Classes on Racial Justice Can End Up Burdening Students, Faculty of Color


I talked to several professors of color at my university to see how they felt. Meenakshi Gigi Durham, a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the interim director of the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa, pointed out that at universities “faculty of color take on extra advising and are asked to serve on more committees. They are asked to do a lot of things that are kind of invisible…. But it takes up so much time and it takes a lot of emotional attention as well.” Saba Khan Vlach, an assistant professor of language and literacy studies in the School of Education, said, “All summer, I was asked to different webinars and meetings about race, and it seems to me that in these meetings, we are still all about centering whiteness and white fragility rather than change.”

Some said the diversity webinars faculty are invited to participate in rarely do much to advance their careers. According to Durham, “None of that goes on your CV, none of it counts for tenure, but it takes up inordinate amounts of time.” When faculty of color address race in class, they sometimes get racist student evaluations. Vlach shared that some students have expressed confusion about why she would bring up race in her class on literacy methods. Lina-Maria Murillo, an assistant professor of gender, women, and sexuality studies (GWSS) at the University of Iowa said that some students come into social justice and GWSS classes expecting to hear a narrative that suits them and aren’t ready to be challenged and presented with intersectional analysis that takes race, sexuality, gender, and class into account. They unleash their disappointment in their student evaluations.

According to a 2018 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, faculty of color are underrepresented in tenure-track jobs compared with their white colleagues. And reports have suggested these faculty could face a lot of consequences for teaching classes on complex topics because evaluations are very much part of how their performance is judged. Vlach said, “The institution wants you to do the work.”

On the flip side, there are anecdotal reports of white professors who attempt to teach about race without doing the necessary “transformative work,” as Murillo put it. A Black student at New York University, who asked to remain anonymous, said that in one class she’s taking “the stuff we read is mostly about race, but the professor always seems uncomfortable when we actually bring race up so… I hate being in that class.” Discussions about race led by white professors can put the burden of engagement on the few students of color in the classroom. Ariana, a Black student at Emerson College, who asked to withhold her last name, said that she and the one other Black student in one of her classes are always being asked to speak up about race. “There was a whole discussion on cultural appropriation, and we were asked about a lot of examples in the Black community,” she recalled. “They genuinely wanted to learn about it, but it’s a little…uncomfortable to be singled out.”

Murillo said that if professors, especially white professors, want to teach about race, they need to “make a classroom a safe space, and it takes a lot of work.” It also comes down to who the class is centering, whether it’s inherently prioritizing white students’ ignorance, thereby burdening the students and professors of color who have to shoulder work the university administration should be doing. Because in the end, anti-racist classes — just like all those back-ordered copies of White Fragility — aren’t going to change anything until the systemic roots of campus racism are dismantled.

As Isra Hassan, a Black student from the University of Minnesota, said, “In a time of a global health crisis, an upcoming economic recession, and the necessary social reckoning re: violent racism, these are not efforts that are substantive to Black students and people.” I agree. Diversified curriculums are not progress if they are not institutionalized and sustained for the long term. Social justice 101 classes that fan the fires of white fragility are not going to erase campus racism. Instead, universities need to take a look at systemic problems faced by BIPOC students in and outside academic settings, hire more faculty of color, support those already on staff, and realize that racism has no magical solution that can be implemented overnight.

Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: Coded Language Is Part of Our Racist Education System



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