Instructor Insights

Facilitating Talk about Race and Ethnicity

In this section, Professor Ariel White shares some of the strategies she used to prepare students to engage in conversations about race and ethnicity in the course.

Discussions that Lead to New Places

"I emphasized the importance of having discussions that would lead us, collectively, to new places, rather than having individuals contribute unconnected monologues."
— Ariel White

Our discussions in 17.269 Race, Ethnicity, and American Politics went better than I anticipated. Many of the things that I worried about, such as students saying explicitly racist things that would make others uncomfortable, just didn’t happen. I don’t know if they wouldn’t have happened anyway, or if some of the ways I set up the early discussions helped. In those early sessions, we talked, upfront, about what good participation looks like. I highlighted quality or quantity of contributions, and we talked through ways to constructively build on others’ comments. I emphasized the importance of having discussions that would lead us, collectively, to new places, rather than having individuals contribute unconnected monologues.

Participation without Spokespeople

I also prompted students to consider their style of participation by asking, Are you a person who always jumps in? Or are you a person who sits back? And if you’re a person who always jumps in, can you look around and make sure everybody joins the conversation? If you’re a person who sits back, can you try to jump in? I asked these questions because I wanted students to think about how we could make sure everybody could contribute to our discussions. At the same time, however, I wanted to ensure nobody felt they had to be a spokesperson for an identity group of which they were a member. This was a dynamic I was worried about in this classroom. It didn’t happen. Again, I don’t know if it was because we explicitly talked about this issue, or if it just didn’t arise with this particular group of students.

Unpacking a Common Misconception

There is a common misconception in the United States that race and ethnicity are natural phenomena and that the systems we build around them “have always been this way.”  Part of facilitating productive classroom discussions about race and ethnicity was unpacking this misconception right away. We started the course by thinking through how our society has arrived at our current understanding of race and ethnicity. What do we mean by race? What do we mean by ethnicity? It feels so obvious. We all know what we mean when we say Latino, but how did we get here? How did this category become salient? It didn’t have to be like this. We could have had any number of other line drawing activities. And over time, we have. We talked through the many different ways people have created ideas about race and ethnicity. Getting across the idea that race and ethnicity are socially constructed concepts that we then build social structures around (which, in turn, create social realities that impact people’s lives) was important because it was not obvious to all students upon first coming to the course.

Being Upfront about the Difficulties

Another strategy I used to prepare students for our class discussions about race and ethnicity was to be upfront about the difficulty of some of the conversations. I let them know that these would be hard topics to sit with, noting that sometimes we would be talking about traumatic violence that, for some students, would feel close to home. I let students know that if a particular conversation was too intense, they could step out of the classroom and that they could keep in touch with me so that we could talk about how to make the class work for them.

Focusing on the Research

Finally, I tried to keep our conversations grounded in the social science research. This was not a class where we were debating the merits of affirmative action or critiquing people’s personal views. We kept the focus on the body of research and critiques of it. Obviously, people had many feelings about all the research topics we discussed, but their emotions were not the main emphasis of our conversations.

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