Ryan Rideau, Associate Director CELT
We have been angered and pained by the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Aubery and many others. These murders are consistent with the long history of state violence and systemic racism against Black people in the United States. These problems are overwhelming and can often leave us feeling helpless or confused about how to meaningfully address them. But to be effective educators, we are required to fight racism and oppression whenever and wherever we see it. This should start by reading and listening to the work of people of color, and most notably Black authors. You should also learn about your own privileges and ways to be anti-racist. Beyond your own reflection and development, the classroom provides an opportunity to put anti-racist teachings into practice, create a racially just learning environment, and model anti-racism to your students. Below, I offer four suggestions to bring anti-racist practices into your classroom.
1. Acknowledge and confront racism and other forms of oppression in your classrooms.
To be anti-racist requires that you notice, call attention to, and attempt to remediate all forms of racism and oppression in your classrooms. Sometimes individual acts of racism may be overt, but they are more likely to show up in subtle ways such as in group work, where a student of color may be marginalized by other members of the group. You should address these instances anytime you see them or when they are brought to your attention. Here are some tips on how to address these issues in the classroom. Addressing them may cause some students to feel uncomfortable. That is not always a problem, as long as you are not putting marginalized students on the spot or forcing them to speak when they are not willing to do so. Many students may be socialized to not discuss race and are uncomfortable when the topic comes up. As such, addressing racism models for those students how to discuss race and racism and offers students opportunities to engage with these issues that some might not otherwise have. It is through your actions that students find ways to be courageous and stand up against racism in their lives.
2. Collaborate with students to shape the learning environment.
This advice may be difficult for some, because it requires giving up some authority in the classroom. However, in order to create a true anti-racist classroom, you must be clear with students and provide them with a role in shaping an anti-racist space. One way to do this is to create community learning agreements. But in creating these agreements, you should be careful to not reproduce a structure that stifles discussions or that privileges White voices and norms. In creating these agreements, you should make clear that you value creating an equitable and anti-oppressive environment where all students thrive, and that students play a critical role in shaping this environment. Collectively, you can create a process for all students to work together to offer feedback when anyone in the space, including yourself, says something that does not adhere to this commitment. Although you may feel vulnerable, this holds everyone accountable for making an anti-racist learning environment and creates a way to move forward in students’ learning.
3. Diversify (decolonize) your course content.
An essential component to creating anti-racist learning environments is ensuring that you feature voices of people of color prominently in your course. I stress the word prominent because it is not enough to simply add one author or text into your syllabus, or to lump the contributions of people of color into a section about “diversity”, “racial inequities”, etc. I recognize this may be more difficult for faculty in some disciplines than others. However, I want to encourage faculty of all disciplines to think creatively about ways to bring in new voices. This can be through bringing in alternative texts such as news articles, magazine articles, online posts, or videos. You may also find creative ways to amplify the work of people of color in your discipline or professional areas. If you are struggling to find these examples, you should ask why this is the case. Interrogate your own discipline, particularly around whose ideas and voices are most visible in your discipline and whose are left out. You can and should do this with your class, so they are aware of these issues and about whose perspectives may not fully be represented in the field. Diversifying course content achieves two things: 1) It acknowledges and prioritizes the contributions of historically underrepresented scholars (I.e., scholars of non-dominant identity groups), and 2) it communicates that all students, regardless of their own backgrounds or identities, belong in the classroom and have a place in the discipline.
4. Build flexibility into your course that accounts for students’ racial despair and trauma.
Your students of color may be experiencing racial trauma due to these most recent killings and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on their communities. While this moment may have highlighted structural racism in the United States, racial injustices are not isolated to these most recent events. Students of color routinely experience racially stressful encounters. Experiences with these encounters can be traumatic and lead to students losing focus and engagement in the course. As such, it is important to build in flexibility, particularly in your deadlines and how you expect students to engage in your course. This does not mean you create different expectations for students of color. To the contrary, you build in flexibility with your deadlines and more asynchronous opportunities for engagement. This approach inherently acknowledges the real pain students may be experiencing, including other issues students may be facing such as medical challenges or other difficult life situations, without forcing them to disclose personal or sensitive information in order to complete the course.
These suggestions are only a start. While this particular moment will have a lasting impact upon all of us and society writ-large, I encourage you to use it as a way to challenge yourself to continue learning. I recognize that many of us are overworked, tired, and exhausted as a result of all that we are experiencing. Engaging in this work can add to these feelings. But taking steps to bring anti-racist practices into your classroom is necessary. It will model for students the imperative to work towards a more equitable society. In this way, your commitment to anti-racist practices is essential to transforming our society.
- Dewsbury, Bryan M. (2020). Deep Teaching in a College STEM Classroom.
- Phillips, J.A. et al., (2019). Barriers and Strategies by White Faculty Who Incorporate Anti-Racist Pedagogy.
- Sellers, R.M. (2020, June 3). How Long Must We Wait: What It’s Like to be Black and Exhausted in America.
- Tuitt, F., Haynes, C., & Stewart, S. (2018). Transforming the classroom at Traditionally White Institutions to Make Black Lives Matter.