Race-Consciousness in Classrooms and Curricula

This afternoon, I attended a lecture with Dr. Shaun R. Harper, a professor at Penn who studies race and gender issues in higher education. Dr. Harper talked about how students in homogeneous K-12 settings have very few opportunities to overcome their biases and stereotypes and this trend does not change, even when they go into colleges and universities that try to promote diversity. We as educators have a responsibility to support this conversation on campus (and also not be a part of the problem, which is the first step.) Just expecting that this will happen is not going to work. It has to be a structured educational effort and if we’re graduating students that are not prepared to embrace diversity, we’re not preparing them for the world.

He described a few terms to help frame the experiences students might have:

  • Onlyness, the experience of being the only one of one’s racial group in the classroom, on campus, or in one’s cohort. This can make students feel singled out or without support.
  • Stereotype threat, the fear of embodying a known stereotype. This threat causes students to feel afraid to participate or miss out on experiences because of that threat.
  • Racial microagressions, subtle racial insults that accumulate to undermine students’ confidence.

As an educator, you can engage this conversation, even if you are not an expert, by encouraging students to talk through issues and checking in on students right after and later in the semester after these potentially negative experiences have occurred. The worst thing to do is ignore the very real tensions that students are facing in and out of the classroom.

The lecture crowd was fantastic and had a lot of great, deep questions. It’s clear that Stony Brook’s faculty has been thinking deeply about this issue and recognize that it is fundamentally important to our mission as a University.