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“Introduction to Racism:” My Introduction to Student Resistance
Jack Meacham, Professor of Psychology, State University of New York at Buffalo

“You wouldn’t believe how relieved I am that this class is over. For the past month I’ve been totally offended and disgusted at what we, as a class, were asked to read and learn.” I received this e-mail message from a student the night after the last session of my developmental psychology course. I had been working to transform this course, giving greater attention to issues of race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and religious sectarianism along with the more traditional topics of child and adolescent development. I had added to the course five autobiographies in which a diverse group of individuals describe their experiences of growing up in different contexts.

One of the autobiographies was Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Colored People and another required text was Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities. Having encouraged and received lots of lively discussion among students via e-mail, I thought that I had a good understanding of how students were responding to my course.

Thus I was at first startled and then increasingly hurt by this student’s e-mail, entitled “Introduction to Racism,” sent not only to me but to all the students on the course listserv. The student continued: “We were forced to read and learn about Gates despising and literally hating Caucasians, putting them down and criticizing their cooking, appearance, hair texture, and even intellect and about Kozol blaming racism and blaming whites for the way impoverished schools are today….Why couldn’t Kozol spend more time discussing what the parents of these Black children should be doing to help their children and their schools? Why blame race?”

Reacting to Student Challenges

I quickly composed in my mind how I would respond to this student: “You seem to be saying that in this course there should be only materials that represent your experiences as a white person and that reinforce what you already believe. But isn’t one of the purposes of a college education to learn about and consider a variety of perspectives?”

Then I considered what would follow if I sent this response. Surely we would get into a debate over matters of race and racism. Perhaps other students would take this student’s side. Furthermore, if I had not been able to reach this student--and perhaps many others--with the assigned readings and several hours of lecture and discussion in the classroom, then what more could I possibly say that would persuade this student? I decided not to reply right away to the student’s message.

The following morning I was able to view the student’s message from a new perspective. Although I was still troubled, I felt good that I had not reacted hastily and sent a hostile or defensive message. I also remembered that for many students the most important part of diversity courses can be hearing what their peers have to say about these issues. As one faculty colleague put it: “The students can’t believe the idiocy that comes out of each other’s mouths.”

I also, however, needed to examine what I had done as a teacher in this course. I have been teaching our required “American Pluralism” course for almost a decade. With this developmental psychology course, perhaps I had overreached by trying to teach some of the same topics with lectures and only occasional discussions in a class of 200 students. But was the solution to teach about issues of diversity only in small classes? Was my mistake in presenting too much material on race and racism and moving too quickly without sufficient discussion by the students? What should I do differently next time?

Learning to Trust My Students

On campus the next morning, I began reading the morning e-mail. Another student had already replied to the “Introduction to Racism” posting: “If all that you took from these two books was a hatred for Caucasians then you missed the point. Minorities in this country feel disconnected from the larger society and often from their own group. These books, and Gates’ in particular, are examples of people’s experiences trying to make their way through this disconnection. I think the point of Kozol’s book is that we have a public education system and some schools are not meeting minimum standards. If this is truly a public education system, then children should receive educations of equal quality regardless of the income of their parents.” This student didn’t lecture about the purposes of a liberal education, nor did she attack or label the other student’s personal beliefs. Instead, she reminded the other student of what Gates and Kozol were striving to say. She replied from the standpoint of her personal experience in reading the books, telling what she understood the authors to be saying.

A few minutes later this message arrived: “I think that the books that we read in this class were very mind-opening. You say that Gates hated white people. But he’s married to a white woman, so how much could he hate white people if he lives with and provides for one every day of his life until death do them part? His views on what was going on when he was growing up are legitimate because of the times in which he was growing up....You have a right to your opinion, but first consider what events led Gates and his family to have such animosity towards whites.”

This reply, like the first, was better than what I would have and could have written. This student had also been careful not to attack the first student’s personal beliefs and attitudes. And this student had constructed a reply that described the historical context for the book and argued from the standpoint of historical and contemporary facts.

I was thankful that I had not responded hastily to the initial message. From the responses, I acquired an enriched understanding of the readings as well as ideas for how I might better engage my students with these texts. I also gained new respect for my students’ efforts to avoid being drawn into interpersonal conflicts while pursuing reasoned discussion and debate grounded in evidence from the course materials and from their own experiences.

Anticipating Student Resistance

Several months have now passed and I realize that I need a better understanding of the dynamics of student resistance to diversity issues. I should anticipate that some of my students will question the appropriateness of some diversity readings when they are surprised to find them in a transformed disciplinary course that is not explicitly identified as a “diversity” course. And I should anticipate that some of my students will be troubled by the implications that readings on race, gender, and sexual orientation have for their own still-developing beliefs, values, and identities.

I also need to be aware of how different students view me as a white, male professor. The student who wrote “Introduction to Racism” was, in fact, white and male. It would be wrong, however, to seek an understanding of what this student wrote only in terms of his reactions as a white person to issues of African American identity and of racism in America, leaving myself as a white and male teacher out of the analysis. We need to recognize how the structured inequalities in American society are reproduced in our classrooms. The distance of inequality between myself and my white, male students is less than the distance between myself and my other students. My white, male students may find me easier to approach than do my other students and thus it may be easier for them to express their resistance to what I am doing as a teacher.

I am intrigued by the fact that some of the peers of the student who wrote “Introduction to Racism” were quickly able to compose replies that were well-grounded in the course materials and in their own experiences. While differing along all the dimensions of structured inequality that exist in America, my students do not have the difference from each other that my increasing age and my status as a teacher create between myself and my students. Furthermore, at least in the students’ e-mail messages to each other, their race and perhaps their gender are far less visible than in the classroom. Perhaps the fewer and less visible structural differences among my students mean that in discussion and debate they are able to attend less to who is speaking and instead attend more to the merits of what is being said. If so, then as a teacher concerned about student resistance to course materials on diversity, I should perhaps strive for less discussion between myself and my students and far more active engagement of my students with each other both in class and via e-mail.

Read information about Meacham’s Developmental Psychology course or a longer version of this article.

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This is precisely the kind of interchange that can occur on campuses where the student body is diverse, faculty members update their curricula to reflect new sources of knowledge, and communication is encouraged. The sort of conflict generated by the initial hostile e-mail message can generate dialogue that eventually leads to greater understanding and learning.

Courses like this one are too often mischaracterized in the media by opponents of diversity education, who claim that such courses are not rigorous or useful to students. To counter those arguments and paint a more accurate picture, students who have taken such courses and professors who teach them should use talk shows and editorial forums to carry their messages. The public needs to know that these courses are valuable to students who become better prepared to live and work in our diverse society.

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