Race Matters in the Classroom

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by Contributors to the "Race Matters" Blog 

Contributors to the “Race Matters” blog sponsored by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion in the Fall of 2014 were invited to offer a tactic they have used in their classrooms—both undergraduate and graduate—for engaging difference in meaningful ways. Here are some of their suggestions for doing so.

Children’s Picture Books: Visualizing Race and Gender

by Elias Ortega-Aponte
Assistant Professor of Afro-Latinos/a Religions and Cultural Studies, Drew University

The Context: an introductory Sociology of Religion course required for all M.Div. students at a United Methodist affiliated theological institution, and in a multicultural, multi-racial and multi-denominational classroom in which issues of race, gender, and class are addressed through the curriculum design.

Description: Class members break into groups of at least five and are given one book. Each group selects a reader. Groups are encouraged to create their own space by, for example, sitting in the floor in a circle. Questions to the groups include: What can be observed about the gendered/racial depictions? In what tone are they discussed? How are colors used to create meaning? Does the story revolve around an identity conflict? Are they taken for granted? What are the inter-generational attitudes? A sample of books include Ellen Jackson and Kevin O’Malley’s Cinder Edna (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard 1994), Cheryl Kilodavis and Suzanne DeSimone’s My Princess Boy: A Mom’s Story about a Young Boy Who Loves to Dress Up (Aladdin 2011) and Toyomi Igus and Darly Wells’ Two Mrs. Gibsons (Children’s Book Press 1996).

Pedagogical Purpose: Practices of socialization are central to individuals’ learning to mimic, enforce, and benefit from unequal social arrangements. Learning to “see” race and gender as communicating social stratification is part children’s socialization into their group. Adults pass on attitudes, beliefs, and valuations of racial and gender categories to their children by patterns of relating, activities, choices, and the company they chose to keep. Learning outcomes from this exercise include: promoting critical thinking about gendered and racial representations in children’s picture books; encouraging comparison and auto-examination of the role picture books played in the learner’s socialization into racial and gender identities; and applying intersectional theory in analyzing children’s socialization into gendered and racial identities.

Why it Works: The pedagogical environment during this exercise is one in which laughter, light conversation, and even acting out scenes precedes serious engagements. Second, the cognitive dissonance experienced by interpreting the deeply coded racialized and gendered messages in children’s picture books offers an opportunity to reflect critically on the socialization practices that affect both children and adults. Third, because the books selected for this exercise offer alternative conceptualizations of gender roles, and a broad range of racial/ethnic identities of those who engage them in the exercise, learners can practice the ways in which intersectional analysis could be applied in everyday activities.

Finding God—and Ourselves—in Art 

by Mara Brecht
Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, St. Norbert College

The Context: an upper-level, general education theology course at a predominantly white liberal-arts college.

Description of the Strategy: To introduce liberation theological models for God, I ask students to submit a digital copy of a piece of material art (painting, sculpture, print, etc.) wherein they see God actively represented or see people interacting with an implied God. Students frequently choose images of the Sistine Chapel, the Pietà, or popular depictions of biblical stories. I select some of the students’ images for a slide presentation and intersperse those with several non-Eurocentric images. In class, I invite students into a meditative exercise. They quietly study each image for a few minutes and respond to one “feeling” and two “thought” questions: (1) What is your initial emotional reaction to this piece? (2) What might this image tell you about yourself? (3) What does this image convey about God? After examining all images, students review their register of feelings and thoughts and note any patterns. They then gather in small groups to share their observations. Finally, the small groups discuss how their thoughts influenced their feelings, or vice versa, and hypothesize why this might be the case.

Pedagogical Purpose: By having students track both emotions and ideas, they are able to note how they react at different levels—which can be in conflict—to the contrasting images of God. The exercise enables students to see the predominance of whiteness in “traditional” images of the divine or divine-human relationship. Their observations reveal how finding oneself reflected in God can be as a source of comfort and tool of empowerment.

Why It Works: Students are accustomed to text and abstraction; first engaging their senses and emotions is disarming. They are forced to be honest about their intuitions. Their self-observations create a point of reference for later analysis on “traditional” and “non-traditional” models of God. This is particularly useful when students express discomfort with thinkers who envision God as Black, for example, or when students struggle to understand “why it matters.” Additionally, because it is students who generate most of the images, the (majority white) class cannot deny their inclination to see God as white. Even if they report feeling comfortable with non-Eurocentric images for God, they typically recognize that they had not been previously or predominately exposed to such forms of representation.

Engaging the City: Memorials and the Making of Theology 

by Andre E. Johnson
Dr. James L. Netters Associate Professor of Rhetoric & Religion and African American Studies, Memphis Theological Seminary

The Context: an Urban Theology class at Eden Theological Seminary, comprised of fourteen students (eight white and six African American), with an immersion experience in Ferguson, Missouri.

Description of the Strategy: Commonly called “roadside memorials,” “urban memorials,” or “street memorials,” I suggest that the memorial dedicated to Michael Brown is a site for theological reflection because it gives insight into how people construct ideas of the sacred in the aftermath of a tragic death. Since theological reflection, itself, was a major emphasis of the class, I wanted students to offer theological reflection at this site. Reflection typically begins with me asking for an overall general response to what we saw or heard. To probe a little deeper, I then ask how the readings shaped students’ reflections. I sometimes ask students to offer one or two words that describe their experience or just simply ask, “Where did you see God/Spirit today?”

Pedagogical Purpose: Roadside memorials and the art that people attach to them do three things. First, they remind people that death happened here. In a society that does not like to talk about death and that wants to move away from death as quickly as possible, memorials force us to remember that a death happened here. Second, these memorials remind us that the community does not forget the person who has died. They proclaim that the community not only remembers the deceased, but that the community also loved the person. This may help with the grieving process. Finally, these memorials offer for church leaders creative ways to do liturgy and other worship activities within their own congregations. For example, this may lead some to offer “services” on the street while the people are creating the memorial or to offer prayer services and reflections not only on death, but also on life as healing continues—for both individuals and the community.

Why it works: The site of the Michael Brown memorial—as well as other art we saw while in Ferguson—had a profound impact on the students. First, some discovered the “Divine” in what they typically do not think of as “art.” Furthermore, with this discovery, students can see, expand, or construct the Divine in much bigger and deeper ways. Finally, if they did not realize it before, by seeing the Divine in these rudimental art forms, students now understand that we do not “bring” the Divine to anyone—but if we are still enough, with ears to hear and eyes to see, we can discover that the Divine is already there.

Teaching (Re-)Humanization: Using Film in Anti-Racist Education

by Ella Johnson

Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology, St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry

The Context: a graduate systematic theology course, comprised of ten to fifteen students and thus conducive to in-depth discussion, in a theological institution that consists primarily, but not exclusively, of white, middle-class students.

Description: I play a film clip depicting the experiences of persons of color in North America. In selecting the clip, I am mindful of how the story is told and by whom, and follow three principles: (1) The director, writer, and main actor(s) should be persons of color. The recent film, Selma, and the television mini-series, The Book of Negroes, for example, meet this standard. (2) The clip should entail ordinary aspects of human life of the person(s) depicted (e.g., eating, sleeping, singing, being in relationships). (3) The clip should not contain material too violent or emotive that would hinder subsequent discussion and lack proper sensitivity to any similarity of experience with people of color in the room. Sometimes, I use clips that address directly the role of religion in racism (e.g., a video of Sr. Thea Bowman’s address to U.S. Catholic bishops in which she sings, “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child”). Next, I facilitate discussion in order to establish connections between the film and the students’ current lives. For instance, if the clip is historical, I ask: Who counts as human, both then and now? How can we work for further change?

Pedagogical Purpose: I seek to educate about the experiences of people of color in North America, and to encourage students to resist actively the evil of race-based dehumanization. This objective necessarily belongs to more general learning outcomes in any theology or religious studies course in Christianity: knowledge of the liberating Christ and respect for human dignity.

Why it Works: The tactic directly relates to current events (e.g., the #blacklivesmatter movement). With its capacity to portray embodiment visually, the art of film helps students to see how race has been inscripted on persons’ bodies. Furthermore, film that captures ordinary human life of persons of color helps students to see the intersubjectivity between all races. It promotes the deeper humanization of all persons, beyond racialized labels. As a white, middle-class professor of students primarily from the same race and demographic, this teaching tactic helps me to de-center the classroom space and to privilege the voices and experiences of persons of color. The carefully selected clip allows their voices—rather than mine—to be at the front and center of the classroom, without asking students of color in the classroom to once again “represent” their race, as they too often are asked to do.

Learning about the Game of Implicit Bias with Jerry Kang

by Gerald C. Liu
Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Worship Arts, Drew Theological School

The Context: a seminar exploring Asian histories of preaching and worship in the United States, which aims to widen knowledge of North American homiletic history beyond the “black” and “white” binary. All students enrolled were students “of color” and most were mid-career.

Description of the Strategy: Selections from Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic’s Critical Race Theory (New York University Press, 2012) provided conceptual depth as we mined diversified human experiences. In order to elucidate particular insights like “implicit bias,” we also watched a YouTube video of a TEDx talk by UCLA Professor of Law and Professor of Asian American Studies, Jerry Kang, who destabilizes “common sense” presumptions about human behavior in legal analysis with cognitive research about implicit bias. Kang’s video prompted discussion questions such as “Do you discriminate?”; “What is the difference between ‘attitude’ and ‘stereotype’?”; and “How do attitude and stereotype interact to shape our reactions to others in ways in which we are aware and unaware?” The video helped us see how implicit bias reifies “black” and “white” prejudices (including against Asians, Native Americans, and so on), as well as homophobia and prejudices against persons who are disabled, aged, and obese.

Pedagogical Purpose: I deliberately chose Kang because he is a Korean American with expertise in critical race theory. Kang’s video (and the “Critical Race Theory” reader) enabled interdisciplinary conversation as well as learning about implicit bias across human diversities.

Why it Works: I view the TEDx video genre as a commercial and portable popular art form designed for group instruction and discussion. It has its limitations. But it also introduces content and facilitates interactivity that can energize learning. Kang’s use of graphical games based upon psychological experiments that test for implicit bias especially caught my students’ attention. Kang asked his audience to name shades of color with their corresponding word on a grid. For example, the word green would appear in the color green. The audience would easily say the word green to match the color green. Kang would run the game again and the words would appear in different hues: green would be purple and red yellow. The audience would struggle to name the correct color. Their delay suggested a kind of unconscious bias. In our class replaying those video segments with sound muted lightened and sharpened our introduction to implicit bias, a pervasive discrimination.

Reflect, Reconsider, and Reposition: Raising Awareness of Racial Experience and History through Art

by Miriam Y. Perkins
Associate Professor of Theology and Society, Emmanuel Christian Seminary

The Context: a required graduate introductory course in Christology for diverse students at Emmanuel Christian Seminary.

Description of the Strategy: Thoughtfully selected works of art hold space for honest recognition of racial experience, privilege, and non-privilege. In a unit on Christology and African American experience, I pair Claude Clark’s Slave Lynching (1946, David C. Driskell Center, University of Maryland) with readings from theologians Jacquelyn Grant and James Cone to introduce themes and later revisit their implications. Before turning to reading selections from Grant and Cone, I invite students to view silently and consider Clark’s difficult and disturbing painting for two to three minutes. Afterward, students are invited to identify verbally first what they see (a Black body face down arching toward the earth and held up by a crossbeam; a large man arching a beating rod with impending momentum; a clouded crowd observing from the background), then what/whom they identify with in the painting, and finally what raises discomfort for them. Students of various backgrounds express felt connections and lack of connections with the Black man, the Caucasian aggressor, and the crowd. I speak about Claude Clark’s courageous vocation as an African American artist and advocate, and segue into an interactive lecture. To conclude the course section, students contemplate the painting again. I structure fifteen minutes of open summary discussion by asking students to imagine and share together what the artist Claude Clark is attempting to portray, then provoke, then propose to the viewer.

Pedagogical Purpose: Beginning and ending with Slave Lynching enables students to reflect, reconsider, and reposition themselves as pastoral leaders on matters of racial understanding and solidarity. Prophetic voices within this milieu hinges upon developing recognition of race as shaping life experiences and histories, and repositioning oneself as an advocate of interracial solidarity and community partnership.

Why it Works: Art and artists such as Claude Clark inconspicuously heighten racial awareness by inviting and often challenging associative and dissociative connections for its viewers: Is this my experience and history? Is it my

neighbor’s? What are my responsibilities? Utilizing art to reflect, reconsider, and reposition students’ perspectives makes room for honest, historically aware, and constructive conversation about race. This movement can be a precursor to and impetus for ethical actions and activism around racial dignity.

Engaging Historical Pain: An Ethical Imperative for Doing Ministry in the 21st Century

by Marcia Y.  Riggs
J. Erskine Love Professor of Christian Ethics, Columbia Theological Seminary

The Context: a Church and the Civil Rights Movement seminar of ten to fifteen students at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Columbia is a Presbyterian (USA) seminary with historical roots in slavery and is located about twenty minutes from Atlanta, and has many ties to the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties. Its basic degree-seeking student population is 59% White, 22% Asian American, 16% African American, 3% Hispanic, and 11% Non-resident alien (students on visa). The last time that I taught this class, its racial makeup was four EuroAmericans, six African Americans and one Kenyan.

The Description: The exercise is used to enlarge my students’ historical consciousness. It is done following a class in which students have shared their race-class-gender autobiographies. As part of their preparation for class, students are required to review the website, “Without Sanctuary,” a collection of photographs and postcards of lynchings collected by John Allen. After viewing the photos, students are to spend at least five to seven minutes silently processing what they have seen and jot down emotional responses. Next, students post to the class discussion forum their responses to what they saw in a paragraph of five to ten sentences. This paragraph has the following two writing prompts: 1) “As a (racial, ethnic, gender identifier) I…”; 2) “When I think of the social, political, and economic context in which these lynchings took place, I draw the following connections to what’s happening in our post-9/11 context….” All members of the class are to read (but not comment on) one another’s posts to the discussion forum. Students are instructed to bring a hard copy of their post with them to class.

During the class session itself, I play the YouTube video of Billie Holiday signing Strange Fruit. After a moment of silence, I ask students to share their emotional responses to the photographs. After all have shared, we take another moment of silence. Then I break them into dyads or triads for a discussion of their paragraphs and posts to the discussion forum. Finally, I facilitate closure to the session using a “Circle Wrap-Up and Evaluation” process that allows sharing of insight, such as what it means to be a member of the social group who was lynched, or of the social group who carried out the lynching, or of the social group that was a bystander at the event. Students evaluate the activity in light of questions such as, “Do you think that this exercise will help or hinder how you engage one another and the material in this course?” See The Little Book of Cool Tools for Hot Topics by Ron Kraybill and Evelyn Wright (Good Books, 2006) for discussion of this type of circle process.

Pedagogical Purpose: My purpose is to have students connect to the subject of race and religion emotionally at the same time that they are intellectually investigating this historical movement. I think this exercise helps them better prepare to engage one another as equally vulnerable to social pain and to avoid historical amnesia as we discuss and engage in contemporary struggles for racial justice. All of the students described being emotionally drained by viewing the photographs. African American students claimed this historical memory emotionally and as an empowering source for ethical reflection on the meaning of nonviolence for Black lives in today’s violent circumstances. EuroAmerican students were awkward in claiming their emotional responses and spent some time struggling with the “terrorism” of the photographs in a post-9/11 world.

Why it Works: This exercise works because students have both alone time and in-class time to process the information. I recommend this exercise because students are given an opportunity at the outset of the class to acknowledge that studying race requires both emotional and academic intelligence.

Embodied Empathy: An Exercise in Courageous Self-Awareness

by Mindy McGarrah Sharp
Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology and Ethics, Phillips Theological Seminary

  • The Context: Drawing on principles from moving and choreographic arts, I incorporate embodied empathy exercises into theoretical study in my on-campus, online, intensive, and immersion pastoral theology and ethics courses at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I use a reflective exercise in courageous self-awareness in a mixed-level course with ten to fifteen second- and third-year M.Div. and M.T.S. students who represent a variety of denominations, ages, life experiences, theological perspectives, and gender expressions, but are less diverse in terms of racial-ethnic identities. Shared experiences of embodied empathy expand our imaginations around issues such as racism, not by pretending to walk a mile in “their shoes,” but by walking an unfamiliar mile in our own shoes.Description of the Strategy: In an introductory pastoral care course, we study anti-racist care practices and theologies. At the beginning of class or as an online writing prompt, I invite students to write responses to the following questions in brief words or phrases using their non-dominant hand:

    • Who am I? (three adjectives)
    • What impact do my attitudes and behaviors regarding racism have on my vocational call?
    • What do I need to learn about anti-racism for my vocation?
    • What is my guiding model or metaphor for pastoral care?
    • How might this model perpetuate racism?
    • Do I need to reshape this model in order for anti-racist pastoral care to be a reality in my context?
    • How can I better use my institutional power to enhance the lives of all people?

    The embodied experience of forming initial responses to these challenging questions with non-dominant handwriting is itself an embodied challenge for many students.

    Pedagogical Purpose: In the multi-authored readings assigned to accompany this exercise, pastoral theologian Brita Gill-Austern writes in Injustice and the Care of Souls, “Before we can scale the walls that divide us, we have to see what bricks we are living behind. . . . Only through honest self-examination can we move to confess where and how we have practiced exclusion in our own lives” (37-38). This exercise in courageous self-awareness brings Gill-Austern’s challenge into the learning experience.

    Why it Works: The extent to which empathy can be learned is contested, even while learning about empathy is crucial to pastoral care and theology pedagogy. Incorporating embodied empathy exercises opens the subject to deeper conversations more relevant to students’ lives and vocations. Many students find non-dominant writing to be challenging, even embarrassing, and find that the exercise leads to recognizing the courage and vulnerability required for theorizing and practicing anti-racist care. Incorporating shared experiences inside the classroom becomes a resource in theoretical engagement around empathy as an anti-racist practice.

Musical Mashups: Examining Whiteness and the Politics of Social Location

by Elisabeth T. Vasko
Assistant Professor of Theology, Duquesne University

The Context: an upper-level undergraduate course examining U.S. liberation theologies, cross-listed with women studies/gender studies at a private Catholic university in the midwest where the student population is predominantly white.

Description of the Strategy: Students create a musical collage that gives expression to two to three categories that shape their social history. They can choose individual songs of any genre or style, create a mashup or remix, or write something new. Students elaborate upon their choices in a short reflection paper. Following the inspiration of bell hooks in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (Routledge, 1994), I also participate in this exercise to challenge the assumption that anyone (even the instructor) can operate within an educational space as a neutral observer.

Pedagogical Purpose: Equipping students with the tools for self-reflection on their social location is a central learning objective in my undergraduate theology courses. Yet, this is much easier said than done. Talking about race, racism, and white privilege in the classroom often evokes affective discomfort (guilt, frustration, anger), especially among the predominantly white students that I teach. Moreover, as Bryan Massingale suggests in Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Orbis Books, 2010), most racial bias is unconscious and “transmitted by tacit understandings” (28). This makes it difficult for students to articulate their social location with respect to power and privilege in written form alone. The assignment immediately raises the issues of objectivity, subjectivity, and the gaze, illustrating the ways in which one’s social history is involved in the politics of location. As we listen to music, we also read essays that address the politics of representation, cultural appropriation, and resistance. In doing so, my white students are challenged to come to terms with the ways in which their social identity intersects with racial injustice.

Why it Works: Often theoretical conversations about race, gender, and class fail to entertain seriously the multiple facets of embodiment that give shape to lived histories. The musical aspect of this assignment foregrounds the affective dimension of learning and lived realities. Through analysis and engagement with rhythm and lyric, students are able to hear and feel how their stories overlap with those of their classmates and those of the larger community. Not only does this create space for dialogue about emotions, but it also actively works to contest dualistic frameworks that prioritize mind/body and reason/affect.

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