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Teaching in Black and White

By Terry Burant and Michelle McClure

We've also found that racism is the one topic that many of our students want most not to talk about in our introductory classes. Their reticence, hesitation, and resistance suggest they have very little prior experience in talking about or even noticing race. At the risk of generalizing, we've observed that a number of things happened when we taught about racism in our separate sections of this introductory course in previous years. Sometimes, we experienced new levels of silence in what were once active and engaged classes.

Terry often felt like just the word "racism" written on the board immediately halted an open-minded approach to new information; it seemed students didn't want to hear anything that might contradict what they felt they already knew. Michelle's students vigorously challenged her knowledge, her sources, and her expertise in ways they never did before. Both of us found that when racism was on the floor, some students held fast to racist interpretations of their own previous experiences (for example, "I didn't get a scholarship because a black student got it instead" or "My aunt, who is white, taught in a diverse school and the parents were racist against her") in ways that they didn't when other topics on the syllabus were addressed.

Michelle sometimes felt like her students viewed her as an angry black woman, trying to use the class as an arena for biased views. Students expressed suspicions about her competence in evaluations; Terry was called "a N-lover" in hers. Some students of color, who typically make up very small percentages of the students in our program, told Terry that they felt sick and downright abused by the naïve and hurtful comments white classmates made. An African-American student in one of Terry's sections chose not to return to class during the last two weeks of one semester, saying she "just couldn't take it anymore."

At different times during the semester, each of us had left the classroom feeling beat up and tired in a way that was different than ordinary after-class fatigue. At times, we both wondered if we should be teaching about race at all. Was this a futile exercise, a waste of time, something that merely benefits us and makes us feel like we are doing the right thing as teachers? Or was it something worse: a repeated racist act against the students of color in our classes?

Because of our individual and commonly shared concerns in teaching about race, we wondered what might happen if we taught together, if our collective presence as a mixed-race team would stimulate different sorts of questions and create a more meaningful experience for our students and ourselves. Due to other scheduling commitments, we each have our own sections of the course this semester; however, we team-teach approximately half of the time and we make a point to be present in each other's classes on the days when race takes center stage.

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