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We cannot teach race without addressing what it means to be ‘white’

How are race discussions happening in classrooms and what is missing? Jirka Matousek, CC BY

We cannot teach race without addressing what it means to be ‘white’

We have steeped ourselves in higher education today in a framework for understanding difference that insists we should “value diversity.” Even then, in terms of realizing a robust multiracial environment in colleges across the nation, we have a very long way to go.

We know higher education’s commitment to diversity is not mere window-dressing. For instance, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), an independent corporation founded in 1895 that grants accreditation to post-secondary educational institutions in 19 states, requires a commitment to diversity.

But the skyrocketing costs of college, which make access difficult for the more economically marginalized, and an incarceration crisis that sees young black men and women imprisoned at astronomical rates, are only two of many factors that create racialized outcomes when it comes to higher education.

Colleges and universities bear institutional responsibility for taking such racialized outcomes seriously (as the HLC accreditation processes insist). One small but important piece of such responsibility means considering how discussions of race take place in classrooms.

Some of the questions that arise in this discussion are: how can academics help students engage meaningfully in the public discussion now riveted on race and racial violence? What is missing in our current understanding of diversity? And is our current paradigm of diversity adequate for including challenging issues that get raised in regard to white racial identity?

These are important questions to ask, especially since events in Ferguson, Missouri last August that have been followed by numerous killings of African American men, women and children — first by the police and now by a 21-year-old white male in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

As a professor of religion and ethics who writes extensively about the role of faith communities in challenging racial injustice, I’ve been grappling with these issues as they show up in my classroom for many years. How do we effectively teach the next generation of young people such that they are better prepared to make a desperately needed impact on the US racial climate?

White racial identity

When 70% of blacks cite problems with policing relative to race and only 17% of whites do the same, we, as academics, know that able teaching on racial difference is essential for students.

But the very way in which diversity is framed creates a serious logjam when it comes to race in the college classroom. The premise of diversity is not merely that we are all different (and that students need to learn about that), but that our differences are goods to be celebrated and embraced.

We tout the innate value of diversity for college life: citing the importance of learning in diverse environments to equip our students to navigate a pluralistic world.

But there’s a major gap that goes unaddressed in this framing.

The particular difference “white” racial identity and experience represents in the context of US history and current climate makes it hard to “celebrate” the “goodness” of whiteness.

How far is white racial identity considered in discussions? greg lilly, CC BY-NC

Students know this. I regularly help my students explore the failure of the diversity paradigm by asking them whether a group of black students carrying signs that read “Black is beautiful” is the equivalent of a group of white students carrying signs that read “White is beautiful.” They quickly shake their heads and tell me “no.”

“Why not?” I ask. “Shouldn’t valuing diversity include all diversity? If we can’t equally celebrate both of these scenes, then what are missing?”

They typically can’t explain why these two scenes are not the same. But, they know they are different. And understanding the reasons the scenes are different becomes a critical starting point for us to think about the historical, ethical and moral challenges of “whiteness” in the United States.

Inadequate framing of race

I believe our “diversity” paradigm is failing because it does not give us the tools to unpack and explore this conundrum.

The need to ably teach matters of race difference and historical as well as contemporary racial realities in the US could hardly be more urgent. But our ability to engage, discuss and home in on “whiteness” is stymied by a paradigm that cannot help students understand the difference between the two scenes just described.

Such inadequate framing of race certainly does not help us engage white students in the room, for whom the conundrums evident in the difference between these two scenes are embedded in their actual racial identities as “white people.” (Ask students of color in the room to talk about their racial identity and most can do it. Ask white students to do it and you get an uncomfortable silence.)

So, the diversity paradigm needs something more that can help faculty and students alike directly engage the complexities “white” poses for thinking about race.

How to engage white students

Academics are recognizing this and finding different ways to address these challenges. At a recent gathering of the National Conference of Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE), several workshops focused on the distinct challenges of engaging white students on race.

Psychologists who study racial identity development have helped educators think about the ways racial identity is formed in response to racial environment.

Such studies explain a great deal about the reactions of white students to racial conversations. For example, if you are taught to genuinely believe in “equality” but experience “white privilege,” the high level of cognitive dissonance that it generates has to be first addressed. Only then can any effective teaching take place about race and racial injustice.

Through race theories and historical work, academics are enabling students to understand how race and racial identities are constructed. These tools help students see the many challenges of a white racial identity as well as that of black or Latino. This can be a potentially transformative education for students today.

Lean in to move forward

There’s an irony here, of course.

It’s people of color who are most negatively impacted by the racialized outcomes of higher education and the structural violence of our national landscape. Yet, the gap educators are starting to address puts greater focus on the study of “white.”

So, let me be clear. The point is not that academics believe white students should get even more resources and attention. The point here is that we are coming to recognize that our racial destinies are completely bound up together.

We need to lean in, and explicitly take up the challenges of whiteness if we are to produce teaching and learning that can adequately impact the lives of all, in this racially plural, white hierarchy that is the United States.