Monday, September 1, 2008

Teaching Race and Ethnicity

I'm teaching Race and Ethnicity for the first time this fall. On the first day of class, I decided to come clean to my students by "admitting" that I'm white, and that as are many white people in the U.S., I sometimes get uncomfortable talking about race. I followed that by telling them I would do the best job I can. This actually seemed to work, especially with some of the minority students in my class (they actually outnumber the white students). I have found in the past that students appreciate honesty, and they are surprisingly good at sniffing out b.s.

Anyway, I'm still daunted by the task of teaching race. I feel I am a reasonably good teacher, and I have been teaching for close to five years, so I'm not entirely green. I also know the race literature relatively well, although it's not my primary area of interest. But I think part of the problem is that I have never known what it is like to be a minority in our country. Sure, I fell qualified to talk about gender issues, but I have led a privileged life as an upper middle-class white girl. This does not mean I'm unqualified to teach about race, but it does make me unqualified to assume that I understand the experience of being a minority. And I think that this is what makes me uncomfortable. How do I teach about racial stratification without coming across as if I presume to understand the experiences of another group?*

To further elaborate, I'll relate two stories from my class today. I feel that the first one went better, and I'm trying desperately to figure out how I could have better responded to the second. (Again, feedback is welcome.)

First example: I was speaking of people of the black "race" (as in socially constructed physical distinctions) by using the term African American. One of the black students asked me why I was talking about African American as a race instead of as an ethnicity. He used as an example a black man in my class who is from Africa. So, I proceeded to have a conversation with my students about the proper use of black vs. African America. We came to the conclusion that black should be used to talk about racial categories, and African American should be used when talking about ethnicity. This conversation seemed to go pretty well, and the students seemed satisfied.

Second example: I was explaining how the line between ethnicity and race is often blurred, given that people with particular cultural characteristics (ethnicity) tend to have a common ancestry (race), and because of processes such as homophily, people marry within their in-group, perpetuating physical distinctions between groups. As an example of the distinction between ethnicity and race, I mentioned that many Latinos have dark skin, given a shared history of slavery with the U.S., but have very different customs than African Americans based on their ethnicity. A very white-appearing woman raised her hand, explained that she is from Puerto Rico, and said that many very "white" looking Puerto Ricans are currently migrating to the U.S., which is shattering a lot of the stereotypes surrounding Puerto Ricans. I acknowledged her point, and explained I was speaking more of individuals descended from the time of the slave trade, and then told her that I would have never guessed that she was Puerto Rican based solely on her appearance. That was the end of that encounter, but I feel uneasy about how I handled it, especially my last comment.

Perhaps I'm being too hard on myself. I believe I am teaching my course appropriately, and with due diligence to the cannon of race and ethnicity research in sociology. Maybe I need to just relax, and let my students correct me from time to time, as my students did today. Any thoughts?

*If you have any ideas, I would LOVE to hear them.


bookmobile said...

I do have a few things to say, as it happens.

Your students made several assumptions about you and the class before the class began and the instant they walked into the classroom and saw that you, a young, white woman, was teaching it:

1. Some of them, perhaps those who think they know more about race than they actually do, assumed that they know all they need to know about race from having lived this long as a person from a minority background.

2. Most of them assumed that, because of your education and your employment as a lecturer at a prestigious university, that you know more about the science of race than they do. Most of your students, bright as they are, know that living as a person from a minority background does not give them the whole story.

And, because insight comes in threes:

3. Those who understand the underpinnings of sociology realize that it is an emergent field, especially when it comes to topics like race. Although you are most assuredly well-prepared to teach this course, the sociology of race is not yet a complete picture. Your students, as bright as they are, hopefully know that it is incumbent upon them to test the limits of the topic a little, in order to see how well the information they are learning holds up.

That's pretty much all I have to say. Hope that's helpful, and that I'm not completely out of bounds. Remember, you're one of the brightest and most capable people I know. I hope you trust that.

Practicing Idealist said...

Thanks, Bookmobile. This helps a lot. I hope your recovery is coming along well. I am still suffering from laryngitis, but when I'm better, we should catch up.

Heather said...

Please forgive me for this out-of-the blue comment. I'm friends of The Wailin' Jennys and have a Google Alert set for them, hence I found my way to your blog. :)

I saw this post and found it very interesting, because although I'm not a PhD or university lecturer, I am also very interested in the same aspects...discussing race and ethnicity issues as a white person. I've had a passion for diversity and anti-racism work.

I do not know you or your background, so I'm not offering any specific advice. However, an acquaintance of mine has been working for many years in this field. A good portion of her work is focusing on white people and our position of privileged in society, as you noted, and how we can better understand our selves to better have these types of discussions and help become allies in deconstructing racism.

You sound like you may have already heard of this, but I thought I'd throw it out there as an idea:

Best of luck to you...and I hope you continue to enjoy the Jennys! :)