Suggestions for Teaching about Race

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Caution is always necessary for professors when teaching about race and white supremacy in the United States. Even more care is required in this particular historical moment after years of lynchings and police brutality that have taken the lives of Black men and women.

This especially applies to people who haven’t previously studied racism, yet it’s also still true for those of us who are very accustomed to teaching about such tragedies. And as a white scholar with extensive training and first-hand experience, I know that I, too, always have to be mindful of how I approach such topics — and rightly so.

Nonwhite people are burdened with routine oppressions that are impossible for those who benefit from white privilege to fully comprehend. Such a mental load already permanently elevates everyday stress for people without the political and social benefit of whiteness. Now in 2020, people of color are also hyper aware of political crises that threaten freedom as we know it (namely, the growing rise of fascism in the United States), while also hoping that they and their friends don’t die from COVID-19 or suffer long-term health consequences.

Students who are Asian, Arab, Black, Chinese, Latin American, Pilipino or a racialized minority in any other way don’t necessarily need to talk more about race. It’s their everyday life. As one of my students put it recently, “Living in the United States is a nightmare.” Nonwhite people shouldn’t be forced into academic conversations about their nightmares. And when such conversations occur, we should remember that students of color are often effectively asked to “perform their trauma,” which only increases their already heavy mental loads.

Given current events and how some people (wrongly) perceive discussions about racism and privilege/oppression and its histories to be attacks on white people, it’s worth considering that some conversations in this specific moment should be paused. Even during times without simultaneous national emergencies and when things on the surface are more stable, large sectors of the population refuse to consider racism. And to be clear: I’m fully aware that civil-rights struggles are dotted with people saying, “Now is not quite the right time.” But these times are unprecedented, as we face new cultural, economic, environmental, medical, political and social crises simultaneously.

All that said, however, maybe now is the perfect time: perhaps more people, including white individuals, are thinking about race than ever before in their life. Issues of race are on the news daily, and disgust at seeing videos of how cruelly Black individuals are treated has helped many people see the urgency of reform.

But in either case, when conversations occur, facilitators — including faculty members — must devote consideration to where audiences already are, and that involves a keen awareness of current events as well as knowledge of critical race theory. People without training shouldn’t suddenly attempt to study or to teach about the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist (Heteronormative Ableist Theistic) Patriarchy — you can’t talk about racism in isolation. Race is its own specialized field, just as biology and sociology are their own fields with experts, methods and theories. When economic reform is needed, we turn to economists; when racial reform is needed, we should turn to the experts — with personal or academic experience — not just anyone.

People who initiate or engage in such important conversations without the necessary preparation risk traumatizing audiences and reinforcing the mores they aim to challenge.

Some Steps to Take

Here are some safe, productive and more tangible steps that people can take when talking about race and racism.

Academe should invest more time and energy in honest self-assessments. Institutions and departments across the country have released antiracism statements of solidarity. Yet such statements tend to forgo discussing past histories with segregation as well as acknowledging specific needs based on local demographics. The statements of solidarity also tend to forget that only in rare cases do words alone — such as, “I now pronounce you” at weddings — have transformative power.

It also occurs to me that some of the same colleges that mere weeks ago released statements promising to promote inclusivity continue to demand that basically everyone return to campus in situations that will almost certainly guarantee deaths. Such “statements of solidarity” were clearly insincere.

University of Maryland Professor Thurka Sangaramoorthy’s tweet — “So every faculty member is an anti-racist now? Wow, I really missed that memo” — made me remember all of the times in graduate school when I was criticized, sometimes even harassed, because of my antiracism activism and research. Now that it’s suddenly “cool” to talk about race, everybody wants to participate without acknowledging any past efforts to discredit such work.

But without recognizing mistakes, sudden concerns about racialized minorities can come across as opportunistic. If the transformation is sincere, sharing that process might help others join the long fight for freedom and social justice.

In fact, we should all study and acknowledge our discipline’s and institution’s past misdeeds. Administrators and non-administrators alike should read or re-read works by scholar-activists such as Gloria E. AnzaldĂșa, Samra Habib, bell hooks, George Lipsitz, Audre Lorde and Cornel West. We should read about trauma-informed teaching. People must also remember race is much broader and more complicated than the Black/White Binary held in the public imagination and that “white” is a racialized identity, too.

Instructors might reconsider course themes in order to lower cognitive loads and to provide a measure of hope for the upcoming semesters. For instance, in a first-year writing class, instead of centering content around a theme of race, consider a theme of unity. A course could use texts such as the outstanding 2011 documentary Samsara that exemplifies how we’re all connected.

It takes time and continuing updates to our curriculum, but an initial step toward talking about race is representations. Do the films and articles you assign represent a variety of racialized identities? Do you have discussions that encourage all of your students to share ideas — knowing that you might have to specifically call on students of color and occasionally ask white students to just listen for a little while (similar to how sometimes male students talk over female students)? And it’s important that these inclusions avoid reinforcing conceptions that might suggest nonwhite people only experience suffering. Such inclusion and conversation benefits all.

Representation is one step. Integration is another. Talking about race occasionally in a liberal arts or social science course is inadequate. Start planning changes. In my introductory queer studies seminars, for instance, every lesson is crafted to include representations of people from multiple racialized backgrounds and representations of cisgender and trans people. Every lesson covers various “isms,” as well as how minorities have thrived. Topic integration is key.

When the national mood is stabilized and it’s safe to return to campuses (hopefully in 2021), we need dedicated time for serious, all-hands and ongoing conversations about the social construction of race and systemic racism that are facilitated by experts on race. Ideally, however, they won’t be in one-hour blocks! Proceeding with care is crucial. We should alert students in advance and have sessions planned beforehand.

In addition, if at all possible, people need to know one another at least a little before any discussions about race: a group of strangers will not have a productive conversation about white supremacy and its impacts. At the beginning of each specific, in-depth conversation ask students how they feel about the topic, what questions they have about discussing racism and what advice they have to make the dialog productive. Establish a safe word (my classes use “pineapple”) that anyone can use at any moment to stop the current conversation and refocus. And, most of all, acknowledge your own privileges and oppressions.

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