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Letting Students Lead: Race in the Classroom

Like my last post, this is addressed primarily to my white readers, this time the white teachers who read my Work Thursday posts.

I’m white, from a super-privileged middle class background, one that has benefited a lot from systemic racism. Many of my students over the years, however, have been Black, from a variety of backgrounds. This is obviously not ideal for race discussions in the classroom.

If, like me, you were raised in these white middle class spaces (of which the college classroom is often an extension), discussions of race are uncomfortable, because you were taught as a child to “not see color” and other easy aphorisms. But, also, if you’re anything like me, you want to do better and have been trying to do better for a while now. You’ve been reading and watching Black voices, trying to understand what your role is in helping. Perhaps you’ve been thinking about how you can lead discussions about race in your classroom, but you’re coming up against “How can I, as a white person in a position of authority, teach race and anti-racism to my mixed room of students?”

My best answer, based on experience and what I’ve been seeing from experts who know better than I, is that you approach it primarily with humility.There have definitely been moments in the classroom when I’ve discussed systemic racism and acknowledged what it looks like when I, the teacher, am probably the most privileged person in the room, and that acknowledgement matters. But mostly, I suggest that you let your students be the experts.

Let your students bring their lived experiences and their knowledge of Black and other marginalized voices. What you bring to the table is systematic ways of processing these things, historical perspective, and the means to use platforms to communicate those experiences. That is, they have the content and the knowledge; you have the methods to contextualize and use that content and knowledge.

Good learning is collaborative; let your students take leadership roles
(Photo from StockSnap)

What does this look like in lived experience?

(obviously I’m going to be a little vague here to protect my students)

A couple semesters ago, my university had some rather awful racist stuff happen publicly. As my students were picking topics for their projects, I had a very talented young woman, who was Black, decide she wanted to use the projects in my class to speak out about these incidents. What was my role here? To say “yes, you can and should do that.” To give her resources to build her argument. To help her craft her argument in a way that would be effective for the various rhetorical situations she was looking at. The project, by the way, was wonderful, and I believe she did actually present it to real audiences. The credit, of course, as with all student projects, goes entirely to the student. I just gave feedback.

In a more recent project, where I had students start with an auto-ethnographic assignment to explore possible topics, I had a student start talking to me in office hours about what sexism and racism looks like for her, as a mixed-race woman. What was my proper role in this encounter? Mostly to listen, because I know my own experiences as a white woman don’t really translate or matter in that situation. But then to say “You aren’t alone, and there’s people who are researching this,” and I introduced her to the term intersectionalism, which opened up her research to the resources she wanted. Was she operating outside my expertise? Yes, and that’s good. Because she was operating in her expertise. She was learning, even if I wasn’t really doing that much obvious “teaching.”

Or, in a much earlier encounter, I had a student who had attended high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. In the topic discovery phase of the writing projects in that class, I chatted with her about her research ideas. She mentioned that she’d like to do something to address the fact that in her home town, there were efforts to essentially segregate schools by ending certain bus programs. When I learned that her home town was Little Rock, I was aghast—so I asked her what she knew about the history of her own town, her own school. She didn’t know. This wasn’t her fault; obviously the public school curriculum had been designed to whitewash a lot of the Civil Rights Movement. Again, it wasn’t really my place to teach her all of what was properly her history; my place was to say “Wow, yes, that’s very important, and you should read up on the Little Rock Nine as part of your initial research, because I suspect that what’s going on is bigger than you or I fully understand.” The final research paper, by the way, was excellent, and more importantly she was able to find resources that helped her understand and contextualized the importance of her lived experience.

So what’s the procedure here when you find yourself as a white teacher with Black students and an opportunity to talk about race?

Firstly, yours is not to preach, nor to traumatize. Don’t bring in videos of Black people being abused. When I bring in videos about racial issues (it’s a rhetoric class, I should be addressing race), I use, for instance, a speech by a Black leader in a Black Lives Matter protest, and discuss how the speaker skillfully presents his message in order to meet his audience.

The procedure is this: Listen first, then affirm, then open doors. It’s that simple.

Let your students lead with their experiences. Listen to them. Don’t contradict them. That’s their experience. It’s what they already know. Your job as a teacher is to build on existing knowledge.

Listen more than you speak
(photo from StockSnap)

Affirm what you hear. If it’s similar to what other students have said, say so. If it reminds you of an essay by a Black scholar, say so. Let them know they’re not alone, and it’s not just them. But don’t make it about you. You’re not there to affirm your experience, but theirs. They’ll be better able to act and learn when they feel comfortable, and making people comfortable is about being genuinely accepting and affirming, making the encounter about them and not you.

Then, offer resources. Sure, I’m not a race scholar, but my theory survey classes as a grad student included some basic primer materials that are enough to open up a door to race studies, and I can listen when new ones are recommended. Sure, I’m not a race scholar, but I have colleagues who are, and I can ask for their help or send my students to them for a quick question. I’ve got enough history and theory under me that I can find a few starter texts for a student who is asking questions, and teach them the research techniques to use those texts to find more things (chain searching, technical definitions, etc). This is literally what we’re trained for when we study to be teachers and scholars, right?

This works to support other marginalized groups. I had several students this past semester who wanted to investigate what the changing definitions and boundaries in the LGBTQIA+ communities are. Do I know these things? As a cishet woman, not intimately. But do I know how they can find these things out and help them do that? Yes. It’s the same process of listening, affirming, and opening.

This also works for when students who are not members of a marginalized group are curious about the experiences of marginalized groups, because the listening, affirming, and opening is really just a process of fostering curiosity and supporting the inevitable reactions to information. This past semester, I had a male student who noticed in the discovery stages of research that women were underrepresented in his program. I opened by believing him, affirmed what he observed, and pointed him to some gender studies starter texts. His research then followed the same pattern—he interviewed women in his program, listened genuinely to what they had to say, and wound up acting as an ally for them by the end of the project as he investigated ways that might help create space for more women in his program.

It can be hard to decentralize yourself when you’re the teacher in a classroom. After all, our students and we ourselves are all trained to see the teacher as the most important person in the room. But just like a driving instructor generally teaches best from the passenger seat, we should learn to step aside and let our students lead. We must listen, affirm, and then open up doors based on where we hear our students want to go.

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