A College Professor’s Advice On How to Talk about Race and Privilege

First there was Sacramento State. Then Mizzou. And Yale.

In recent weeks, college campuses have been at the forefront of national conversations about race.

If colleges do not meaningfully grapple with issues of race and racism, they may find themselves at a breaking point — like the University of Missouri (Mizzou), which in recent weeks has drawn national media attention due to several racist incidents on campus. Now, more than ever, it is critical that college educators find ways to integrate conversations about race and racism into curricular and co-curricular spaces and programming. Engaging in critical conversations about race and racism is difficult, however. And, if such conversations are not approached carefully, they can be counterproductive.

Tensions Rise on Campus

At Mizzou, racial tensions culminated in a swastika being smeared on a door in excrement. In response to this incident and others — including racial slurs being directed at the student body president — and compounded by the administration’s failure to address racial issues on campus, a Mizzou graduate student went on a hunger strike, and the university’s football team refused to play until the president resigned. Many other faculty and students engaged in protests to pressure their institution to respond to these events, as well. This series of events at Mizzou came to a head on November 9, 2015, when both the chancellor and president resigned.

Earlier this fall, the story of Chiitaanibah Johnson, an undergraduate at Sacramento State University, garnered widespread national attention. Johnson challenged her history professor, Maury Wiseman, for focusing his lesson on the triumphs of Portuguese explorers and ignoring the genocide of American Indians. Wiseman asserted that the word “genocide” is too strong to apply to American Indians, because European diseases wiped out a majority of the indigenous population. When Johnson challenged Wiseman’s position and cited massacres of American Indians as examples of deliberate efforts to murder massive numbers of the native population, she claims the professor told her that he was expelling her from his course for disrupting the class.

The incident at Sacramento State University could have played out differently. The professor could have recognized that he was teaching from a position of privilege and engaged the perspectives of Johnson and his other students in the conversation. He could have turned the situation into a learning experience by facilitating a discussion about whether historical events warranted use of the term “genocide.” Instead, the opportunity to have an engaging, meaningful, and fruitful discussion was lost.

If we are to become a society that is able to deal meaningfully with racial issues, it is imperative that educators develop their racial awareness, recognize their racial (and other forms of) privilege as well as bias, be prepared for discussions about race and racism, and do the difficult work of facilitating dialogues about race and racism in the classroom.

Race in the Classroom

Why did the situations at Mizzou and Sacramento State University play out the way that they did? How could those involved have made the situation an optimal learning experience? There are at least five conditions that need to be met for educators and students — at these schools and beyond — to navigate the racial environment on college campuses more effectively.

1. Appreciation of diverse perspectives. First, those who engage in racial dialogues must agree to appreciate diverse perspectives. They must acknowledge that everyone has a limited worldview, and people from different racial backgrounds can experience the world in drastically different ways. As a result, no one has a monopoly on knowledge about racism, and it must be acknowledged that engaging in racial dialogues can be a growth process for all involved. Indeed, those who engage in racial discourse must understand that racial perspectives do evolve, and they should be comfortable knowing that dialogue about race can help everyone develop more intricate understandings of the ways in which racism operates in society. If we cannot agree on these realities, then productive conversations about race and racism cannot ensue.

2. Comfort with vulnerability. Those engaging in racial discourse must be comfortable being vulnerable. While individuals who have studied racial issues for a long time might know more about racial processes than people who have not accumulated such experiences, it is important to recognize that all who are involved in race discussions might make mistakes or false presumptions when engaging in these conversations. Such mutual understanding can help establish a safer space for meaningful, unguarded dialogue to take place.

3. Commitment to mutual respect. Those engaging in race conversations must lay ground rules for respectful racial dialogues. This will ensure that people do not invalidate, dismiss, or co-opt others’ experiences with racism. No person can know what it is like to navigate U.S. society as the member of another racial group. For this reason, the ground rules of racial dialogues must be established to ensure that members place importance on listening to, validating, and meaningfully responding to the experiences and perspectives that others share.

4. Acknowledgment of systemic racism. Members of racial dialogues must acknowledge that racism is systemic and not about individual racist actions. As such, racism functions to systemically disadvantage racially-minoritized populations through structures that dehumanize them and deny them opportunities. Racism permeated the founding and development of the United States, and hundreds of years of slavery, dehumanization, and discrimination still shape the lives of people of color today. Indeed, decades of research confirm that racism continues to shape racially-minoritized people’s access to opportunities, experiences in society, and outcomes. Agreeing on and understanding the systemic nature of racism can reinforce that we are all a part of a system that disadvantages racially-minoritized populations. These realities cannot be ignored, and they must be a starting point for discussions about racism in U.S. society.

5. Shared objectives. Finally, people engaging in dialogue about race and racism should center the conversation around common goals and collaboration. Indeed, common goals and collaboration have been identified as important conditions for intergroup dialogues to lead to positive outcomes. Racism leads to a plethora of social problems, and conversations can and should center on how to solve racial problems. When members of interracial dialogues are tasked with solving real-world problems together, they can develop mutual respect and an investment in each other.

Given the increasing diversity of the U.S., it is unlikely that the need to engage in meaningful racial dialogues will decline. As college campuses become more diverse, institutions of higher education must respond to, engage, and reflect the diversity of their student bodies. To do so, they must take seriously the importance of meaningfully integrating race and racism into the (co-) curriculum on their campuses. In addition, colleges and universities must ensure that they cultivate the conditions to have productive interracial dialogues — or they risk creating the environments of alienation, tension, and protest that Mizzou and Sacramento State University have exemplified in recent months.

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