Pobody’s Nerfect: Teaching About Racism as a White Professor
By Jane E. Palmer, Ph.D., M.S.W.
It was a fall day in 2018. At the start of class, I played a clip from the popular TV show “What Would You Do?” and sat down to watch my students take in the information. It was a community-based learning class, so we were starting a module on racism, how it shows up in service-learning, and the importance of cultural humility when working with community partners.
It was week 5 of the semester and the students were just starting to gel. Of the 19 first year students, 8 identified as students of color. To start the conversation that day, the clip I played used a hidden camera to show unsuspecting bystanders’ reactions to a white man, a white woman, and a Black man (all actors) who tried to steal a bike in a busy park. I watched as the white students’ mouths gaped open when it was assumed that the white man worked for the park and was removing a discarded bike, when bystanders flirted with – and actively tried to help – the white woman take the bike, even when she said she was stealing it, and when they called the cops on the Black man without hesitation.
Then, it happened. The only Black male student in the class stood up and walked out of the classroom, avoiding eye contact with me and the other students. I could feel a pit in my stomach. I started to follow him but stopped myself. Instead, I asked my graduate teaching assistant, who was also a Black male, to check on him. The clip ended, and I asked the students to share their reactions. It was a good conversation, but when the student who left rejoined the class after about 15 minutes, he was quiet. On his way out, he dropped a note on my desk where he apologized for being disruptive and that he hoped he did not disappoint me. I emailed him after class to assure him that I did not see him as disruptive and that he definitely did not disappoint me.
“He was tired of it being an intellectual exercise for some while it was a daily lived experience for him.”
Instead, I had disappointed myself. I centered white students in a conversation about race and racism instead of the other way around. The students of color in the classroom likely knew how the clip would end. In the conversation with my TA and in later conversations with this student, who went on to take three more classes with me while he was at AU, he explained that he was just tired. In the short period of time that he had been at AU, he was tired of listening to white people talk about racism, or witness them just learn about racism. He was tired of it being an intellectual exercise for some while it was a daily lived experience for him. He was tired of the frustration, anger, and ire in the students of color group chat. He just wanted to be a college student.
Learning to Embrace a Pedagogy of Discomfort
From that point on, I focused on how to have conversations in the classroom that don’t center white students. I learned that no matter how much activism, writing, and organizing I have done around racism, I still walk into the classroom as a white professor who grew up with class privilege. There is no reason for students of color to trust me to facilitate a conversation about racism – I need to show, not tell, that they and their experiences can be centered, despite the context of a predominantly white private university. Most importantly, I began to lean into a “pedagogy of discomfort.” As Applebaum (2017) writes:
A pedagogy of discomfort counters universal expectations that teachers must create comfortable environments for students and assumes that comfort can foreclose learning and obstruct change. Discomfort thus becomes synonymous with the possibility of individual and social transformation. (p.863)
The delicate dance within this pedagogy is to help students experience enough discomfort, where they are just at the edge of their comfort zone, but not create an environment where they are so uncomfortable that they shut down and become defensive. A skillful mastery of this pedagogy requires asking students to be critical of their personally held beliefs and to be open to understanding why others may not share their beliefs. It requires an instructor who can be empathetic and kind while also being critical of attempts by students to deny racism, center whiteness, return to more comfortable topics, or efforts to avoid vulnerability (such as not speaking to avoid saying something ‘wrong’).
“I need to show, not tell, that they and their experiences can be centered, despite the context of a predominantly white private university.”
A pedagogy of discomfort also requires me, as the professor, to embrace my own discomfort and be open to making mistakes along the way. If I expect my students to be vulnerable, I must model it by being vulnerable too. I openly acknowledge my whiteness and my generational class privilege. As an example, I share with my students that I used to only talk about my mom’s grandparents who immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland but rarely mentioned that my dad’s ancestors were on the Mayflower. I also share mistakes I made when I was a college student engaging in social justice work from a “white savior” or charity model, instead of one of solidarity. The stories I tell with authenticity help me open a conversation about my own journey toward anti-racist practice and the lifelong process of unlearning the messages I received as a young person. As my grandma used to say, “pobody’s nerfect.” We will stumble and fall, but we will do so together, and help each other along the way.
The Dance of Inclusive Pedagogy: Being More Responsive to Who Talks and Who Doesn’t
As I deepened my commitment to inclusive pedagogy, I began to pay closer attention to classroom dynamics. I realized when difficult or sensitive topics arise in a classroom discussion, there are verbal and non-verbal indications of students’ level of comfort or discomfort. I needed to be ready to break students up into smaller groups when the larger group discussion was being dominated by only a few voices. Some students talk a lot, because they, as my friend puts it, “fill silence with words,” especially when they’re uncomfortable. Or, sometimes, white students talk a lot – intentionally or unintentionally – as “virtue signaling” so their peers can know how not racist they are. Some students shut down and don’t engage at all in a larger discussion. They shift in their seats or check their phone. When we were virtual during the early part of the pandemic, it was harder to detect such subtle shifts in verbal or non-verbal behaviors. However, now that we are back in-person you can feel the energy in the room shift. This is when you know it’s time to do something different, like break up into pairs or smaller groups.
“When difficult or sensitive topics arise in a classroom discussion, there are verbal and non-verbal indications of students’ level of comfort or discomfort.”
As I learned to turn on a dime based on student verbal and nonverbal feedback, I began to become more conscientious about how I divided up students for small group breakouts (virtually and in person). One of my first jobs as a teenager was as a camp counselor, so my inclination is to have students number off so they will be randomly put in a group. I began to create groups differently – either by intentionally allowing friends to sit together or, in the virtual space, assigning students of color to breakout rooms separate from white students. I only do this once I know more about the students, their personalities, and, if possible, how they personally identify. I vary how I split students up, because some conversations are easier with friends, but with some conversations I push them to the edge of their comfort zone and pair them with someone they don’t know as well.
In a recent semester, I was facilitating a conversation in a criminology class about the impact of viral videos of police shootings of Black people. In a recent book, Marc Lamont Hill (2020) argues that viral videos have been helpful to inspire activism, protest, and action against police brutality, but they can also be damaging as forms of vicarious trauma and reminders of the precarity of life for Black people and other people of color. As I began the conversation, it seemed that white students had a lot more to say than the students of color in the classroom. I abruptly, and not very gracefully, interrupted the conversation and announced that I was splitting up the class for the remaining 10 – 15 minutes of class. I asked students of color to go to one side of the classroom, and white students to go on the other (based on self-identification). I understood, at the time, that this may be difficult for my students who don’t feel like they fit neatly into the dichotomy of “student of color” or “white.” However, I felt I had created enough of a sense of community in the class by that point in the semester that students would select the category that fit best with how they identified. Also, it was a 10-minute activity in which we were talking about anti-Black police violence and my larger goal was to de-center white perspectives on the topic.
“Viral videos have been helpful to inspire activism, protest, and action against police brutality, but they can also be damaging as forms of vicarious trauma and reminders of the precarity of life for Black people and other people of color.” – paraphrased from Marc Lamont Hill (2020)
There was palpable discomfort in the room as students shuffled into their respective discussion groups, with about half of the class on one side and half of the class on the other. The white students split into three smaller groups, as I instructed, while the students of color opted to remain in one large group. Despite the students’ initial discomfort, once the groups began to respond to the prompts I wrote on the board, they didn’t stop talking until the students who arrived for the next class started to file into the classroom.
Learning While Doing: The Importance of Feedback
As I had never done this before, I wasn’t sure how it went. I sent an anonymous survey to ask students what they thought of the activity. Overall, students of color appreciated the opportunity (with 10/10 students who filled out the survey rating the activity positively) as reflected by this comment:
I thought that was a really cool idea that worked really well. It was nice to be able to talk frankly and comfortably with people who can personally relate to my experiences. I think it worked out the best because there was actually a good number of people of color in this class compared to my other classes. In some classes, I can count on one hand how many POC are in the class and I think if the class was less balanced, it might’ve led to a different kind of experience. Overall, I felt that I was comfortable for this particular kind of conversation and context to be split up by racial identity.
The white students were split 50/50 (4 out of 8 were in support of the activity). Many said they understood the intent of the activity and thought they had a good conversation with their small groups. However, a couple of white students were strongly opposed to the activity, indicating they felt uncomfortable, confused, awkward, and that there was no need to “segregate” the two groups because the classroom was already a safe environment.
Honestly, I thought the exercise was awkward. I have the privilege of being white, and therefore I know there should not be a burden for BIPOC to explain their traumas and teach white people about racism. However, I do not think that in an academic setting there is a need to separate the class into two groups– white people and people of color. I believe that our class is a safe environment to be able to share (if willing) experiences regarding the difficult topics we discuss in class.
Despite the split among the students who completed the survey, I decided the activity was worthwhile (given the enthusiasm for it by students of color) and that I would try something like it again. Both groups expressed in the survey that they wished we had time to debrief afterwards, which we could not do due to a lack of time. I agree with this suggestion. And, to be clear, I believe conversations about race and racism (and other forms of oppression) need to occur among “same-experience peers” and that students need to be able to engage with others across difference or with those without shared experiences (Tatum, 2019). I also would prepare students earlier in this semester that I may create affinity or identity-based discussion groups, so they are not caught off guard. Transparency in pedagogical methods often helps minimize student confusion or frustration.
The Journey Continues…
In this essay, I offer two anecdotal bookends in my ongoing journey to become an inclusive pedagogy practitioner in the university classroom. I do not pretend to have “solved” what it means to teach about racism as a white professor. However, I no longer try to prevent my white students’ discomfort – or my own – when I consider what conversations we will have in the classroom, or why. And I know that, no matter how many years I’ve been doing this, there is always more to learn. I know that “anti-racist” isn’t a level you unlock or a badge you receive, it’s a lifelong ongoing journey for white people. And, most importantly, I don’t just talk about how anti-racist I am. I try to demonstrate it through my pedagogy, my empathy, and my everyday practices of de-centering whiteness. Because after all, as bell hooks offers: “what we do is more important than what we say or what we say we believe.”
Jane E. Palmer, Ph.D., M.S.W., (she/they) is a term-line Associate Professor in the Department of Justice, Law & Criminology, a Non-Resident Fellow in Community Engaged Methods at the Urban Institute, and an Inclusive Pedagogy Fellow with CTRL. She became involved in anti-racist and anti-violence activism and organizing as a high school student in the early-1990s and thought she knew everything, but it turns out there is always more to learn.
Applebaum, B. (2017). Comforting discomfort as complicity: White fragility and the pursuit of invulnerability. Hypatia, 32(4).
Hill, M.L. (2020). We still here: Pandemic, policing, protest and possibility. Haymarket Books.
Tatum, B.D. (2019). Together and alone? The challenge of talking about racism on campus. Daedalus, Fall.
Hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.
Kay, M.R. (2018). Not light, but fire: How to lead meaningful race conversations in the classroom. Stenhouse Publishers.
Singh, A.A. (2019). The racial healing handbook: Practical activities to help you challenge privilege, confront systemic racism, and engage in collective healing. New Harbinger Publications.
Sue, D.W. (2015). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. Wiley.