Owning Discomfort: Teaching Racial Justice in the Classroom

In their introduction to a week of reflection dedicated to “The University as Social Force,” the Daily Theology editors offered a quote given by the Jesuit priest Igancio Ellacuría at the University of Santa Clara in 1982.  Martyred at his home at the University of Central America in El Salvador seven years later, Ellacuría dedicated his life to fighting the systemic injustice and institutionalized violence that plagued San Salvador.  For Ellacuría the university had a crucial role in pushing back against social injustice.  His quote deserves to be repeated here:

There are two aspects to every university. The first and most evident is that it deals with culture, with knowledge, the use of the intellect. The second, and not so evident, is that it must be concerned with the social reality–precisely because a university is inescapably a social force: it must transform and enlighten the society in which it lives. But how does it do that? How does a university transform the social reality of which it is so much a part?

In a comment posted to the Daily Theology website in response to this introduction, Dr. Alex Mikulich, who has done tremendous work in the areas identifying and dismantling racial injustice and white privilege, raises a critical question that also deserves to be repeated:

My BIG question is how this series will contend with the fact that most faith-based private institutions and especially those Jesuit institutions connected to Ignacio Ellacuria’s call at the University of Santa Clara are Pre-dominantly White Institutions who may have strong commitment to diversity but who have NOT made explicit commitment through strategic practice and implementation to racial equity.

The importance of Dr. Mikulich’s question cannot be overstated.  All of the colleges and universities that those of us at Daily Theology find ourselves learning and working in (including mine) have strong, stated commitments to building diversity and inclusion both on campus and more broadly.  However, many of these colleges and universities find themselves staffed by primarily white professors teaching primarily white students.  My own university whose undergraduate demographics include “28.6% Underrepresented Populations” sits nestled behind gates in a neighborhood that is overwhelming black and Latino/a.  My point here isn’t so much to critique these places of higher learning but to recognize that a university’s ability to “transform the social reality” in which it finds itself – even if the university is fully committed to serving its community in this way – is often undermined by its own social reality as a place of white privilege and prestige.  When white educators are the primary “gatekeepers” of the academy, then everything from policies and procedures, to administrative decisions, to hiring and tenure appointments, to student admissions and course curriculum are filtered through the long historical lens of white silence, rationalization, and complicity in the face of racial injustice that John Slattery so eloquently wrote about yesterday in Rationalizations and Progress.

Nonetheless, if colleges and universities really want to be a social force for good, then teachers and administrators have to do the hard work of bringing issues of racial justice to the forefront of their college communities.  This commitment includes bringing conversations on and teaching about racial justice into our classrooms.  Bringing this issue into the classroom isn’t easy – especially in a classroom comprised of primarily white students.

Most white students have been brought up in the narrative of the American Dream – enough hard work and everyone can become whatever they want to be – and instinctively push back against any idea that suggests the playing field may not be level.  Other students feel “called out:” My teacher is calling me a racist.  I didn’t ask to be white or to be privileged because of my whiteness.  In his article “Learning to Understand Inequality and Diversity,” Pat António Goldsmith identifies four ideologies that students often embrace when addressing issues of racial justice: blaming the victim, justifying inequality, naturalizing inequality, colorblind racism.[1]  These ideologies deflect conversation on the real complexities of racism and risk shutting down conversation all together. Studies have shown, however, that learning about race “can reduce students’ racial bias and increase their understanding of institutional racism and racial privilege.”[2] The professor, then, has the responsibility of leading her or his students into and through an honest, critical investigation of the multilayered problem of race, racism, white privilege, and justice.

While all professors have the duty to create a classroom learning environment in which all students feel comfortable discussing the hard questions of racism, the professor need not shy away from students’ feelings of insecurity and discomfort.  In other words, embracing and owning one’s discomfort around a very complicated issue can be the starting point of a transformative classroom experience.  Owning discomfort begins with the professor.

Long-time education theorist Stephen Brookfield suggests that educators need not shy away from their own struggles with race, but instead should be honest and open with their students.  He recommends an approach in which teachers recognize their own subtle, embedded racist beliefs by addressing five key questions: 1) How have we learned racism from dominant ideology? 2) How do our racist impulses continue to manifest themselves in our actions? 3) What are the ways we can identify these? 4) How are our racist leanings interrupted by disruptive experience? 5) How do we challenge and push back against them?[3]  By beginning with narrative disclosure – instead of presenting students with a lot of information on race and racism – the professor perhaps can begin to foster a sense of community in the classroom that will create space for the hard discussions.

The professor’s willingness to begin with narrative disclosure sets up an important pedagogical tool for teaching race in the classroom – narrative modeling.  This approach is, first, discussion-centered. Courses that regularly incorporate student discussion into class time often have better success in creating a classroom environment conducive to open and honest discussions about race.  Studies on the use of the narrative modeling approach for addressing race in the college classroom suggest that one of the reasons for the success of this approach is that discussion centered approaches to learning about race allowed students to own and share their own discomfort with the topic. Here a couple of quotes from students are helpful: “‘Seeing other students with similar struggles and how they overcome their anxieties with the issues is reassuring that I too can overcome my own anxieties.’”  “‘The first step towards racial-awareness is self-awareness and I need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable so I don’t run from the discomfort.’”[4]

Finally, those of us teaching in theology courses or other religious institutions have a special obligation both to address race in our classrooms and to help students deal with their discomfort.  As theologians grounded in an understanding of an innate human dignity given to all people by virtue of their creation in God’s image, we have an obligation to identify and address those things like racism that undermine human dignity.  Furthermore, as Anna Scheid and Elizabeth Vasko point out in their very good article, “Teaching Race: Pedagogical Challenges in Predominantly White Undergraduate Theology Classroms,” if our colleges are committed to educating “the whole person,” then we must be willing to deal with our students’ emotional responses as well. By helping students give voice to the feelings they are experiencing – anger, guilt, frustration – students can more effectively deal with these complex emotions in ways that do not shut down classroom conversation.[5]

Racial-Justice-Sunday-02These three approaches to addressing racism in classrooms are just starting points and suggestions, but the theme that connects them is crucial.  Owning our discomfort when talking about race helps open up discussion about race and racial privilege that very much need to happen on college campuses.  By helping students navigate their emotions of fear, anxiety, guilt, and so on, we not only engage in educating the “whole person,” but we don’t give students an easy way out.  By encouraging students to name and deal with their insecurities, we enable them to address racism in critical ways that avoid easy platitudes and recognize that there are no easy solutions.  In this way, perhaps colleges and universities can begin their own transformative process of truly being social forces for good.



[1]Pat António Goldsmith, “Learning to Understand Inequality and Diversity,” in Teaching Sociology, 34:3, 2006.

[2] Kernahan, et al, “A Sense of Belonging: How Student Feelings Correlate with Learning about Race” in International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 8:2, 2014.

[3] Stephen Brookfield, “Teaching Our Own Racism” in Adult Learning 25:3 (August 2014): 89-95.

[4] Chick, et al, “Learning from Their Own Learning,” in International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 3:1, 2009.

[5] Scheid and Vasko, “Teaching Race: Pedagogical Challenges in Predominantly White Undergraduate Theology Classrooms” in Teaching Theology and Religion 17:1, 2014.