Editor's note: Given recent events, The Teaching Professor is making this article freely available. Please feel welcome to share the link widely with your colleagues and students.
While most springs terms are done, our past and current students still have to face their emotions in response to George Floyd’s death, the national and international riots, and what this all says about race relationships. This customizable letter to students is meant to help. Feel free to share it as is or to further tailor it. I suggest inserting a personal response to events. Here’s what I told my students: “I am deeply saddened. I am extremely fearful for the future. I fear for my black friends and my white friends with black children. I fear for anyone not white in America today. I fear for my children who are not white. I fear for myself as a nonwhite man and also as an immigrant, albeit an American citizen.” A good link for more: bit.ly/ANTIRACISMRESOURCES.
Are you pained, distraught, or otherwise emotionally taxed? It is difficult to not be in the face of recent events highlighting prejudice. Police brutality led to the death of George Floyd. Breonna Taylor was shot by police in Louisville. Ahmaud Arbery was shot by two white men while jogging in South Georgia. You may not have experienced prejudice or been subjected to a growing barrage of the reminders of inequity, but such cases have reached epic proportions.
In college our goal is to provide you with an education. We aim to give you content knowledge and skills to live productive, better lives. These lofty goals provide all of us in college with ample opportunity to avoid facing the realities of the world we live in. Yes, we faculty try to make our classes applied, using many examples of how course material applies to life, but how often do we directly address the turbulence in the world?
Many of you may not hear George Floyd’s death discussed in a class. I am sure there are many reasons. Maybe the course has nothing to do with prejudice and injustice and you do not expect anything other than the course content. Maybe the instructor does not want to risk being seen as political or too liberal. Maybe the instructor is too pained or uncomfortable to bring it up. Too often we faculty treat course content as autonomous and let it shield out the world. If we focus only on the syllabus and the texts, we can avoid any uncomfortable discussions. If so, we have lost a valuable opportunity to truly advance education.
Racism is a horrible reality. Ironically, there is no scientific basis for differentiating the races. The genes of a black person are 99.9 percent identical to the those of a white person. Race is a social construct. “Differences” between races and classes are built over the years and passed on through generations. Racism is a generational burden. This can only change if we all face these realities head on. The injustice of George Floyd’s death and others like his is something we all need to face. College is a key place to do it.
There is change we can both help with. College should be a space that is inclusive to all, where every student, regardless of ethnicity, age, gender or ability, works together to build the basis for lifelong learning. Ideally, we faculty collaborate with you to help you not just gain new knowledge but also to evaluate, analyze, synthesize, and apply that knowledge. But knowledge is not fixed. It is dynamic, varies with interpretation, changes, and must be questioned. We faculty can help. We can make sure we create safe spaces for you to comfortably interrogate existing beliefs, some of which may no longer hold, or may be inaccurate. We can make sure we include texts and readings from diverse perspectives than help this process. What can you do?
Empower yourself to act. You can ask yourself whether what you are reading represents a solitary view or one of different ethnicities and genders. You can pay attention to slights and generalizations that misrepresent people. Yes, your fellow students or faculty instructor may not be receptive to discussions of social justice. You may worry about getting a bad grade or being mistreated by peers if you speak up, even so you can help create a climate where difference can be discussed. You can show you are willing to take on difficult topics and engage in social discourse and invite it, no matter what the course content. If class does not feel safe, look for the safe spaces and receptive ears within campus student organizations or college departments (e.g., an Office for Institutional Diversity). Use them.
If we are to progress as a society and right the wrongs of the past, we all have to work at it, and college is a great place to start the conversation. Right now I am betting that many of you feel like I do. You want to do something. You want to turn away and hear nothing. Competing coping agendas. They are both natural. If you are disturbed, you are not alone. If you are not disturbed, you may be missing something. Learning more about the issues is a great first step.
With the flexibility of summer looming, one way to start to help with change is to make sure you know what the issues are. Consider reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist or, for a broader view, Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy, or Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. These books will answer some key questions: Why are the historical inequities that so oppressed black people? How is racism built into existing structures? Could you be racist and not even know it? What does it mean to be privileged (and to lack it)?
It is important to be “all in it together” to face the pandemic. It is more important to be unified against racism and inequity.
Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is a professor of psychological science, the director of the general psychology program, and interim executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.
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