Having the Difficult Discussions about Race and Ethnicity in the Classroom

Back in July 2019, Laura Tubelle de González, author of Through the Lens of Cultural Anthropology, wrote for us on the blog about her newly released textbook and her hopes for its use in the classroom. A year on, and much has changed in the world, with racism, anti-Blackness, privilege, and bias issues being thrust into the limelight. In a new post, Laura discusses the conversations that are now taking place in academia to support the Black Lives Matter movement. In agreement with Laura, we have made available a free chapter from her cultural anthropology textbook on Race and Ethnicity which we hope will bring a wider audience to the material and continue the much-needed conversations on the matter.

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The world has watched as people have risen up in frustration, rage, and grief to protest the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and others at the hands of police officers. Black trans women continue to be the target of homicide with Riah Milton and Dominique (Rem’Mie) Fells murdered in June alone with investigations pending. Conversations are now happening throughout academia, in places and at times where they may not have happened before, on the topic of racism, anti-Blackness, privilege, and bias.

As a White woman, I do not live with the fear of going outside, and enjoy privileges that were simply given to me beginning at birth, unearned, because of the color of my skin. Nonetheless, I am implicated in the systemic racism that pervades our society, since long before I was born. As an ally, I am listening and seeking ways that I can support the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement.

As a community college teacher and the professional development coordinator on my campus, I am acutely aware that I can play an important role in fostering critical thinking about anti-racism and anti-Blackness. We must all act to ensure all students get the support and care they need to achieve equity. We must engage in change-making on our campuses, examining and diversifying our curriculum, hiring practices, encounters with campus police, and providing authentic personal and professional development opportunities for the campus community. We must not let this moment pass without action.

Personally, much of my growth and understanding about other perspectives has come through the opportunity of researching and writing textbooks. I may not have ever experienced as much learning as when striving to ensure the accuracy, sensitivity, and fidelity of my sentences. This is certainly the case when I set out to write an introductory cultural anthropology textbook, Through the Lens of Cultural Anthropology, with a chapter on race and ethnicity.

Like many of us, with the laser focus on Black lives and structural racism, I tried to find ways to contribute to raising anti-racist voices. Carli, my editor at UTP Higher Education, and I agreed that we could release the Race and Ethnicity chapter for free online to the public. Several days later, UTP generously changed the free sample of Through the Lens of Cultural Anthropology from the Preface to include the Race and Ethnicity chapter.

The folks at UTP and I hope that the free release of this chapter will allow a wider audience for the material. For instance, teachers of various subjects or grade levels who may not have background in why race is not a biological concept in humans will find easy ways to understand and explain it to their students. Classrooms hoping to clarify definitions of structural racism, prejudice, discrimination, and privilege, will find that there as well. While I know that writing a chapter on Race and Ethnicity is certainly not the same as reading a chapter on Race and Ethnicity, it’s the hope of authors of textbooks everywhere that we reach our readers in ways that may cause a shift in their thinking.

The chapter serves as an overview and foundation for students in cultural anthropology courses to learn about complex issues in a simple way, in the hope that it will lead to discussions about how structural racism pervades all of our lives. When students come with questions that are hard to answer, like “Why do (insert ethnic group here) work picking crops in fields/driving taxis/doing nails?” or “are all (insert ethnic group here) good marathoners/basketball players/boxers?” the chapter explains that those skills are not innate, but are either culturally valued or the result of the limitations placed on immigrants.

When my White students say they don’t believe that privilege exists, we refer to John Scalzi’s gaming metaphor of Whiteness, included in the chapter. Scalzi argues that the game, in this case called “The Real World,” assigns each of us a difficulty setting based on “race” at birth over which we have no control. This is not to say that other factors don’t play a part in leveling up in this game, such as class, wealth, sexuality, ability, etc., only that the color of one’s skin and the historical context of one’s community sets the fundamental level. Seen from this perspective, White males live life on the “lowest difficulty setting.”

These are often difficult and emotional discussions in the classroom, with implicit bias taking center stage. But it is imperative that we have these discussions, that we listen to our students and learn from them, that we facilitate reflection, and that we guide them toward thinking in anti-racist ways. No one chapter in one textbook is going to accomplish that. Nonetheless, it’s crucial that we continue to make resources available and that we invite people to the table for conversation and reflection.

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Click here to view the free Chapter: “Race and Ethnicity.”

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