Talking About Race and Privilege in the Loyola Classroom

Posted on: February 3rd, 2016 1 Comment

As Loyola students of color draw attention to their experiences of marginalization in classrooms and throughout their Loyola experience, as questions of police violence against communities of color erupt in the news, and as the Black Lives Matter movement emerges, Loyola faculty may be thinking of how to engage issues race and racism in their classrooms. In this blog post, I share some of the strategies I tried this past semester to address these issues in my Introduction to Christian Ethics courses. This is touchy stuff: I braced myself for the possibility of resistance. Based on feedback from my students, however, this unit was a very powerful and illuminating one for the vast majority of them.


Perhaps the most powerful lesson of the semester, for me, was simply the power of knowledge about the history and present reality of racial discrimination. Students come to Loyola with very different funds of experience and awareness, and the classroom is a place to access and share these experiences. Most students were simply unaware that racial discrimination remains as pervasive and systemic as it is. Exposure to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ argument for reparations for slavery, and a This American Life episode dealing with federally-sponsored housing discrimination, raised students’ awareness of the depth and ongoing impact of racist policies in our country.


On the other hand, one African-American student for whom racism was an obvious reality realized that where she had presumed indifference to racism on the part of white students, the real problem was often ignorance: “It was such a surprise, but… now I know that awareness is the first issue, not action. As you have said in class, listening is important and before I don’t think I was open to listening anymore because I saw no change.”


Another student reported that in her high school, teachers could not discuss race because parents in the community would call and complain: “Our teachers never had a voice which meant we never learned to have one either.” This statement left me grateful for the greater academic freedom of a university setting (though as a related matter of social justice and academic mission, we must ask whether contingent faculty can feel safe raising charged issues of privilege and discrimination in their classrooms). It deepened my own commitment as a professor to conducting the difficult conversations that are often blocked in other venues. The university classroom has an indispensable place in a pluralistic democracy, and as faculty members, we must take very seriously our role as stewards of this resource.


I witnessed the power of empathy, particularly towards peers, for opening up students’ understanding of injustice and desire to challenge it. I developed a modified version of Peggy McIntosh’s well-known “Invisible Knapsack” exercise. I read through a list of experiences of discrimination or harm based on race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, or immigration status, for example: “I have been followed around by security in a store”; “I have experienced sexual harassment.” I asked students to stand, as they were comfortable, for any example they had personally experienced, and I participated as well.


At the end of this exercise, I honestly wasn’t sure how it had gone. The students were fairly quiet; it was hard to spark much discussion. In later reflection papers and anonymous course evaluations, however, students shared that while the exercise had been uncomfortable, and made them feel vulnerable, it had also been very powerful. They reported that the atmosphere of the class had changed for them; it had become a safer and more open space. In addition, many had very strong emotional reactions: one white male student reported that “I did not stand up once, and it broke my heart. It was hard to watch time after time all of my classmates stand up for injustices they suffered from society.”


This empathy becomes more accessible when students can trust that their own experiences can also be heard. A student with many relatives in law enforcement expressed relief that discussions of police violence acknowledged that there are many “good cops” and that policing is hard and dangerous work. Various readings about “white privilege,” including a helpful piece on “What My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege” allowed many students both to understand a concept they had heard of, but often found a bit murky, and to process feelings of being “attacked” and move toward the understanding that, in the words of one white student, “white privilege exists and that all people should work to end race-bias.”


In closing, I note that in developing this unit, I drew heavily on the experience and wisdom of other teachers and activists who have engaged issues of race in various academic and social spaces. In taking on these difficult subjects, we need to share strategies and resources, and I am happy to be in conversation with others who are attempting to open up similar conversations in their classrooms and other contexts.

Sandra Sullivan Dunbar

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One Response

  1. avatar Adrienne Ambrose says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I love your language about our responsibility to be stewards of the resource that the university classroom provides. What a job description! You’re inspiring me to rise to the challenge!