Dealing with racism in class

NICK FISHER, Executive Editor

In an effort to combat racism, microagressions and other forms of discrimination, professors, staff and students alike attended a workshop entitled “Dealing with Racist and Other Inappropriate Comments in the Classroom.”

Those leading the workshop — curriculum and institution assistant professor Stephanie Logan, communication studies professor Victoria DeFrancisco, center for excellence in teaching and learning director and professor Susan Hill and communication studies professor Karen Mitchell — discussed with some 30 attendees over the course of 90 minutes how to identify microaggressions. They also discussed strategies to prevent them from occurring in the classroom.

Hill said that the workshop stemmed in part from a faculty senate meeting, which the Northern Iowan reported on in January. She said it became clear to her that many faculty members on campus are unfamiliar with how to deal with insensitive or “unwanted” comments, especially those regarding race. She said that these are inevitable.

Mitchell said that acknowledging one’s own shortcomings is important for retooling teaching practices.
“I’m still learning and I make mistakes … but I try to build on those mistakes and improve things; I think about them a lot,” Mitchell said. “I used to be embarrassed about them and let them get me stuck in a place of not wanting to admit that they happened.”

She said change happened when she began incorporating a saying she heard from a principal who is a member of the National Coalition Building Institute: “Guilt is the glue that keeps prejudice in place.”

Logan listed examples of microaggressions, which she identified – citing a definition put forth by Derald Wang Sue, a psychology professor at Columbia University, as: “Everyday insults and indignities” that women, people of color, the LGBT community (and other groups) experience at the hands of often well-intentioned individuals who are unaware of their hidden messages.

Logan stressed that “microaggressions” is an umbrella term containing a spectrum of behaviors that range from explicit racist behavior to unintentional “microinvalidations.”

She listed examples such as continued failures to pronounce names of students who come from other cultures, setting an exam date during a holy day for certain religious groups and even assigning out-of-class events that cost money, which discriminates based on socioeconomic status.

Logan then played a video of Sue speaking on microaggressions.

“Our studies do indicate that it is the hidden, unintentional forms of bias that are most damaging to people of color,” Sue said in the video.

“I think the [hidden], unconscious bias is really, really difficult to get at,” remarked one professor following the video.

DeFranciso said it is important as a professor to be preventative and establish a classroom environment that makes it less likely for racist comments to arise. One strategy that proves effective is an “expectations check.”

DeFrancisco explained that she will have students brainstorm characteristics that a classroom must have in order to be conducive to learning — for example: humor, respect, clarity and nonjudgmental language. She said she challenges her class when they ultimately produce “comfortable” as one of the qualities of a classroom.

“Learning oftentimes comes from discomfort,” DeFrancisco said.

DeFrancisco went on to say that if something is said that goes against the list, the professor can address the comment. For her, the key is to lighten the severity of what it feels like to be corrected if one says something that is wrong, thereby stressing forgiveness.

“I tell them that … I often make mistakes,” DeFrancisco said. “And that I think you can’t live in a predominant culture without being racist, sexist, homophobic. I could go on and on … I’m still learning too.”

Lea Davis, senior secondary math teaching major, said the workshop would help her in her future classroom.

Davis said she liked that the workshop focused on building an environment that makes racist comments less likely to occur.

“A lot of these issues are delicate and difficult to handle,” Davis said. “Especially when [a comment] takes you by surprise.”

A similar forum will be held in May, and faculty, staff and students are welcome.