Some Suggestions For Talking About Racist Incidents at U of M In Class

Life is funny. When I imagined teaching students to write, I never thought it'd include talking with my students about the racist graffiti someone scrawled all over their dorm, or the white guy who yelled the n-word at demonstrators last night, or the anti-Latino messages on the Rock. (Or the emails last year. Or the fliers.)

But then I also never imagined I'd have to call my senators every couple of weeks and beg them not to throw millions of people off our insurance. C'est la vie! Here are some thoughts about how to deal with this in our classrooms. I should preface: this advice applies most of all to white instructors or to instructors who aren't already used to talking about race. In my experience, my colleagues of color in the humanities often already have a ton of strategies for talking about this stuff, and I won't presume to tell you all how to do so. This advice comes from my own journey as a teacher who has learned to talk about these things because, being white, I wasn't already forced to do so from day one. I welcome comments and links from the experts, but this post is for newbies.

  1. You've got to say something. You may not think of yourself as a political person. You may think you have no business speaking on issues beyond your professional training. But these incidents aren't (or aren't only) technical problems subject to professional expertise--they're moral and political problems and that means they're everybody's business. And you've already taken a stance simply by showing up and doing your job. Every time you step into your classroom at this large and diverse university, your presence implicitly says "My students are human beings capable of learning, and they deserve to be here." You're already not-neutral. When a dangerous and growing movement challenges your students' right to learn, to live in Ann Arbor, or even to live at all, they are also negating your work. You're already in the fight whether you want to be or not--yes, even if you're in one of those disciplines that prides itself on being above-the-fray. "The fray" is simply human life and you're not above it. So act like it. Tell your students of color that you see what they're dealing with and you're not OK with it.
  2. Keep it simple. I teach in West Quad, where this weekend's racist-graffiti incident took place. For all I know, my past or present students were among those targeted. They were certainly among those affected. So I walked into the classroom, took a deep breath, and said, "Look. Before we get into today's work, I have to say how angry and sorry I am that somebody went out of their way to insult my students. If you're one of the people targeted by this thing, I see you, and I know you have to deal with this kind of nonsense all the time, and I respect you and I want you here. And if you're the person who did it--well, turn yourself in and take your punishment like a grownup. Does anybody need to talk about this further before we move on with class?"
  3. Don't force folks to talk if they don't want to--and don't make people speak for their groups. Ever. In one of my classes, students really wanted to talk about the incident for a while. In the other, a few people commented and then the class seemed to want to move on, so we did. On this, and on everything, never ask students for "the black perspective" or "the woman's perspective" or "the disabled person's perspective" on this or that issue. It drives folks nuts. (The conservative Christian writer Dorothy Sayers pointed out the illogic of this back in the forties, when she commented on the absurdity of asking women what the "women's perspective" on various issues was. "Women are human," Sayers wrote, and like any group of humans, they don't all feel the same way about things.)
  4. Don't be freaked out if targeted people express anger. As intellectuals, we're sort of trained to distrust strong emotions, especially anger. We think it makes us dangerously biased, or something. But anger is an appropriate reaction to some situations! I'm angry and sad. So if a student of color expresses raw, angry feelings, resist the temptation to manage or defuse those feelings for the sake of your other students. Nod and sigh. Give them space to be mad.
  5. Related to #4: Don't force the conversation to end on a positive note ("Oh, but there's been lots of progress on race!"). These incidents are bad and students of color may have nothing to say about them but "This really makes it hard to feel safe around white people." This is not fun for white students or instructors to hear, but it's not weird for people to feel this way, and it's not something you can argue away in a moment--the only solution to their discomfort is a better world, and till that comes along (with our help), the emotions are valid. Sometimes you have to just nod, allow a moment of silence, and then move on into the lesson. It's awkward, but trying to manage the student's justified anger is infinitely more awkward. (There are limits, obviously. If a student says "All white people are evil and should die," you're allowed to say, "Not in my classroom!" because that's also an attack on some of your students' right to exist. But this isn't a likely scenario.)