‘Teaching About Race and Racism in the College Classroom’

A white professor offers her views.

November 12, 2019
 

Teaching about race challenges many American professors. They may get questioned or ridiculed -- in class or on social media. A new book -- Teaching About Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes From a White Professor (West Virginia University Press) -- offers help. The author is Cyndi Kernahan, 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.

She responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: You note in your book that you are a white woman teaching at an overwhelmingly white university. How do these facts shape your perspective?

A: Even though most of the United States is quite segregated by race, and most white people, especially, have limited interactions with people of color, my students are especially unlikely to have had much experience with diversity. This means I need to work harder to help them think about how their perspectives may be limited and also how we got to the particular environment we inhabit. We spend a fair bit of time in my courses looking at how segregation happened and keeps happening (the policies that created and perpetuate it). I try to help them think critically about why our town and part of the country looks like it does. There is a tendency to think that these things “just are” or are all about personal choices, but personal choices are really constrained by the situation and the society we live in, and so I look for lots of ways to share that and bring it up in discussion.

The whiteness of my campus and classes also means that I want to be especially thoughtful about the experiences of students of color in my courses. I typically email students that I can identify as being students of color early in the semester to assure them that they do not need to feel as though they are representing their racial group and that they can share or not share their experiences however they choose. I also tell them that while I may know a lot, in a scholarly way, about race and racism, I do not have the lived experience that they may have. I like to acknowledge that difference and make it clear that I respect their experiences.

Q: You stress the importance of understanding that professors differ from students. How is this a factor in teaching about race and racism?

A: Because race and racism are not taught a lot or even particularly well in K-12 settings, it is often the case that students have very little knowledge of our racial history or the policies (past and present) that shape our lives and institutions. In addition, most white parents do not talk to their children about race and racism, leaving a lot of blank space and some anxiety around discussing the topic. For me what this means is that I need to fill in those gaps and also work to make sure students know that they are not alone in not knowing a lot about race and racism. One of the most common responses in my courses is “no one ever told me that” or “why didn’t I know this?” I like to use a lot of discussion in teaching, partly because it helps students to see that they are not alone in their lack of understanding, thus creating a nice camaraderie and openness to learning.

This gap between our students and ourselves also means it is important to try and gently establish my credibility, being clear about how I know what I know and how my training has informed my work. In many other content areas, this is often a given (students trust that their instructors are trained to teach the content), but race and racism are so politicized that there can be an assumption it is all just opinion rather than a scholarly field.

One important difficulty here is for instructors of color, especially women. Research shows that instructors of color are much more likely to be challenged on their credibility and subjected to critiques and disrespect in the classroom. This makes establishing credibility even more difficult and even more important.

Q: You talk about the backlash that some professors receive for teaching about race. What is your advice for dealing with that backlash?

A: The best scenario for this is to ensure that your department and administration are supportive and willing to understand the difficulties in teaching this content. Departmental colleagues, chairs, deans and provosts all need to understand how teaching about race can lower student teaching evaluations so that they can take this into account when evaluating their colleagues (especially colleagues of color).

More holistic evaluations of all teaching are important, but especially for these kinds of courses. We often discuss how someone teaching math or statistics or chemistry may have lowered teaching evaluations, but we forget to extend this same understanding to courses that are emotionally challenging for students.

Q: What is a "secure teaching identity" and why is it important to have one?

A: What I mean by this phrase is that when we teach about race, it is easy to feel really vulnerable for a variety of reasons (emotionally challenging content, resistant students, concern about teaching evaluations, etc.) and so we should do all we can to take care of ourselves and put ourselves in the best possible place for doing this work. Specifically, I think this means being clear with yourself about how hard it is to do this work, taking steps to protect your emotional energy so that you have more space for your students and just generally practicing good self-care (sleep, setting boundaries, eating well, etc.).

As a concrete example, I try to avoid reading really upsetting news items or comments sections when I know that I also need to read my students’ comments in reaction to course material. If I know that some students are likely to respond in ways that are challenging (uninformed, resistant), I do not want to use up my patience and energy on those other things (news, etc.). I want to be as available and patient as possible for my students so that I can respond in smart ways and in ways that help them think more critically. I cannot do that if I am already upset.

Q: Some commentators describe teaching about race and racism as a political tactic by the left. How would you respond?

A: I do not teach as a way to advance any political agenda, but rather to illuminate how we work as people and how we can do things that are both terrible (slavery) and wonderful (overcoming prejudice to work together). If we truly want students to be open to a variety of difficult ideas (a talking point that seems to be very much in the news these days), then learning about race and racism seems like an excellent venue for that. I believe in the use of strong evidence in teaching, and I always welcome new viewpoints based on strong evidence as a way to learn more. This is something I try to model for students as I teach.

I also think that truly understanding American racial history and how racism works psychologically can ultimately make students more excited about a variety of things that many Americans say they care about: more civic engagement, greater patriotism, greater understanding across racial lines.

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