Anti-Racist Pedagogy Part 3: Teaching Silence and Culture vs. Critiquing Systems

What harm are we doing?

Because my life allows for wonderful things, I recently read bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress for the third time. Although published in 1994, the wisdom in her work still rings true. Her timeless observations about liberatory critical pedagogies highlighted that little has shifted. As I was reading, one passage inspired my thoughts below about race-silent inclusion, teaching about culture, and teaching about racial “differences,” none of which could be described as anti-racist pedagogy. These avoidant strategies applied by educators (white and Educators of Color) distract from deep systems critique required for anti-racist pedagogy (ARP).

Avoidant Strategy 1: Race-Silent Inclusion 

My gratitude to bell hooks for her honest writing. On page 141 of Teaching to Transgress, she described an archetype of a white professor, although this may be a literal description of someone in her life:

“The example that comes to mind is that of a white female English professor who is more than happy to include Toni Morrison on her syllabus but who does not want to discuss race when talking about the book. For she sees this as a much more threatening interrogation of what it means to be a professor than the call to change the curriculum.”

I mean, whoah. This passage struck me. Imagine sprinkling in Scholars of Color and then pretending race and racism and all their intersections are not at play in the critical analysis and learning process. Yet this is likely still quite common across a wide variety of disciplines. Within our decades of calling for diversity and inclusion, many of us have point blank encouraged faculty to include more course materials (writings, essays, articles, books) by Scholars of Color. Rightly so as representation matters. 

But we failed to then properly address, teach, train, and offer stronger pedagogical skills and tools to move beyond race-silent inclusion. If we want to move anti-racist pedagogy forward, race-silent inclusion is not the path. We must raise the bar from “add and stir” to critically analyzing systemic racism in connection with course concepts, course materials, course design, and disrupting the major questions of each discipline. 

Avoidant Strategy 2: Teaching Culture, Teaching Difference

Another side step is to discuss culture or racial difference as if race is a neutral variable. This moves beyond silence, but still avoids anti-racism. I see this happening a lot in psychology. For many decades, psychology departments most advanced in diversity curricular changes offered courses titled Prejudice and Stereotyping, Cross-Cultural Psychology, or Multicultural Psychology. Very rarely do we see a course with words like race or racism even though that is the very thing we are trying to teach. 

When I taught Psychology of Race and Racism for the first time in 2006/2007, I could not find another course with these words being offered in psychology. My experience in that classroom reinforced how much the words in the course title made white people uncomfortable. White students told me they would prefer to talk about culture, not race. Yeah, no kidding. True words.

Culture and difference are safe for white students, for white educators like me. We can maintain a tourist approach and even inappropriately exoticize cultures we consider “other.” We can build courses around cultural differences that end up reinforcing stereotypes and promote enjoying music and food over dismantling racial oppression.

We need to take stock and get clear. What do our titles and course descriptions convey to students? What do they betray about how we are constructing these conversations, what we can discuss, and what is off limits and rendered silent?

Anti-Racist Pedagogy Requires Systems Critique

One fundamental requirement for ARP is a core focus on critiquing systems. Not just individual bias, not just individual prejudice, not just individual acts of racial discrimination, definitely not just individual racist extremists. SYSTEMS.

That means committing to our own intentional and persistent critique of how social constructions of race, institutional and structural racism, and systemic white supremacy impact policies and procedures. You know, the stuff that seems super abstract but is in fact concretely delivering system-wide disparities that harm Communities of Color.

Why bother with systems?

In other words, educators have enough to do without now having to figure out how to incorporate consistent systems critique across the curriculum. Yes, you have all been running full steam for quite some time. Too long. And yet, racism and systemic white supremacy have been in control of the fabric of U.S. operations for 402 years (in reference to 1619). We need a #racismtimesup on avoiding these conversations, especially in our teaching and learning.

You may be thinking, “this all seems pretty hard. I feel like my inclusion of more diverse content and mention of culture and race is already pushing it. Why is the incorporation of systems critique required?”

I hear you. Allow me to rephrase the question: 

What harm are we doing to students when we neglect to critique systemic racism?

Without systems critique:

  • we send the message that race is neutral;
  • we signal to students that racism is a taboo topic and that silence on race is the proper and respectable approach;
  • we neglect to highlight how power operates in society to oppress people based on race;
  • we cannot effectively name white privilege and its consequences;
  • we send the message that all races are equal;
  • we imply that racial power differences do not exist;
  • we fail to analyze race disparities in education, housing, employment, and healthcare at the policy level;  
  • we imply and students may assume Communities of Color are to blame for those disparities;
  • we imply and students may assume individual People of Color are to blame for their circumstances;
  • Students of Color may blame themselves when our universities fail them, when we fail them;
  • students (Students of Color and white students) engaging in their own systems critique may feel disconnected and that they do not belong in a university that ignores their reality;
  • students experiencing racism may feel we are neglecting their own humanity, lived experiences, and pain;
  • white students gain no insight into their own connections to systems of racial oppression.

Without a consistent and open critique of systemic racism, we do harm.


The Anti-Racist Pedagogy series

For more on anti-racist pedagogy, head back to the previous ARP posts.

Learn more about the White Anti-Racism and Action course I created for (aspiring) white allies.
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