Inclusive Teaching, Jesuit/Ignatian, Teaching and Justice

Shocking the System: Why Talk about Race in the Classroom?

by Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser, Instructional Consultant, Reinert Center

Recent waves of violence against black lives and a rising tide of protest have raised cultural awareness of the depth of systemic racism. Many educators are pondering whether or how to acknowledge this cultural upheaval in the classroom. Some may feel that, although racism is a problem in the culture at large, it is not directly pertinent to their course material. Even for teachers who do feel that racism is urgent to discuss in a particular class, bringing the issue into the classroom may be anxiety-inducing. This blog will offer a perspective on why acknowledging whiteness and racial disparity is crucial to any classroom and will link to a resource guide with some practical guidelines.

Whether or not we perceive that a course deals with race, racial dynamics are playing out in all the systems in which our course is situated. Mays Imad, director of the teaching and learning center at Pima Community College, argues that “We can’t ignore this issue […] If we do that, then we may inadvertently send the message that either (a) I don’t know what’s going on or (b) I don’t care. Both of those messages are hurtful” (The Chronicle of Higher Education). It’s our responsibility as educators to communicate to students that we are aware of the racial systems of power that are as much a part of the learning context as the classroom (or digital space) in which we convene.

By acknowledging this reality, “Inclusive teaching can go a long way toward resolving the concerns of students of color. It can also raise achievement overall and close gaps among students of different racial and ethnic groups” (The Chronicle of Higher Education). James Fortney writes in The Notebook that it’s crucial to show students we care by acknowledging how difference impacts “the context of the course.” Fortney offers strategies for acknowledging difference—including race, gender, sexuality, and ability—by “highlighting multicultural voices in the classroom, including your own,” “discuss[ing] explicitly our view on discrimination,” and “model[ing] intellectual and multicultural curiosity and tolerance.”

In addition to acknowledging difference more broadly, this cultural moment calls for us to take a step further to specifically address the fraught racial systems that are literally taking black lives. This means stepping into the conversation and talking specifically about race, even and especially when it is uncomfortable. As a white educator, I personally enter conversations about race with trepidation that I will say something wrong, that I will be construed as racist, or that I do not have the credibility to talk about race. Robin DiAngelo’s work on “White Fragility,” however, exposes the work this fear does to perpetuate racial systems of power. The idea that white people do not have the credibility to speak about race reinscribes the unconscious idea that white people do not have race. Race, in this unarticulated way of thinking, is something that only people of color have. Staying out of the conversation only serves to enable the continuation of this cycle. DiAngelo identifies the results of white unwillingness to engage in conversations about the impact of race: “The continual retreat from the discomfort of authentic racial engagement in a culture infused with racial disparity limits the ability to form authentic connections across racial lines, and results in a perpetual cycle that works to hold racism in place” (66). Again, DiAngelo puts it clearly: “In turn, being seen (and seeing ourselves) as individuals outside of race frees whites from the psychic burden of race in a wholly racialized society. Race and racism become their problems, not ours. Challenging these frameworks becomes a kind of unwelcome shock to the system” (60).

All educators bear the responsibility to shock this system if we do not want to perpetuate it:  “Since all individuals who live within a racist system are enmeshed in its relations, this means that all are responsible for either perpetuating or transforming that system. However, although all individuals play a role in keeping the system active, the responsibility for change is not equally shared. White racism is ultimately a white problem and the burden for interrupting it belongs to white people” (66). Educators have the opportunity to make it very clear in our classrooms that when we talk about race, we are talking about the interlocking problems of whiteness, privilege, and silence, as much as we are about the consequences of racism borne by people of color.

Certainly, such discussions are going to produce strong reactions in the classroom. The discomfort we may feel in anticipating such conversations will likely be amplified by the discomfort of students in the class and then followed by further discomfort if someone speaks out in resistance, anger, confusion, or guilt. What seems like a simple task on a checklist: “highlight multicultural experiences” or “discuss explicitly your views on discrimination” becomes a minefield of loaded possibilities. What practical steps can educators take to prepare themselves to cultivate an anti-racist classroom? Certainly, if we do plan to acknowledge the reality of racial disparity in our classrooms, we need to reflectively prepare and educate ourselves in advance. A multitude of resources exist to help educators think through how race impacts the learning environment. Check out our resource guide on Strategies for Anti-Racist Classrooms, which distills some of this wisdom.