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Learning to Talk Race in the Classroom

It may be difficult, but we have to.

September 17, 2015

By now, most of us recognize race as central to just about every field of social and humanistic inquiry. We know there’s a broad and growing field of scholarship on contemporary and historical conceptions of race, and plenty of public scholars eager to put those resources to work for us in our classrooms (e.g., the #FergusonSyllabus, the #CharlestonSyllabus, and many more). Plenty of us follow those scholars on Twitter and read online about race in the academy, including the voices of those calling for more race-talk in the classroom (here, here, and here).


But when the rubber hits the road, many of us still end up swerving away from extended discussions of race in our classrooms. Such has been my experience as both a graduate student and a nervous first-time graduate instructor, and I’ve heard this observation echoed by many friends who teach.


It’s no wonder we’re tempted to steer clear of a subject that feels like an emotional and intellectual minefield. For white and non-white instructors alike, the risks of initiating race-talk in mixed company seem high, and the rewards dubious. Of course, the risks are distributed differently. Non-white academics find themselves continually called on to defend their interest in race, and to reassure their white students. As for white instructors, when it comes to race, many of us don’t trust ourselves, or each other, to say the right things. Perversely, our ignorance makes it easy to justify passing over a subject in which we conveniently lack expertise. We forgive ourselves by resorting to Wittgenstein’s famous dictum: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Such epistemological humility is rarely invoked in discussions of how Hobbes’s views were shaped by the English Civil War.


On top of these anxieties, every instructor worries about the conversation slipping beyond our control: What if someone says the word “Negro”? What if someone walks out? What if a disgruntled student makes us the target of a national right-wing press blitz? (These things happen. And universities do need to figure out how to stand up for scholars who come under attack.)


The biggest risk we face, though, is the risk of continuing to avoid a subject that calls out for our attention. If there’s one thing we learned from Dylann Roof’s manifesto, it’s that racial awareness isn’t just a black thing. It inhabits all of us, and it deserves our sustained scholarly attention. Of all the things our students learn from us, the most important one is how to think about the topics that matter most to them. We owe it to them to make our classrooms a place for thinking out loud about race.


That doesn’t change the fact that many of us have never seen it done before. How do we find the gumption, not to mention the scholarly grounding, to lead sophisticated and productive in-class conversations about race as it relates to the subjects we teach? If we’re going to figure this out, we’re going to have to teach ourselves, and each other, how it’s done.


Last year, while preparing the syllabus for my first stand-alone course, I decided to take a stab at it. My initial attempt was a clumsy one: in teaching Mary Wollstonecraft, I set out to highlight the women she wasn’t talking about, only to find that my students had trouble seeing what wasn’t on the page, and I had trouble showing them. Later that week, as I listened to a colleague at a staff meeting lay out her approach to Tocqueville, I was inspired to try again. Following her cue, I decided to revise my syllabus to add a chapter from Democracy in America on “The Three Races that Inhabit the American Continent.” This required dropping another of Tocqueville’s chapters, and explaining to my students why I was making the change.


And you know what? The students dug it. They did the reading carefully and well, wrote excellent meditations on the text, and came to class full of questions for each other. Together, we rooted out the racial assumptions undergirding Tocqueville’s description of American society and his dire predictions for its future. We compared Tocqueville’s concept of race to our own, and thought about its implications for democratic societies in his day and ours. I’m no expert on antebellum America, and I don’t know what it felt like to be Tocqueville, but I can analyze a text and interrogate its racial discourses, and now so can my students.


The colleague who inspired me to revise my syllabus is Ainsley Lesure, a black political theorist who studies race and racism. I’m a white historian who lacks her scholarly background. I needed her example to help me understand that I, a white person at the head of a classroom, had something valuable to teach my students about race.


The 2014-2015 academic year began in the wake of Michael Brown’s death on a suburban street outside St. Louis, and reached its violent climax in April with the death of Freddie Gray in a Baltimore police van. This summer, for the first time in a generation, the killings of black Americans have been met with major protests across the country. Interstates have been blocked, traffic brought to a standstill, Confederate flags brought down. Our national consciousness has been transformed. Perhaps it’s time to take another look at our syllabi.

How do you talk about race in the classroom? What challenges do you face, and what strategies do you use? What strategies do you use when talking about race in the classroom?


Image: “Couple on a Seat” by Lynn Chadwick, Cabot Square, Canary Wharf in March 2011. Photo by Chris McKenna, licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0.


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