A valued colleague at a fine western university recently queried one of my listserves concerning a situation he encountered while observing an international teaching assistant from Eastern Europe tackling a very difficult issue in class: social construction of race in America. What follows is the case as my friend described it and a set of resources we found helpful in extending the conversation helpfully (I have deleted all personal references in the case, but have provided kudos at the end for those who recommended resources.). I take small steps in my orientations and consulting to bring international TAs into workable understandings of what race means here, and then begin to work with them in negotiating difficult conversational contexts. The social baggage that many of them carry to our institutions takes a while to begin to unpack, if that process EVER starts. Diversity issues are complex enough for us; nearly undecipherable for many others entering the US without serious reflective exposure to addressing what these issues mean and how. I have to say, my colleague handled this beautifully.
“Yesterday in a micro-teaching in my ITA class, I had a student attempt to tackle the topic of the social construction of race. He is "white" and from XXXX and although the topic is fine, the way he handled it would be problematic in an American classroom. Issues such as racially loaded terminology, and listening to people of color and how they define themselves came up (We have a student from Africa who he basically told "You are not really black.” To which she replied, "Yes, I am." He then replied "No, you are not.").
The student who tried to cover this topic felt that he was being intellectually censored by me when I cautioned his approach afterward. On the following class day, he arrived late and looked sullen. We had a few micro-teachings to finish up, during which he was (unusually) silent. After the last talk, we began a brief feedback session. One of the issues that came up in the analysis of the last micro-teaching was the student's use of "he" as a generic pronoun, so I used the opportunity to talk about inclusive language. Well, that discussion on gender seemed non-controversial, so I easily slid the conversation over to why that has been an important issue, and then followed up by moving the conversation back into the talk on race.
I began by thanking him for his willingness to take on the tough topic, and saying that the ensuing class debate had really challenged me. We discussed many of the issues brought up by my colleagues, including that even native speakers would find it difficult to navigate such a topic, and the personal as well as societal levels of identity. We also discussed directness of debate style, particularly as pertained to Eastern European vs. American cultural preferences. He was very engaged, and seemed much more at ease after having some time to think about it. He really wanted to make clear he was not a racist and it was important to him that we didn't think he was, to which the class said clearly we did not. The one "black" student from Senegal in the class, with whom he had had the earlier non-productive exchange, then began to talk about race and ethnicity from her perspective, both in Africa and in XXXX. I'll spare the details, but suffice it to say it was a perfect addition to hear from her, and the class was riveted. More students chimed in with experiences and questions about the American experience.
We ended by nudging the conversation over to the language of polite disagreement, as well as the concept of leading students slowly to a point you want them to get to. It was a perfect segue to the next assignment we then introduced, discussion leading. I had several people come up and thank me after class, and I feel all the students gained valuable insight into American culture and teaching strategies. I have added several of the resources suggested by this list into our CMS, including links to suggested videos and readings. I still plan to build a broader resource to share.
I'm sure this will not be the end of the discussion, at least for me and him in our remaining 1-1 meetings, but probably for most of the class we are ready to move on.”
My colleagues responded with a wide range of thoughtful questions and helpful recommendations. Most ran the gamut from using expressions of English disagreement in academic contexts to issues having to do with “recognizing” race and allowing individuals to make their own claims about who they are. The content of the student’s statements was culturally offensive, but so was the language he used. The stark "No, you are not" was inappropriate linguistically for the context, in addition to other problems. If he had embedded his point in culturally appropriate forms like “Really? I thought that . . . ," Many ITAs’ experiences of racial & identity issues may be different from American students because of various political, historical, and cultural factors. Surely facilitating effective transition to understanding something this sophisticated in a new culture is one of the biggest challenges I face in helping international students and faculty adjust to teaching in America.
My western friend’s response to the incident revealed a powerful self reflective dialogue, deep awareness of cultural constructs, and an ardent desire to meaningfully influence his student’s approach to thinking and talking about race in American classrooms. In short, some damn fine mentoring and guidance.
(My thanks to MIT’s Jane Dunphy, Kate Martin, University of Minnesota, and Cheryl Ernst, SIU, for this reference list.)
Espenshade, Thomas J. and Alexandria Walton Radford. No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009
Williams, Clarence G. Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.
Steele, Claude M. (1999). “Thin Ice: ‘Stereotype Threat’ and Black College Students,” The Atlantic Monthly, August 1999. Accessed at: http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99aug/9908stereotype.htm .
Treisman, Uri (1992). “Studying Students Studying Calculus: A Look at the Lives of Minority Mathematics Students in College,” College Mathematics Journal, vol. 23, pp.362-372.
Accessed at: http://www.utdanacenter.org/downloads/articles/studying_students.pdf .
Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning and the Office of Race Relations and Minority Affairs, “Tips for Encouraging Students in a Racially Diverse Classroom,” Harvard University 1992.
“Facilitator’s Guide for Race in the Classroom: The Multiplicity of Experience.” Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning & Office of Race Relations and Minority Affairs. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1992.
Cuyjet, Michael J., ed. African American Men in College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.
Howell, Annie and Frank Tuitt, eds. Race and Higher Education: Rethinking Pedagogy in Diverse College Classrooms. Harvard Educational Review Reprint Series no. 36. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Educational Review, 2003.
http://radicalpedagogy.icaap.org/content/issue5_1/02_grant.html - Teaching and learning about racial issues in the modern classroom.
http://honolulu.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/diverse.htm - Diversity and complexity in the classroom from Tools for Teaching
http://faculty.ed.umuc.edu/~jmatthew/articles/namepower.html - Name Power: taking pride, and control, in defining ourselves - a perspective from the side of the non-black black student?
A Vanderbilt case based around a comment that "race doesn't matter anymore" - this includes the case and two faculty responses: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/cft/resources/cft_newsletters/spring2000/teaching_exchange_diversity.htm