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Teaching and Race

How to Survive, Manage, and Even Encourage Race Talk


Irene Murphy Lietz

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’ anti-racist 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 well-intentioned 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.

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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...

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