Teaching and Race

How to Survive, Manage, and Even Encourage Race Talk

by Irene Murphy Lietz (Author)
Textbook XII, 170 Pages

Table Of Content


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

About the book

Teaching and Race: How To Survive, Manage, and Even Encourage Race Talk provides an in-depth interdisciplinary analysis of some common student talk about race, its flavor, character, rhetorical, sociological, psychological and educational development sources, and manageable tools for responding to students. The book recommends an accessible two-step, compassionate listening followed by critical challenges, to make the transformative connection between emotion and evidence. The book helps teachers embrace the moments of difficult conversation, confront student denial (as well as their own), and take advantage of the unique opportunity the classroom provides to advance the students’ antiracist identity development. Teaching and Race narrates common, sometimes offensive, language in four student interviews that are tied to strong feelings of confusion, denial, guilt, resistance and more. The student interviews help college teachers name and analyze loaded racial discussion so that they can thoughtfully address it in the classroom, rather than feel their only choices are explosive confrontation, gloss-overs or redirection. The book empowers teachers to shift potentially confrontational race talk to open-minded race dialogues that ultimately defuse the shock, sting, alarm and confusion of race talk by wellintentioned but unpracticed voices. The book creates a compassionate but informed moment for teachers, preparing them to confidently raise a critical challenge to misinformation at the moment it arises, and providing a beginning response for the teacher.

This eBook can be cited

This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.

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Thank you to the students who volunteered for the study that began as the basis of this book and particularly to the four students who participated in the interviews that anchor this book. Their eagerness to learn and their generosity of spirit in learning with me is all a teacher could ever hope for.

To my wise and talented series editor, Alice Horning, and to the staff at Peter Lang, all new friends that I am so grateful to have met: Your professionalism and care for good, important communication is laudatory. Thank you.

To the writers group from Carlow University Pittsburgh, founded by Dr. Katie Hogan, which read early versions of many of these chapters: Sigrid King, Anne Rashid, Jennifer Snyder-Duch, Linda Burns, Melissa Swauger, Sylvia Rohr, and later Judith Toure. Their friendship and encouragement, unwavering faith in my voice, clarity of mind, and patience in teaching me how to research and write qualitatively are among the great gifts of my life.

To Barbara Johnson, Anne Rashid, Addie Morrow, Terri Laws, the YWCA Pittsburgh anti-racism team (formerly the Young Women’s Christian Association), and the University of Michigan Program on Intergroup Relations, whose frank conversations about race and willingness to teach me and encourage me in anti-racism work account for both the most obvious and the hardest lessons I’ve ever learned. Thank you.

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To the Brief Daily Sessions (BDS) online group, also founded by Dr. Katie Hogan and Dr. Lisa Brush, which kept me on target and moving through the chapters: Your courage in writing really important work, your tremendous output, your tips and sources, and your gentle support sustained me. Thank you.

To Karyn Sproles, teacher extraordinaire, whose friendship, careful critique, race talk and weekly writing talk helped me sort out almost every word of every chapter, my unbounded gratitude and hope that even as this book is finished, we can still talk.

To my parents, Florence and Jack Murphy, who first encouraged me to care about other people and about education. You were my first writing teachers. Your encouragement of that little grade school kid who wanted to say something to the world through writing is finally seeing fruit. Thank you for all the love, time, and patience that took.

To our son Tom, his wife Erin, our two granddaughters Katherine and Vivian, your interest in, support of, contributions to and sacrifices over the years for this and all my work make me feel so proud and grateful to be your mom, mother-in-law and grandma.

To our daughter Patricia (Patti), another writer (!), your carefully thought out responses to my concerns about the book, the hours of problem-solving and encouragement you provided, and the catch-up lessons in Women’s Studies and cultural politics provided crucial support to me in this work. I am always amazed by what you know and how wise beyond your years you have always been.

Patricia, Tom, and Erin, you are all so talented and bring so much to the world and the people you love. I’m so glad you are the people who will be carrying on the spirit of this work in the years after I’m gone. The world is in good hands.

To my immensely patient spouse, Ted, who has brought a fellow writer’s understanding of the loves and heartaches, ups and downs of this writing project to our daily lives together: your belief in me and in my need to do this work is so generous and loving. I hope it earns you a really good seat in heaven and that I can support you at least as well. It’s hard to give you sufficient acknowledgment and gratitude. Please give me another 45 years to work on that!

Grateful acknowledgment is also made to the following for permission to reproduce the following copyrighted material. Reprinted by permission of the publishers. All rights reserved.

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Lietz, Irene. “ ‘When Do I Cross the Street?’ Roberta’s Guilty Reflection.” Journal of Expanded Perspectives on Learning vol. 21, Winter 2015–2016, pp. 100–113.

Lietz, Irene. “ ‘Anyone Can Hurt You’: Elaine’s Attack and Defense in Writing About Race.” Language Arts Journal of Michigan vol. 28, no. 2, Spring 2013, pp. 47–54.

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Ever since I was a child I have thought about race because I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. I say that not to demean Detroit or the suburbs in any way but to verbalize a reality of this area: we all seem to think about race all the time. Other cities have their own version of this phenomenon of “the social problem of the twentieth century [which] is to be the relation of the civilized world to the dark races of mankind,” as W.E. B. DuBois predicted (111). But Detroiters are somewhat obsessed with race and how we do it. In a recent three-month period, I read three books set in the city of Detroit that all featured the 1967 race rebellion as a key moment, even as a character. (See Eugenides, J. Middlesex; Maraniss, D. Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story; and Messer, S. Grand River and Joy.) Race and racism are central to the identity and cultural experience of anyone living in the Detroit area.

That’s not to say that we actually talk about race in any meaningful or productive way. More often, it is what is not said. People refer to “changing” neighborhoods, schools, strip malls, movie theaters. They debate whose fault it is that the city core—and now the city as a whole—has emptied out, spreading like a spilled can of motor oil in all directions from where it tipped at the hub of the “wheel” near downtown in the 1964 and 1967 uprisings.

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Even as today we talk hopefully about the rebirth of the city, how Detroit is “coming back” in a rush of gentrification, restaurants, lofts, casinos, stadiums, and a new two-mile transit system, it’s all tinged with a certain cynicism, knowing the corruption and mismanagement that has led to schools almost beyond repair and a too-close view of a poisoned water system just up I-75 in Flint. Race in Detroit, in America, all seems overwhelming and hopeless. But still we hope.

This book comes from a place deep in my heart. When the opportunity arose for my spouse and me to return to Detroit after 30 years away, having grown up, raised our family, and ached at every “Imported from Detroit” Chrysler ad, we were excited to find a home in one of the old, “inner-ring” suburbs that itself was undergoing revival. I wanted a close-in seat from which to work, to see if we could help in the recovery somehow.

I felt I had work to do, both personal and professional. In Pittsburgh for the previous 13 years, I had learned to call my discomfort “liberal White guilt” out of “White privilege” that I had sensed but had not named before. With the help of the YWCA, whose mission is “Eliminating racism, Empowering women,” I made some typical White person discoveries at their anti-racism workshops: with pain, I learned I had responsibility for race in America, even if though I personally hadn’t owned slaves or even been direct party to the federal lawsuits that my suburban hometown, Warren, MI, had filed to keep “Negroes” from buying in our “safe” neighborhoods. I realized with great regret that I had passed on to our children the same racial fears that I grew up with because, as nice and egalitarian as we believed ourselves to be in the suburbs, none of us really knew anyone different from ourselves and were a little afraid. We lived in a separate world and believed racism was a problem that other people had, that was too big for us to fix personally.

But the YWCA spoke to me; I heard—really heard—for the first time about being a White ally, about working together to equalize opportunity, about creating social change. I read, workshopped, dialogued, and participated in protests with new courage probably born of the desire to end this longstanding guilt, more than anything, although I told myself it was my sense of justice. There is more to this story that I will share later.

This book is about the hope we all carry that things can be different, perhaps even that we can help make that difference a reality by what we do in our classrooms. The point of this book is to give readers—other educators and those who care about education—time and space to consider the specific, different responses of four female students to writing about race while ←2 | 3→learning to write on the college level. Admittedly, the book only examines four students: three White students and one who identifies as Middle Eastern (Lebanese), who are not inclusive of every race, sex, gender, religion, ethnicity, personality or every response to such a course. This book is not intended as a comprehensive sociological study but instead it is an in-depth, rich portrait of real people readers may recognize from their classrooms, their campuses, their neighborhoods, their families who have real fears, concerns, insights, dreams, and disappointments. These four women represent multiple aspects of student lives and efforts to understand and meaningfully participate in our highly racialized society.

My belief is that by closely examining the students’ words and thoughts, readers will become better teachers and even perhaps better people or at least people who are happier with themselves and their way of being in the world. They will (1) see themselves or aspects of themselves in students’ responses to race that might otherwise bewilder, embarrass, or even shock them if they occurred in their own classroom; (2) better understand the sources of the students’ reactions and concerns so as to respond productively and generously to similar responses in their students; (3) perceive racial identity development as a neglected but crucial facet of student learning that begs for cross-curricular, interdisciplinary attention from all of us; (4) and understand how to adopt greater openness to repairing the inevitable gaps in their own racial identity awareness so as to be able to move outside of their comfort zones in tackling these hot topics with their students who are calling for them to do so.

It is a book for English and Writing instructors, whether in high school, college, or university, who teach writing through empowering student voice. But it may also be for teachers of other disciplines who want to engage their students in skills development in racial and multicultural competency, as an aspect of their disciplinary knowledge.

This book comes from many places, both personal and professional. I sought out the experiences of others, but found my immediate colleagues were focused on other concerns in a small, struggling, teaching-focused liberal arts college, including new research pressures as we transitioned to a university. They had their own overload related to literature and poetry, not writing and race. It felt as if no one understood what I was talking about. Students avoiding race talk? Why are you talking about race in a writing class? Isn’t that counseling, sociology, psychology?

When I read Anne Green’s “Difficult Stories,” I almost heard angels sing. She bravely told the story of her student’s cognitive dissonance and racism ←3 | 4→that was prompted by their service-learning experience in the university’s predominantly Black and poor neighborhood. Her White students’ withdrew in fright and racial stereotype from the project meant to engage them with the neighboring Black community. Moreover, Green wasn’t sure exactly what to do differently, given the realities of lives—her students’ and the neighbors’—in a highly racialized society. She knew they were growing in their writing and racial awareness but it was a struggle for them and for her. I was sad for her and her students, but excited as well. There were others doing this work and, more importantly, wondering about how to best do it. I couldn’t stop talking about Green’s brave confessions of apparent failure to move her students to critical consciousness or even empathy. “This is the work I would do with a Ph.D. if I could,” I relayed to my spouse, my mother, my colleagues. “Then why not do it?” they said.

Why not? Because I was 52 years old with a 30+-year-old master’s degree and would be 56 years old when I graduated with a doctorate. Because I’m an English teacher, not a counselor, sociologist, or psychologist. More to the point, because I’m a White person with a good friend who is Black, as the stereotype of liberal Whites goes, but with whom I have never talked about race. And because I’m afraid.

I’m not entirely sure why I decided to move ahead anyway. I suspect I hoped there were intellectual answers to the conundrum of race, a brain-path out of this social and emotional mess that would not go away. Some (many?) of us in higher education live in our heads: we think another article, another study, another research project will yield the missing piece to all knowledge. As I studied for my doctorate, I soon found more colleagues in the books and journals I’d thought had little to say to me about this work. With a vengeance I also collected census data, poverty and educational disparity stats and joblessness analyses, stories of housing and job discrimination, and current events that evidenced race as a continuing social problem that just needed to be surfaced for good people to understand, embrace, and make right. I thought anti-racist change was an intellectual, rational challenge: we all just needed more knowledge to understand and I’d have roomsful of new racial justice advocates. So I found ways to share all this new information with my students; as I learned, they could learn. They wrote about race in the context of learning to write to inform, argue, and persuade. I brought the YWCA and other speakers to my classes, and required readings on race and other social problems. I thought I had some answers.

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But not everyone else thought so. Despite my best intentions, students—and my colleagues—did not always think it was a good idea to tackle racial awakening in the context of a writing class. While some went along with the program, as always, many more woke up to resistance, fighting and rejecting both the facts and the logic, even the evidence of their classmates’ experiences of difference. Emotions ran high. Every class period was marked by great moments of insight but also painful, even shocking revelations of bias and prejudice. Students were certainly engaged with the topic but at times seemed to feel they were fighting for their very lives. I sometimes felt the same, wondering if this Pandora’s box I’d opened was just too much for a first-year writing class, even though their writing was much more interesting and real than before.

Gradually, as I learned more about Whiteness, privilege, and dialogue, I overcame the first shock of their stereotypes and strong judgments and realized they weren’t angry at me but at the racial situation in our society. Once I wasn’t as afraid of it, their resistance actually began to intrigue me. It came in so many varieties and in many different packages. They obviously needed something more to be able to resolve their resistances to our race work.

Significantly too, even as they struggled against our race talk, students were fully engaged. The race-themed writing course was challenging their identities, who they thought they were and what they thought they knew. It was up close and personal even as it was study of rhetoric and contemporary social issues. To my thinking, it demonstrated the findings of a Harvard study of novice writers that students developed significant writing skill by making a personal commitment to a topic that they might return to repeatedly, crafting a writer identity, engaging with the profession, finding a personal stake and niche (Sommers and Saltz). My students had something to say about race and it related to their future selves, sometimes in the discipline, others just as human beings who were puzzled about the meaning of existence and how to shape their own response to life.

This book is a snapshot of that process. By capturing the reactions and responses of some of the students who took the course, the book closely examines that experience and begins to decipher its meanings. It’s an opportunity to hear their voices, their struggles, their hopes and dreams, and to begin to imagine the kinds of changes needed in a writing curriculum, a college or university, even in the field of rhetoric and/or writing studies that might better meet the needs of the students and the teachers like those who are the subject of this story.

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Key Questions This Book Will Answer

Ultimately, the point of sharing my narrative and these interviews is to provide just such a rich description of what some might find obvious but which is underdocumented in the literature: (1) White college students bring with them to college all the prejudices of their earlier upbringing that has been reinforced by the “smog” of racism in American society (Tatum 6); (2) biracial and students of color suffer differently in this White-normed environment; (3) students need race education, that is teaching and learning about racial identity and the impacts and contexts of the “White racial frame” in which we live (Feagin); (4) their teachers need this education also; (5) anti-racism is hard work; (6) racism will not end because we wish it would; we need to take direct action against it. This is the argument of this book, addressed in the following questions:

1. How does racial awareness or identity develop, particularly in college-age young people?

2. How do they respond to racial difference?

3. How do their responses play out in the classroom and in academic inquiry into topics that challenge predominant racial stereotypes?

4. Do their responses to and understanding of race and racial identity change over the course of the semester?

5. Do they change over the course of their college career?

6. How does a teacher respond to student responses to talk about race?

7. What are a teacher’s responsibilities and/or options in responding to student talk about race?

8. What is a university’s responsibility to its students and teachers in a racialized society?

Summary of the Chapters

The chapters can be read in any order but make the most sense as a rhetorical argument and in terms of inter-chapter references if they are read in a linear, numerical order. Note that each chapter ends with a section, “What I Wish I Had Said,” that applies some hindsight to the student interviews. I focus particularly on a two-step process I have subsequently learned: to listen compassionately but then challenge the inherent prejudice with several simple ←6 | 7→questions. Together the active listening and the follow-up questions reliably acknowledge the volatile feelings and misinformation in the room and then facilitate the exploration of some clarifying context drawn from the course content and the diverse experiences among us, the students and teachers.

I summarize all the chapters briefly here for readers with a variety of needs in this moment who want to decide how (or whether) to read the book.

Chapter 1 How to Survive, Manage, and Even Encourage Race Talk

Students, like most White people, don’t intend to be racist but lack support from teachers, schools, and their other social institutions in understanding their own racial identities and the differences of others around them. Similarly, for a variety of reasons, the teacher’s response to a racially insensitive comment generally falls within the White racial frame (Feagin), that is it reinforces White norms, again without recourse to more racially aware narratives or the skills to manage hot topics, like race. The book offers deep listening followed by some questions that, as illustrated in Chapters 26, could interrupt and thoughtfully transform an offensive or misinformed moment into a learning dialogue, answering the perennial teacher question, “What do I say when …?” The questions offered for use are: (1) What is your story? Where did that reaction come from? (2) Does anyone else have a different experience? (3) Does anyone know the history of that term/situation? (4) Where does the reading/film say that? And (5) Has anyone seen any data related to that idea/situation?

Chapter 2 Methodology and Literature: Does Anyone Know the History of That Term/Situation?

The chapter describes the methodology of the IRB-approved, qualitative, longitudinal study of four students who participated in my race-themed first-year writing classes and a sampling of the literature that grounds the argument of the book and the analysis of the student interviews. The argument of the book is that students and their teachers suffer from the prejudices taught to them early in childhood, derived and reinforced by the White racial frame of our historically racialized U.S. society. College classrooms can be sites of racial encounter, particularly if the curriculum includes discussion about or study of race as a social identity. The classroom is an opportunity to explore racial ←7 | 8→identity in ways that enable both students and teachers to learn about and enact an ally identity, but all participants need to understand how to support such exploration and to feel confident of institutional support for this difficult social justice work.

Chapter 3 Annabell

Annabell is an eager, smart learner who wants to engage fully in the subject at hand, particularly when it stirs her sense of justice. She dives into the intellectual challenge of crafting a new identity that better acknowledges the continuing existence of racism and its privilege, but rejects her association with it, typifying an incomplete accommodation to this new identity. Ironically, her differentiating herself becomes her activism by the time she is a college senior in ways I find very reminiscent of myself as instructor. Thus together, she and I illustrate an intellectualized activism that shapes a new if sometimes incomplete anti-racist White identity.

Chapter 4 Roberta

Roberta epitomized for me the White student—or teacher—who believes it important to call out racism when she sees it and to name the evil among us so that we have some hope of someday eliminating it. Yet in her senior year of college, she seemed to be treading water in the same racial identity place she described in her first year, that is she could not imagine herself acting against racism in any public way. I now believe that she and I, as well as other White people in the class, were caught in the gap between what we came to see as necessary revision of our White identities and our emotional attachment to our past image of ourselves. The difficulties that Roberta faced are not only symptomatic of her courageous battle with White socialization but provide a clarion call for us all to do better by her and all of our students.

Chapter 5 Elaine

The fear in Elaine’s eyes seemed to magnify their whites, yet there was a perpetual smile on her lips as she sat in the chair next to my desk in the privacy of my office. She clearly did not want to alienate me with her harsh racist words but she felt driven to make her point: I wasn’t understanding her life experience. She wanted to know, what did any of this talk about racism have ←8 | 9→to do with the essays we were writing in our first-year composition class? Why couldn’t we all just get along and stop talking about race? It only made things worse between the “colored” people and the rest of us. She also told of the fear she felt on the city bus that she perceived as filled with Black people who regarded her and her boyfriend with fear and suspicion as she clutched his arm. Where does this fear come from? How does it work? What could I understand that would help students respond to this fear in a constructive manner? Teachers need to recognize these fears, understand their sources, and find ways to incorporate their constituent resistance into the learning experience.

Chapter 6 Madeline

Madeline could talk an arm off the Venus de Milo. A student who identified as Middle Eastern but appeared White, due to her Irish heritage, she loved the opportunity to “finally” talk about race, racism, and White privilege in America. It seemed everyone at school and in Pittsburgh lived in a different world that didn’t see or “get” what she thought was obvious, common sense; she was out of place, out of sync and alone, and no one would listen to her protest about this situation. As the only student of color in this project and one of few in the class itself, Madeline’s stories and opinions provide insights on the student who brings to the classroom an experience of difference, causing her to struggle to find her footing, her voice, and her identity. How can a critical classroom pedagogy meet the divergent, even oppositional needs of the students of color who are already keenly aware of the failure of our society to adequately grapple with racial inequity? At the same time, how can the classroom educate and hold accountable the White students, their teachers and institutions, who fearfully resist awareness of racism and their complicity in maintaining a “white racial frame” (Feagin)?

Chapter 7 Next Steps

At this point in the book, readers may be asking, “But where do I start?” In the first section of this chapter, DiAngelo responds, “How do you not know?” She shows readers how their White fragility that has caused them to turn aside rather than see what must be done. DiAngelo offers readers manageable activities to help them get rid of whatever is in the way of seeing the next steps. In section two, Asao Inoue challenges readers (and me) to pay attention to the embedded racism in the English language and in the field. He argues ←9 | 10→teachers need to let go of Standard Edited American English as the only standard by which to judge students’ ideas so that educators can free themselves, students, and institutions from “the steel cage of White supremacy.” The story of my student James suggests both the problem and solution. Section three features Mara Grayson’s racial literacy curriculum ideas from small to large, an approach for every size ambition. Finally, I suggest readers find a buddy or better yet, buddies to help make their hopes and visions really happen.

A Note About Capitalization and
Terminology with a Cordial Invitation

Although this book follows Modern Language Association (MLA) style, MLA does not comment on the capitalization of racial or ethnic groups. So, in this book on this matter, I have chosen to abide by the American Psychological Association (APA). In its listing, “Racial and Ethnic Identity,” APA simply says, “Racial and ethnic groups are designated as proper nouns and are capitalized. Therefore, use Black and White instead of black and white (the use of colors to refer to other human groups currently is considered pejorative and should not be used)” (italics original). Thus, in this book, readers will see capitalization for African American, Black, White, and Whiteness, except where a quoted author has not capitalized. However, there is more to consider about this choice.

Notably when I began this racial identity project in the early part of this century, I was advised that the standard was to capitalize African American and sometimes Black but not White. This idea aligns with a journalistic standard at The New York Times and the Columbia Journalism Review (Perlman). But, consider more closely the justification provided by the DiversityInc. Blogger that Perlmann quotes who says, “I do not believe ‘white,’ needs to be capitalized because people in the majority don’t think of themselves that way.”

That damaging belief in the normalcy and transparency of Whiteness is precisely one of the points of this book. White people are often unaware that they too have a race in our racialized society. Their resistance to being called White is a tactic of the color-blindness that reinforces the White privilege of racial dominance. Anti-racist rhetorician Krista Ratcliffe explains that the effects of such denial of ownership of a racial identity are, “It allows whites to become voyeurs of race, it targets non-white people as the only ones for whom race is an issue, and consequently, it enables whiteness to remain invisible and ←10 | 11→unarticulated as a ‘color’ or, more precisely, as a racial coding that intersects gender and other cultural categories” (Ratcliffe 89). Such invisibility of how Whiteness operates has cloaked American history’s cruel and bloody White supremacy in righteousness, fairness, and opportunity for all when it is in fact a “dual and dueling history of racial progress and simultaneous progression of racism,” as historian Ibram Kendi (x) so shockingly documents (italics original).

White denial of and lack of accountability for that history is why I have chosen to capitalize White and Whiteness. I want to call out the reality of White racial identity as a cultural and political force, thus equally recognizing all racial terms as “social classifications rather than innate biological characteristics” (Grayson xvii). This naming of White, in particular, is an effort to remove the privileged hidden normalization of “White” as the standard against which all other groups are seen as different and inferior. It is, perhaps, a way people can begin to see and hear each other truly as persons with common needs and desires.

In addition, as explained elsewhere, three of the four student interviews included in this book are from students who identify as White, but one identifies as Mediterranean or Lebanese, as well as Irish or White. As I discovered in her interview, it is her Lebanese heritage that she holds most strongly and feels sets her apart as an outsider. Almost at the same time as that interview, the United States Census Bureau began considering the addition of a separate Middle Eastern, North African, or Arab (MENA) option to the current five race categories on the national census form (White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander) as well as Some Other Race (U.S. Census Bureau “Race”). Census Bureau research has indicated that MENA members have been identifying as White when there is not a MENA option (U.S. Census Bureau “Research”) and the Bureau wants to correct that behavior. But National Public Radio (NPR) reports that other community members prefer MENA to be categorized as ethnicity rather than race, and as a result, MENA will not appear on the 2020 census (Wang). This government and internal community struggle demonstrates the socially constructed nature of both race and ethnicity, rather than any essential biology or geography. It also reflects the distress of Otherness and the White normativity that complicates all social interaction, including that my Lebanese student suffered, as readers will see. Although certainly the four students in this book are not representative of all students or even all White people, their struggles with the complexity of race and racialization in our society definitely are symptomatic of the ongoing ←11 | 12→pain and many dilemmas created by our society’s perverse need to categorize people.

As such, I invite readers to share in this complex story about racial identity, to hear these voices, to consider them from the perspective of their own experience and that of their students, institutions, and colleagues. Many teachers have been trying for a long time to have conversations about the difficulty of living and teaching in a racialized society. I hope that this book will resonate, inform, and encourage teachers to seek out other ways and opportunities to talk about race, to tell their stories, and to provide more space for others to tell theirs in ways that help everyone move towards greater justice.

Works Cited

DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility. Beacon Press, 2018.

Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Present Outlook for the Dark Races of Mankind.” The Problem of the Color Line at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, edited by Nahum Dimitri Chandler. Fordham University, 2014, pp. 111–137.

Feagin, Joe R. The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. Routledge, 2010.

Grayson, Mara Lee. Teaching Racial Literacy: Reflective Practices for Critical Writing. Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Green, Ann E. “Difficult Stories: Service-Learning, Race, Class and Whiteness.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 55, no. 2, 2003, pp. 276–301.

Inoue, Asao B. “How Do We Language So People Stop Killing Each Other, or What Do We Do About White Language Supremacy?.” Conference on College Composition and Communication, Keynote address, 14 March 2019.

Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Nation Books, 2016.

Perlman, Merrill. “Black and White: Why Capitalization Matters.” Columbia Journalism Review, 2015. 22 June 2019.

“Racial and Ethnic Identity.” Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, edited by Gary R. VandenBos. American Psychological Association, 2010, pp. 75–76.

Ratcliffe, Krista. “Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretive Invention and a ‘Code of Cross-Cultural Conduct’.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 51, no. 2, 1999, pp. 195–224.

Sommers, Nancy and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 56, no. 1, 2004, pp. 124–149.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race. Basic Books, 2003.

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U.S. Census Bureau. “Race.” U.S. Census Bureau 23 Jan 2018 https://www.census.gov/topics/population/race/about.html. Accessed 28 June 2019.

—. “Research to Improve Data on Race and Ethnicity.” U.S. Census Bureau 6 March 2017 https://www.census.gov/about/our-research/race-ethnicity.html. Accessed 28 June 2019.

Wang, Hansi Lo. “No Middle Eastern or North African Category on 2020 Census, Bureau Says.” National Public Radio, 29 Jan 2018.

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In her incisive, insightful book, Rethinking Racism: Emotion, Persuasion, and Literacy in an All-White High School, Jennifer Trainor’s introduction to her argument forecasts the structure of this first chapter. Speaking of White student racism, she says it

… does not necessarily arise from a need or desire to protect White privilege, from ignorance of oppression, or from lack of exposure to difference. As long as the origins of racism are seen in these terms, curricular and pedagogical responses aimed at ameliorating racism—everything from multicultural exposure to difference to critical interrogations of Whiteness and privilege—will be ineffective … [R];emedying [student racism] requires attention to the private, idiosyncratic, associative meanings of race for students, to the institutional contexts of schooling that inadvertently provide emotional scaffolding for racist discourses, and to the relationship between these two as they come together in the classroom. (3–4)

Trainor, an associate professor of composition studies, lays out the three-part focus of her call for change and now mine: students, teachers, and the schools. As the student interviews in this book illustrate, students in our high school, college, and university classes across the disciplines are struggling to make sense of the racism that they have come to see on our campuses, in society, and in themselves. Until this encounter with new information and ←15 | 16→experience, they have been unaware of the White racial frame, to use sociologist Joe Feagin’s term, that has influenced their earliest interactions with family members and people of color, as well as the color of the peoples they were schooled with in a curriculum that bestows honor and attention on White people often at the expense of the rest of the story about the accomplishments and the oppression of people of color.

In terms of the student focus of this book, each of the chapters examines the students’ particular personal responses to a race-themed course, their words and attitudes, in the light of Ratcliffe’s catalogue of resistances (138–139), Baxter Magolda’s student development theory, Trainor’s focus on emotion and race, as well as others. Readers may recognize that while not comprehensive, their comments are fairly universal and generalizable to many other students in our classrooms, as well as to faculty and staff in some cases. Each story and analysis serves as the starting point to the reader’s implicit question, “So what can I do about that kind of comment when it happens in my classroom?” Sometimes, as in the case of Madeline and Elaine, I confess ineffective teacher responses or at least my sense of inadequacy in fully supporting the learning efforts of Annabelle and Roberta. Please consider these as object lessons in what not to do. So as not to leave readers hanging on a limb, each chapter also provides a brief consideration of how they might respond to such a student generally using strategies that might seem to contradict each other but recognize both the emotional scaffolding, to use Trainor’s term (3–4), and the informational needs implicit in every student’s story: compassionate listening and critical challenge.

But, I regret, these chapters are not a complete how-to package. Toxic classroom environments and campus life microaggressions are not a student problem, that is “fixing” the students will not make the problem(s) go away. Included in an institutional critique and reform agenda has to be a compassionate indictment of our teacher selves, myself included. As mentioned in the Intro and discussed in Chapter 2, we are products and promulgators of a system that fails to prepare us to live together with respect and dignity across the color lines. As Trainor indicates above, racism is largely not about people with malicious intent. There is no point in wasting time on blame or guilt. If we become as defensive as many of our students do, we are all stuck. We need to do our own remedial homework. But this work is not on our shoulders alone.

This chapter will also begin to name the support we need from our workplaces to make greater justice more possible and sustainable. What is the role and responsibility of the institutions within which we teachers live and work? ←16 | 17→As Chapter 2 and some of the student interviews suggest, our high schools, colleges, and universities need to recognize and respond to the pedagogical crisis that a racialized society creates in our classrooms. To do less, to continue to omit or ignore that work, will ensure the continued failure of our schools to adequately prepare students to build and maintain sustainable communities, cities, even nations.

Starting with Us: Why Teachers Fear Race
Talk and How They Avoid It

Teachers may fear allowing or focusing discussion on race for multiple reasons. Chief among these is their own fear of talking about race. Sue reports on the work of Pasque as well as his own work with Torinio: “Despite this strong belief [in the value of diversity], most teachers report making few changes to facilitate race talk, and feel uncomfortable and unprepared to deal with potentially heated exchanges on the topic” (Sue 65). When faced with a microaggression or potential confrontation about race or identity, Sue notes that teachers generally respond with various kinds of avoidance (cognitive, emotional, behavioral) and take one of five damaging courses of (non)action: do nothing, sidetrack the conversation, appease the participants, terminate the discussion, and/or become defensive (Sue 230–234). As discussed in Chapter 2, educators are subject to the assaults and influences of a pervasively racialized society just like everyone else. No one is immune; we are all “smog breathers,” to repeat Tatum’s metaphor (Tatum 6). Our knowledge, on some level, of our compromised abilities to function freely and without bias makes us fearful of the moments in which we might let slip our carefully managed demeanor on the “front stage” (Houts Picca and Feagin) in mixed groups or in situations where we are called upon to talk about race, even in homogenous classrooms.

Teachers are often afraid of feeling ambushed by student race talk and risking betrayal of their own involuntary racism, and for White teachers, their “White fragility”, as DiAngelo names it. Because we are captives of our socialization into

… a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to our selves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress ←17 | 18→is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being White has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate White equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as White fragility. Though White fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement. White fragility is not weakness per se. In fact, it is a powerful means of White racial control and the protection of White advantage. (2)

I recognize my own fragility. I have felt that rush of adrenaline and embarrassment at comments that reveal the participants’ overt and/or more subtle racism; I have been paralyzed by fear of speaking out and speaking up, as my pulse pounded in my temples. In other words, I have been triggered by my students as I am sure my students have been triggered by other students in our class or even me, that is set off emotionally by someone else’s words. Adams, Bell, and Griffin, in their seminal Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, identify emotional triggers as individual or institutional acts that cause a feeling of psychological threat, either for ourselves or for another social group. How are emotional triggers and student (teacher) resistance to race talk related? People, especially teachers who are invested in managing classroom learning, want to avoid these triggered moments when they feel out of control or on the verge of not being able to control their emotions appropriately. They want ways to step back from their discomfort, panic, and/or cognitive dissonance that arises when they encounter racist talk or even legitimate but foreign perspectives on race and others’ racial identity experiences. Adams, et al note a range of responses that include familiar but often ineffective strategies, such as leaving the site, avoidance, silence, attack, internalization, rationalization, confusion, shock, and misinterpretation (Adams et al. Appendix 3B). For many instructors, it seems suicidal to introduce a hot topic like race or to allow discussion to meander in that direction, the stuff of teacher nightmares at 2:00 a.m.

Some teachers lately and bravely raised this spectre at a recent local professional conference where I presented my experience of co-facilitating a faculty-staff intergroup dialogue study group. The English-teacher audience completed an anonymous self-report inventory of their confidence levels that they could respond in affirmative ways to microaggressions in their classroom. I had developed the inventory informally from Derald Wing Sue’s list of ←18 | 19→“Successful Strategies: Eleven Potentially Positive Actions,” (234–244). The first two items are my own creation, followed by those based on Sue.

Self-Inventory Please respond to each of the following statements by indicating your level of confidence that you could perform the following actions in a classroom or workplace setting (4 = very confident, 0 = no confidence).

1. I can recognize and respond to racial or other social identity stereotypes.


2. I welcome talk about race or other social identities in my classes.


3. I understand the history of and feel comfortable in my own racial and cultural identity.


4. I can acknowledge and be open to admitting my own racial biases.


5. I am comfortable and open to discussing topics of race and racism.


6. I understand the meanings of emotions that emerge in race talk.


7. I know how to validate and facilitate discussion of such feelings in race talk.


8. I seek to control the process and not the content of race talk.


←19 |

9. I know how to unmask difficult dialogue through process observations and interventions.


10. I do not allow a difficult dialogue to be brewed in silence.


11. I understand differences in communication styles in race talk.


12. I foresee, forewarn, plan, and purposefully instigate race talk.


13. In race talk, I validate, encourage, and express admiration and appreciation for participants to speak when it is unsafe to do so.


When I asked the conference session participants how they felt in completing the inventory, there was a moment of silence, and then, “Uncomfortable.” “Unprepared.” “Anxious.” And then, surprisingly, “Fired up!” Once they processed what the last respondent said, the others were grateful for her positive energy: she was eager to have finally the chance to think together about approaches that might help us all. We had a brief, productive session, including another instructor’s valuable input described in the next section, and several people approached me after the presentation to share more about their own experiences and concerns.

We teachers need more such moments to talk to each other about how to talk about race in our classes and institutions. As I have talked to my colleagues about the writing of this book, most have expressed similar feelings. The level of anxiety is high about where and how to get help in this matter. The timing is actually perfect. Just as we come to a so-called minority majority as a society, more and more of us are resolved to find ways to meet this challenge. The reality, though, is that we need help, from each other and from ←20 | 21→our institutions. This book is a step in that direction, a conversation starter between the reader and the many scholars I’ve cited, as well as myself.

Compassionate Listening, Critical Challenge, and More

Another of the college instructors who attended the conference session I mentioned earlier asked a question that motivated much of our discussion. Without detracting from anything I had presented about the value of a faculty-staff intergroup dialogue study group, he asked simply, “But what do I say when students say something racist in class?” He went on to clarify that the students do not mean to be racist but often lack the vocabulary or background to even enter a “hot topic” discussion without being offensive in some way. As the interviews in this book indicate, this phenomenon is not uncommon. In fact, it’s what most of us fear and is often the reason teachers hesitate to even open the opportunity for dialogue about race.

My heart went out to the college instructor at the conference immediately. I had been in his shoes and it was clear that many others in the room had been there too. I told him that my go-to response to students who are feeling the need to defend themselves as good White people is, “Why do you say that? What experience have you had that makes you say it that way?” Strategically, that gives me some time to calm my own defenses and fears, to take a breath before challenging their misinformation, and think about my response to the emotion in the student comment before trying to engage their brains in a logical rebuttal of facts. In a rhetorical move of compassion for the way our segregated society has set us all up to struggle with difference, I want to invite the students to step back from a fearful precipice and tell the story that may anchor—and give me clues into—their mindset, or actually, their heart-set.

The teacher’s question made me realize that I was carrying around a list of such questions and strategies that helped me structure what used to be a scary, avoid-at-all-costs moment in my classes. The basic approach is to engage the speakers first, to give the space to tell their own story so that they feel heard, their emotions recognized. But it’s a two-step: when the speakers feel a little validated as people—not necessarily their words or ideas—there is an opening for a critical challenge. I can ask, “Has anyone had a different experience with that?” or “What is the history of that term?” or “What does the reading ←21 | 22→(or film) have to say about that?” or “Has anyone come across any data that challenges that?” In other words, engaging us all in a few moments of compassionate listening can shift the tone and open (or keep open) the dialogue about the issues that we all wish we knew how to talk about together.

Thus, a moment of acknowledgment: I have not consciously appropriated my questions and strategies from any one source. To my knowledge, they are a sort of amalgamation and classroom application based on my teaching experience and the work of many other social justice teachers and scholars. As readers have no doubt recognized, my work is built on the work of many others, many of whom I discuss in Chapter 2. But that provenance has brought me to this new, pragmatic place.

To summarize, the approach starts with …

1. What is your story? Where did that reaction come from? Then …

2. Does anyone else have a different experience?

3. Does anyone know the history of that term/situation?

4. Where does the reading/film say that?

5. Has anyone seen any data related to that idea/situation?

As I said, this approach and these questions are not revolutionary or even unique. Readers may have posed similar questions in other settings. In fact, these questions recall but are a more compact form of the “Useful Questions for Dialogue Facilitation” developed by the Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) at the University of Michigan. Intergroup Dialogues (IGD) is

… a face-to-face facilitated learning experience that brings together students from different social identity groups over a sustained period of time to understand their commonalities and differences, examine the nature and impact of societal inequalities, and explore ways of working together toward greater equality and social justice. (Zuniga et al. 2)

IGD’s combination of “content learning,” “structured interaction,” and “facilitative guidance” over a semester-long college class has been shown over its 20+ year history to be “associated positively with a host of measures of cognitive, sociocognitive, diversity attitudes, democratic sentiments, and voting behavior,” as Pat Gurin notes in the forward to one of the facilitator handbooks (Maxwell et al. xviii). Of course, the questions that facilitators use in debriefing the IGD experiences are key to their remarkable success, but IGD’s structure as a class makes it difficult to utilize as an intervention in a different class, as discussed later.

←22 | 23→

This book’s compassionate listening-critical challenge approach could also be considered an application of Ratcliffe’s list of resistances (138–139) that she directly teaches to her students for their use in recognizing and naming their own responses to hot-button issues. The questions might be used before the “naming” of a behavior, laying the dialogic groundwork for debriefing and self-reflection afterwards. Similarly, the approach can serve as a way into Sue’s list of successful strategies for developing and acting on critical race consciousness (233–234) that were the basis of the self-inventory, mentioned earlier.

My point is that the two-step compassionate listening and critical challenge, applied to a racial dialogue or to a discussion that teeters on the brink of an umanageable morass, creates thinking space for me in potentially explosive and hurtful emotional terrain. The reason the approach works in the classroom, even and especially when the tone is getting heated and honest, is that it activates the critical thinking about emotions and personal experiences, bridging personal experience and learned emotion with data and evidence that can be brought to bear in the discussion. In Chapter 2 and numerous other points in this book, I discuss Trainor’s finding of the emotional disconnect that the high school students who were the focus of her research study experienced between their class’s critical race study and the color blindness that their schooling generally taught as the appropriate American civic response to identity stereotypes and inequity. The approach works because it makes room in the dialogue for race-inflected emotions in the context of the rational, fact-based elements. Brought together in a dialogic setting instead of in Cartesian opposition, emotions with facts can create a paradigmatic shift in a critical inquiry about race and identity.

In this way, the two-step mimics an aspect of the design of the University of Michigan Intergroup Dialogues (IGD) model, giving “explicit attention to content and process” and touching on at least two of the three “dimensions of learning—cognitive, affective, and behavioral” (Zuniga et al. 21).

Compassionate listening with critical challenge draws students back to the cognitive content of the course while also making space for their previous formal and informal learning and experience, that is, the emotional process. The approach gives pedagogical structure to an exploration of the volatile mix of the past (emotions) and the present (factual content).

As a close cousin or even offspring of IGD, the two-step begins to “help surface these [social identity bias] issues and to help participants work through them” as University of Michigan professor Mark Chesler explains the task ←23 | 24→in “The Role of Facilitators,” an unpublished handout from the Program on Intergroup Relations’ annual Intergroup Dialogues Institute . Although referring to active work on social justice issues in general, not the two-step approach discussed in this book, Chesler names the specific mechanisms for surfacing bias in the following bulleted list, activities also generated by compassionate listening with critical challenge:

Surface stereotypes

Explore areas of discomfort

Challenge misinformation and ignorance

Access and interpret available sources of knowledge in texts/research

Mediate antagonism and distrust

Surface underlying (or unstated) differences and conflicts

Work target-agent issues within groups and across groups

Help participants understand multiple social group identities

Help participants understand the structural origins and dynamics of inequality/oppression/privilege

Ask participants to be specific about their experiences, views, and their implications

Help participants move between the “in here” and the “out there,” between the personal and the abstract, between the mind and the heart

Invite participants to join alliances to act for change

The Intergroup Dialogues (IGD), as theorized, practiced, and studied by the Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan, provides a richer, fuller pedagogy for the development of critical consciousness than my triage approach does. I have incorporated IGD readings and hands-on activities, as learned at the annual Institute, in several of my composition classes, as well as in other formats and settings. I am a fan and deeply appreciate its power and scholarly legacy.

But most of us find ourselves in courses and settings that are not set up for Intergroup Dialogues due to constraints (time, curriculum, culture, professional development, and more). I will not suggest using the two-step as an alternative to structured dialogue. It would not work very well outside of a “sustained and intimate engagement across differences” (Zuniga et al. 20) that is a setting that allows participants to trust the group during uncomfortable encounters with other truths. Given that assumption, though, compassionate listening with critical challenge can be a tool for the instructor faced with an ←24 | 25→immediate teachable moment that she doesn’t want to let slip away. In that way, the two-step can be a passport into important and timely race talk that the teacher might not otherwise undertake or permit.

In writing this book, I realized that I use the two-step to activate the mechanisms that help surface bias, as Chesler puts it, in my classes and workshops. But I didn’t start there. As suggested by the “What I Wish I Had Said” at the end of each chapter in this book, I was not really prepared to respond to the students included in this book in this way. I wasn’t ready yet to understand what I needed to do and why. That only came later, with the help of many more knowledgeable colleagues and friends, particularly friends of color.

What I’m saying now, which may be obvious, is that (1) it is important for teachers to understand their own stances as they do this work, (2) it takes time for teachers to do their own personal “homework,” and (3) teachers need to be tutored in this work. White people—students, faculty, and staff—need to understand their Whiteness and how to overcome the White racial frame (Feagin), further discussed in Chapter 2. Depending upon their experiences, people of color—students, faculty, and staff—may also need a structural understanding of the White racial frame. People all need time, space, and guidance to learn to talk with each other through, not around, their differences and to counter the hegemonic influences of Whiteness that pervade their social lives, as well as their understandings of themselves. This work is a personal responsibility, one that many see as part of the job and professionalism. But teachers cannot do it adequately or sustainably without institutional support.

How and Why Schools, Colleges, and
Universities Can (Must) Help Teachers

As Robert Eddy and Victor Villanueva assert in their Language and Power Reader, “That bigotries are not what they used to be is not the same as progress; that we can toss the word diversity into institutions is not the same as addressing structural problems” (6). The hard work of teaching about race in the context of high school or college classes cannot happen in an institutional vacuum. As discussed in Chapter 2, teachers have a social, civic, and pedagogical responsibility to prepare students to be able to function competently, even comfortably, in a diverse but race-conscious society.

Moreover, the pay-offs for teaching about race are big. The University of Michigan’s legal defense of its race-conscious admissions policies included ←25 | 26→expert testimony from psychology and women’s studies professor Patricia Gurin in which she concluded that students engaged in diversity experiences, like the Intergroup Dialogues curriculum, made different choices about where they lived and worked, had more diverse friend groups, and were more likely to vote to redress racial inequality than their peers who did not participate in such diversity work (Gurin). In other studies, Gurin found that college students with significant and extended diversity experiences like intergroup dialogues “were living racially and ethnically integrated lives in the post-college world … This confirms that the long-term pattern of segregation noted by many social scientists can by broken by diversity experiences during college.” Kuh, et al. have further documented the learning gains inherent in pedagogy that actively engages students in the exploration of diverse perspectives.

In other words, a university commitment to supporting in-depth diversity experiences as part of the college education has a significant impact on both the student learning outcomes in college and on the social and civic behavior of students after college. But it takes an institutional commitment to making this kind of diversity experience possible for students and teachers, a permeating mission that can counter external social and political pressures from a society entrenched in a White racial frame, as sociologist Feagin has named it, and all its punishing, privileging race-conscious milieu.

Without such institutional awareness and commitment, the road for instructors is rocky. Examples of the difficulty of living and teaching about race without that institutional support are not hard to find. In a heart-wrenching narrative about being “out on a limb” as an instructor of color in the college classroom, Bonnie TuSmith tells her story and that of many others in which students dismissed, discounted, and insulted their teachers of color because they were not part of the White majority at the university, especially when they taught about race and privilege. Quoting conclusions from a three-year study by Trzyna and Abbott of students in an ethnic literature course, she notes the emotional and ultimately professional consequences of engaging students in race talk:

Teaching about race, gender, poverty, and other social and cultural differences is fraught with obstacles, and high on the list of those obstacles is grief, that complex bundle of hostility, sorrow, denial, bargaining, and other feelings that can manifest itself in many forms, including student protests … (qtd. inTuSmith 113)

Besides the day-to-day challenges of engaging students in study they find so emotionally disruptive, TuSmith describes the predictably negative effects ←26 | 27→on student evaluations of people of color who teach about social justice topics: “Most students do not associate emotional turmoil with a ‘good class’” and punish the instructor with low evaluations, which “renders the uniform use of course evaluations problematic. In my experience, the system is open to abuse” (113–114). As a result, TuSmith and others suffered difficulties with timely promotion, making instructor willingness or even ability to teach about race much less likely, no matter the mission of the educational institution.

While not the same as the effects on instructors of color, simply teaching counterhegemonic narratives also generally engenders negative student reactions. In a post-election 2016 innovation, emboldened conservative students developed a professor watch-list “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom” (Knott). Among those listed were two Notre Dame professors:

One is philosophy professor Gary Gutting, who is on the list, according to the watch list website, because he wrote that the country’s “permissive gun laws are a manifestation of racism.” That came from a 2015 analysis about gun laws that Gutting wrote for the New York Times. The other is Iris Outlaw, director of Multicultural Student Programs and Services at the Catholic university. She is on the list, the website says, because she “taught a ‘White privilege’ seminar that pledged to help students acknowledge and understand their White privilege.” (Strauss)

Though not a new idea, McCarthy-like watch lists have a chilling effect on the willingness of instructors of any color in any era to teach about hot topics, race included. At the same time, pundits are noting “the feel of a dispossessed youth rising up” in the alt-right (Kovaleski et al.) and “The beast of far-right populism is reawakening”(Potok). Teachers at all levels must feel free and empowered to respond with factual critical analysis and to be able to show their students how to understand what is happening in their world and how to respond in civil, socially responsible ways.

But as the participants in my earlier mentioned conference session noted, teachers at all levels are not prepared to take on this role. Rosenberg has found in her extensive work with pre-service K-12 teachers that they are “students from predominantly White teacher education programs who have struggled to give voice to their experience of coming to terms with educational biographies that were, for the most part, colored by privilege” (258). McIntyre’s study of White teachers indicts teaching and teacher education programs for their inability to accommodate student differences and racism in our society.

←27 |

The participants found it extremely difficult to make connections between societal structures, institutions, and their own positionalities as White teachers. And when they did make those connections, there was a tendency to minimize the resulting oppression for students of color, blame other Whites for the damage done, or both … (130)

Teachers may not be to blame for their difficulty in dealing with race in the classroom but they have a responsibility, McIntyre contends, to critically assess their teaching in the light of known information about institutional racism, whether or not that was part of their upbringing. Otherwise, her study concludes, teachers risk practicing a “caring without critique discourse that uncritically accepts the status quo,” and “limit[s]; the construction of knowledge and privilege[s] the dominant discourse.”. If teachers cannot or will not become informed about racism and craft their teaching in ways that respond to its effects, they risk damaging their students of color as well as their White students and maintain systemic racism.

There is more evidence of the power of teachers to disrupt racism in education and thus change our society, if they are willing and take action. Goodburn calls for teachers and researchers to understand how Whiteness is a privileging color in our classrooms and society, and “how we, as teachers and researchers, read and write our students as ‘raced’ texts” (Goodburn 72). Pimental’s indictment of composition classrooms notes the fear and lack of social or institutional support for countering underlying the White European American (WEA) norm and its resulting de facto racist pedagogy. To fail, to be unable or afraid to interrogate our own privilege and Whiteness and its many impacts on our teaching and our positioning of our students, leaves us in an oppressive position, as Gilyard describes: “Not to [deconstruct race] in the contexts in which we work, is to confirm the prevailing discourse and to be implicated in the maintenance of an exploitative social order to the exact extent that said discourse promotes exploitation” (Gilyard 49). These are hard words to hear because, in my experience, teachers are not intentionally oppressing students but the evidence is that generally teachers do avoid dealing with race in their classrooms to ill effect.

Together Learning How to Talk About Race

Instructors can and do learn what to do and not do in the race talk that commonly emerges in the classroom, whether or not it is part of the structured ←28 | 29→curriculum. As I shared with the conference participants, given the opportunity for a small but extended (6-week) experience in readings, dialogue, and other hands-on activities, the ten faculty and staff members of a study group at a small, liberal arts university in southwest PA achieved both cognitive and emotional outcomes from the experience. The group was comprised of five African Americans and five White people, four of whom were faculty and six were staff members, including Barbara Johnson (African American), the university’s director of student diversity, and myself (White), faculty, who co-facilitated. All were female in their fifties and early sixties and had worked at the university from three to more than 16 years. Pre- and post-study group self-report surveys indicated the following changes:

They improved their ability to express themselves when discussing sensitive issues.

They felt more comfortable asking people different from themselves about their perspectives.

They worried less about offending people from other groups when they disagree.

They were more willing to learn about other groups different from their own.

• They felt the need to help different groups learn from each other.

They felt less frustrated in interactions with people from other identity groups.

They had a greater understanding and awareness of stereotypes.

They were more empathetic.

They were less despairing about inequity although simultaneously angrier about it.

They felt less certain that conflict makes people fearful although they are still uncertain that it can enrich a discussion.

They felt more certain that talking about conflicts helps clarify misunderstandings that groups have about each other.

They believed conflict could have a positive impact on others and positive consequences overall, resulting in a healthy impact on democracy.

They felt much more able to help people use conflict constructively.

They felt that they learned more about themselves in conflict situations, including that they tend to clam up and freeze in the face of strong emotions.

←29 |

They were more confident that they can recognize and challenge their own biases, avoid language with negative stereotypes, and reinforce others for behaviors that support cultural diversity.

They remain unsure they can challenge others’ derogatory comments yet.

They are confident they can make efforts to educate themselves about other groups, get to know others from other groups, join a community organization that promotes diversity, get together with others to challenge discrimination, and participate in a coalition to address social issues.

In addition, some respondents chose to write comments about the study group experience. One participant concluded, “I have an increased awareness about the people in the world around me, and a desire to better understand my fellow human beings. I especially enjoyed the listening exercises and hope to practice listening more effectively.” Another wrote, “I learned in order for our society to grow and for our people to [be valued] equally, I must take on the challenge to become educated about different groups, educate others, which means I may have to confront conflict, motivate myself to engage in different diversity groups and stay persistent at this and hopefully I will set an example for all to see.” Another participant realized “all groups who aren’t ‘privileged’ receive hurtful messages—some are obvious while others aren’t as apparent [and] cause lasting damage to one’s self-esteem.” Finally, one study group member commented, “I learned again the power of simple, honest conversation.” Overall, the surveys indicated that members of the study group now knew people who were different from themselves on a deeper level than they had before.

In other words, teachers need and welcome professional development in intergroup communication competency. It is advisable and defensible to request such meaningful professional development opportunities, like attendance at the Intergroup Dialogue Institute at the University of Michigan or inviting a consultant or other speakers to help the campus assess its institutional barriers to such a campus movement.

But I suggest also that teachers not wait for the institutional ocean liner to turn and head for the waters of diversity education. Even a little tug boat can have an impact. But teachers cannot wait to start their own work until the institution begins its work. This book is meant to empower teachers ←30 | 31→sufficiently so that they can personally get started on the work of using compassionate listening with critical challenge.

Our society is depending upon teachers to develop racial competency so that they can interrupt racism when and where needed as well as to retrain students to critically assess situations and to respond with intelligence and compassion. Being on the “front lines” in the classroom and campus spaces, teachers are an appropriate and necessary source of leadership to fix daily microaggressions (our own and others’) as they occur. As many scholars attest, teachers are content and process experts, but they are also natural leaders who can repair the inadequacies of curriculum and teacher preparation that frame students of color as deficient (Coburn et al.; Evans; Ladson-Billings). Institutions must recognize and provide time and space for teachers to exercise this expertise on behalf of the university community.

Moreover, the colleges and universities must scrutinize the discriminatory policies and practices of our schools, both deliberate and defacto, which trap us all in useless and damaging reiteration and reinforcement of racism and White supremacy. For example, programs that provide “remediation” or other support for students identified as “high risk” have strong racial biases and often house racist practices, frequently with the best of intentions, but are important teaching sites and deserve critical reassessment and revision (Lamos 69–71). In another instance, service-learning programs often unintentionally reify stereotypical attitudes about race, class, and social responsibility when not structured to build critical awareness and intergroup competency (Green; Herzberg). Further, most college faculty are White, notes Audrey Williams June in an article on the “invisible labor” and “cultural taxation” paid by faculty of color as mentors to high numbers of students of color. Because most faculty are White, many college curricula and cultures house and sustain a White dominant narrative. I offer for just a beginning list of examples, Victor Villanueva’s characterization of representation by people of color in the professional English journals at “infinitesimal” (Villanueva 836) as well as his own personal account of microaggressions against him and his graduate students in that same chapter of his seminal reader, Cross-Talk in Theory.

Add to that the highly charged March 2019 national conversation on the Writing Program Administrators List-serve sparked by a racist post amidst the discussion about rhetorician Asao Inoue’s keynote speech at the 2019 Conference on College Composition and Communication. Inoue’s call to English instructors to undo the White Supremacy inherent in the field’s assessment standards and to make room for different voices unleashed a ←31 | 32→debate about the primacy and morality of the entire discipline of English, and the near collapse of the long-running list-serve as it was conceived and managed. The outrage, confusion, and upheaval that marked the instructors’ reactions testified to their need for space, time, and support in considering views and approaches behind the dominant White narrative (Flaherty). It vividly demonstrated some people’s “White fragility” (DiAngelo) and near-total inability to (1) recognize their own culpability in maintaining White privilege and racism in spite of their best intentions, and (2) imagine the kinds of curricular and pedagogical changes needed to function in a diverse society with awareness and integrity. Frankly, when faced with racial conflict, teachers, including myself, don’t know how to respond well to each other or their students.

Teachers are daily swimming in a sea of racism that threatens to drown them and the work they hope to do. They must find ways to speak up, to feel supported in speaking up, to support each other, or the boat will overturn and their hard work and hopes all wash down the drain. In considering the importance of Whites finding their anti-racist voices in this system, Johnson imagines a scene in which

… a gang of White men are beating a person of color in broad daylight on a city street. I’m standing in a crowd of White people who are watching. We aren’t hurting anyone. We feel no ill will toward the man being beaten and may feel sorry for him. We aren’t cheering the attackers on or showing any outward signs of approval. We’re just standing in silence, “minding our own business.” And then one of the men stops, looks up, and says, his eyes panning across our faces, “We appreciate your support. We couldn’t do this without you.”(Johnson 106)

Johnson goes on to explain that it is the “passive oppression” of White people that sustains racism in our society because White people generally fail to act against racism or to speak up when needed. Doing nothing to interrupt racism allows it to continue and even strengthens it.

The intent, the goal of this book is to help teachers and institutions overcome the pervasive fear of talking about racism and feel capable of breaking the silence around racism and its power over lives of all colors. Using compassionate listening coupled with questions or comments that provide a critical challenge to false assumptions and other prejudice, teachers will know what to say and do when faced with race talk in their classes or meetings or research. Teachers need to find their voices, personally and institutionally, so that they can upset the current balance that disadvantages so many. It is by learning to ←32 | 33→recognize and name the underpinnings of race talk that they can de-fang it, that they can defuse their own shock, confusion, or fear enough to speak out in ways that deconstruct the power of racist language and ideas and to show the students how to do the same. Schools, colleges and universities must step up to support teachers in their personal journeys and professional readiness to undertake, even step by step, the curricular and policy revision needed for more humane, more effective, more equitable teaching, learning, and living. The next chapter’s story of the research methods and the field’s trailblazers in this effort offer much insight and hope that the tremendous task of anti-racist reform is not only possible but within the reach of every teacher, and every school or college.

Works Cited

Adams, Maurianne et al. Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. 2nd edition. Routledge, 2007.

Baxter Magolda, Marcia B. and Patricia M. King. Learning Partnerships: Theory and Models of Practice to Educate for Self-Authorship. Stylus, 2004.

Chesler, Mark. The Role of Facilitators. Handout, The Program on Intergroup Relations, The University of Michigan, 2011.

Coburn, Cynthia E. et al. “Evidence, Interpretation, and Persuasion: Instructional Decision Making at the District Central Office.” Teacher’s College Record, vol. 111, no. 4, 2009, pp. 1115–1161.

DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility. Beacon Press, 2018.

Evans, Andrea E. “School Leaders and Their Sensemaking About Race and Demographic Change.” Educational Administration Quarterly, vol. 43, 2007, pp. 159–188, http://eaq.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/43/2/159.

Feagin, Joe R. The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. Routledge, 2010.

Flaherty, Colleen. “Racist Writing Instructor’s Listserv Post Prompts Debate About Future of the Field and How Scholars Communicate.” Inside Higher Ed, Inside Higher Ed, 28 March 2019.

Gilyard, Keith. “Higher Learning: Composition’s Racialized Reflection.” Race, Rhetoric, and Composition, edited by Keith Gilyard. Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1999, pp. 44–52. Crosscurrents, Charles I. Schuster.

Goodburn, Amy. “Racing (Erasing) White Privilege in Teacher/Research Writing About Race.” Race, Rhetoric and Composition, edited by Keith Gilyard. Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1999, pp. 67–86. Cross Currents, Charles I. Schuster.

Green, Ann E. “Difficult Stories: Service-Learning, Race, Class and Whiteness.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 55, no. 2, 2003, pp. 276–301.

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Gurin, Patricia. “The Expert Report of Patricia Gurin.” University of Michigan, 2003. http://www.vpcomm.umich.edu/admissions/legal/expert/gurintoc.html, 11 October 2003.

Herzberg, Bruce. “Community Service and Critical Teaching.” Writing the Community: Concepts and Models for Service Learning in Composition, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner, Robert Crooks, and Ann Watters. American Association for Higher Education in cooperation with the National Council of Teachers of English, 1997, pp. 57–70. Service-Learning in the Disciplines, Edward Zlotkowski.

Houts Picca, Leslie and Joe R. Feagin. Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and the Frontstage. Routledge, 2007.

Johnson, Allan G. Privilege, Power, and Difference. 2nd edition. McGraw-Hill, 2006.

Knott, Katherine. “What It’s Like to Be Named to a Watch List of ‘Anti-American’ Professors.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 23 November 2016.

Kovaleski, Serge F. et al. “An Alt-Right Makeover Shrouds Swastikas.” The New York Times, National edition, vol. CLXVI.57433, The New York Times Company, 11 December 2016.

Kuh, George, Thomas F. Nelson Laird, Paul d. Umbach. “Aligning Faculty Activities & Student Behavior: Realizing the Promise of Greater Expectations.” Liberal Education, vol. 90, no. 4, 2004, pp. 24–31, Academic Search Elite/ERIC.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.” American Educational Research Journal, vol. 32, no. 3, 1995, pp. 465–491, JSTOR.

Lamos, Steve. “Language, Literacy, and the Institutional Dynamics of Racism: Late-1960s Writing Instruction for ‘High-Risk’ African American Undergraduate Students at One Predominantly White University.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 60, no. 1, 2008, pp. 46–81.

Maxwell, Kelly E. et al. Facilitating Intergroup Dialogues: Bridging Differences, Catalyzing Change. Stylus Publishing, LLC, 2011.

McIntyre, Alice. Making Meaning of Whiteness: Exploring Racial Identity with White Teachers. State University of New York Press, 1997.

Pimentel, Octavio. “Invitation to a Too-Long Postponed Conversation: Race and Composition.” Reflections: Public Rhetoric, Civic Writing, and Service Learning, vol. 12, no. 2, 2013, pp. 90–109.

Potok, Mark. “The Beast Reawakens.” Southern Poverty Law Center https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2016/beast-reawakens. Accessed 10 December 2016.

Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms, Shirley Glenn and Shirley Wilson Logan.


XII, 170
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2020 (June)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XII, 170 pp.

Biographical notes

Irene Murphy Lietz (Author)

Irene Murphy Lietz holds a B.A. (Marygrove College), M.A. (University of Detroit), and Ph.D. (Union Institute and University). A Professor Emerita of English at Carlow University, Pittsburgh, and long-time teacher of first-year and professional writing, her work focuses on social justice, racism, and gender-based violence.


Title: Teaching and Race