teaching about race (me too)

Belle just offered her great post on teaching about race posted both here at Scatterplot and on her own blog, responding to pitse1eh’s blog. Both got great comments and useful links. This made me want to dust off my own essay on the subject. The core of this is an article I originally published in Feminist Voices, a Madison newspaper, in January of 1998. I’ve revised this several times since, including some revisions for this blog forum.

It is something of a truism among sociologists that the hardest thing to teach our students is the idea of social structure. The US has an extremely individualist culture, and we tend to think of race problems as reducible to individual choices, either blaming poor people for poverty and the consequences of poverty, or blaming prejudiced people for not being accepting of difference. It is very hard to get past this, and understand why we are in structures that shape these behaviors and attitudes. For some years now, I have taught a college course which uses sociological social movements theory as a framework for considering the history and current politics of the four main “minorities” in the US: African-American, Hispanic/Latino (especially Mexican-American), Native American, and Asian-American. Seriously confronting the past and present of race relations in the US is potentially explosive, as it challenges many students’ preconceptions about who deserves what in society. One of my goals is to encourage students to see themselves as involved citizens who seriously engage the question of what we as a society should do about these issues. In many ways, I build my course toward the last day when I read from Maya Angelou’s 1992 inauguration poem, especially the line:
“History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.”
Although I’m not happy with everything I do in this course, over the years, I’ve developed some opinions that seem worth sharing about how to help people confront our legacy of racism.

First, you are what you are, so you may as well acknowledge that when you teach. I am white, female, middle-aged, and tenured. I have greater credibility with white students when I explain the racist structure of US society precisely because I am white, so my talking about race reinforces a racial hierarchy that defines whites as objective. But not talking about race would not make me any less white or any less privileged, so I take advantage of my credibility and push hard on topics that students might otherwise resist. I make it clear that I know I do not know what it is really like to be a member of another racial group. However, all the books I assign are written by people who are, themselves, members of the group written about. Each has a definite political stance with respect to their group’s politics and is clearly writing about “we” not “they.” I explicitly tell students about these political stances and that they’ll learn more from such books than from watered-down bland textbook pap.

Just as I accept my status as a privileged person and use it in teaching, I want to stress that racial minority instructors in particular, and young white women to some extent, have to deal with their own race/gender status with respect to the students. White students will resist teachers’ challenges to the racial structure of society more when they are coming from persons of color. This is just a fact, and I think it is important for white instructors to recognize this when trying to mentor or advise new instructors of color. White men and older white women can step into the classroom with their legitimacy and authority as instructors taken as a given. People of color have to establish their legitimacy. Instructors of color are justifiably angry, insulted and hurt by this, but they nevertheless have to deal with it. You basically have to “sell yourself” as an authority and as a personality before you can get past white students’ resistance in teaching about hierarchical structures and privilege. I doubt very much that a black instructor could begin a course the way I do, with a series of lectures on “the construction of the US as a racial state.” In my observation of the struggles of some of my colleagues in the classroom, I am convinced that there has been too little recognition of these issues in the academy, even among people who are concerned about teaching about privilege and diversity. I think resources and attention need to be devoted to these issues in mentoring instructors of color.

Secondly, people’s experiences are diverse. A lot of my lecture time is spent just showing how diverse every group is within the “group.” A major theme is “it is not as simple as you think it is.” As teachers, we have to remember this, too. White students come to the classroom with different backgrounds. In my classes, perhaps a third come from explicitly racist families or communities in which racial epithets are everyday talk. Perhaps half are from all-white liberal backgrounds where equality and diversity are taught, racial hostility is taboo, and prejudice is a guilty secret; these students have been genuinely shocked when they hear the students from overtly racist backgrounds talk about their experiences. Finally, there are always white students who actually have had extensive interracial experience growing up and a fair number come from multi-racial families. Each of these groups bring different agendas and issues to the classroom.

Minority race students at UW are also extremely diverse and from a very wide range of backgrounds. Most of the Black students on campus are from middle class integrated backgrounds, often biracial families, and are offended when the assumption is made that they are from the ghetto. The Asian faces are a mixture of Asian students and Asian American students from a very wide range of ethnic backgrounds. The Latino/Hispanic students are similarly diverse.

Students of all races come from a very broad range of class backgrounds. Naming all this diversity on the first day of class and encouraging students to talk about their own backgrounds sets a positive tone and reminds the teacher not to stereotype the students. I repeatedly stress that we are not to blame for where we come from. It is especially important to remember that the students from the more overtly racist backgrounds are more likely to be working class students with their own stresses and challenges in a university increasingly dominated by the affluent.

Third, you cannot change people’s opinions by force. You cannot persuade white students that they benefit from white privilege by yelling at them and calling them racist. Even if I might feel that a particular student would be an “enemy” in a conflict setting outside the class, within the class I am the professor and it is my responsibility to treat every student with respect. (Of course, I don’t let anyone disrespect me or other students.) To influence students, you have to have respect for their own backgrounds and experiences and give them space to think. I require students to write journal comments on class sessions and readings, and collect, read and comment on them after every class. To encourage students to think and reflect, I grade only the effort in the journal and try to respond constructively to whatever they say. I explicitly tell students that I don’t want them to worry I am grading their opinions, and that they get full credit for what they write even if I think it is wrong. I try very hard not to attack the person or shut off dialog. If I really disagree with what a student says and can’t think of a way to engage him/her constructively, I’ll write “important issue.” (Actually I may also write this when I agree with the person and can’t think of anything to add.) Given information and space, people will think seriously about real issues and get beyond their own self-protective defensiveness, but they should not be expected to reach easy solutions or sign off on the instructor’s political agenda.

The journal has also enabled me to identify and deal with potentially explosive problems before they became serious. I urge students to tell me in the journal if something is bothering them. It is a one-to-one channel of communication between me and them, and I use it to apologize if I have given offense or to explain what I meant. At times, I have telephoned or emailed students who were especially upset. When appropriate, I explain to the whole class what the problem was, and apologize to the whole class.

I try to talk to students about potential for getting angry. When people do get angry, I try to use it as a teaching moment. I talk to the students about how we all have “hot buttons,” and suggest that we should all try to use our intense response to an issue as a way of understanding what someone else might be feeling who is reacting in what seems to us to be all out of proportion about some issue that is trivial to us. I also try to talk about political anger, about having to learn that someone’s wrath at me may not be personal and may not be about me. I tell them about a black friend – an integrationist who works with whites all the time – who got called the n-word by a post office clerk one day, and felt angry at all whites for a few days. I try to get White students to understand that people of color do this every day, having to decide whether to speak up at some slur, or let it ride, deciding it isn’t worth it.

I stumbled into a writing assignment that has proved to be wonderful pedagogically. Students are required to research and summarize both sides of a controversial public issue in ethnic/racial relations, using sources written by people who actually advocate a position. Library lectures and my web page links help them find “minority” voices. My lectures orient them to the complexity of issues, the way people on different sides are often talking past each other, and how rhetoric can be used to disguise or obscure underlying interests. The requirement that each side be treated on their own terms in a truly balanced way (not as a straw man to be knocked down by arguments from the other side) gets students really thinking and forces them to engage the side they do not agree with. We also make a point of requiring them to find ethnic/racial minority sources, and get outside the “mainstream” press. This “both sides treated fairly” requirement has also added to the implicit legitimacy of my teaching in the eyes of the students.

Fourthly, it is easier to teach structure by way of history. The structures of the present are the legacies of the actions of the past, and the past is less threatening than the present. It is easy for students to see that the same historical story can be viewed from different perspectives. All students can readily identify with indigenous Americans in telling the story of the European conquest, with Mexicans in the annexation of northern Mexico in the Mexican-American War, with African-Americans in the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras, and with racial minorities in all periods dealing with the overt discrimination and expressions of racism readily apparent in US historical documents or artifacts. Undergraduates are also shocked to realize that the Civil Rights Movement was only forty years ago. In the words of quite a few students: “History was not all that long ago.” Understanding historical backgrounds does not make people abandon their own perspectives and interests, but it does re-frame current debates in less simplistic terms than students are accustomed to hearing in the popular media.

Fifth, attitudes are not the problem, they are the symptom of the problem. The underlying problems are class inequalities, unequal educational systems, segregation, media images, conflicts of interest. Stereotypes arise from the structures of society. The all-white suburbs and the impoverished black/Hispanic ghettos are two sides of the same coin: in a very real sense the former cause the latter by way of the relocation of jobs and localized economic bases for schools and services. White people who live in all-white communities can replace hostile stereotypes with liberal stereotypes, but their segregated all-white lives perpetuate the structures which fuel the stereotypes. Feeling guilty about prejudice is useless. Instead, I try to encourage students to think constructively about the kinds of social policies that would help change the structures, freely admitting that honest concerned people can disagree about solutions, but refusing to accept self-protective lies about the facts (e.g. the lie that affirmative action or school busing cause racial prejudice among previously-unprejudiced whites, or the lie that racial minorities have better job opportunities than whites).

I make a point of telling students that I am just as awkward and uncomfortable around people who are culturally different as the next person. That I consider myself racist in the sense of having unconscious stereotypes. I really try to stress that I don’t see attitudes as a moral failing, but as a natural consequence of structures. There are students, for example, who try to persuade themselves that it is a stereotype that most of the people going to prison are Black. If you are too worried about not stereotyping, you can’t see the evidence of inequality.

Finally, language matters, but the PC police don’t help. People who get jumped on for what word they use can’t think. Calling someone racist or “correcting” them for calling someone “colored” or “black” instead of “African American” just makes them defensive and angry. By contrast, it is empowering to learn the historical and political connotations of words and the underlying politics of battles over naming. In teaching, I try to use most of the non-insult words and make up some new ones to keep the very act of naming problematized and an object of inquiry. Students find this material fascinating although many do feel overwhelmed as they realize the way the terrain of names is constantly changing.

I lecture early on about words and come back to words all term. I explain which words are insults that cannot be used without inflicting pain, which are not insults but have historically been used by genteel racists, and which are politicized words that have been used by factions of racial groups in particular eras to convey their politicized sense of themselves. The only truthful way to teach words is by explaining political signification and associations. For example, “colored person” and “person of color” are very different politically even though they mean exactly the same thing semantically. I talk about what is at stake in the choice between “Black” and “African American,” and why most people in the census category “Asian American” don’t use it to describe themselves. I explain the difference between Chicano and Mexican American as two names for the same group and why some US citizens of Mexican descent take pride in calling themselves Chicanos, while others consider the name insulting. I explain the meaning of a Mexican racial identity (La Raza), why Latin Americans are Latinos not Chicanos, and why some prefer Hispanic and some prefer Latino. I surprise both White and Black students when I point out that Martin Luther King Jr. called himself a Negro, it was a term of pride, and talk about the switch from Negro to Black in the politics of the rise of Black Power 1966-1970. I talk about the political significance of African American and why, even though that is the “PC” term used today, it will probably change again. I tell them that the “preferred” term (according to the BIA) has shifted from “Native American” to “American Indian” since I started teaching the class. We talk about the choices for Whites, why few call themselves European Americans, and why many resort to Caucasian, a term that has (for me, anyway) entirely racist associations. Sometimes we talk about the political significance of whether you capitalize Black or White, but that can get too subtle for undergraduates. (Only White students have ever criticized me for saying Black instead of African American. I have sometimes had a Latino student raise a critique for my writing Hispanic on the board as a category name before I could even get a chance to do the lecture explaining names.)

As long as the structures of race and class inequality exist in our society, we will all have “problems” with race and racism, but honestly engaging these issues in the classroom can be can be exciting and invigorating, nurturing hope instead of cynical despair.

PS. If you know who I am, you can see the course materials posted on my web site. If you don’t know and want to, just post a comment and I’ll reply to the email associated with your WordPress account,  EDIT: I can see your email address in the post record, you don’t have to list  it publicly on the site. (I suppose I should give up this pretense of anonymity, but I’m just trying to avoid having this site come up in a Google search of my name.)

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Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

12 thoughts on “teaching about race (me too)”

  1. I feel sorry for all the sociology students out there who don’t read soc blogs. They are missing out on some wonderful things. And I feel sorry for myself for not having been able to have taken a course like the one you describe here.

    Ah, well, there is always independent study.

  2. I would be very interested in seeing the course materials – race is not my topic area and I always feel a bit ashamed that I know so little about one of the most important areas of sociology (both academically and politically). Email is dandanar@umich.edu.
    Thank you!

  3. Thanks for this.

    You wrote: “In my observation of the struggles of some of my colleagues in the classroom, I am convinced that there has been too little recognition of these issues in the academy, even among people who are concerned about teaching about privilege and diversity. I think resources and attention need to be devoted to these issues in mentoring instructors of color.”

    That’s the part that I’m worried about: how do colleagues and administrators take those complexities into account when they’re evaluating you for promotion/tenure and when they’re reading your course evaluations? And how does one respond in the painful case where a senior colleague snaps that they’re “already aware of all that stuff”?
    Do you know of any good work, in the field of faculty evaluation, that gives guidance to the people who are evaluating those who teach about ethnicity, race, and/or gender?

  4. irrele: I think there is some research on these issues, but I confess I’m not current on the lit review. Maybe this is something we can work on collectively in blog land.

    The piece I used to revive every 10 years in these discussions or so is: “Pedagogy by the Oppressed” by Amy Bridges and Heidi Hartmann Review of Radical Political Economics, Vol. 6, No. 4, 75-79 (1975) http://rrp.sagepub.com/cgi/content/citation/6/4/75?ck=nck
    This article is only about gender but is good for raising some of the relevant issues about the politics of classroom interactions.

    I should have noted the upside of being a person of color teaching these issues. If you do successfully establish your authority and credibility with the students, students will value their experience with you more than they would a white instructor, and you will be contributing by your very existence to challenging racial hierarchies. Later in the term, after they trust you, they will believe you when you talk about experiences with discrimination etc., as long as they do not experience it as an attack on them. You are still the authority figure in the classroom.

    In the micro-politics of interactions, if a senior colleague snaps that they are “already aware of that stuff” there is not much you can do in the short run except try to mend the breach or talk to more sympathetic senior colleagues. Otherwise, I address related sorts of issues in my post: http://scatter.wordpress.com/2008/02/24/advice-for-new-assistant-professors/

  5. Is there a source that details the political history and changing meaning of racial group names? I think it would be very helpful. The closest I come to this in introducing race is by discussing how Census categories have changed over time. But that only gets to the social construction of race, not the true political battles and flash points underlying the changes. Thanks for a great post.

  6. molly: I don’t know of any written sources. When I get a chance, I think I’ll post a summary of my lecture on the subject, as that seems a popular item.

  7. I have a couple of questions which maybe your course materials would answer but I don’t know who you are.

    1. Why don’t most who fall under the census category of Asian American use such a term to describe themselves?

    2. Why does the term Caucasian have racist connotations?

  8. cl: Reminds me I should do that “race names” post. Short answers: (1) Most people in the Census category Asian American prefer an ethnic or national origin self-designation like Chinese, Chinese-American, Hmong, Korean, Filipino, etc. In the 2000 and 2010 Census, the category does not even appear as a box because there was great resistance to the people in the category to checking the box. People in the “Asian American” category don’t think they are all one group. (2) The origins of the term “Caucasian” are in the era of scientific racism when humanity was said to be divided into the Negroid, Mongoloid and Caucasoid races. As far as I know, it did not exist as a term before that era. Both “White” and “Caucasian” are used by explicitly racist organizations like the KKK. But people who use the term today are mostly using it because they are offended by the color names. If you prefer to say African American instead of Black, you probably think it is wrong to say White and so look for an alternative. I’d pick European American instead of Caucasian, but most people don’t.

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