Who We Teach

Musing 3 on Teaching about Race

Framework of the book

As I’ve been reflecting on teaching about race in the U.S., I returned to the framework I first encountered in a webinar taught by some great pioneers in multicultural education, Christine A. Stanley and Mathew Ouellett. (I adapted their framework in the image to the right.) For inclusive teaching, they advised we think carefully about who it is we are teaching.

Students are the reason for our job. They are the focus (the object? subject?) of our work. They are often a joy, occasionally a bane, sometimes a conundrum.

More and more research findings confirm that knowing our students helps make us more effective instructors. Cognitively, the better we can tap into students’ prior knowledge and experiences, the more likely students will retain and more deeply understand material. Understanding students’ mindsets can help us decipher moments of struggle or resistance.                          

Understanding why students signed up for our course – and what they hope to do with their lives, and what matters most to them – can help us spur the motivation crucial to their work and persistence.

Students are whole people – not just intellects – whose backgrounds, previous experiences, identities, and emotions affect them in our courses. Who they are may affect how they interpret the material, how they interact with other students, and how they perceive the instructor.

Sometimes students’ prior knowledge, experiences, attitudes, and identities give them advantages in a course, and sometimes not. A first-generation student from a poor family may be bringing enormous resilience but lack some insider knowledge about how college works. A student with a full-time job may bring tremendous motivation but have difficulty finding time to complete assignments. A wealthy student from an elite private high school may be willing to ask for tutoring assistance but have limited experiences working with people different from herself.

One of the major challenges for instructors is how different the students in our course may be from one another.

Let’s consider how students may come to a course where I’ll be teaching about the African American historical experience. What will they be hoping for? What will they be concerned about?

My African American students may be hungry for the content. They often tell me this right away or later in the semester, and it is not surprising since according to Teaching Hard History, the odds are good they didn’t learn much AA history in high school, and what they did get may have been bad. Still, that doesn’t mean that African American students enter the classroom completely at ease. Whether they do may depend in part on who the other students are and the institutional context.

At my university, which is predominantly white, even in a course on African American history, there’s a good chance that African American students won’t be in the majority. (On the other hand, it will probably be the course they take with the most other African American students enrolled.) Campuses differ greatly, but in some places African American students may not feel a sense of belonging – and research tells us how important that sense of belonging is to academic success.

African American students are likely wondering about who the white students are. Will they be racist? Open-minded? Liberal but a little clueless?  Trustworthy? Will the other students expect me to speak for all African Americans? Agree with the other Black students in the class? Will I be able to express myself honestly and authentically? Dare I get my hopes up? These concerns are all sensible given all the possible sources of identity threat.

They may well come with questions about their instructor, in my case a white woman. Why is she teaching African American history? Does she know her stuff? Will she treat all the students respectfully, or will she (perhaps unconsciously) favor white students? Is she fair? Does she – can she – understand race and racism, African American history, students? Or does she just think she does or want to show that she does? Does she listen? Is she any good at facilitating discussions that might be complex or sensitive?

On a different campus, where there is a much higher percentage of Black students, and/or a Black instructor, it might be an entirely different experience.  As Beverly Daniel Tatum put it, “when you get to a critical mass there is a sense of empowerment…. It gives people both the freedom and courage to ask for what they need.” Many Black students who enjoy the presence of a critical mass thrive in their classes – they are engaged and unselfconscious, meeting their potential.

My Black students will be different from one another, of course, in their hopes and dreams, majors, skills, confidence, comfort, and background knowledge. Some of my students worry they’re expected to already know a lot about African American history and culture. They’re also different in their educational backgrounds. About three-quarters of AA college students attended “majority minority” high schools (where white students are in the minority); for those students, coming to a predominantly white university may be very strange, uncomfortable. Others are more accustomed to dealing with a large white majority (though it still might well be challenging). Students differ in how they identify, and mixed-race students especially may not want to be put in boxes.  

And African American students likely will differ from one another in where they are in their racial development. Are they in the “conformity” stage where they are “just Americans” trying to fit into white culture and minimize racial differences, perhaps even unconsciously accepting assumptions of white superiority? Are they in the “dissonance” stage where they’re realizing the many ways racism is impacting them? Might they be in the “emersion” stage where there’s so angry they want to avoid whites? Are they feeling empowered and ready to forcefully challenge the inequities and bias they see – including those in my classroom, and in me?

And what about my white students? They too are a complex group, with different backgrounds, knowledge and skills, and identities, etc.

Many white students come to my class with questions and concerns that are similar to or the mirror-image of those of African American students. What will the other students be like? Will they be respectful? A PRRI study showed that 75 percent of white adults in the United States have entirely white social networks. At my institution it’s rare for white students to be in classes with a large number of African American students, and because they were raised in American culture where stereotypes are “in the air” we breathe, they may have more than the usual early semester apprehension.

Whites tend to fear they will be judged as racist. As Claude Steele has pointed out in chapter 5 of Whistling Vivaldi, a class where white students are in the minority is one of the rare contexts where whites can experience stereotype threat. They may be wondering, will I be held responsible for racism? Will I be expected to represent all white people? Will the white and black students fall into camps?

They too may be wondering about the instructor. Will she be fair, or will she favor the Black students? Will she put me on the spot? Will she be good at facilitating discussions? Will she be trying to make me think a certain way? Will this be one long, white-trashing semester – that dismisses my desire to be a good human being?

White students will likely be in different stages of racial development, too. (I’m using Joy and John Hoffman’s “integrated model.”) Outright resistance to the study of race is less likely in courses where students consciously signed up for an elective they knew would focus on race, but it may manifest itself if white students didn’t expect such content. Even in an elective, however, white students in the “acceptance” stage of racial development may dismiss or diminish examples of contemporary racism. Students in the “resistance” stage may defensively acknowledge a racist American past but wish African Americans would “get over it” and move on in the present. Those in the “retreat” stage of development acknowledge the impact of racism and may feel guilty and ashamed, and not know what to do with that guilt, or perhaps they’re in the “emergence” stage where they’re ready to take control of the kind of white person they want to be.

Our students aren’t just Black and white. Other differences related to gender, ethnicity, disabilities, socioeconomic class, religion, sexual orientation, political ideology, region, etc. further complicate our classrooms and dynamics. Concerns about race are hardly the only ones that students bring to our classes. When a student doesn’t speak up for weeks, it may be because he’s worried about his accent or lisp or health, or because he heard one of the other students make an insulting comment about gay people, athletes, immigrants, or Christians before class.  

Differences among students have implications that may manifest themselves at any point in the semester – in depression or retreat; exhaustion from encountering persistent and depressing facts of racism; impatience with an overgeneralizing or tone-deaf comment from a fellow student; anger and a desire to express it; worries about not being understood; defensiveness from guilt or being expected to face or give up one’s privileges; disorientation from questioning the assumptions of one’s society, family, or peers.

How do we meet the needs of all these very different students? How do we create a space where they all feel respected and can explore important ideas? How do we as instructors with our own identities win their trust (so they will persist through the difficulties/challenges)?

These questions require a lot of intentional actions in course planning for community and climate. There is some research about inclusive classrooms (and in a previous post I’ve pointed to some places to start),  and I hope to explore more in future posts about how we teach. But because I believe white faculty have a special responsibility to teaching white students about racism, here’s a quick link to scaffolded resources for teaching white students in different stages of racial development.]

For now, I think it’s clear that we need to start by trying to understand our students. This is a slow process – it’s not done all at once on the first day of class, but that’s a good time to start. Each student is unique individual affected by a host of different cultural factors, but as Beverly Daniel Tatum observed, despite the fact that each group has its own particular social context, different students have a common need: “at the fundamental core of each young person’s [identity development] is a desire for affirmation.”

It’s our job to understand where our students are coming from so that we can more effectively teach our course content.

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