Teachers have tremendous power in shaping a child’s vision for his or her own future and for how he or she perceives the world around them. Of these visions few are as important as shaping a child’s sense of connectedness to diverse groups of people around town, the country, and the world. There are many things that teachers can explicitly do to shape a child’s outlook on life. Teachers can teach students about diverse cultures and ideals, they can have international food days, and they can bring in a variety of guest speakers to talk about diversity. However, much of what a teacher does to send messages about racial equality and harmony is transmitted subconsciously and implicitly. These powerful messages come in the form of body language, eye contact, giving positive attention, and other signs of non-verbal affirmation or rejection. When an educator is not aware of this it can be dangerous because a teacher can inadvertently and negatively affect the outcome of a student’s performance and not even realize that he or she is doing it. Teacher expectations of students do affect students’ actual performance so negative biases that teachers hold, before they step into the classroom, tip the scales one way or the other for certain students or groups of students. This is exactly why diversity education should be required for all pre-service educators, and this is why colleges and universities should make sure their programs are taught by the best faculty, so that teachers learn how to identify and control their hidden biases.
Among other things, diversity studies enable new teachers to recognize that it is impossible to completely transcend their own culture and upbringing, and that being bias-free is not possible. In my view one of the primary objectives of diversity education classes is to help teachers take stock of and to catalogue their own biases. Once one is aware of one’s own predispositions then one can work with them to control how they play out in the classroom. Without this level of consciousness teachers’ negative biases can work to adversely impact the future of a child, and that child can do nothing about it.
Teaching about diversity is no easy task. A great deal of the pressure for the success or failure of these classes falls directly on the professor. This is because he or she needs to find the right balance between comfort and discomfort in the classroom. The professor should want to challenge peoples’ commonly held misconceptions about race while at the same time not pushing students too far beyond their safety thresholds. Research has been done on the effects of arousal and stimulation on learning and attention in humans. This work provides guidance for educators because it suggests that lessons that are either very dry or very provocative inhibit learning because too much or too little stimulation is counter productive. The research indicates that there is a “zone” of optimal learning. This zone will differ from person to person but educators should be away of this as they seek to create curricula that will challenge students, but not so much as to force them to raise their emotional defenses. When one’s guard is up, learning is significantly slowed or halted all together.mig
When an educator can push a student to critically evaluate their long held assumptions, and do it in such a way that it doesn’t put the student on the defensive then the teacher can illuminate a disconnection between the student’s beliefs and behaviors. When this happens a window can open and learning can occur. Teachers call this coveted experience a “teachable moment.” Consider a student who has held onto the notion that black people are genetically inferior to white people. Show this student that people, black and white, have nearly the same genetic make-up, more than 99 percent the same. Show them a clip from a movie, bring in a guest speaker, and read interesting books and articles. With this information in hand the student might conceded that there is a problem with what they believe. This new knowledge can create an internal disconnect where the facts of the situation overpower long-held misconceptions and room is made for new understandings and attitudes.
Few are comfortable talking about race, especially in classrooms where multiple races are present. Successfully teaching about diversity therefore requires educators to actively work to build and maintain trust, comfort, and a level of safety in the classroom. There are a number of things that educators can do to build and maintain trust, comfort, and openness in the classroom. This paper will attempt to shed light on how to best approach four topics that often surface in diversity lessons where there are white students present. These comments and questions when not handled properly by instructors can impede students, both black and white from seeking to be involved in future class discussions about diversity. The four topics are as follows: 1) This is not about blame, it is all about acknowledgement, awareness, and open conversation. 2) Why do you keep talking about institutionalized racism and how do I understand this? 3) What does racism look like today? And 4) Why can’t I criticize black people without feeling like racist?
This focus of this series of posts is on teaching racial diversity to pre-service college students. It also focuses primarily on teaching white students about diversity. This is not to say that white students are the only ones who can benefit from a better understanding of how their biases can inadvertently negatively affect their students. Also, it is not to say that non-white students do not themselves suffer from racial prejudices and biases. What is true is that overall white students are the least aware of their hidden predispositions and the unearned privileges that life has afforded them.
Coming soon – Part II: “Not About Blame, it is All About Acknowledgement, Awareness, and Open Conversation”