Preparing to Teach About Race

For nearly 30 years, I’ve taught  “Ethnic Movements in the US,” which takes a social movements approach to comparing the history and politics of American Indians, African Americans, Latinx Americans, and Asian Americans. This course meets the ethnic studies requirement and attracts both students who are actually interested in the class and unmotivated students whose main goal is to meet multiple requirements with one course, as my class also meets the second-level writing requirement. The issues on students’ minds have evolved over time, and there have been spells in which I had to work to persuade most students that race was even an issue worthy of discussion. The relevance of the course has been more obvious to them in recent years as Black Lives Matter protests increased. I was on leave and not teaching last year when Donald Trump unexpectedly won the presidential election. With the rise of overt White nationalism, the context for teaching has changed markedly in the year I’ve been on leave, and I’m having to plan carefully for the fall term.

One thing I plan to do is to survey students before the term starts to learn more about their incoming attitudes and to share that information with them early in the term. This summer, I was involved a student in a “cultural competency” class in which many participants became very upset because they felt they were being talked down to. Participants had been chosen because they had been involved in doing community work in mixed-race setting and felt the need for frank conversations about their position as White middle class people “helping” poor people who were mostly African American. Nearly all had been through prior courses on racial issues and cultural competence and most had had a variety of past experiences with racial conflicts. White course leaders spent the first two sessions trying to ease in to issues of diversity of cultural difference, which participants felt was wasting their time and stereotyping them as naive Whites who had never encountered issues of difference. This made me importance of signaling to students that I am not stereotyping them.

Of course, with 90 students, I can expect to have a pretty broad range of backgrounds coming into the room. Given the demographics of my campus and past experience with who chooses my class, I can expect that the majority will be middle class White students of moderate-to-liberal political backgrounds and racial attitudes ranging from “post-racial” color-blind ideology to sympathy for Black Lives matter and immigrant rights. I will also have a significant minority of non-White students, many of whom will be politicized and international students who will be primarily Asian. I know that a significant minority of American students of all races will be children of immigrants. I also know I will have a significant minority of White working class students, White students from rural areas, and White conservative students, and that these three groups are not the same, although they do have overlaps. I can expect that roughly half or more of the White students will view themselves as knowing nothing about race, while up to half will view themselves as experienced in multiracial settings. I can also expect a few overtly politicized White conservative students who will be vigilant for signs of bias and potentially hostile to the course as well as a few overtly politicized radical students (white and racial minorities) who will be looking for signs of White liberal bias in my teaching.

My goal in the first few days of class is to make it clear that I know they are in the room, all of them, and that I know they don’t agree with each other, that I will respect the true diversity of their points of view and backgrounds and experiences while also running a classroom that will insist on civility and insist on telling the truth about race in the US. I have a good opening day which I’ve used for years that has helped to set a tone of recognizing that we don’t all agree and my new opening will be a variation on this one.

For many years, I have done a pre-class survey asking students about their backgrounds and opinions coming into the class. I plan to update this survey to get their opinions coming in on the “hot” issues of the day and to use this information to inform them (and me) about the diversity of their opinions coming in. I will ask them about White nationalism, Black Lives Matter, immigration, American Indian sovereignty. I usually ask for students names in preparing for class (because I ask things that are relevant to their education and I give them class credit for doing the survey), but I think this time I will have part of the survey be anonymous due to the level of threat people are feeling. I plan to show the students the range of opinions of their fellow students and provide some sketch of the orientation I’m going to take in the class

In the past, I have not taught much about modern White nationalist movements, although I have taught about the “White counterrevolution” after 1876 and about the politics of race in current events. I’m trying to figure out how to modify my course syllabus, which is already crammed full of more material than I can cover, to address these issues while also giving students enough historical background.

The material and theoretical perspectives in my class are directly relevant to some of the most important issues of our day. I’m worried and nervous as I prepare for class, but also aware that what I want to teach about is of critical importance in the lives of my students and our society.


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