By Rachel Luckenbill, English PhD Candidate and Instructional Consultant for TAs
This blog post is full of confessions.
Over my nine years teaching at the college level, I have been conspicuously aware of my own discomfort when broaching the topic of race in the classroom. I often found myself worrying that I would accidentally say something offensive or make a student of color feel uncomfortable because of my own bumbling attempts to handle race dialogues. I think a part of me believed that my whiteness disqualified me from leading such discussions. I teach literature so there’s no way around it – race comes up all the time in my classroom. I’ve attended conferences on race, read articles, and my own research engages deeply with race and ethnicity in contemporary literature. But still I found myself feeling self-conscious and hesitant whenever the topic surfaced.
Last summer all of this began to change when I participated in a writing exercise that helped me to explore my past experiences with race and understand the roots of my discomfort. In this post, I will describe that writing exercise and suggest ways it could be incorporated into the college classroom.
During the summer and fall of 2014, I participated in a poetry workshop held in conjunction with the Race: Are We so Different? exhibit at the Carnegie Natural History Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. I signed up for the workshop precisely so that I could explore why talking about race makes me so anxious, and I was more than a little tempted by the opportunity to work with the facilitators, well-known poets Sheila Carter-Jones and Terrance Hayes. Approximately 30 of us gathered on two Saturdays and one Sunday for five hours at a time.
On day one, the facilitators encouraged us to share openly the reasons why we wanted to attend a workshop centered on the topic of “race.” The candidness with which each person confessed suffering, complicity, confusion, and more raised the comfort level I felt with revealing my own ambiguous experiences with race. Next, the facilitators then prompted us to identify our earliest awareness of race and then list in writing experiences from our upbringing that helped shape how we currently view race. This part of the workshop was quite a challenge because it forced many of us to record experiences we did not want to explore but it was also freeing, allowing us to discover the roots of our current perspectives.
After these writing opening exercises, together we toured the exhibit and learned about the science behind skin color, the social dynamics surrounding race in grade schools, the inequities facing veterans of color, and more. We were encouraged to spend considerable time in the exhibit reflecting on what we heard, saw, and felt. We left the first day with our writing prompts, all of which pushed us to reflect on what we learned from the exhibit and also what we discovered when we remembered our own personal histories with race.
Our second Saturday was dedicated entirely to workshopping our poems, each person in turn hearing feedback from the entire group after sharing what he or she had written. This was a scary experience for me. My poem confessed that I grew up hearing older members of my family use racist language and I was afraid to out them, afraid I would dishonor them while making myself appear insensitive and ignorant. The fear and uncertainty that clouded my thoughts about race were palpable. The facilitators set a precedent for listening to each person’s poem attentively and then honoring its strengths and identifying possibilities for improvement without invalidating any one person’s experience or perception. In the end, the participants encouraged me to tell the truth about my experiences growing up, not just the darkness I was afraid to admit but also the beauty.
The workshop concluded on a Sunday as all of us gathered for a public poetry reading at the museum. We were all anxious and feeling incredibly vulnerable as we prepared to share very personal reflections. Ultimately, the experience of reading our poems was transformative. We voiced our stories in the midst of a community characterized by understanding and a desire to grow.
The poetry workshop taught me many things about being a writer, but more importantly it taught me how to dialogue honestly about race. It helped me accept my own experience in the context of my family as one that was both complex and ambiguous. I wouldn’t say that I now am entirely comfortable dialoguing about race in the classroom but I certainly approach these conversations with more confidence and less fear.
Here’s a suggestion for how this writing exercise can be translated into a multi-day lesson for the college classroom. It can be adapted to fit almost any discipline.
Step 1: Set the tone by laying the ground rules for dialogues about race so that every student knows they will be heard and respected when they speak.
Step 2: Prompt students to identify in writing their earliest awareness of race and then to write a list of experiences that contribute to their current understanding of race. These can be from their childhood or they might be from their current experiences in college. Invite students to share what they wrote if they feel comfortable doing so, making sure to model listening and respect.
Step 3: Give the students a common learning experience. If you want to stay in the classroom, you could offer a brief selection of readings on race from your discipline or if you have the resources to venture outside, take students to a relevant museum exhibit, play, or other event that foregrounds race.
Step 4: Have your students talk about what surprised them or interested them most during the common learning experience. Hearing what other’s think can prompt students to new realizations and deeper reflection.
Step 5: Give a writing assignment that encourages students to craft a response both to their own experiences and what they discovered from the readings or field trip. They might discover intersections between the two or contradictions. This can take the form of a poem but it can also be a letter, editorial, memo, story, journal entry, or an essay.
Step 6: Have students share excerpts from what they wrote with the rest of class. For the poetry workshop, even though this was the part of the experience that made us feel most honorable it was also one of the most pivotal components. Sharing our work with each other gave us an opportunity to offer support, affirmation, and sometimes empathy. Keep in mind that you should only do this if you announce at the very start of the activity that you will want students to share the final product with others. This gives students the ability to control how much they are willing to share with their colleagues. This is part of what it means to build a safe and respectful learning environment.
The exercise I’m recommending will not work for every class. In fact, I think it’s well-suited for classes where a particular unit or the entire course is focused on race. Whatever your discipline, having students begin engaging with race by writing about it offers all students, the shy and the outspoken, an opportunity to articulate their thoughts about a topic that often stirs up fears and insecurities.
Have any of you already experimented with having your students write about race? We invite you to share those experiences in the comments below. Feel free to describe other assignments that have successfully challenged your students to engage race in the classroom.