Saturday, September 20, 2008


Some of us on campus had anti-racism training recently. There were good discussions, mostly. But I left frustrated because at the end, there was a basic message that white folks on campus need to step back and leave leadership to people of color.

On one level, I really understand that. In the Peace Corps, one of the aspects of development I learned about is that you have to start with peoples' perceived needs, and on some level, you have to work with those. If people perceive a need for clean water, you address that issue.

But I also see two really important problems with that approach here.

First, the people who control money on campus are all white, and pretty much all male. Those people need to hear what the people of color on campus are saying, but they need to take leadership on allocating resources, until and unless we hire (and keep) some people of color with power in the administrative building. (I don't think the overall whiteness of the administration is going to change in the next ten years, but I think we can--and have to--do a whole lot of anti-racist work on the way to changing that status.)

Second, if our campus is going to do anti-racist work, then it needs to happen in classrooms, and in my classroom, I have most of the power. It's unethical to expect any student(s) to design curricula, put together a syllabus, and so forth. And it's unrealistic to think that my mostly white students are going to come in with that as a priority now (maybe in ten years if we really do make anti-racism work so that people come here because we're known as an anti-racist campus).

Here's what I'm asking: focusing on the classroom, how do we make the classroom an anti-racist space, starting from the assumption that I'm a moderately aware white who's made and making efforts to be an ally. (That is, don't tell me I shouldn't point to an African American student to explain all of African American culture to the class. My high school pretty much taught me that.)

Are there ways to make a syllabus anti-racist in different classes? In a writing class? A poetry class? A Shakespeare class? (Beyond teaching, say, poets of color, or using colonial/post-colonial theory.) Is there structural stuff in writing the syllabus? Making assignments?

I was a little frustrated at the training session that we started at what I thought was a pretty basic level talking about stuff I learned in high school, college, the Peace Corps, and so forth. But my frustration ebbed when I realized that these were pretty new issues for a lot of people. I guess I sort of assumed that everyone talked about race, class, and gender issues in their dorm hallways, as we did 30 years ago. I guess I assumed that all grad programs at least give grad TAs some basic discussion of these issues in the classroom.

(I don't assume most people have had a Peace Corps like experience. So at least I'm not totally naive there. But I really did realize at the training once again how much that experience formed my adult self.)


  1. I was disturbed, in similar ways, by our "global awareness" initiative a couple of years back. They started with a completely invalid survey, which concluded that we are all xenophobic bigots -- because the multiple choice questions had absurd answers.. It lead to a (for now) "voluntary" program which intends to force us to do "global awareness" activities on campus. Of course, our courses which cover diversity issues don't count -- so, we can get credit for attending something else, but for actually teaching it -- we get nothing.

    As for racial issues in the classroom, I tend to deal with them as they come up in discussions or papers-- sometimes students make comments that are concerning, and then we discuss how those comments could be seen as problematic.

  2. I've been wondering, recently, about a lot of these questions myself -- what are the structural aspects of setting up a class that can affect the power dynamic in positive and negative ways? -- but haven't yet gotten around to seeing what work has been done there, if there are good books on the subject, etc. But I at least think they're important and useful to think about.

  3. My experience of these diversity training things is that they have focused on "being good people" -- i.e. how to not be racist when dealing with other people -- but I've never seen a serious discussion of what it means to have an anti-racist class in terms of content. This is particularly true for someone who is like me a historian of Europe in a period long before the present. I'm doing it this term in my survey course by making identity and boundaries a theme -- which makes "Europe" a lot more complicated.

    But other things are more complicated -- i.e. reading race in The Tempest: yes, there is tons of lit on it, but my own historians take on it is that race in the late 16th c does not map easily to our ideas == which means I'd want to sit on the obvious interpretations.

    I think there is a place for a smart group to work on teaching in a substantive way. . .

  4. Anonymous10:28 AM

    If you get any insights into this I'd sure be interested! Because "diversity" as a code word for racial, ethnic, to a small extent socio-economic, and to a small extent sexual orientation, is one of our Big Things on my campus.

    I've just checked out a book or two about non-Western ways of education, that may help me. Peggy MacIntosh's essay about the "white privilege backpack" is excellent, and I did hear something that helped from the administrator in charge of Things Diverse: she said that valuing diversity requires learning about, honoring, and advocating for the multiple identities of our students. That first thing is the key for me -- learning about, *really* learning about.

    So, I think for people who are seriously interested in this, you HAVE to sit down and think deeply and read deeply -- and many training programs are intended to hit the highlights in an hour for CYA purposes.

    And, er, were any of those white males who hold the purse strings *at* this training, Bardiac? If not -- why the hell not, I'd like to ask them.

  5. In syllabi: put the non white authors at the center not at the margins, at the beginning not the end. You'd be surprised how much of a difference this makes (they become the model, not an add on; they become an example of what you are teaching, not a variation on it).