Sunday, December 08, 2013

Living in Discomfort: The Challenge of Talking Race in Classrooms Across the Country

by Amelia M.L. Montes (

Is there any way to include discussions about diversity and racism in the classroom without experiencing students (who do not claim a minority background) quickly taking it personally, becoming defensive, and resisting experiencing uncomfortable moments in the classroom?  This is the challenge instructors face who teach critical race theory in their curriculum.  Some instructors decide to avoid such discussions altogether, which leaves all students at a disadvantage. We need to not only include critical race theory in our teaching, we need to share effective pedagogical strategies.  Without the inclusion of a diverse curriculum, without fearlessly and creatively approaching the topic of racism, all students graduate ill prepared for a transnational global working world. They will inevitably come across fellow workers, or geographic areas unknown to them, and more often than not, their behavior will offend, they will drive a deeper and wider gulf between individuals, communities, nations.  The stereotypes will be there, the students/individuals will not recognize an offense, and their response when called out will be defensiveness.  Most often it is faculty of color who take the burden of teaching critical race theory in their Sociology, English, Anthropology, History, Psychology, Political Science, Spanish language courses, for example.  Less frequently, if at all, is there time set aside in business courses, in the sciences (such as Biological Sciences, Computer Science). The majority of our college students receive their education in a predominantly white institution, but the worlds they enter, the business, medical worlds, for example, will not. 

With colleges and universities in the United States remaining predominantly white, students of color must navigate through these worlds either by staying “predominantly” silent, enduring years of frustration and anger, or, speaking out (which takes time and energy out of their own studies). 

A rally last week at The University of Nebraska-Lincon denouncing racist events, behaviors on campus
Last year, the Mexican American Studies (MAS) students in Tucson, AZ spoke out about their banned courses and books (click here to view).  In Los Angeles last month, students from UCLA posted “The Black Bruins,” a spoken word video by student, Sy Stokes (click here to view). This video has had over a million hits.  Stokes points out (with statistics) the lack of diversity on the UCLA campus. In the Midwest, Professor Shannon Gibney is under fire for teaching critical race theory at her school (Minneapolis Community and Technical College or MCTC) (click here), while students at the University of Michigan were reprimanded for racist/sexist party invitations (click here).  The Daily Texan student paper from the University of Texas at Austin reported the halting of a planned game on campus, "Catch an Illegal Immigrant" day (click here).  At my own school at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Latino Graduate Association called out student groups who were performing racist skits and the Associated Student Body censured one of its own student senators who had publically dismissed these criticisms (click here).  There are many, many more examples.  

These are not new events.  The United States, whether we like it or not, is a country whose dominant narrative and history upholds a racist legacy, and the scourge will continue until we learn to acknowledge it and take steps to understand our own complicity within this complex narrative, but we cannot do that if books and curriculums across the country are banned or professors and students silenced. 

I think of Professor Edén Torres (University of Minnesota) who says (from her book Chicana Without Apology):

“I do not expect all students to see the world from my perspective, nor do I desire conformity.  While I certainly hope there will be opinions, ideas, and theories that differ from my own—precisely because this kind of dialogue creates a better learning environment—I do not expect to be treated with either contempt or condescension.  

I require active participation in the process and a demonstration of critical thinking skills.  If they are going to critique the course and its content, the texts, and my skills as an instructor, I do not want them to do so passive-aggressively by pouting or refusing to engage in learning activities.  
Professor Edén Torres
Nor do I want to be subjected to an attack on my personal appearance, the tone of my voice, my speaking style, or the fact that I occasionally respond emotionally with a word, phrase, or sentence in Spanish.  Nor do I want to be charged with straying too far off the topic when using teaching techniques they do not recognize from their years in banking style institutions.  And contrary to a few students’ beliefs, I am neither “too feminist” nor “too sensitive” to racism.  Nor do I hate white people.  I am, however, guilty of the charges that I am bitter, angry, and the every-charming “bitchy” when it comes to thinking about, and experiencing, the historical and contemporary systems of oppression.  I will not apologize for passionate responses to racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia. (80) “

In Presumed Innocent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, (click here) essay after essay (which includes qualitative as well as quantitative research surveys) reveals a myriad of examples where university administrations across the country are lacking in equitable dialogue and equitable programming with professors and students. 

And at a time when budget cuts are at their worst, administrators seek out those courses or curriculum they feel are not profitable.  There are those courses/curriculums/programs and departments which provide a healthy revenue and then there are those courses/curriculums/programs and departments that may not match such profits but bring vital education to the students and prestige as well.  In the SLATE article, “The Discomfort Zone,” writer Tressie McMillan Cottom writes, “When colleges and universities become a market, there is no incentive to teach what customers would rather not know.  When colleges are in the business of making customers comfortable, we are all poorer for it . . . Teaching what people would rather not learn is especially tough if you are a woman or a minority professor.  Research shows that our customers rate Asian-American, Hispanic, black, and women professors lower than white male professors across all subjects . . . Learning is—should often be—uncomfortable for individuals.” 

And this is at the heart of what I write today.  It’s not productive to remain comfortable, despite its seductive properties.  It’s not productive to allow a curriculum without any discussions about race relations, without students acquiring knowledge in critical race theory. We are preparing students for their life careers, to empower students of color, to assist all students in learning important skills in race relations. 

I applaud the students, faculty, and administrators (and I stand with you) who are unafraid to speak and listen to uncomfortable dialogue. 

I quote Eden Torres again who says:  “The ability to make connections is often difficult, but we must behave as if we know it is absolutely possible and necessary.  We have to do it despite the hardship and real dangers involved.  Such a commitment increases our capacity to perpetually incorporate new voices, to critically think about and acknowledge questions and challenges as they arise, and to refocus on a larger vision.  An awareness of each other and constant sorting out or choosing between strategies is crucial so we can create solidarity but not deny difference.  Communication and coalition are necessary to keep our views flexible enough to prevent us from locking into incorrect premises and opinions that are no longer viable.” (186)

This semester I have been teaching the course Chicana and Chicano Literature.  Many of my students began the class writing that they felt, because we have a black President, we don’t need to talk about race anymore.  And yet, we end the semester with the front page of the campus newspaper replete with articles in regard to racist behavior, racist language, angry students, defensive students, administrators who don’t see the connection between pedagogy and these events, others who do.  We continue on.  



Linda Rodriguez said...

Excellent post, Amelia! This kind of thinking is so necessary in today's world, but I, too, fear it will be the first on the budget chopping block.

Anonymous said...

I am going to assign my pre-fresh comp. students to read this next semester. Thank you, Amelia!

liz gonzalez

Olga said...

Thanks, Amelia. Your blog struck a cord on many levels. I had a student complain about me to the head of my department at the onset of the quarter because supposedly I used "too much Spanish" on the first day of class. Actually, the student claimed I was teaching the class in Spanish, which was ridiculous, since our syllabus and all our assigned readings were in English. On the day the complaint was filed I was going over some dichos and I did, of course, translate the dichos into English for all students to understand, but I guess having to sit in a classroom and listen to some Spanish for a bit was too much for this student. Y para acabarla de fregar this was a MEXICAN LITERATURE CLASS!

Amelia ML Montes said...

Ay Olga-- this is happening everywhere. We just need to be strong and continue doing the work that matters. I'm hoping that all of these posts and the kinds of petitions going on will support you and all of us in the classroom. Stay strong!! Abrazos!