no matter what we do, so we may as well earn negative comments that are worth building upon. “She didn’t know much about Islamic poetry” – great, I’ll teach more and learn more myself rather than default to more Shakespeare. That’s much better, I think, than teaching a perfect class with only white men on the syllabus for reasons I listed above. I get that it’s hard – we don’t like hearing bad things about ourselves. We take it personally. But we need to push through that in any way we can or else resort to running on autopilot (and autopilot, I think, has instructors deferring to the “Canon” or Institutionally-Approved teaching subjects/methods).

I still think a lot about how I may have screwed up when teaching Ms. Marvel. I don’t want any comments that reassure me – really, I don’t. Rather, I wanted to share this story to show that even as an instructor, I have learned. I’m glad that student brought up points that took me by surprise because now, I’m thinking more about things I hadn’t (though I should’ve) considered before. Even if that student walked out of class thinking I’m an asshole, that matters less than the steps that I take moving forward to help my future students be more educated, informed, insightful people. It’s hard. I have the habit of beating myself up over my past mistakes, and already, as teachers, we’re asked to downplay our personal feelings for the benefit of others (students, colleagues, departments, etc.).  But maybe in a small way, we can learn from our experiences to help push back against academic norms that are more harmful than helpful.

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