Let’s Teach More, and/or Better, about Race

White police killed an unarmed Black man. Again. The murder of George Floyd – captured on video by 17-year-old Darnella Frazer for all the world to witness in its senseless and brazen cruelty – resulted in persistent protests around the nation. Again. By now everyone knows Floyd’s name, just as we learned the names Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. (Yet too rarely do we know the names of or facts about police brutality towards Black women, as pointed out in the powerful exposé Say Her Name by the African American Policy Forum.) In 1991, everyone knew the name of Rodney King, and in the mid and late 1960s we watched frequent clashes with police as they resulted in burning cities. 

The murder and demonstrations raise urgent questions: Will anything be different this time? What actions might make a difference in creating change? And specifically for readers of this blog: What can educators – and historians in particular – do?

Doesn’t it feel like we’ve had this conversation before – repeatedly? No historian is surprised at the persistent continuation of anti-Black violence, discrimination against African Americans in the “justice” system, police violence against African Americans, and the systemic racism and dehumanization in the United States that undermines the possibility of equal opportunities and results in ever-present pain, threats, and alienation. These are incredibly complex problems to dismantle – ones which African Americans leaders have been trying for many decades to chip away at – and for that reason it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, discouraged, and powerless in addition to absolutely outraged. 

I have been feeling those ways (piling on top of distress about COVID-19), and wasn’t sure where to start in writing about teaching race here. I’ve been studying and teaching African American history for a long time, but I’m not sure I have much new to say. Still, it seems better to start somewhere than to remain silent just because I worry about sounding like white celebrities who appear to be calling attention to themselves (e.g. “I cried, too”), corporations belatedly jumping on the bandwagon proclaiming that Black lives matter to them, or institutions making (as my colleagues in our African and African American Studies Program put it) vague “insipid promises” that this time they really are listening. It’s obviously not about me, and I don’t want to be that white person who is simply projecting my guilt (as Jasmine Roberts put it in “White Academia: Do Better”) or hoping to show and get encouragement for my good intentions.

What I want to do is accept my responsibility for teaching about and trying to change the system that I and all white people benefit from. For too long African American faculty – often marginalized on their campuses and at great cost to themselves – have shouldered too much of the burden. (Read about Black women historians’ experiences in Telling Histories.)

So in this post I’d like to address why white faculty like me should get over their hesitations and teach about race – or if they are already doing so, do so more, or better.

In future posts, I’ll write about other aspects about teaching about race, including what specifically we want to teach, and who our students are.

Although professional historians are fully capable of finding scholarly articles and books about specific content in African American history, they might be less confident about teaching contemporary events. Or if they are newly incorporating topics about race or African American history, they may feel some anxiety about how to do it. That might be due to the fear of doing something new, teaching a topic on which one has less expertise. Or it might be the fear that potentially controversial topics may lead to difficult or emotional conversations during class or on discussion boards which they feel ill-equipped to handle. They may fear students dinging them on end-of-semester evaluations if things don’t go well.

Derald Wing Sue’s research makes abundantly clear in Race Talk that racial dialogues are very difficult for white people – and their discomfort often leads to avoidance, which to oversimplify his research, leads to a conspiracy of silence that not only intensely frustrates Black students but prevents authentic dialogue and change. In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo observes that white anti-racists need to work against their own fragility.

I don’t mean to dismiss faculty fears and discomfort out of hand – after all, I tend to be a very anxious instructor, and it’s true that dialogue can go badly, especially if faculty don’t plan well – but when people are dying and putting their lives on the line to try to change things, we need to consider the degree to which our courses are relevant. Research from historians like Ken Bain (author of What the Best College Teachers Do) suggests our courses should focus on big questions (not dry minutiae) that have a lasting influence on students. Psychologists say students are more motivated when they see the value and relevance of the material they’re studying for their own lives and the present.

Introducing potentially controversial content may require courage for some faculty (especially those who are probationary, contingent, or have marginalized identities), and doing it well involves intelligent planning. But as my Elon colleague Prudence Layne put it in a talk she gave on MLK’s Why We Can’t Wait, sometimes we need to take risks and “teach dangerously… because educators stand on the frontlines of the battle against all forms of oppression.”

I’ve been thinking hard about what the next, riskier goals are for me in teaching about race. I think I’ve gotten increasingly effective at teaching historical content that prompts students to think deeply about specific aspects of the United States’ racist history and the ways African Americans have responded to, adapted, and protested those conditions. Where I’ve needed to improve is in scaffolding authentic discussions and prompting students to think about and act on the implications for their lives and the present.

Not knowing how to do it is not a sufficient excuse; as Jasmine Roberts noted in “White Academia: Do Better,” academics are intelligent; they are scholars and researchers with advanced degrees who are perfectly capable of figuring out how to learn and grow if they want to.

But because history faculty are busy people who can’t be experts in every topic and often weren’t trained in pedagogy, I offer a few suggestions of places to start – or to help reconsider or adapt their courses.

For those who want to teach students about the roots of contemporary issues, JSTOR Daily has curated short articles that illuminate the historical background leading up to the oppression and murder of people like George Floyd in “Institutionalized Racism: A Syllabus.”  Educators came together in 2014 to share resources for teaching about Ferguson, MO after an unarmed Michael Brown was shot and critically wounded by white police officers. There’s information about the incident and subsequent protests and outcomes, the historic background to the events there, and suggestions for how to teach about them. Sadly, these are still perfectly relevant.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s big site, “Talking about Race,” is very accessible and reliable. One of its main topic areas describes the Historical Foundations of Race, but for those like me who want to do better at connecting past and present, there are also extensive sections about bias, being anti-racist, whiteness, racial identity, social identities and systems of oppression, community building, and self-care. It’s interspersed with short videos, clear definitions, has thinking questions and “let’s talk” conversation ideas, and generally encourages people to have an investment whether they are educators, parents, caregivers, or just people interested in fairness.

There are also plentiful resources available to assist faculty in setting up inclusive teaching environments – that is, environments where all students feel respected and supported in their learning and feel they belong in an academic community.

For evidence-based practices (those based in scholarly research about teaching and learning), faculty might start with the many resources of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan, especially the Principles and Strategies for Inclusive Teaching document, which provides a checklist of good practices. They might check out the Guide to Inclusive Teaching at Columbia University, or take Columbia’s free online course on Inclusive Teaching.

Centers for teaching and learning also offer evidence-based resources for building community and trust, framing discussions, setting up authentic and civil dialogue, and effective and ineffective ways to handle it if students become angry or use offensive language. There are also resources about how to structure our courses and assess fairly and mitigate stereotype threat; Elon University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching’s Inclusive Teaching site points to some of these. Many college/university campuses have teaching centers with staff who would be happy to recommend books and articles that delve more deeply.

I like Beverly Daniel Tatum’s message to educators: “If you wait for perfection, you’ll never do it. Everybody has to start somewhere.” She encourages us to read, to join learning communities, and grow together.

Let’s make sure something is different this time.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Teach More, and/or Better, about Race

  1. Dr. Layne’s remarks made me think of Leigh Patel’s work on fugitive pedagogy (see Fugitive Practices: Living in a Settler Colony, Educational Studies, 55(3), 253-61, 2019. Thanks for this blog post!


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