Teaching about Race and Racism
Teaching about race and racism feels urgent to many faculty members right now, given continued incidents of race-based violence, unequal access to resources, heightened racial tensions, and polarized racial rhetoric. Historical and systemic racism have affected the U.S. and our campus, and the legacies of injustice, discrimination, bias, marginalization, and oppression still affect our community and our students’ learning.
By teaching about race and racism, we help students to make sense of and affect the world they’re living in. We fulfill Elon’s mission to foster respect for human differences and “prepare students to be global citizens and informed leaders motivated by concern for the common good.” In 2020, Vice President and Associate Provost Randy Williams called on faculty to “infuse anti-racist content and pedagogy throughout the curriculum,” and President Connie Book conveyed her hope that students in all majors “take courses that drive deeper understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Yet teaching about race can be challenging. There is “ample room for error and misunderstanding,” as Brielle Hardin and her colleagues observed. Instructors may worry about which content to focus on, how it will be received by students, and the stress of engaging in hard but important topics. One colleague described it as having to “put on battle armor before going into class” – armor that after a number of discouraging semesters, did not prevent that instructor from feeling “very broken.” Despite acknowledging hard experiences, another colleague reported that teaching about race “feels like it is the most important work I do, and is often highly valued by my students.”
There is no one formula for teaching effectively about race and racism, but we can consult research about teaching and learning, listen to and learn from the experiences of our colleagues, and start by asking ourselves some fundamental questions.
What exactly do we want to teach?
Good course design always begins with a clear sense of our goals for what students will learn.
Content about race and racism often aligns well with instructors’ disciplinary goals related to analyzing, applying theories and concepts, taking different perspectives, and dealing with complexity. Skills-based goals may be related to students’ intercultural competence, dialogue, reflection, conducting research, and communicating ideas.
Specific race-related content looks different in different fields. For example,
- A Marketing or Strategic Communications course might look at examples of companies that respectfully worked with different racial communities as well as cases of harmful or disastrous interactions.
- Biology courses may teach how race is different from species or how inaccurate assumptions about genetic differences between people have fueled racist beliefs.
- Political Science courses might study the experiences of Black or African American people in the criminal justice system or successful examples of racial communities organizing for change.
In some courses it may seem difficult to infuse content about race into one or more learning goals, but students in any major benefit from knowledge about how race has affected their field or discipline in the past, current conversations about race in the field, professional ethics related to race and other aspects of culture and identity, and what an inclusive and fair workplace looks like.
Such knowledge might motivate students thanks to its relevance, increase students’ chances for future success, help students develop their identities, or affect change in workplaces or communities.
Whatever our specific goals, students need to understand our goals and why they are important to our course, our discipline/field, and us as instructors.
What else makes for good learning goals?
Our goals should be realistic, fair, and assessable.
- Sometimes in courses dealing with about race, especially ones where the content might challenge some student preconceptions, faculty can be overly optimistic about the amount of learning and change that can occur in just one semester. Deep learning takes time. Students may waver in their understanding, sometimes grasping a concept but then regressing (Kernahan, 49).
- Some goals are more difficult to assess. Increasing students’ empathy sounds like an excellent goal, but it may be hard to determine what evidence would demonstrate that growth. A more realistic goal might be for students to understand certain peoples’ experiences or perspectives, since a student’s ability to describe and summarize them is observable, while also being a step toward building empathy.
- Occasionally we might need to consider whether some goals are appropriate. As Cyndi Kernahan points out in her book Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom, it’s not reasonable to expect students to adopt their instructor’s attitudes, values, or behaviors, and not fair to grade them on the degree to which they do. She puts it bluntly (on p. 8): “Coercing is not the same as teaching.”
How can my materials reinforce my goals?
Our choice of materials has enormous influence on what students learn both inside and outside of class time. Readings, cases, data sets, sources, films, podcasts, examples, etc. should be chosen to meet our learning goals, of course, and be accessible for our students.
When teaching about diversity and inclusion, Lee Ann Bell and her colleagues encourage instructors to ask themselves:
- Whose experiences do the materials focus on?
- Whose perspectives are included? Whose perspectives aren’t included, and what can be done about that?
- Who are the authors/creators of the work?
- What is the racial identity of the experts whose ideas we ask students to encounter?
- Are we avoiding materials that stereotype, tokenize, or oversimplify?
How will students respond to the content?
Students come to our courses for different reasons and with different goals. Individual students will experience and react to our content differently – based in part on their prior knowledge and assumptions, experiences, backgrounds, attitudes, and identities.
Many students will be interested in and hungry for content about race and racism.
- They may want to gain information, be exposed to new concepts and theories, consider their identities, or gain insights into what’s going on in the world, their field, or institutions and communities they’re a part of.
- Some may be looking for strategies for negotiating struggles or institutional racism, understanding intercultural interactions, or building meaningful and respectful relationships in a diverse world.
Some students may be hesitant or nervous about studying or discussing content about race, especially if it is in a required course.
Occasionally, some students might exhibit resistance.
- Often the resistance may be passive, such as avoiding participation or eye contact, not attending class, or only superficially preparing (Kernahan, 198).
- Sometimes resistance might manifest in more active ways by diverting discussion away from race, questioning or denying the value of the material, or exhibiting hostility toward the instructor or other students. In Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence, Derald Wing Sue describes common rhetorical moves used by white students to avoid or undermine conversations about race, and the ways students of color feel about those classroom experiences.
- In extreme cases, resistant students might send critical emails to instructors or even their department chairs. Faculty of color, especially women, may find that some students question their credentials or authority (Stanley). This same resistance may show up explicitly or in coded comments on end-of-semester evaluations.
While it is more likely that students who identify as white will exhibit resistance, some students of color may also exhibit some reluctance or resistance.
Resistance from individual students can be distressing, undermine instructor confidence, and distract from the positive engagement and learning that other students are exhibiting.
What can be done about resistance?
- Instructors who take on the challenges of effectively teaching about race deserve institutional support from their chairs, deans, and members of faculty evaluation committees.
- Connect with a support network of other faculty who understand the challenges about race and who can brainstorm strategies. Don’t hesitate to include CATL in your efforts!
- Understand the possible reasons for student resistance. Kernahan suggests this is the first step toward considering the most effective ways to meet one’s content goals. Explore more about the reasons for student resistance.
- Don’t abandon worthwhile learning goals just because some students are resistant.
Understanding students’ concerns, assumptions, and misunderstandings is a first step toward designing an effective unit. It equips us to meet students where they are starting. With that knowledge, we can create scaffolded lesson plans that will help them grow. (See, for example, Middendorf et al. for a specific example).
- Don’t worry disproportionately about the comfort of a few vocal resisters.
While it’s sensible to be prepared for resistance, we should not lose sight of the other students, including and especially the students of color. Kernahan encourages faculty to be sensitive to how students of color may be experiencing the classroom, especially on a predominantly white campus, and to find ways to privately check in and affirm their previous experiences with racism.
Elon Professor Practices: Amy Johnson (History)
Amy Johnson, former Elon History professor and Executive Director of the Core Curriculum, did just that. When, for example, she has taught sections of COR 110 where there were only one or two Black or Brown students, she invited them into “more off-channel conversations” over email or outside of class where they could debrief or discuss things they didn’t feel comfortable raising during class.
At one point in her career, Johnson realized that many of her class preparation assignments implicitly anticipated and assumed student resistance. Wary of inviting resistance, the assignments didn’t ask students to consider their own opinions. After that realization, she revised assignments so that while they build from the tasks of summary and analysis of arguments and evidence, they also ask students to reflect on how they connect to, see themselves, or reacted to the readings. The result has been richer and more nuanced discussions. Encouraging student reflective practice is consistent with one of the top recommendations for teaching about race from Vanderbilt Center for Teaching.
Johnson also explained she chose not to assume the worst, but instead to approach the course with some optimism – after all, students are coming to college to learn and most are open to new ideas. She recalls one semester when she had reason to worry that she might encounter resistance from a specific student, who instead turned out to be very interested in learning about structural racism, positively engaged in class discussions, and visited her during office hours. She described theirs as a “wonderful relationship.”
What strategies increase the likelihood that students engage positively with the content?
Georgetown’s Inclusive Pedagogy Toolkit cites research that shows that students who feel their identities are respected and welcomed in the classroom are more likely to participate and feel more deeply invested in the work. Beverly Daniel Tatum observed that although different from one another, students have a common need: “At the fundamental core of each young person’s [identity development] is a desire for affirmation.”
We can reach out at or before the beginning of the semester to learn about our students as human beings and the concerns and assets they bring to our course. In addition, prior knowledge assessments help us identify conceptual misunderstandings or affective roadblocks that might require some extra or extra-savvy teaching strategies.
- Make intentional efforts to build and maintain a classroom climate where students get to know and trust one another.
- Develop strategies in case microaggressions or difficult moments arise.
It’s best to proactively construct an environment where all students feel they can respectfully explore ideas, take intellectual risks, and have their perspectives challenged without fear of being personally attacked, but we should be prepared in case there’s a moment when our students don’t meet our expectations for positive class participation. We should never excuse or ignore uncivil or racist behavior.
- Lessen tension by framing discussions about race as opportunities for learning, where it’s natural for participants to make mistakes.
According to psychologist Claude Steele, “People have to trust that, despite the relevance of a bad stereotype about their group, they won’t be judged by it, that their goodness as human beings will be seen. When interactions between people from different backgrounds have learning from each other as a goal, it eases the potential tension between them, giving missteps less significance. Trust is fostered (p.209).” Other authors agree that faculty should remind students that some discomfort and difficulty are normal in learning.
- Make efforts to connect with students to build instructor-student rapport.
Students are most positive about courses when they view their instructor as knowledgeable, passionate about the course content, and interested in the students and their learning. While faculty identities can affect student perceptions in varying ways, Cavanagh suggests it’s valuable for all instructors to exhibit behaviors that help students see us as approachable and as committed to fairness and inclusion.
Facilitating the learning of students who have different and complex identities and who have different understandings of race can be a balancing act. So is teaching about race and racism in a way that is (in Kernahan’s words) “compassionate but also relentlessly honest about the realities of racism and White supremacy in the United States (p.5).” Nonetheless, research suggests the strategies described increase the likelihood of success. Madva encourages faculty to adopt an “experimental mindset” to test out the strategies, see how they go, and then revise or go back to the drawing board if necessary.
Our effective teaching about structural and institutional racism won’t end it, but greater societal understanding of how it has manifested in all our fields is a precondition for change. As Madva puts it (p. 260), “Everyone can contribute, and contribute we must if meaningful, lasting change is going to come.”
Do you want to think more about teaching about race and racism? Considering starting with Kernahan’s book, check out the resources below, and/or join one of the many ongoing conversations across campus.
Works Cited & Resources
Maurianne Adams, “Pedagogical Foundations for Social Justice Education,” chapter 2 in Adams et al., Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, 3rd edition (Routledge, 2016).
Lee Anne Bell, Diane J. Goodman, and Mathew Ouellett, “Design and Facilitation,” chapter 3 in Maurianne Adams and Lee Anne Bell, with Diane J. Goodman and Khyati Y. Joshi, Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice.
Sarah Rose Cavanagh, The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion (West Virginia University Press, 2016), especially chapter 3.
Diane J. Goodman, “Can You Love Them Enough to Help Them Learn?: Reflections of a Social Justice Educator on Addressing Resistance from White Students to Anti-Racism Education,” Understanding and Dismantling Privilege V, no. 1 (Feb 2015).
Georgetown University Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, Inclusive Pedagogy Toolkit.
M. Brielle Harbin, Joe Bandy, and Amie Thurber, “Teaching Race, Racism, and Racial Justice: Pedagogical Principles and Classroom Strategies for Course Instructors,” Race and Pedagogy Journal 4, no. 1 (2019), 19. See also these authors’ suggestions on Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching page, “Teaching Race: Pedagogy and Practice.”
Priya Kandaswamy, “Beyond Colorblindness and Multiculturalism: Rethinking Anti-Racist Pedagogy in the University Classroom,” Radical Teacher 80 (Winter 2007): 6-11, 48.
Cyndi Kernahan, Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor (West Virginia Press, 2019).
Alex Madva, “Individual and Structural Interventions,” in Erin Beeghly and Alex Madva, eds., An Introduction to Implicit Bias: Knowledge, Justice and the Social Mind (Routledge, 2020).
Joan Middendorf, et al., “What’s Feeling Got to Do with It? Decoding Emotional Bottlenecks in the History Classroom,” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 14, no. 2 (2015).
Christine A. Stanley, ed., Faculty of Color: Teaching in Predominantly White Colleges and Universities (Anker, 2006).
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi; How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Norton, 2010).
Derald Wing Sue, Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race (Wiley, 2015).
University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, “Reflecting on Your Practice: Inclusive Teaching in In-Person, Remote, and Hybrid Teaching.”