One class all students should take
By Albert Laguna
Updated 6:41 PM ET, Tue November 10, 2015
(CNN)In the last few weeks, colleges have been rattled by stories of racial tension on campus. This week, the president of the University of Missouri resigned after black football players promised to boycott games in response to his administration’s failure to adequately address racially charged incidents on campus. Last week, the president of the University of Louisville apologized for dressing up as a “Mexican” at a Halloween party. And at Yale, where I am a professor, students are demonstrating against a campus climate they describe as inhospitable to students of color.
Such incidents have become so routine that universities have a standard way of addressing them. The racist incident occurs. Students protest and administrators apologize. Calls for increased “diversity” are followed by the creation of committees that make suggestions just in time for the next campus crisis.
We can and should do better.
There is a concrete strategy that universities can employ so these incidents will happen less frequently, students of color can feel more welcomed, and questions of race and ethnicity can be discussed productively across the entire campus community. Make race and ethnic studies courses mandatory for all students.
Part of the reason why racist incidents persist — swastikas scrawled in feces, nooses hung from trees on campus, for instance — is because universities are failing to do what they do best: teach. At their best, colleges and universities are places where students and faculty can come together to question and think critically about the world we live in. But when it comes to the topic of race, things get touchy. Rather than teach and foster dialogue, universities often take the easier but ultimately ineffective path to just issue apologies and create committees.
True, most college campuses already offer courses on race and ethnicity that students can choose to take. But as the director of Undergraduate Studies in the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Program at Yale, I often find that I am preaching to the choir — students of color and their allies for whom issues related to race and ethnicity are deeply personal. The courses my colleagues and I teach are among the few places on campus where their experiences are validated, contextualized and engaged in an academic framework.
Why aren’t more students voluntary enrolling in these classes? Some may dismiss race and ethnic studies courses as lacking relevancy to their lives. Others may feel concerned about “saying the wrong thing” in class, or worse, being labeled a “racist.” Still others might lack interest, fail to see the importance, or simply not care.
It’s not difficult to understand why this is the case. Children are taught that talking about race is impolite, a social miscue that can only bring trouble. School curricula either minimize discussions of race or worse, attempt to sanitize the past with, for example, rewritings of history that describe African slaves as “workers.” At the university level, the continued treatment of ethnic studies courses as electives suggests their content is simply less important.
Campuswide enrollment in critical race and ethnic studies could help head off incidents on campus. Take Halloween, for example. Every year, images of students in blackface and other offensive forms of dress surface. They are labeled as racist, pictures are shared on social media, and then the predictable sides take form. Some will defend it as “just a joke,” or as “free speech” while others will forcibly declare that “culture is not a costume.”
In the space of an ethnic studies course, professors can and do address questions that some might not feel comfortable asking such as why, exactly, is such a costume racist? The answer could speak to the history of blackface minstrelsy and racial impersonation in the United Sates and the vital role it played in shoring up the logic of racial and ethnic inferiority.
Students introduced to the long history of scholarship in race and ethnic studies by trained faculty are given the tools to understand issues of deep national relevance. How much more nuanced would our national conversation on immigration be if people understood the history of the U.S. military and economic policies toward Latin America? Why are people fleeing their homes for the United States? Probing these questions adds a layer of complexity around the presence of people of color in the United States missing from mainstream discourse. Asking and engaging them is the work of the university.
For this generation of college students, being called a racist is profoundly disturbing. They understand racism as personal — a direct act committed on one person by another. But by being in an ethnic studies classroom, students have the chance to explore just how deeply entrenched racial preconceptions are in the American imagination and the ways in which those preconceptions are less obvious but no less impactful on the lives of people of color, as recent studies on implicit bias have shown. When a professor can expose students to how racism has broader effects, the likelihood that students can appreciate that race goes beyond interpersonal relations and is instead a structuring force of our shared social lives dramatically increases.
If the goal of a liberal arts education is to help create engaged citizens capable of thinking critically and opening dialogue across a range of topics, then race and ethnic studies must be part of the mandatory general education requirements. Such a move would be a meaningful way toward breaking the cycle of how we talk about race at college and fostering constructive dialogues on campus and beyond.
Albert Laguna is an assistant professor of ethnicity, race and migration and American studies at Yale University and a 2015 Public Voices Fellow at The Op-Ed Project. The views expressed are his own.
by David Leonard, May 17, 2012
Recent months have seen a wave of campus racism at America’s colleges and universities, including Fordham University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University, Northwestern University, and the Ohio State University. While racism is as commonplace at America’s “liberal” training grounds as binge drinking, I found myself wondering about occupying America’s universities. I found myself wondering how Black studies and ethnic studies have the potential to change America’s racial path. How Black studies and understanding the ongoing history of racism is essential to a quest for a “more perfect union.”
Imagine if every student took at least one Black studies course per year during college alongside of Chicano Studies, Asian American Studies and Native American Studies. What if students, what if white students, starting in kindergarten and through graduate school, American’s future leaders, teachers, and voters learned a 4th R – racism – alongside ‘reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic? Surely institutional racism would remain an obstacle, but Whites who inhabit those institutions, from the classroom to the Capital, would likely be changed.
Learning about minstrelsy and the history of racist imagery would surely impact the decision from White students to don blackface for the sake of fun, parties and Halloween. Learning about the history of slavery and lynchings would hopefully encourage thought from entire communities the next time a noose appeared on campus, the next time someone scrawled lynch on a chalkboard or dorm room door. There would be no more excuses and claims of ignorance about these histories.
Can we imagine a world where White students didn’t commonly use the “N-word” behind closed doors because they understood the history of racial violence? Would the hurling of racist jokes and epithets lessened as all students began to think about the consequences and daily harm? Would the exposure to alternative perspectives, to unseen history, and to conversations with students of color, change those students? I would hope so.
Through knowledge, critical thinking and dialogue, colleges can transform themselves–and their students. According to Howard J. Ehrlich, director of The Prejudice Institute, between 850,000 and one million students (roughly 25 percent of students of color and five percent of White students) experience racially and ethnically-based violence (name calling, verbal aggression, harassing phone calls and “other forms of psychological intimidation”) each year. What if each of the students who hurled the slurs at Cornell or graffitied “Long live Zimmerman” at the Ohio State University taken a Black studies course surely there worldview would have been different. Surely, those White students who sat idly by, who watched and said nothing, would have challenge their peers had they any real knowledge of race and racism.
Knowledge about Black culture, history, and identity would come not from Basketball Wives or The Help but in James Baldwin and Tayari Jones, Daughters of the Dust and Killer of Sheep.
Yet, the need for a world of Black Studies as multi-year required isn’t simply to teach White students about prejudice, but the erased experiences and voices of Black people. Knowledge about Black culture, history, and identity would come not from Basketball Wives or The Help but in James Baldwin and Tayari Jones, Daughters of the Dust and Killer of Sheep. We would no longer hear about Martin Luther King’s dream of colorblindness, but instead his dream of justice, reparations, and equality of outcome. The civil rights movement would be a history told not through King and one great speech, but people like Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker, heroes and sheroes who refused to accept American Apartheid. This is my dream, a dream where White students learn alongside of students of color about the history of racism, about privilege, and inequality; about the contributions and humanity of communities of color; about histories of resistance from “Aint I a woman?” to “Let freedom ring.”
While a freshman at the University of Oregon, I took my first African American history class. This class and so many others changed my life. Beyond learning about African American history, beyond reading the likes of DuBois, Frederick Douglas and Carter G. Woodson, beyond hearing for the first time names like Turner, Garvey, Delany, and Hamer, I learned to think for myself, asking why wasn’t I learning this history and what does it mean that the history, literature, and culture I learned during my formative years was a story of whites.
A couple years later, while at University of California, Santa Barbara, I enrolled in a Chicana feminism class. Being the only White male in the class, I felt apprehensive and unsure as to my place in the class. With the encouragement of the professor, I remained in the class. During a small group discussion about race and privilege, I shared my anxiety within the class, explaining how I felt like an “outsider.” A classmate quickly responded, noting “Now you know how we feel in every class.” But in fact, I did not and couldn’t know since I felt uncomfortable, as an outsider, and as representative of “my community” twice a week for 75 minutes. When class was over, I returned to the sea of Whiteness, privileged in my invisibility and empowered by a world that normalized Whiteness. I can only wonder how the world might look if more students had this type of experience.
It is a world I think is worth fighting for.