Pedagogy of the Oppressed? Teaching Race in the University Classroom

Last Thursday the College Teaching Effectiveness Network and a few other graduate student organizations co-sponsored a workshop for graduate students on Teaching Race: Challenges & Opportunities in the Classroom. A panel of three (Latino/a Studies professor, white history doctoral student, and Black American intergroup relations specialist) discussed the opportunities and challenges to a PACKED room of white, black, Asian, and Latino/a American graduate students. It sounded like they try to teach race and/or racism without making any students (white students or students of color alike) uncomfortable, victimized, or accused. The goal, they stressed, was to understand how the state (and not individual whites or Blacks or Asians or what have you) manufactures race by constructing these falsely racialized groups and pitting them against one another in a Social Darwinism/survival of the fittest type of competition. However, towards the end of the discussion, a few graduate students of color brought up a different point: “If white students enjoy racial privilege for most of their lives here in the United States, would it be so bad to be uncomfortable about race for like two minutes during discussion section? Doesn’t tiptoeing around the ideas of race/racism privilege white students by being overly concerned with their comfort, while discounting the fact that the students of color need our classrooms to be safe spaces to discuss such issues?”

A really interesting discussion followed; some white graduate students misunderstood and thought these TAs were purposely trying to make white students uncomfortable. No, not at all. The goal is not to makeanyone uncomfortable, but to provide a safe space where people can honestly bring their concerns and issues to the table, especially since the university environment otherwise does not provide or encourage that safe space (students have had to fight for every single ethnic studies program or student support service not only at UIUC but at all other universities – starting with the Third World Liberation Front student strike for more relevant education at San Francisco State University). Otherwise, we’re not going to have an honest discussion at all. However, if making a student of color feel safe comes at the expense of white students feeling a little uncomfortable, some TAs were willing to let that occur. One pointed out that it could be part of their learning process and experience. Not purposely, not

maliciously, but with the hope that these moments of discomfort will help everyone be honest and work through these issues so we can move towards a radically transformed, truly democratic university environment.

Freirean love, folks.

I don’t know how the discussion ended because I had to leave early (and I don’t think the goal was to reach a consensus), but overall it was really good and I hope helped all of us think more critically about what andhow we teach. Personally, as a woman of color who researches and teaches two marginalized topics (Asian American Studies and children’s literature – “Aren’t you making a big deal out of nothing? They’re just children’s books!”), the workshop really helped me think about how to negotiate the challenges while examining my own positions of privilege. I had a couple of white students in my Asian American Children’s Literature course last semester, and that definitely kept me on my toes in terms of too freely expressing how I feel about white authors who write children’s stories about Asians and Asian Americans. (It’s not that white authors can’t write about Asians Americans, but too often their voices drown out the voices of Asian Americans themselves. Anyway, that’s a whole other can of worms.)

Teaching race is never going to be easy; race is too complicated and bound up in so many other factors. But something we can do is continue to have these discussions, listen to one another, and critically think about and reflect on our own positionalities and attitudes.

Some resources:

Adams, M. and Bell L., & Griffith, P. (eds.) Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: a Sourcebook. 1997.

Butler, J. (ed.) Color-Line to Borderlands: The Matrix of American Ethnic Studies. 2001.

Chan, S. In Defense of Asian American Studies: The Politics of Teaching and Program Building. 2005.

Gale, X. “The Stranger in Communication: Race, Class, and Conflict in a Basic Writing Class.” in JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory 17: 53-67.

Hendrix, K. “Student Perceptions of the Influence of Race on Professor Credibility.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Speech Communication Association, San Antonio, Texas. November 1995.

Ladson-Billings, G. “Silences as Weapons: Challenges of a Black Professor Teaching White Students.” inTheory into Practice 35(2): 79-85. 1996.

TuSmith, B., & Reddy, M. (eds.) Race in the College Classroom: Pedagogy and Politics. 2002.

Vargas, L. “When the ‘Other’ is the Teacher: Implications of Teacher Diversity in Higher Education.” inUrban Review 31: 359-383. 1999.

Vargas, L. (ed.) Women Faculty of Color in the White Classroom: Narratives on the Pedagogical Implications of Teacher Diversity. 2002.

On another note, I haven’t been as active blogging as I anticipated, and my exam starts this Friday, so I probably won’t post much in the next month. Sorry to leave you with such a heavy topic in my last post, but here’s a little something to make up for it:

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