Examining Race & Racism in the University: A Class Project

By Vess, Lora E. | Radical Teacher, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Examining Race & Racism in the University: A Class Project


Vess, Lora E., Radical Teacher


By the end of 2014, most Americans were familiar with the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of unarmed black teen, Michael Brown, and the Grand Jury acquittal of police officer, Darren Wilson. The shooting and subsequent deaths (Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and others) raised black consciousness through "Black Lives Matter" protests and a public discourse on race, privilege, and discrimination that dominated the headlines for months and seemed to finally bring sustained attention to institutional racism, at least as manifest within law enforcement. To this extent, concerned citizens of all races began having long overdue conversations on race relations and racial disconnect in U.S. society. As a sociologist, while I regularly teach on these issues, I was inspired by the movement's energy to find new ways to engage directly with race and privilege at my university. I did this by developing a student research project for a 400-level Race and Ethnicity class in which students conducted face-to -face in-depth interviews with members of the university community. By documenting experiences, our objective was to contribute to a better understanding of racial identity and racialized experiences on the university campus. On a pedagogical level, I had two goals: 1) forstudents to become active, experiential learners on the subject of race in their own lives and on campus, and 2) for students to learn and apply basic qualitative research skills.

I teach at a small public liberal arts university where 16.4% of the student population identifies as Alaska Native/American Indian, 61.5% as white, 1.9% as Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 3.6% as Asian, 1.5% as Black, with 15.1% not reporting (Collins 2015:16-18). This project was situated within campus conversations about microaggressions, power, decolonizing the university and the broader social problem of racism made increasingly visible by groups like Black Lives Matter. Using our group project as aframework, I describe the integration of a critical race analysis into the curriculum. I discuss some of the strengths and limitations of our project, offering considerations and suggestions for teaching similar projects, especially at small universities. I include student quotations gathered through final reflection papers to give voice to their experiences as well as a self-reflection on my experiences as part of this project, particularly as a white woman.

The University of Alaska Southeast's main campus is located in Juneau, Alaska's state capital. Juneau is a small city, with 32,000 year-round residents nestled in the temperate rainforest of the Inside Passage. Limited social movement activism, geographical isolation, and a small population of Black residents and students offer a distinct context for examining the reach of BLM. In my community, our local newspaper provides very little coverage of the movement, or of racism more broadly. (1) There is a pronounced level of anti-Native racism and a legacy of historical trauma among Alaska Native populations. Similar to Jim Crow in Southern states, Alaska Natives suffered from legalized systems of segregation and discrimination. Officially, the city was named for miner and prospector Joseph Juneau, but more accurately it should be understood as Tlingit Territory, land inhabited for thousands of years by Tlingit Indians prior to the 1880s gold rush. Racially, Juneau is slightly more racially diverse than the United States as a whole (which is 77.7% white compared with 70.3% in Juneau), with 11.7% of Juneau's population identifying as Alaska Native/American Indian, 1.5% as Black, 6.1% as Asian, 6.2% as Hispanic or Latino, and 9.4% as two or more races (2013 Census). Living off of any road system, everyone arrives by boat, plane, or birth. There is a strong arts and cultural scene, and the downtown built environment exudes western charm while the natural mountainous and marine environments are major draws for visitors and the reason many locals stay. …

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