University of Massachusetts Amherst
It is a brilliant question.
Not “why” does race matter, but how?
Nearly 400 undergraduates have participated in three dialogues on race this fall. I was fortunate to be invited in as a last-minute substitute for one of the final sessions. Some of the facilitators met for an hour in advance to try and anticipate challenges with delivering the curricular design (see the facilitator’s blog). We engaged the thorny problem of how to teach about whiteness without contributing to self-fulfilling prophecies about the presence/absence of racism.
Two tensions emerged in the discourse dynamics among the facilitators. One involved the tension between supporting/embracing students ‘where they are’ and the need to intervene when ‘where they are’ is patently offensive or otherwise misinformed. We are teaching, after all, but if we fall into rote instruction we lose the students’ attention (if not also their respect), yet if we don’t trust students to find their own way through the confusing process of coming to grips with uncomfortable knowledge then we’re simply trapped in the communication paradox: if we don’t talk about race we ensure structural inequality is never addressed, but if we keep talking about race then we risk never being able to move beyond it.
What struck me the most was – not competition, that reduces the complexity way too much – but the desire of facilitators to exert control over how the process will unfold. Energy in the room increased significantly while brainstorming strategies for moving students from new learning into the remaining task of application. What action can students take, using hard-won new knowledge in ways that really make a difference? For perspective, realize we are not talking about revolutionary change, but the immediate implications for individual identity and the kinds of relationships possible with others.
Differences in pedagogical philosophy, the use of tactics, and long-term strategies were on display as facilitators advocated for ‘this’ or ‘that’ approach, sharing examples of successful interventions (when the usual pitfalls were avoided) and also describing missed opportunities (those moments that always happen when one is caught off-guard or events are moving too quickly to formulate an appropriate response). The mix of generosity and humility among this group of dedicated educator/activists was impressive. I learned a lot in a very short time!