Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom
Notes from a White Professor
Teaching about race and racism can be a difficult business. Students and instructors alike often struggle with strong emotions, and many people have robust preexisting beliefs about race. At the same time, this is a moment that demands a clear understanding of racism. It is important for students to learn how we got here and how racism is more than just individual acts of meanness. Students also need to understand that colorblindness is not an effective anti-racism strategy.
In this book, Cyndi Kernahan argues that you can be honest and unflinching in your teaching about racism while also providing a compassionate learning environment that allows for mistakes and avoids shaming students. She provides evidence for how learning works with respect to race and racism along with practical teaching strategies rooted in that evidence to help instructors feel more confident. She also differentiates between how white students and students of color are likely to experience the classroom, helping instructors provide a more effective learning experience for all students.
An unflinching look at the realities of teaching about race. This book is destined to sit proudly next to such classics as Even the Rat Was White and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’
Regan A. R. Gurung, Oregon State University
Kernahan’s honest, compassionate, and evidence-based discussions are a bracing antidote to the often stilted, evasive, and anxiety-ridden discourses around race’s intersections with teaching and learning. Those of us who teach about race and racism need this book on our shelves.’
Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf), Grand View University
Cyndi Kernahan is a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls, where she is also the assistant dean for teaching and learning in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her research and writing are focused primarily on teaching and learning, including the teaching of race, inclusive pedagogy, and student success.
Why Is It So Hard?
Several years ago, I was walking around campus with a good friend, lamenting how difficult the beginning of the semester can be. I was teaching my favorite course: the psychology of prejudice and racism, but many of the students were still in the very early stages of understanding. I was feeling a little frustrated and I told my friend that I was missing the students from the previous semester. The class had gone so well. I felt like we were really getting somewhere by the time it ended. Now, here I was, starting over again. He looked over at me and said, “it seems to me that you have to think of it like this: every semester you are taking a sledgehammer to a brand-new brick wall . . .” No, I thought, my teaching is not like using a sledgehammer! And I certainly do not think of my students as a brick wall. Not at all. But he was certainly right that every semester is a new opportunity. Each one presents us with a chance to chip away at student understanding and to bring our students along into new ways of thinking; seeing problems, questions, texts, and examples in the ways that we do. Whatever your discipline, you have a way of thinking, a set of content knowledge, and a set of skills that you are hoping to impart to your students. You are reaching across the gap, from expert to novice, and hoping that your students will become excited and engaged as they begin to see your area of expertise in new and more complex ways.
If your teaching includes teaching about race and racism, those new ways of seeing take on added layers of emotional and cognitive complexity. Most students, just like everyone else, have pre-existing attitudes and feelings about race. They know what race means to them and they have an understanding of racism informed not only by the larger media, but also by their values, life experiences, and political beliefs. Because of students’ pre-existing attitudes and feelings, teaching about race can be different from teaching about many other topics. Our beliefs and attitudes about race carry emotion and they are tied in to how we see ourselves morally and politically. In short, we have a lot to navigate as instructors. We are adding a scholarly understanding to something that is already personally meaningful and essential to a student’s identity. Adding a new understanding, one that might potentially challenge or change that identity, is not a simple thing. It can threaten how students see themselves and how they fit into their families, their friend groups, and their communities.
Just to raise the stakes even more, we are living in a time of heightened racial tension in the United States overall. Since 2015, the share of Americans who believe that “race relations are generally bad” has outnumbered those believing that “race relations are generally good,” reaching a new high of 72 percent in 2017 (Gallup, 2017). Incidents of racial tension and harassment on college campuses have received widespread attention and instructors have found themselves at the center of race-based controversies as their comments (both on social media and in the classroom) are scrutinized and critiqued. Several instructors have been relieved of their teaching duties and some have lost their positions entirely.
It is in this environment of heightened scrutiny and tension that we walk into our classrooms, hoping to help our students understand race more clearly. However, as we will see in Chapter 1, there are substantial gaps between how we as instructors and experts understand race and the attitudes of many Americans, including our students. To give just one example, as I write this, a controversy has been swirling in the news about the causes of the U.S. Civil War. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has argued publicly that the war was a failure of compromise, resulting because “honorable” people on both sides were unable to reach consensus (Astor, 2017). In the days that have followed this statement, historians and experts of the Civil War have challenged these assertions and pointed to the numerous compromises that were made in the lead up to the war. Furthermore, as historian and writer Jelani Cobb (2017) noted, White supremacy as a motivator for all kinds of policy decisions in American history has been consistently downplayed and denied resulting in an American public that has much less understanding of the role of racism in American history than is shown by the evidence.
In this atmosphere, where expert understanding differs from the public understanding and where those in power perpetuate falsehoods around race, some instructors may find it easier to avoid race as a topic altogether. A few years ago, at one of those “beginning of the semester” faculty parties that crowd the week before classes, a professor of English told me that she was “done” with her Ethnic Film and Literature Course. At the time I was the coordinator of the Ethnic Studies program and I was hoping to get her course back into our offerings. She, however, let me know that there was no way that was going to happen. When I asked her why, she laughed and said it felt “impossible” to her. She talked about the resistance she faced from her mostly White students when she tried to get them to take seriously the themes of racism and discrimination that came up through the films and books the class discussed. She loved these films and books and wanted her students to begin to appreciate them as well, but the emotional toll was just too much. As someone who thought of herself as a caring and compassionate teacher, the discord and rancor were just too jarring and upsetting for her. She wanted a more positive teaching experience.
If you teach about racism, either as the main topic of a course or as a part of the course, you likely know how this instructor was feeling. And she isn’t alone. Many teachers over the years have told me how they simply avoid “that part” of the course, the part regarding race and racism, or how they have “given up” on trying to convince their students (typically mostly White) that racism exists. As a first-year teacher of the psychology of prejudice and racism I found myself facing the same obstacles. I was mystified and shocked. How could they not see racism? Why did they question every piece of information I gave to them? Research supports that this kind of teaching is indeed difficult and that lower teaching evaluations and greater emotional turmoil can result, particularly for instructors of color (Boatright-Horowitz and Soeung, 2009; Sue, Rivera, Watkins, Kim, Kim, and Williams, 2011).
In response to these challenges, some instructors take a different approach. Rather than distancing themselves from race and racism in the classroom, these teachers become confrontational and sometimes even righteous in their work. Jane Elliott, the former 3rd grade teacher from Riceville, IA who created the “blue eyes-brown eyes” exercise and eventually become a nationally known diversity trainer is perhaps the best-known example of this style of teaching. After teaching 3rd graders, Elliott adapted her original methods of teaching children to teaching adults in corporate settings, giving workshops across the country. These workshops typically involved insults and anger directed at those who were arbitrarily (based on eye color and usually White) assigned to the low-power group. The point was to help these White people understand what it feels like to be a person of color, to feel the sting of oppression. Research, however, has shown that this program was largely ineffective in changing racial attitudes and may have created so much stress in the participants that they simply avoided learning more about race after the training (Wilson, 2011). Indeed, other work has typically shown that making participants feel blamed or guilty only leads to backlash, not learning or attitude change (Moss-Racusin, van der Toorn, Dovidio, Brescoll, Graham, Handelsman, 2014).
This book is about teaching race and racism in a way that is not blaming or shaming, that is compassionate, but that is also relentlessly honest about the realities of racism and White supremacy in the United States. I believe that, at least in the classroom, we can confront the realities of racism without being confrontational. I also believe that we have to take care of ourselves and our students in ways that help us to avoid burning out and turning away from teaching about race altogether. Finding this path involves having a better understanding of what we are doing and the methods and mindsets that can help us do it. Using psychology, sociology, history, and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) across disciplines, I believe that I have found some of these methods and mindsets and will share them here. My goal is to both explain the evidence and translate it into strategies and ideas you can use in your own teaching. I will start with a focus on how we, as instructors, differ from our students in terms of our knowledge about race (Chapter 1), why students resist learning (Chapter 2), and understanding how to care for ourselves better (Chapter 3). The final three chapters of the book focus on creating a strong sense of belonging (Chapter 4), setting realistic expectations for learning (Chapter 5), and thinking through content choices (Chapter 6). Before digging in, I want to describe and elaborate on a theme that has come up repeatedly, and in different ways, as I have taught about racism myself and as I have researched this book: acceptance.
The Importance of Acceptance
Accept That Learning is Not a Linear Process
Diane Fallon, an English professor who includes race in her courses, refers to learning about race as “metastable.” In describing her students, she says: “they truly are striving for complexity, but then revert to another position that feels more comfortably aligned with, or less challenging to, the value system and past experiences that they’ve brought with them to the classroom” (2006, p. 413). In my own teaching, I have seen this every semester. Just when I think everyone is starting to get the concept of institutional racism, for example, someone will make a comment or interpret a course reading in a way that tells me that they do not understand and cannot apply it to new examples. In some ways, this shouldn’t be surprising. All learning appears to work in this way (Ambrose, Bridges, Lovett, DiPietro, & Norman, 2010). Moving from an understanding of race that is relatively simplistic toward one that is more complex is an emotional and cognitive challenge (much more on this in Chapter 2) and so it is understandable that our student’s learning will take time and that they may slip back into older, more familiar places along the way.
Accept Students, Even as They Resist Learning
In many ways, the relationship we have with our students is just as important as the content we are trying to teach. Learning is difficult and resistance to learning is a natural and normal part of the process (Brookfield, 2015). As an instructor, it is easy to feel frustration and sadness toward our students, particularly as we watch them revert to earlier understandings or reject the content. It is tempting, when this happens, to become focused on their resistance in a way that undermines our class atmosphere. We may become angry, sarcastic, or controlling, using our power as instructors to try and force learning. Or we may become passive and withdrawing, focused more on avoiding upset than teaching. In the chapters to come, I will focus in on student resistance and instructor frustration, including steps we can take to better understand and predict our student’s resistance while also protecting ourselves. For now, though, I will just say that I believe it helps to be as accepting as possible of the reality of learning. The process is going to be messy and meandering. It may feel good (at least temporarily) to try and force understanding and to be in control, but for students to learn they have to be the ones doing the work (Howard, 2015). Accepting and allowing this messy back-and-forth is not always easy, but with some thought and intention, we can create classrooms that make space for this process.
Accept That Our Job is Not to Compel Attitude Change
Many of us who teach about race do so because we care deeply about making the world better. As my colleague Christina Berchini put it in a recent interview, “I think part of that [her own teaching work] is inspired by a desperate desire to live in a better world for all people” (Lindquist, 2017). Many of us probably feel this way. We understand race in a way that many others do not, and we want everyone to see how racism works and to understand the enormous and unnecessary toll it takes. We can even see this with our own students. If you teach a course on race, I would guess that you have had at least one student tell you that he or she thinks all students should have to take your class, that everyone should be required to learn more about race. Having learned more about something that causes so much pain and so many problems, we want to share our understanding in the hopes of making change. In doing so as instructors, though, we have to be careful to remember our role. If we are trying to compel students to change their attitudes or behavior, we are not really accepting them where they are. Our message may be the same, we still may be presenting content we know to be true, but coercing is not the same as teaching. Teaching allows students to feel in control of their own learning (a key to motivation) and communicates that we care about them and not just about getting them to see things as we do.
To clarify this point further, it might help to contrast our teaching with other kinds of training. As educators, our course outcomes typically involve students demonstrating some understanding of content and then recalling and applying that content in some way. This is not the same as changing how they treat other people, how they vote, where they choose to live, or what policies they support. These kinds of complex behaviors are usually beyond the scope of our courses and though such behaviors can certainly be influenced by content knowledge, the relationship between understanding or knowledge and behavior is fuzzy and complicated by multiple factors. To put it another way, teaching about race is not the same thing as diversity training for employees. They are not unrelated, and, at times, I will use evidence from the training literature to inform my writing here, but such training is usually about compelling some employees to behave better and behavior change requires more than just awareness or knowledge. As research has shown, effective diversity training often includes structures for accountability and significant policy changes (Dobbin & Kalev, 2013). We can see this in the recent moves made by Starbucks in the wake of a high-profile incidence of racial profiling at one of their stores near Philadelphia (Starbucks, 2018). In their subsequent nationwide store trainings, Starbucks incorporated both employee awareness and policy changes to try and get their workers not only to understand racial bias but to behave differently as they followed new, and presumably fairer, store policies.
What This Book Is About
If you are someone who teaches or is considering teaching about race and racism, this book is meant to help you do that. My focus will primarily be in how to teach rather in what to teach. That is, I am assuming that if you have the ability to teach about race you already have a strong understanding of race and racism, particularly from your own disciplinary perspective. Concepts such as institutional racism, colorblindness, and racial privilege, to name just a few, will be referenced and defined briefly, but not described or discussed in detail. Instead, I will devote space to the teaching of race and to the difficulties such teaching presents. To be sure, I will provide citations and references throughout the book to excellent resources that could be used to learn more about race and racism, but the main focus will be on teaching and on how to support you as an instructor as you do this difficult work.
That said, and despite not focusing heavily on course content, I will focus in on the gaps in content knowledge and understanding that I believe are part of what make our teaching so difficult. Like many subject areas, there is often a wide gap between how experts view things and how novices view things (much more on this in Chapter 1). I note this because I think that seeing this gap and focusing energy around trying to help students cross it is particularly helpful. When it comes to race, many Americans, including many of our students, have an understanding of race that is primarily rooted in their own personal experience. This idea manifests in a couple of assumptions: 1) the idea that racism is about individual bad behavior or unkindness (i.e., things I can see happening) and 2) the parallel belief that racism is something “good” people avoid so that only “bad” people are racist. This is very easy to see in our everyday language. For example, note the conversation that happens around shootings of unarmed Black men as some reporters and commentators ask repeatedly, “Was the shooter a racist?”, “Did you see him behaving in a racist way toward people of color?” The assumption seems to be that knowing the answer to this question (was he a racist?) will provide an answer as to how this event happened. If the person was “good” and not a racist, then there must be some other explanation. If they were “bad” and racist, then we can attribute the incident simply to that person’s prejudice. If it is just about one person, then our society will not have to contend with the larger currents of racism and White supremacy that underlie such incidents. We will not have to consider solutions beyond just getting rid of those few “bad apples.”
Most experts know that race is more complicated than just individual racial prejudice. We know that we all hold racial biases, even if unintentionally, because of our racially biased environments and institutions. We see the bad barrels in addition to, or instead of, just the bad apples. We also understand the embedded and sometimes unseen nature of race and how racism plays a part in our culture, our institutions, our laws, our policies, and our norms. Finally, we can (sometimes) more easily see and understand our own racial biases, knowing that they are a part of our own socialization into a larger system. Understanding all of this means that we understand a lot of important content: content that enriches and expands our perspectives because it moves us beyond just our own individual and personal experiences. I trust that you know this foundational content and my goal is to help you teach in a way that helps you help your own students. In the pages that follow, I focus less on what that content should be and more on how to effectively help students grapple with it so that they can begin to develop their own more complicated and nuanced perspectives on race.
Finally, I want to make a distinction between teaching about race and teaching in a way that is inclusive across race. Inclusive pedagogy or inclusive teaching involves being attentive to the identities of our students and deliberately creating classrooms that are welcoming and allow equal access to learning across those identities (Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, 2016). Such teaching is, of course, imperative for students marginalized by race and important for all students. It can sound obvious, but it is remarkable how often inclusive teaching is not part of the conversation on teaching and not something that is focused on in terms of improving student retention and success (Gannon, 2018). In this book, my focus is on teaching about race rather than on inclusive teaching per se, but I do include ideas that are a part of inclusive teaching. The latter half of the book is concentrated on strategies for increasing feelings of belonging, setting expectations, and using content in ways that help students feel included. One example of inclusive teaching that is a part of the book concerns the distinctions between how White students and students of color are likely to experience our classrooms. In making such distinctions, I try to be aware of and sensitive to the different lived realities that students of color bring to our classrooms and the ways that this difference can influence the learning and experience of these students, particularly with a White instructor and White classmates. That said, however, this book is not primarily a book on inclusive teaching or inclusive pedagogy. Instead, it is more about race and racism and how to teach these topics effectively and with compassion for the student experience.
My Own Perspective
Finally, it is important to be upfront about who I am and the experiences and education that inform my writing. I am a social psychologist and my work in recent years has been primarily the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). I draw from both the social psychological literature and the SoTL literature to inform my teaching practice. Both have been invaluable in developing the larger philosophy of teaching about race that I share with you here. I am also a White, straight, female instructor who teaches primarily White students at a small public university in the Midwest. And while a lot of faculty are similar to me, especially in terms of race (e.g., 76 percent of all college instructors are White according to 2016 data from National Center for Education Statistics, McFarland et al., 2018), I also understand that my experience is limited. As a White person, I do not have the visceral and lived experience of racism that my colleagues and students of color have. There are other limitations too: the size of my classes (30 or fewer mostly), the Whiteness of my students (86 percent at UW River Falls), and the relatively conservative politics of my campus.
In trying to get outside my own narrow perspective, I have taken several approaches. First, I have tried to learn more about the experiences of my colleagues of color and will include them throughout the book where possible. In addition to individual experiences, I have gathered research on the experiences of teaching about race as an instructor of color and I share that work here. Given the reality of racism in the United States, teaching in general and teaching about race in particular are different for people of color than for White people and I try to be clear about that throughout the book. I hope that the perspectives, evidence, and information I provide will be of use to all instructors, but I am aware that my own perspective is limited.
To get outside my own classroom, I also frequently give presentations on race and bias to larger groups of students, faculty, and community members. Some of these presentations have occurred on my own campus, but most have not. These talks have allowed me to work with larger and more heterogeneous audiences, thus expanding my understanding and further testing my ideas. In doing this, I not only get to experience the responses and reactions of people who are not my own students, but I also get to meet other people who are doing the kinds of teaching I am doing and to hear about the challenges they face. One recent example of this for me was discussing the teaching of racism with a colleague from a much smaller, more politically liberal campus on the west coast. For her, resistance to learning about race comes in ways that are very different from mine. Rather than resisting the realities of institutional racism, her students often resist her measured and evidence-based approach. They want her to be more of an activist, less of a teacher. By reaching out to others who teach about race or reading about their experiences, I have tried to broaden my understanding of the challenges we face and the ways in which we can use evidence to meet such challenges.
Finally, I am deeply committed to understanding the teaching process generally and to using good evidence and theory to inform and improve that process. As a part-time faculty developer, I have the privilege of working with instructors from across disciplines and on a variety of teaching issues. This work has helped me to read more widely in the teaching and SoTL literatures and confirmed my belief that through research and the gathering of evidence about teaching, we can improve and learn from one another. In this book I will try to share what I know in the hope that it will help you along the way.
 In APA Style “White” and “Black” are capitalized as group names. I will capitalize them throughout as well, both because I use APA Style and because I feel capitalization honors how we use these words.
Introduction: Why Is It So Hard?
1. Naïve Understandings: How We Differ from Our Students
2. Struggling Students: How and Why Resistance Happens
3. Getting Yourself Together: Developing a Secure Teacher Identity
4. Belonging in the Classroom: Creating Moments of Positivity and Connection
5. Expectations: From Ground Rules to Growth Mindsets
6. Course Content: Problems and Solutions
Conclusion and Summary of Ideas
Appendix: Suggested Reading for Historical Understanding
Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom
By Kelly A. Hogan and Viji Sathy
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