Framing Cultural Diversity Courses Post U.S. 2008 Presidential Elections

Article excerpt

The higher education classroom provides a unique opportunity to present, explore and understand many controversial issues citizens grapple with in the U.S. and the world. It brings together people from a variety of backgrounds, perspectives and professions and in some aspects is a microcosm of society. This diversity provides a meaningful laboratory for the exchange of views in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

My participation in the classroom is both as a facilitator of learning and as a citizen. As citizen, I have experienced acts such as the willful burning of property and invisibility, experiences that citizens of African ancestry can relate to. I come to the experience with both personal knowledge of acts of intolerance and racism and professional preparedness to facilitate the presentation and exchange of information, the sharing of perspectives and experiences that could contribute to overcoming those barriers that divide racial/ethnic groups within the U.S.

The discussion of issues related to race in the U.S. has been volatile or totally avoided in many forums, particularly public forums. In classrooms comprised of undergraduate students or adult learners I have found specific topics, with related readings, resources and assignments, to be beneficial in teaching and learning about racial and cultural issues, because as long as the rules for honoring and respecting perspectives are set and adhered to, both faculty and students are able to engage in conversations that may not be possible in some other contexts. There are a variety of 'separation factors' such as class, socio-economic status, race and ethnicity and residential patterns that prohibit the exchange of experiences and perspectives on mutually respectful grounds. As citizens, we are not afforded the opportunity to learn from the experiences of those different from ourselves and engage the information in non-confrontational ways. Hence, I see the classroom as a safe forum for faculty and students to bring and expand their knowledge and experience to a discussion of the various cultures present within the larger U.S. culture.

Historical events are often used both as descriptors and projections of the tenor of a nation. This essay, based on a presentation made at the 2010 Annual Teaching for Transformation Conference organized by CIT (Center for Improvement of Teaching) at UMass Boston, examines the ways in which the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States can inform the content and framing of courses related to race and race relations and issues relating to cultural diversity in the United States. Immediately after the election of Obama many in the nation and around the world perceived his election as a turning point in U.S. race and ethnic relations where there may be less need to consider issues related to cultural diversity. Though the election itself marked a significant milestone, could it also be viewed as a single indicator of deeper racial understanding and acceptance?

That the Constitution of the United States still stands after more than two hundred years attests to the fact that it is a highly regarded document developed by educated and thoughtful men. Yet this document has been amended twenty-seven times, providing evidence that sections of the document needed to receive additional consideration. One notable imperfection of the document was related to the designation of slaves as three-fifth's of a person, which deprived them of the right of suffrage. As a result of this and other laws and experiences, conflict and distrust have existed among whites and blacks throughout the history of the United States. The specific reasons for these conflicts are not always known to those who occupy the seats in higher education classrooms, yet they bring to the classroom an awareness of the conflict and tension, even a sense of being purveyors of that conflict and an inability to comprehend ways in which the conflict can be reduced. …