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Being an Antiracist Instructor: First Steps

Mon Jun 29, 2020 at 07:30 AM

Recent attention to police brutality and Black Lives Matter protests have increased attention to systemic racism and how race operates in every facet of our lives, including our classrooms, committee work, and the core of higher education. You may have many questions on your mind: How do I learn more about racism? How do I engage in necessary identity work before engaging my students in this area? How do I critically evaluate my work in and out of the class? How do I facilitate class discussions on racism? In other words, What can I do, and where do I start? 

Below are five important steps to consider, which will lead to a lifetime of learning and unlearning.

Listen to others, and start with self.

If you consider yourself new to learning about systemic racism, it is important to listen to others who have been doing this work. You may find yourself having questions, objections, and confusions, which come with a mix of negative emotions and a dose of defensiveness and guilt, but it is important to listen and learn. People new to learning about and reflecting on systemic racism can do so through books, documentaries, podcasts, and online courses--as more sustained sources like these allow for deep, continual learning and reflection.

With this, give yourself time to process how race operates in your life, your family, your neighborhood, your career, your classroom, your research--all of it. While in the end learning about systemic racism is not about any one of us but about justice for the oppressed, doing work on ourselves will help us prepare to do the work that needs to be done. Much of this learning process can be painful, but it also opens your eyes to better understanding your world and the good work you can do.

Anti-racist educators urge White people to avoid leaning on people of color to educate them on racism. Since so many scholars have already done this work, it is important for White people to diligently listen to conversations already going on. White people who want to talk to others about assisting their learning should consider White colleagues who have been doing this work. Paul Kivel offers more guidelines for being strong White allies in the pursuit of social justice both inside and outside of the classroom.

Evaluate curriculum, activities, assessments, and other teaching choices.

After learning and thinking about systemic racism deeply, turn attention to your work as an instructor. The Inclusive Teaching Reflection (U-Mich checklist) is a good place to start evaluating your content, instructional practices, instructor-student interactions, and student-student interactions.

As you evaluate your own pedagogical choices, listen to those in your discipline focusing on inclusive practices in teaching and learning. Look for faculty writing on this work through scholarly and non-scholarly sources (Twitter is a great place to cast a wide net). If you cannot find enough diverse voices, ask in professional channels to help you identify these people or their work. Simultaneously listen to those writing and educating about inclusive teaching in higher education generally and antiracist teaching specifically.

Reflect on who your students are.

Is your class composition diverse or homogenous? What are students’ political party tendencies? What are their strengths and struggles? How do they interact with one another? If you don’t know your students well, what are some ways you can get to know them? Start small with whether you know students’ names and pronouns and how names are pronounced, or listen to their stories in as little as six words. In his large biology classes, Dr. Bryan Dewsbury uses NPR’s This I Believe essays as a way for students to tell their story early in the semester.

Prepare how to talk about race and racism in spontaneous and intentional teaching situations.

As we learn more about systemic racism, it will be easier to see that there are no neutral disciplines and subjects. Some subjects are more prone to discussions of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, but all subjects have their own issues related to racism. It will take time to investigate how racism relates to our courses and how we may want to discuss this explicitly in a course setting. Kernahan (2019) gives in-depth but practical recommendations about how to facilitate discussions about race and racism as a White professor at a predominantly white institution situated in a conservative area.

  • Set “ground rules” in the syllabus regarding difficult discussions, such as acknowledging that mistakes will be made and to agree to strive for non-defensiveness when it is addressed (idea credited to Beverly Daniel Tatum, pp. 139-140) 
  • Don’t take it personal, give yourself space when things get tough. 
  • Use layers of privilege as White students’ way into considering systemic racism (e.g. gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious affiliation), although not as a way to make “equal comparisons.”
  • Ask students to create an action statement, identifying what they can do to improve the situation.

No matter what plans we set, we may not get to choose when race comes up in  a course, whether another instance of police brutality comes up in the news, students express microaggressions, or the topic comes up in some other way. Have some conversation facilitation tools in mind for difficult discussions, such as those offered in previous teaching tips on Managing Difficult Moments and A Communication Framework to Cool Down Tension.

Prepare for the long haul.

Unlike other teaching tips, these steps are not quick to implement. Anti-racist work is often described as a marathon rather than a sprint. Along the way you will encounter uncomfortable moments, mistakes, tension, guilt, and negative feelings. Beverly Daniel Tatum warns that in the cycle racial awareness, White people will reach a point of being tempted to step away from this work when the struggle makes them weary and feel defeated. Acknowledge that you will make mistakes, and center the people and purpose behind this work. Social justice educators insist that while these challenges are real, there is also real joy in the work of gaining a more authentic understanding of your society and engaging in meaningful work (Moore, Penick-Parks & Michael, 2015). It will also help to find others in your circles committed to racial justice. They can keep you accountable, support you, and help you advocate for change at an organizational level. 

There is so much to learn within and beyond these steps, but every facet of our professional and personal lives can become more authentic and just in the process.. 

References and Resources

Daniel Tatum, B. (2017). Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Basic Books: New York, NY.

Kernahan, C. (2019). Teaching race and racism in the college classroom: Notes from a White teacher. West Virginia University Press.

Moore, E.; Penick-Parks, M.; & Michael, A. (2015). Everyday White People Confront Racial & Social Injustice. Alexandria, VA: Stylus Publishing

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Written and designed by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Thanks to OU faculty Danielle Ligocki and Erin Meyers for their review and contributions. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.

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