More from this author


Get the Latest Updates

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

Magna Digital Library

More from this author

Racially-charged issues are all around us — controversy over the killing of unarmed black men by white police officers; the slaughter of nine black people during a Charleston, S.C. church service by a young white man who said he wanted to start a race war; the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement on college campuses; the inflammatory rhetoric about race that has been aired over and over in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Yet, unless we happen to be teaching a course directly related to race, such as black history or the psychology of racial identity, most of us dodge the topic. When it comes to race, we, as a predominantly white faculty in colleges and universities across the country, feel awkward, uncomfortable, and conflicted. If we call on a black student in the classroom to explain a race-related issue, we risk turning that student into a spokesperson for all African Americans. If we plunge into a conversation about institutional racism, we risk making white students feel guilty for the sins of their fathers. There are just too many landmines. So we remain in the boxes of our academic disciplines and avoid the topic of race even when an authentic discussion about race might be one of the most important learning experiences that we and our students could ever have. Today, with minority students making up a growing percentage of our student bodies, it’s time to break the code of silence. Yes, there are many landmines, but we need to learn how to diffuse them or deftly navigate around them. And yes, the ultimate goal is a color-blind society. But today, although we have made progress on many fronts and even elected our first black president, we are far from a post-racial society. Just ask the families of Trayvon Martin, or Michael Brown, or Sandra Bland. Or, on my own campus, ask African-American students who were targeted in racist comments posted last year on the computer application known as Yik Yak. Two years ago, more than 30 members of the La Salle University faculty, myself included, were so horrified by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.— and subsequent police shootings of unarmed black men—that we came together to begin talking about what we, as Lasallian educators, might do to address the underlying issue of racism that still plagues our society more than 150 after the end of the Civil War and more than 50 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act. This ad-hoc group, known as Ferguson and Beyond, has now formed working groups to examine what we might do to address race-related issues on the La Salle campus. I am part of the work group looking at pedagogy, and my main concern is how we, as faculty members, can foster honest conversations about race in our classrooms. It’s one thing to discuss race when you are teaching a course that directly focusses on race, but how do you do that in a more typical class? That’s the issue I want to raise. As an assistant professor of communication, I do not teach any specialized courses on race. But more and more, race has emerged as a topic in my classes. Even though I live in Philadelphia’s Mt. Airy section, one of the most integrated neighborhoods in America, and even though I did award-winning reporting on school desegregation in my previous life as a journalist, I feel ill-prepared to facilitate conversations about race when the topic emerges in my classroom. I want to describe here three real-life situations that raise difficult questions about how we, as professors, talk about race. I don’t believe there are any “right” or “wrong” answers to these questions. These are dilemmas. I invite your thoughts and insights about each of these scenarios and hope that you, in turn, will share your own experiences.

Situation A: Dealing with a racial stereotype

I am doing a week-long unit on the need for multicultural sensitivity in reporting by the news media. I have already spent one class engaging the students in a survey that helps them identify their own individual prejudices. Now I want to explore structural prejudice. This is the main reason why there a relatively small number of minority reporters in America’s newsrooms. While minorities constitute about 33 percent of the population, they represent only about 13 percent of journalists. Why? To help students understand the reason for this, I hit on the idea of constructing an analogous question from the world most of my students know very well – the world of sports. Why, I ask, are there so few African Americans on the U.S. Olympic swimming team? Is it because the Olympic Committee is prejudiced? The students all agree that isn’t the reason. But what is? One student excitedly raises his hand. “It’s genetic,” he says. “I’ve read that there are studies showing African Americans have trouble floating. Something about their body mass.” The student’s response is sincere; he is not trying to put down African Americans. A handful of African-American students in the classroom sigh and look down at their desks. The majority of the students, who are white, say nothing. I’m thinking to myself that this would be funny if it weren’t so sad. I’m also thinking that I really want to get on to my main point, which is that to become an Olympic swimmer you have to be able to afford what most African-Americans can’t afford—access to an Olympic-size pool, private lessons beginning as a child, membership in a private swim club as you get older, and enough leisure time to engage in non-stop practice. But there it is, hanging in mid-air and going unchallenged, the idea that black people are genetically inferior to white people. As the professor, what do I do? I am a Lasallian educator so I want to respect the dignity of each and every student and meet them where they are. But I also have an obligation as a teacher to separate fact from fiction. So do I rebuff the student with the scientific fact that our genes are 99.9 percent similar? Do I simply let it go and talk with the student after class? Do I engage the class in a discussion of the point raised by the student? If so, what will be the effect on the black students in the room?  Will the conversation explode into a cacophony of stereotypes rather than understanding? What will be the effect if I don’t address the issue raised? Reflection: As you think about these questions, reflect on what you would do in this situation.

Situation B: Putting a minority student in the hot seat

I am teaching a class on the free-expression clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Since most of the course will revolve around landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions, I want to take time at the start of the semester to find out how much students already know about the Supreme Court and then help them fill in the gaps in their knowledge. I also want to impress upon the students why the court is so important. Since most of my teaching is based on the Socratic method, I start with an open-ended question to my students: How has the Supreme Court affected your life? Can you think of any way in any arena — health, education, sports, entertainment — that a Supreme Court decision has had an effect on you or your family? There are 26 students in my class. Most of them are white, but several are African-American or Latino. After I ask the question, there is silence. The silence goes on, making many students feel a bit uncomfortable. But I understand that such uncomfortable silences often bring out the best responses. Finally, an African-American student who is sitting in the front row utters a two-word answer. “I’m here,” he says. I ask him to repeat it. “I’m here.” By this, the student means that without the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which outlawed segregation in public schools, he, as a black man, would never have gotten the elementary and secondary education that allowed him to be admitted to La Salle University. What an incredible teaching moment! I have an African-American student in my class giving profound witness to the importance of the Supreme Court by using his own life as an example. What do I do with this moment? Do I ask my student to tell us his life story? If so, of course, I won’t have time to cover all the points I want to cover on this day. If I ask him to tell his story, will I be putting him on the spot and forcing him to speak for his entire race or to reveal personal things he doesn’t want to reveal? Will I make him feel even more like “the other” than he probably already feels? Will I be opening a can of worms, risking the possibility that white students will raise the specter of so-called “reverse discrimination” against white people due to affirmative action? But if I don’t further explore my student’s answer, will I be losing an important opportunity to educate? Reflection: As you think about these questions, reflect on what you would do in this situation.

Situation C: Letting the dominant white, male culture fill the room

I am mid-way into the Spring semester and this is my senior capstone course in our journalism track. It’s called Community Journalism. In this class, my students report news and feature stories in the predominantly black Germantown neighborhood surrounding La Salle. Their stories go up on Germantown Beat, a news website I created to provide a source of information and inspiration for a community that the mainstream media has long ignored – what I call a voice for the voiceless. I have 12 students in the class, all white men except for one African-American woman. The men are mostly interested in becoming television personalities — TV sports commentators or television sports reporters. Several years of working together to produce sports shows on LaSalle TV, our campus station, has helped them build strong bonds with each other. They are now a band of brothers who support each other through thick and thin. The television studio in the Communication Center has become home for many of these men; they spend hours there working on shows, and they relish seeing themselves on a screen that is available to some 300,000 Comcast subscribers in the Philadelphia area. In many ways, this is a beautiful thing — a place where students can turn their passion for sports into television shows that teach them certain skills and that give them a sense of self-worth. On the other hand, it can also create an unhealthy sub-culture that unintentionally drowns out other voices. When these students enter my Community Journalism class they bring with them their sports culture, which fills the room. Before class starts, they chatter about the ups and downs of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Flyers and the Phillies. During the NFL draft, they eagerly follow every trade on their smart phones, shouting out their approval or disapproval of the Eagles’ picks. In the midst of all this sits the other student in the class, a frail-looking African-American woman. She is a few years older than the other students and a single mother with a six-year-old son whom she is very proud of.  She lives with her mother in an impoverished neighborhood in Philadelphia. To make ends meet, she works the night shift at a hospital in Bucks County. To get there, she takes two buses. Round trip, her trek takes about four hours. She often comes to class late and exhausted. One time this student sent me an email saying she couldn’t make it to class that day. There had been a shooting on her block and then a fire. The roads were blocked. People were urged to stay in their houses. She couldn’t even walk her son to school, as she usually did each morning. Even so, this young woman is a talented reporter and writer. She is eagerly pursuing a story about a half-way house for women released from prison. Her work reflects great insight into the challenges of former felons as they try to re-enter society and rebuild their lives. But in class, this woman doesn’t speak much. And when she does, it is in such a soft voice that it is hard to hear her. “I don’t know anything about sports,” she confides to me one day. “And I don’t care about sports.” How do I handle this? By doing nothing, I am, in effect, allowing the dominant white, male sports culture in the classroom to overwhelm a minority voice that has so much to teach my students. But what, exactly, can I do? Reflection: As you think about these questions, reflect on what you would do in this situation.

Talking about race

These are the kind of situations I encounter as I try to deal with race in the classroom. On the one hand, they involve difficult pedagogical challenges. On the other hand, however, they also present an extraordinary opportunity to foster the kind of inter-racial understanding that is essential in a democratic society. At my university, a conversation about race holds out enormous promise because the university brings together the descendants of two groups that have historically been at odds with one another – working-class African Americans and working-class white students of Irish and Italian heritage. As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, these two groups were in heated competition for decent housing, education and manufacturing jobs in the City of Brotherly Love. Race riots broke out and blood was shed in predominantly white neighborhoods when blacks tried to move in. That legacy at once fuels the kind of ugly rhetoric we have seen on Yik Yak over the past year, but it also gives us an incredible opportunity to help members of a very diverse student body learn to hear one another’s stories if only we can find ways to encourage honest — and respectful — conversation about race. Last spring, Frank Bruni, a columnist for The New York Times, praised Amherst and other elite private colleges for enrolling more minority students. The value, he argued, accrued to everybody:  “….real learning and a real preparation for citizenship demand the intersection of different life stories and different sensibilities. Colleges should be making that happen.” A similar point was made by Patricia Gurin, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan, in a report prepared by the university to support its position in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, landmark Supreme Court decisions in 2003 that supported the continued use of affirmative action in admissions. “If institutions of higher education are able to bring together students from various ethnic and racial backgrounds at this critical time of late adolescence and early adulthood,” Gurin wrote, “they have the opportunity to disrupt an insidious cycle of lifetime segregation that threatens the fabric of our pluralistic democracy.” At La Salle University, our dynamic mix of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds gives us an important opportunity to keep whole the pluralistic fabric of our society. We must not squander that opportunity by failing to engage our students in honest conversations about race—wherever they lead. These conversations may be uncomfortable. They may be awkward. They may pull down our scores on student evaluations. (Some white students, inevitably, will claim “reverse discrimination.”) But if we don’t talk about race in the classroom, where else will it happen? References: Bruni, Frank, “How and Why You Diversify Colleges,” The New York Times, May 14, 2016. Gurin, Patricia, expert report included in The Compelling Need for Diversity in Higher Education, University of Michigan, 2003. Huntly Collins is an assistant professor of communication at La Salle University.