Feeling theory in the classroom

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by: Olivia Barnett-Naghshineh


Anthropology as a discipline has an almost inherent assumption that our methodology makes every experience or social phenomena potentially knowable through sufficient participating, observing and long-term interactions. As a woman of mixed Iranian and English heritage, I have a complex subjectivity but one mainly of material privilege. I am most often assumed to be Latina or Spanish and have been described as “ethnically ambiguous”, but otherwise pass as white. The undergraduate and short courses I have been teaching at Goldsmiths University centre decolonial writers, Black feminist theories and critical perspectives on race, nation and empire. I show students that we are all implicated in these histories albeit with different relationships and connections to them. Teaching classes that demonstrate the legacies of colonisation in present day manifestations of institutional racism, health disparities and discrimination leads to a range of emotional reactions, depending on how the student is positioned and the exposure they have had to these questions (bearing in mind this blog was initially written in 2018). Holding space for the array of different reactions from students with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and awareness of these delicate and complex issues can be challenging and requires a continuous journey of reflecting, learning and unlearning. The below instance is one such moment of reflection on my own journey.

In 2018 I attended a conference in the UK about Decolonising Academia. Academics, activists and educators primarily from BIPOC backgrounds filled the workshop to the point that some had to stand outside. The workshop convenors gave us an exercise where we should each share an experience of being ‘othered’. One workshop participant, with mixed heritage that spanned the African continent, Europe and the Caribbean, recounted a memory as a nine-year-old from junior school when they were asked what career they thought they would end up becoming. The teacher then picked a student she felt was most likely to become the career they had chosen for themselves. This young person wrote on the board the profession that they are now training for. As the highest achieving student in the class, the workshop participant recounted their shock when the teacher chose a student with much lower grades so they asked the teacher why they were not picked. The workshop participant sobbed as they remembered the teacher telling them, they would never get the job they wanted because of their skin colour. The teacher had revealed her own racism by conveying her assumptions of society.  Even though evidence does show that getting professional positions after university can be more of a struggle for people of colour than white students in the UK, the teacher reinforced these barriers to a small child.

During the telling of this incident, I felt sad for this person, but I was not moved to tears as others in the group were. I don’t know what it feels like to be told, or made to feel, you won’t achieve what you are capable of because people will judge you based on your physical appearance. This poignant moment had me reflecting on my positionality in these discussions. I have seen and heard about incidents of police violence and discrimination against young African men living in Aotearoa New Zealand, witnessed explicit racist comments towards friends and family, read analyses of structural violence and listened to stories of racism amongst Pacific and Maori students on campus.  Reading critical race theory perspectives have taught me a lot about how whiteness and racism works in everyday moments of social interactions and at the level of institutional ‘oversights’ or explicit exclusions through policy and interpersonal behaviours (Brodkin, Morgen, and Hutchinson 2011). However, in this instance, there was something about the way the people in our group who had themselves been racialised could relate to what this young person had experienced. There was a knowing that produced tears in them too and a moment of shared vulnerability and sadness emerged as adults reflected on their child selves.

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC

Questions of affect, emotions and empathy have huge attention within anthropology – and the question of whether we as anthropologists can ever know what someone else is feeling and if so how, is a matter for debate. Nonetheless, the incident reminded me that lived experience is significantly different from learned experience (Brian Martin 2019). When we have felt something ourselves, through our own experience, and something we see or hear resonates with that state, it can bring up feelings that we may not have yet put into words. For some of our students, reading anthropological perspectives and critical theories on whiteness can give words and ideas that order experiences, give shape to a sense, discomfort or a combination of feelings. This has been one of the main reflections of our undergraduate students on ‘Thinking Through Race’ at Goldsmiths. Reading ‘Decolonisation is Not a Metaphor’ by Tuck and Yang (2012), Akala’s ‘Natives’ and Sara Ahmed’s ‘Phenomenology of Whiteness’ (2007) and ‘On Being Included’ (2013) have all produced strong emotions in students, both those who have suffered racism and those who have reflected on their own whiteness (as a set of inherited, structured, desires and orientations in the world).  So far all of the students have shown a deep capacity for reflection, learning and change in their outlooks. In some cases, the theory and ethnography has moved them to reflect, in other cases, these materials just gave form to what they already knew through lived experience.

We are oriented towards a politics through sentiments; sentiments move our bodies in certain directions (Ahmed 2004). It is this that I believe teachers of a critical anthropology must reflect on. Our own positioning matters significantly for how we teach anthropological material because it shapes how we relate to it. Critical social theories do not do the same work for all of us. When we teach, we have a responsibility to understand that our bodies carry and hold different histories, some of which have not been subject to the same kinds of violence or resonances of violence as those whom we teach. This means we may be great theorists or teachers of critical race theory, intersectionality or critical ethnography, but holding space for students or colleagues who have been racialised is not necessarily something everyone can or should do. We must also consider the risk of ‘white tears’ taking up space and distracting from real material oppression. I believe thinking and feeling with our students is fundamental to critical pedagogical practice, allowing for the head and the heart to be in our learning spaces, specifically through making room for lived experience. Being able to do this means sitting with our own feelings and experiences alongside reading, writing, talking and listening, and being honest about what our positionality in the world means we know and do not know. This requires reflecting in a consciously embodied, emotional way, on materials that help us understand ourselves and the experience of others. And to always ask ourselves, is this enough?


Ahmed, Sara. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

———. 2007. “A Phenomenology of Whiteness.” Feminist Theory 8 (2): 149–67. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700107078139.

———. 2013. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Akala, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire London: John Murray Press.

Brodkin, Karen, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson. 2011. “Anthropology as White Public Space?” American Anthropologist 113 (4): 545–56. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2011.01368.x.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society 1 (1): 1–40.

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