Eight Actions to Reduce Racism in College Classrooms

By Harper, Shaun R.; Davis, Charles H. F.,, III | Academe, November/December 2016 | Go to article overview

Eight Actions to Reduce Racism in College Classrooms


Harper, Shaun R., Davis, Charles H. F.,, III, Academe


Last year, at dozens of colleges and universities across the United States, students protested institutional unresponsiveness to pervasive issues of racial inequity. Most media attention disproportionately focused on the popularity of the protests as opposed to the actual issues underlying campus unrest. For example, instead of deeply exploring the experiences that ignited demonstrations among students at the University of Missouri, journalists wrote mostly about the football team's threat to cancel its game against Brigham Young University, the potential financial implications of the team's activism, and the eventual resignations of the system president and the chancellor of the university's flagship campus. Similarly, news coverage of protests at Yale University concentrated less on students' frustrations with the university's climate of racial exclusion and more on e-mails about potentially offensive Halloween costumes and perceived threats to free speech.

It is important for faculty members to understand that students were protesting racism. It is also essential that professors recognize how they, often unknowingly and inadvertently, say and do racist things to students of color in the classroom. Student uprisings were as much a response to negative experiences with their peers and administrators as they were expressions of frustration with the cultural incompetence of their teachers. Students of color did not suddenly start experiencing racist stereotyping and racially derogatory comments, disregard for the thoughtful integration of their cultural histories in the curriculum, and threats to their sense of belonging in college classrooms during the 2015-16 academic year. We know from our work as scholars at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education that these problems are long-standing.

College presidents, provosts, deans, and other institutional leaders hire researchers from the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education to spend three to four days on their campuses doing racial climate assessments. At some places we are asked to focus on racial and ethnic differences among faculty and staff members in their feelings of inclusion, respectability, and opportunities for fair and equitable professional advancement, as well as on racial tensions in workplace settings. But on most campuses, administrators ask us to assess the racial climate for students-feelings of inclusion and belonging across racial and ethnic groups, the extent to which students interact substantively across difference, where and what students learn about race, appraisals of institutional commitments to fostering inclusive environments, and characterizations of the supportiveness of classrooms and other spaces. We have done these studies at more than thirty campuses across geographic regions and institutional types, ranging from Portland Community College to Princeton University.

Presented in this article are eight actions faculty members must take to respond more effectively to racism in college classrooms. Findings from our center's student-focused climate studies inform these recommendations. To be sure, eight simple acts will not completely eradicate or even sufficiently address the classroom-related experiences that students of color consistently describe in our focus-group interviews. Nonetheless, participants in our studies say it would greatly improve their experiences if their professors did the following eight things.

1.Recognize your implicit biases and remediate your racial illiteracy.

Students we interview almost always tell us the majority of their instructors (sometimes including faculty members of color) are insufficiently skilled to teach learners from a range of racial groups and cultural backgrounds. As explained in Shaun R. Harper's forthcoming book, Race Matters in College, faculty members are byproducts of their own educational upbringings. Too few of us were ever afforded opportunities to discuss or meaningfully learn about race in our K-12 schools, undergraduate studies, or doctoral programs. …

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