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Keywords:

  • Racism;
  • white privilege;
  • institutional racism;
  • Scholarship of Multicultural Teaching and Learning (SoMTL);
  • theological pedagogy;
  • anti-racist pedagogy;
  • transformational learning

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Key Terms and Presuppositions
  5. Study Design and Participant Demographics
  6. Emotional Responses
  7. Cognitive Dissonance
  8. Conclusion
  9. Bibliography
  10. Appendix A

While a number of scholars in the field of Christian theology have argued for the importance of teaching diversity and social justice in theology and religious studies classrooms, little has been done to document and assess formally the implementation of such pedagogy. In this article, the authors discuss the findings of a yearlong Scholarship of Multicultural Teaching and Learning (SoMTL) study, which examined student learning and faculty teaching regarding race and white privilege in two theology classrooms. After a brief overview of the study's design and execution, we reflect upon our findings and draw out implications for pedagogical practices. In particular we discuss students' emotional responses to the material and the role of cognitive dissonance in student learning with respect to racial inequality via social structures. See a companion essay in this issue of the journal (Karen Teel, “Getting Out of the Left Lane: The Possibility of White Antiracist Pedagogy”) and responses by the authors of both essays, also published in this issue of the journal (“Responses: Toward an Antiracist Pedagogy”).


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Key Terms and Presuppositions
  5. Study Design and Participant Demographics
  6. Emotional Responses
  7. Cognitive Dissonance
  8. Conclusion
  9. Bibliography
  10. Appendix A

Education involves helping students understand their own experiences in light of the various cultural contexts in which they are formed and helping them comprehend a variety of worldviews.1 This is particularly evident when teaching race in predominantly white universities. Many white students enter the undergraduate classroom without an understanding of their own racial identity or how they fit into a racial hierarchy in the U.S. Moreover, many students' racial identities have been formed by multiple cultural narratives surrounding race in the U.S. First, students have been formed by what Ada-Maria Isasi-Díaz describes as the narrative of hard work. This narrative is “a central and powerful myth of the status quo,” which contends that “because this is the best of all societies, whether one accomplishe[s] what one wants depends on the individual. Itdepends on whether one is ambitious enough, gets a good education (available to everyone as the myth maintains), and is willing to work hard and sacrifice” (Isasi-Díaz 1993, 22). The predominant narrative of hard work can make engaging in honest reflection on the present-day reality of racism or transforming experiences of superiority or inferiority into moments of learning a challenging task for students and instructors as it generally involves cultivating a shift in worldview. Second, many white students have been formed by a narrative of “white moral innocence.” Barbara Applebaum explains that many white students do not distinguish between the idea of being guilty of racism, which implies engaging directly in racist attitudes and behaviors, with the idea of complicity in racism, which points to the ways in which white people, despite their good intentions, participate in and benefit from racist structures (Applebaum 2010, 1–4). Since white students often conflate guilt and complicity, they can deny their participation in racism and maintain their own moral innocence. Finally students have been formed by what critical race theorist Joe Feagin calls the “white racial frame.” Drawing from the cognitive, neurological, and social sciences, Feagin describes an often unconscious mental frame which combines (1) racial stereotypes, (2) racial narratives and interpretations, (3) racial images and language accents, (4) racialized emotions, and (5) inclinations to discriminatory action (2010, 10–11). The white racial frame presumes white “superiority, virtue, and moral goodness” (11) and maintains “deep negative feelings about Americans of color” which “include the fears and anxieties, conscious and unconscious, that whites have long held in regard to Americans of color because of the latter's resistance to white-imposed oppression” (14). The way white students have been shaped by these narratives is important because as research in educational methods suggests, (Goodman 2011; Kivel 2002) the ability to name one's social location with regard to power and privilege is a critical first step in forming students to be socially responsible citizens who respect the dignity of all persons. Thus, one role of theological educators is to present daunting concepts such as racism, social location, and structural sin in ways that enable students to recognize these concepts as indicative of their personal and collective experiences in a society marked by racial divisions.

As white female scholars of theology, we benefit from more privilege than we suffer oppression (Hobgood 17, 2009). Moreover as Catholic theologians, we contend that respect for human dignity is intimately connected to how we manifest the image of God and how we recognize it in others. Our Catholic tradition calls us to work toward “the elimination of every trace of racial discrimination” (John XXIII 1963, §86). These faith commitments lead us to build courses that take into account the social realities of racism and white privilege. While a number of scholars of Christian theology (see for example, Cassidy and Mikulich 2007; Copeland 2002; de la Torre 2004; Nothwehr 2008; and West 2006) have argued for the importance of teaching diversity and social justice, little has been done to formally document the implementation of such pedagogy. In this essay, we begin to address this lacuna. We discuss the findings of a yearlong Scholarship of Multicultural Teaching and Learning (SoMTL) study, which examined student learning and faculty teaching regarding racism and white privilege in two theology classrooms.2 To be clear, the focus of this study has not been to assess whether diversity should be included in the curriculum of undergraduate theology courses, but rather to explore the student experience of learning about racism and white privilege. Thus, our intention has been to document students' cognitive and emotional responses to learning about racism, so as to articulate and design pedagogical strategies and tools that enable educators to overcome obstacles to learning that arise as a result of these emotional and cognitive responses. As such, the central questions our study asked were: What attitudes and assumptions do students bring to the subject matter of racism and white privilege? How do they react to their professors' pedagogical strategies on these subjects? After a brief clarification of the concepts used in this essay, we present an overview of the study's design and execution. We then offer a description and assessment of our findings with corresponding suggestions for pedagogical strategies that address the challenges of our findings.

Key Terms and Presuppositions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Key Terms and Presuppositions
  5. Study Design and Participant Demographics
  6. Emotional Responses
  7. Cognitive Dissonance
  8. Conclusion
  9. Bibliography
  10. Appendix A

Throughout this essay we employ several key concepts that emerge from literature on racism and white privilege: (1) the “common sense understanding of racism” and (2) “culturally entrenched racism.” These terms comes from Bryan N. Massingale's groundbreaking text, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, and were used in our classes to define and describe racism in the U.S. (2010). Massingale describes the common sense understanding of racism as prevalent “among the vast majority of Americans” (2010, 13). This viewpoint understands racism to be conscious, deliberate, and intentional negative actions, “usually, but not always” on the part of whites toward blacks or Latinos because of the color of their skin (13). We use the term “common sense understanding of racism” interchangeably with “individual racism” to describe intentional acts or attitudes of racial bias. “Culturally entrenched racism” refers to how racism functions as culture. It is similar to Joe Feagin's notion of the white racial frame described above. Culturally entrenched racism marks “a set of shared beliefs and assumptions that undergirds the economic, social, and political disparities experienced by different racial groups. … This set of meanings and values not only answers questions about the significance of social patterns, customs, and policies. As a culture, it is also formative: racism is a communal and learned frame of reference that shapes identity, consciousness, and behavior” (Massingale 2010, 25). For Massingale, then, it is the cultural entrenchment of racism that allows for what is often called institutional or structural racism – namely, racism as a function of social systems, often unconsciously perpetuated by white Americans. Therefore, we use the terms “culturally entrenched racism” and “institutional racism” interchangeably. A final key term from the literature on racism is “white privilege,” which we understand as the set of inevitable and corollary social advantages that whites gain due to the disadvantages that blacks and other minorities endure. For example, Barbara Applebaum recounts a conversation with a white student in which she explains that the student enjoys the “ability to walk through stores freely” because of the privileged “presumption of white moral integrity.” This privilege is “contingent upon the co-construction of Black as morally suspect” (Applebaum 2010, 27). Racial advantages – from lower interest rates on loans to freedom from others' suspicions – are often invisible to whites, making this concept particularly difficult for white students to grasp.

Throughout the remainder of this essay we also suggest strategies for pursuing what we refer to as “objective” and “transformational” learning. By objective learning goals and strategies we mean to indicate that there are certain facts we want students to learn. For example, they should be able to recall a particular definition of racism, to articulate Church teaching on racism, and/or to understand and be able to articulate why Cone (1997) argues that God is black. These are matters of objective knowledge and diligent students can absorb and articulate this knowledge if educators use effective pedagogical strategies for teaching and assessing objective learning. By transformational learning goals and strategies we indicate the ways in which theological and/or social justice educators want students' minds, attitudes, and assumptions to be transformed by their learning. In particular, transformation is “understood as enabling students to critically examine and rethink prior cognitive and behavioral frameworks to become broader, more inclusive, and more self-regulated” (Glennon 2008, 33). Therefore, transformational learning includes goals and strategies that are openly “interested in the search for truth that will serve the promotion of justice and the transformation of society” (von Arx in Boryczka and Petrino 2012, xi). For example, we may want students to recognize the benefits of white privilege in their own experiences and to begin to take concrete action to transform structures of racism into structures for social justice. As we demonstrate, these transformational goals are likely to be met by different strategies than those designed to assess objective learning.

Finally, when making normative claims about justice it is helpful to acknowledge the presuppositions one has about what constitutes justice, or in the case of this study, racial justice. We acknowledge that our conception of justice has been formed by Catholic social teaching. This tradition avers that all human beings are created in the image of God, and are thereby invested with an inviolable dignity. Racism functions in the U.S. as a social system that ultimately harms the dignity of all persons. In the language of Catholic social thought, racism is therefore a structural sin (George 2001; Melzcek 2003; Dale 2006; see also Massingale 2012, 72). The remedy for structural sin is the virtue of solidarity, which is less about compassion toward individuals than about a commitment to the common good of all people (Pope John Paul II 1987, §38). This understanding of social justice as constitutive of a solidarity that seeks the common good is crucial to our understanding racial justice. Racial justice would involve the full recognition of the human dignity of people of color such that people of all races engage in acts of solidarity together to struggle to dismantle structures of racism.

Study Design and Participant Demographics

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Key Terms and Presuppositions
  5. Study Design and Participant Demographics
  6. Emotional Responses
  7. Cognitive Dissonance
  8. Conclusion
  9. Bibliography
  10. Appendix A

This study occurred during the Fall 2010 and 2011 semesters and involved students in two different sections, one each semester, of undergraduate courses on theological anthropology. Fifty-five students out of a total of sixty were white. Both sections of the course devoted units to theological perspectives on racism and white privilege. Participation in the study was voluntary and anonymous, with forty-one out of the sixty students opting to participate. Because participation in the study was anonymous and the data de-identified, we were not privy to the race of individual participating students. While this may appear to some as a weakness of our study, we maintain that anonymity and de-identification were crucial to the integrity of the study and to the dignity of our students. Only a few students in our classes were people of color. To require students to disclose their racial identity as part of this study would thus have jeopardized the anonymity of the students of color. Moreover, it would risk engaging in the kind of racial tokenism – asking our few students of color to speak for their entire race – that the units on racism and white privilege sought to challenge.

Throughout the units on racism and white privilege, students were asked to complete several writing assignments, to participate in classroom discussion, and to offer learning feedback. While the instructor graded the written assignments at the time of the course, she did not analyze them for research purposes until after the semester ended. At that time, all data was de-identified to preserve student anonymity.3 After the data had been de-identified and coded, it was reviewed for thematic content and to assess shifts in students' knowledge and thinking with regard to racism and white privilege.

The study grew from a desire to improve student learning and instructor teaching of critical race theory in undergraduate courses on theological anthropology and Christian social ethics. In teaching units dealing with theological perspectives on racism, we consistently encountered two issues. The first is a lack of racial diversity in our classrooms. The midsize university at which this study took place is located in southwestern Pennsylvania. The undergraduate population is predominantly Caucasian and from the surrounding areas. Many students have their first significant encounter with persons of non-Caucasian descent when they come to campus. Therefore, we wanted to address the particular challenges of teaching racism and white privilege in largely white classrooms as white instructors. The second related issue was the tense nature of classroom discussions on racism. During these units, active and enthusiastic students often shut down or reacted to material with hostility. We wanted to explore the sources of this tension, and to develop pedagogical methods for working creatively with tension so that it does not become an obstacle to learning.

Given the nature of our questions and the dearth of literature formally assessing the impact of theological pedagogy in the area of critical race theory, we sought simply to document the student learning experience so as to make suggestions for more effective teaching. Our aim was to produce qualitative, not quantitative, data that would enable us to offer a description of student experiences and attitudes about learning in order to assess and rethink a variety of pedagogical strategies. Our method was to gather data in the form of students' written assignments and classroom discussion, and to analyze this data to draw out common themes. In the following sections, we first provide a description of how students seemed to be reacting to us and to the material being taught. As we note, the student reactions can be grouped into two broad categories: emotional responses and cognitive dissonance. After describing each of these reactions, we offer objective and transformational learning goals and strategies to address the challenges of these student reactions.

Emotional Responses

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Key Terms and Presuppositions
  5. Study Design and Participant Demographics
  6. Emotional Responses
  7. Cognitive Dissonance
  8. Conclusion
  9. Bibliography
  10. Appendix A

Virtually every student participating in the study used emotional language to describe reactions to readings and assignments. Students used words like “fear,” “anger,” “guilt,” “shock,” and “surprise” across a variety of assignments that asked them to respond to films or readings. From this plethora of emotional language, we distilled two emotional motifs that seem characteristic of a wide swath of students' experiences: feelings of insecurity and feelings of frustration.4

Students seemed to experience two distinct “moments” of insecurity. First, as we began units or assignments related to racism, many students expressed feelings of insecurity about discussing the issue at all. Second, over time, presumably as they became more accustomed to open discussion of the topic, they expressed insecurity about their own unconscious manifestations of racism and/or their connection to a racist culture. Our data shows that when we introduced the subject of racism and white privilege in the classroom, students experienced insecurity about how to engage the subject openly and about how their comments might be perceived by others. In one assignment, students were asked to journal their responses to being invited to discuss the problem of racism. Several students reported feeling fearful about the expectation to converse about racism in the classroom. One student expressed anxiety about the topic stating “I could never know for sure” if a given comment was “appropriate” or not. This suggests a lack of knowledge about how to begin discussions of racism at all. Likewise, students expressed fear that in talking about racism they would offend others. One student commented, “The most uncomfortable part about talking about racism … for me is the possibility that my comments or beliefs will unintentionally offend someone else.” Moreover, many students fear being labeled by others as racists. Demonstrating this insecurity, one student remarked, “Anything said about race can [be] misconstrued, and I often feel like I am being accused of being a racist.” Another student implicitly acknowledged white privilege in his/her concern that he/she might be implicated in racism: “Even though I know I'm not racist I feel like I'm judged for being racist because it exists still in society today and simply due to the fact I am white.”

The second moment of insecurity occurs when students become more conscious of their own previously unconscious racism. In one classroom several weeks into a unit on racism, students viewed the documentary film Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible (Butler 2008). This film features several white anti-racist advocates such as Peggy McIntosh and Tim Wise speaking about their own conscientization regarding white privilege. In responding to the film, students demonstrated insecurity with the idea that racism can go unrecognized, and that people lack control over their own attitudes and actions in a culture steeped in racial privilege and discrimination. “You can say that you are not a racist,” remarked one student, “but subconsciously have racist attitudes and behaviors out of your control.” Another student explicitly noted the discomfort that arises at the realization that white racism is often unconscious: “It's kind of scary to think that the thoughts, stereotypes we have are often subconscious and go unrecognized.” Note that, by and large, students did not, at this juncture in the course, argue against the idea of unconscious racism, indeed many explicitly accept the idea and note ways in which they recognize it in themselves. One student, giving implicit voice to Feagin's idea of the white racial frame, even described his/her unconscious racism as “natural” given the environment in which he/she was raised. Likewise, the same student who recognized that people might have “racist attitudes and behaviors out of [our] control” subsequently admitted, “I just realized that I am guilty of racial tagging.”5 What this demonstrates is partially positive: through interacting with the subject of racism in the classroom students begin to recognize the reality of unconscious or culturally entrenched racism, and their own participation in it. Perhaps negatively, however, they are frightened by this reality and what it might mean for them personally.

These findings about insecurity simply confirm what we, and likely many other professors who teach about racism, already suspected: students are afraid of discussing what they view as a controversial issue. They are concerned that they will not know how to express their thoughts and experiences without giving offense, and they are nervous that if they are open and truthful about their thoughts and experiences, they will be perceived as racists. Combining these two fears one student remarked, “I have probably done things that would offend people and could be perceived as being racist.” Not surprisingly, students seem to see racism as the purview of hate groups and individuals who show conscious and deliberate animosity toward people of color, and they fear being lumped in with what one student simply described as “those people.” Given this conception of racism they understandably want to distance themselves from it.

Despite their insecurities at being viewed as racist, throughout the course many students do come to understand themselves as conditioned by culturally entrenched racism and as harboring unconscious racial bias. This seems to lead some students from the first moment of insecurity – talking about racism – to the second moment of insecurity – recognizing their previously unconscious racial biases.

We suggest three pedagogical strategies that have been effective in our classrooms for addressing student insecurity and fostering transformational learning in which student minds and attitudes about racial advantage and disadvantage might be changed. First, instructors and students can work together to create a learning covenant as a tool for empowering students to take responsibility for their own education. Second, white teachers in particular can perform an “instructor monologue” about their own participation in the dynamics of racism and white privilege in order to model confident articulation of where one stands in the racial hierarchy of U.S. society and initiate dialogue about institutional racism. Third, instructors can employ a “Think, Pair, Share” exercise for helping students recognize the variety of underlying emotions and presumptions that might generate their insecurity, and for beginning to discuss those emotions. We find that creating a classroom space that allows for the explicit acknowledgement of negative emotions can lessen the possibility of their becoming obstacles to transformational learning.

Learning covenants are working documents created by students and teachers together in order to make explicit their expectations of one another and to govern activity in the classroom. As a pedagogical strategy, learning covenants challenge students to take responsibility for their own education and to transition from being passive recipients of course material to active learners (for in-depth analysis see Glennon 2008). Learning covenants are particularly suited for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning as they foster mutuality in education whereby the teacher also learns from his or her students.

In the context of this study, the learning covenant was used in order to set guidelines for participation in classroom discussion. The following describes one model that was used in our study. After being asked to read Charles C. Camosy's short editorial “Five Tips for Creating Civil Discourse in an Era of Polarization” (2012),6 students are broken up into small groups and given the task of identifying three classroom commitments they believe to be helpful for learning. The small groups' suggestions are then discussed and used as a basis for constructing a learning covenant that explicitly states students' expectations for generating civil discourse in the classroom. In a unit dealing with white privilege, it is important to acknowledge with students that civil discourse will likely not mean that no one is ever angry or offended by another's ideas, but it does entail refraining from intentionally incendiary discourse such as ad hominem attacks. Once the covenant is completed, it is posted on the course website and the instructor refers to it regularly in the classroom. The learning covenant is valuable because it allows the students themselves to state their expectations about the tone of discussion surrounding the tense and controversial subjects of racism and white privilege.

Second, we suggest that especially for white instructors addressing racism with white students it is helpful to begin dialogue by narrating a personal experience of conscientization regarding racism and white privilege. In these “instructor monologues” we have found that it is effective to articulate several things: To begin, we narrate our personal stories of recognizing how racism and white privilege have shaped our self-understandings and relationships with people of color, as well as our social locations and place in the U.S. racial hierarchy. For example, each instructor discussed the ways in which time she spent in African countries heightened her awareness of racial injustice in her own country. We also discussed the ways in which patterns of de facto housing and even Church segregation continue to limit our own exposure to people of color and are an obstacle to forming friendships across racial boundaries. Instead of denying our complicity in racism, we explicitly acknowledge our own racial prejudices and tendencies toward racially biased thinking and behavior. We also depict ourselves as contributing to racial injustice simply because we benefit from white privilege in a racist culture, and we give examples of the ways we have benefited from white privilege. For instance, we note that the same patterns of housing segregation that inhibit our ability to form inter-racial friendships tend to offer us access to “nice” neighborhoods with good public school systems. Our witness to our own complicity in racism can actually raise levels of tension in the classroom, but this tension can be creative. In this way the instructor monologue may act as a kind of “nonviolent direct action” that seeks to make visible tensions that already exist under the surface of a classroom community. Martin Luther King Jr. called this “constructive nonviolent tension” that is “necessary for growth” (1963). This being said, it is important to acknowledge that students of color might experience an instructor monologue of this kind and the tensions that it raises differently than white students. It would seem to be crucial then that the monologue spark genuine dialogue between the teacher and the students, as well as among the students. Therefore, we would suggest that the instructor monologue only be incorporated in a learning environment where instructors have engaged in conscientious efforts at building trust with and among students in the spirit of mutual learning and dialogue.

Ultimately, how we define racism; how we teachers who are white acknowledge to our white students our own participation in culturally entrenched or structural racism; and how we provide for them an example of acknowledging the reality of racism and white privilege in our own lives and experiences becomes important for their learning and may, in the midst of their fears and insecurity, give them a kind of permission to do the same.

Third, we suggest dealing with students' emotional responses in a very direct way. In other words, we suggest that their emotional responses become explicit material for academic discussion. In the spirit of “educating the whole person” we suggest attending to the emotional life of our students as it pertains to the subject material we cover in the classroom. The data from our study makes clear that our students are not just their intellects, they are also their emotions, and they do not leave their emotional lives behind when they enter the classroom. Attempting to ignore students' emotional responses in favor of intellectual ones becomes a serious obstacle to transformational learning. Through the “Think, Pair, Share” exercise described below, we found that underlying student insecurity about discussing racism was a host of emotional experiences and presumptions about race that they may find difficult to articulate, even to themselves. We suggest that one thing instructors can do to remove the emotional obstacles to discussing racism is to provide students with the language they need to recognize their own emotional experiences.

A variation on the common “Think, Pair, Share” exercise many instructors use to elicit critical thinking was highly effective. We provide students with a handout listing “Possible Emotional Responses to Being Asked to Discuss Racism” (see Appendix A). The handout lists five common emotions associated with discussions of racism: fear, anger, guilt, frustration, and relief. It ties these emotions to specific ideas and assumptions students may have about racism. For example, “Fear of saying things that might be perceived as racist,” “Anger because you feel you have worked hard to get where you are,” and “Frustration because you feel disadvantaged even though you are a part of a ‘privileged group.’ ” First, we ask the students to reflect on the handout and mark feelings that resonate with them. This is the “Think” component of the exercise. The key here is to offer students language to express various emotional reactions that they may be only tacitly aware that they are experiencing. Vague feelings of guilt, anger, and frustration become more apparent and concretized when tied to common assumptions about race, advantage, and disadvantage. Instructors should explain that these are just some possible responses, and that reading the handout may generate other responses not listed. Students are then asked to externalize their experiences by writing down and elaborating on the emotional responses they have identified as resonating with their experience. Second, we initiate the “Pair” component by asking students to meet in pairs or very small groups to discuss what they have written. Oftentimes students will find their peers expressing similar insecurities and anxieties, and this recognition can relieve insecurity. Finally, “Share.” We have the students open their discussions to the full classroom. The step by step process of Think, Pair, Share gives students time to recognize their emotional experiences and assumptions and to become more comfortable articulating that emotional experience, first to themselves, then to one or two other people, and finally to the classroom as a whole. This exercise is invaluable for externalizing students' emotional responses to the course material so that negative emotions are less likely to be obstacles to learning.

The second emotional theme that arises for numerous students is frustration. Just as there were two moments of insecurity, there seem to be two particular foci to their experiences of frustration in learning about racism and white privilege. First, they become frustrated as they begin to recognize that culturally entrenched or institutional racism and white privilege implicate them in racism without their explicit consent. Second, they become frustrated if they perceive the class and/or instructor as not proffering solutions or paths forward beyond the quagmire of racism and white privilege. This may be a particular problem for introductory theology classes that include units on racism since students are often taking these classes as requirements and not because they are necessarily interested in learning about theological reflection on racism. Indeed, the students' frustration is sometimes manifest in questions like “what does this have to do with theology?” and “what does the Bible have to say about racism?”

In general, students do begin to have some, albeit limited, grasp of how society and they themselves are shaped by culturally entrenched racism and white privilege. After reading excerpts from Allan G. Johnson's Privilege, Power, and Difference (2006) in which Johnson explains the dynamic relationship between social systems and individuals and provides several examples of white privilege, students express negative feelings about the general state of society vis á vis racism. In responding to this text one student remarked, “I felt anger towards the unfair fashion of society.” Another wrote, “I am shocked at how unequal things have become.” As students begin to grasp the concepts of institutional racism and white privilege they sometimes become frustrated at being implicated in racist systems against their will. Accepting only the common sense understanding of racism as primarily individual bias offers an escape from culpability in a way that institutional racism does not. Thus, a number of students expressed profound frustration with the concepts of white privilege and institutional racism because these concepts imply that they participate in negative social realities without their consent. As one student succinctly put it, “I didn't ask for that privilege and I had no control over me gaining that privilege. I think that might be why I'm having such a difficult time with this topic because I have been given something that I didn't have any say in and I don't know what to do about it.” The problem of institutional racism demands an active stance against racism and becoming conscious of one's own participation in racism even when one emphatically denies that one is a racist individual. Many students want the lack of individual animus toward people of color to be enough to rid society of racism. They are discovering that racism is far more complex than they originally thought.

Students' frustration seems to be compounded if they experience a kind of paralysis regarding racism and white privilege. Many students express a strong desire to move beyond a racialized society. If they feel that solutions are lacking in the class's discussion of racism, their frustration mounts. “The students, myself included, have been given no initiative of what to do to help this issue or what the Bible says to do about this issue either,” one student argued. “I don't know what to do about it. I want to know how I can change this and understand what I can personally do to make a difference, not just be educated on the problem,” said another.

We propose two pedagogical strategies for dealing with the student experience of frustration. First, we view student frustration as an important reason to include objective learning goals and assessments in courses dealing with racism. We suggest a reasonable balance between assignments like course journals, or the essay described below which deal with more subjective student reflection and analysis, and objective assessments such as exams and quizzes. Exams and quizzes on material that diligent students can study, learn, and replicate may actually decrease student frustration because it gives students a sense of control over their course outcome, even if they cannot control the outcome of racism and white privilege. A comprehensive review guide prior to the exam or quiz is helpful here. Instructors should give students a clear sense of what they need to know to answer objective questions correctly. For example, instead of asking students to define white privilege, or give an example of it from their own experience, instructors can ask students to be able to articulate Peggy McIntosh's understanding of white privilege. In answering objective questions, they do not need to agree that racism and white privilege are problems; they simply need to articulate why others see them as problems. This can relieve some of the pressure students feel to acknowledge white privilege as a reality in which they participate.

Second, the experience of frustration suggests that instructors should include in courses or units that deal with racism, materials that depict groups or organizations that are working toward racial integration and reconciliation, and/or assignments that challenge students to research such groups. Students are participating to some degree in a conceptual deconstruction of race and white privilege, but in breaking down the narrative of hard work and the narrative of white moral innocence, which most of them initially and uncritically accept, it is important to supply an alternative narrative, which honors their vulnerability and empowers them to be agents of social change. This change of narrative moves students toward transformational learning as it enables them to envision a world in which racial justice and reconciliation is actually possible. We suggest that instructors ask students to research a local, regional, or national organization working toward racial justice and reconciliation. One possible resource for such an assignment is the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi, which strives “to support a movement of racial equity and wholeness as a pathway to ending and transcending all division and discrimination based on difference.”7 The Winter Institute Guide provides descriptions of dozens of organizations from across the U.S. and around the world working toward racial justice and reconciliation. Alleviating students' sense of paralysis and frustration about racism and white privilege requires empowering students to envision racial justice and reconciliation. Requiring them to research organizations involved in this work is a powerful tool toward overcoming paralysis and frustration.

Cognitive Dissonance

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Key Terms and Presuppositions
  5. Study Design and Participant Demographics
  6. Emotional Responses
  7. Cognitive Dissonance
  8. Conclusion
  9. Bibliography
  10. Appendix A

The theme of “cognitive dissonance” indicates the ways students struggle to reconcile disparate cognitions about their racial self-understanding and how they are connected to racial inequality via social structures. A primary idea found in student writing across assignments and sections was that course material not only presented new ideas about racism and white privilege, but it also challenged previously held assumptions about their racial identity and place within the racial hierarchy in the U.S. One student reflects, “I was somewhat aware of my privilege, I know that I live in a predominantly white area that is rather wealthy … I was unaware, however, of the extent of my privilege and how much I take for granted things that other people of other social categories might not be lucky enough to have.” This challenge to assumptions was particularly evident in student learning about (a) white privilege, (b) institutional racism, and (c) their relevance for the discipline of theology and the practice of faith.

In accordance with objective learning goals, most students were able to accurately define white privilege on an exam or in a written assignment. When asked whether they thought white privilege exists today, almost all students answered affirmatively and were able to support their answer by citing a generic example from the assigned reading or class discussion. At the conclusion of the unit, only four students denied the existence of white privilege on the grounds that “if you work hard nothing can stop you from succeeding.” Yet, when students were asked to move to the realm of transformational learning and support their answers with a detailed reflection based in their own life experience, many struggled to move beyond generalities. Moreover, a few responded in ways that contradicted the concept of white privilege they had correctly defined earlier, even within the same assignment. Consider the following:

  • Whenever I meet someone that is different from me I just simply accept them for

  • who they are and treat them the same as I would treat any other human being. I

  • have never been in the minority so I don't understand how that would feel, but I

  • know that I would never make someone feel like they are not as good as me

  • because I'm white or whatever other privilege I have over them.

This response illustrates the ways in which students distanced themselves from racism by reducing the social construction of privilege to that of individual acts. Further, while this particular student explicitly distances him/herself from white privilege, the more common incidence of distancing was found within the grammatical structures of students' writing. That is, when describing their emotional reaction to the ideas presented by an author or discussed in class, students used the first person singular “I” or “me.” Yet, when discussing the ways in which privilege intersects with their own life experiences, they transitioned to the third person plural “they,” “their” or “people.” For example, “It makes me sad though that people judge each other day after day, and oftentimes it is just because of their social status or the color of their skin. I live in an area where the people are more wealthy than most, and unfortunately people are much more judgmental than most areas of the world.” While one could interpret these sentences simply as an example of poor grammar, the incidence with which this type of switch occurred in writing samples across classes suggests it is probably also a function of self-protection from perceived negative judgment. Perhaps more importantly, students' inability to connect the concept of privilege to something in their own life experiences appeared to be a significant factor in concept comprehension. The few who were unable to define white privilege correctly also cited its absence from their own experience, “I don't believe I [benefit from white privilege] because I'm from a small town and don't experience difference.” This suggests that helping students uncover the way concepts intersect with their lived experiences is critical to their learning. We found the need to contextualize concepts in students' experiences to be especially important for student learning with respect to white privilege and culturally entrenched racism.

By far, institutional racism was the most difficult theme for students to articulate accurately on a graded assignment. With respect to concept comprehension, the most common error was confusing institutional racism with individual acts of racial prejudice. This was clearly evidenced in student responses to a formal writing assignment in which they were asked to analyze a current racially charged event, such as the killing of Trayvon Martin or the arrest of Harvard professor of African Studies Henry Louis Gates, Jr., using course readings. In this assignment, the majority of students were able to give objectively correct definitions of individual and culturally entrenched racism using course readings. Moreover, most students argued that individual and culturally entrenched forms of racism were present in the racially charged event. However, despite offering correct definitions, they struggled to support the claim of culturally entrenched racism with an example from the incident in question even after the instructor had offered examples in class. Many students erroneously identified instances of individual racial prejudice as evidence of institutional racism.

Objective learning goals are an important aspect of student learning about racism and white privilege. Yet, as the example above suggests, concept comprehension of structural inequalities was strongly correlated with the participant's ability to locate a meaningful personal example of the concept. While many students were able to locate examples of common sense or individual racism within their own experience and/or current events, they struggled to come up with meaningful personal examples of white privilege and institutional racism, suggesting that their day-to-day experiences of these realities remain invisible to them. In light of this difficulty, we suggest the integration of service learning in course material as a pedagogical tool for making these visible and for working toward transformational learning goals.

A recent offering of the course, which was not formally a part of the study, provides a good example of the value of service learning in assisting student understanding of structural inequalities. As a part of their coursework, students were required to complete fifteen hours of service at a community partner organization located in a low-income area of the city. To get to the site, students needed to take public transportation. As is the case in many urban settings, structural inequalities are found within a city's public transportation system, as budget cuts are often directed toward lines servicing low-income areas. In taking the bus to Pittsburgh's Hill District, students experienced these structural inequalities first-hand. Institutional racism was no longer an abstract statistic. Buses were less frequent and less likely to run on time. Students were late for their service hours, and realized they had to leave much further in advance than they would normally anticipate. Structural inequality became personal as they navigated a public transportation system that had a direct impact on their own well-being, or lack thereof. This experience paved the way toward transformational learning. (For additional resources on the importance of service learning see Calderón 2007; Carbine 2010; Cress, Donahue et al. 2011; Maruggi 2012.)

The final theme that emerged during data analysis was whether students had understood the connections between racism, white privilege, and Christian theology. The most profound experience of cognitive dissonance was with the challenge these units on racism and white privilege placed upon students' previously held understandings of Christian faith and identity. Most white Christians tend to think of themselves as good Christians, but they often do so apart from serious consideration of their own complicity in racial injustice. As Massingale contends, racism “is a symbol that malforms, conforms, and deforms us into an alien identity radically at odds with authentic Christian belief” (2010, 25–6). To paraphrase James Cone, both Christian endorsement of and silence about racial injustice places one outside of Christian identity (2011, 132). For most of our students, the challenge that racism poses to their Christian identity was not only a new concept, but one that contradicted prior faith understandings and catechesis.

The units on racism and white privilege drew primarily upon two texts: Bryan N. Massingale's Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (2010) and James Cone's God of the Oppressed (1997).8 While a significant number of students were able to understand in a basic way that “God does not want black people to suffer,” they struggled when it came to appropriating the more complex theological constructions of these two authors. In an exercise that asked students to reflect in writing on what it might mean to image God as black, most responses reaffirmed racial stereotypes.9 For example, several students suggested that a black God would be more “laid back” and “cool” than a white God. Another suggested that a black God would be “intimidating.” Still another described the image of a black God as “soulful” and “not so authoritative.” A few students saw social rewards to picturing God as black, in particular stating that praying to a black God might help repair racial relations in the U.S. Yet, when asked how they would feel about praying to a black God, many stated that that it would negatively impact their participation in the Christian religion. As one student poignantly wrote, “one problem that I may encounter with this image is God's unwillingness to care for and help the white people if God was a black man.” As these findings reveal, the image of a black God requires students to confront the ideas they hold about race since they often described a black God in racially stereotypical terms.10 Moreover, they illustrate the ways in which the images of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus and a white male God continue to have a real emotional and cognitive hold on the theological imagination of almost all of our white students.

In learning about the significance of racism and white privilege for Christian theology, even objective assessments, such as correctly identifying the scriptural basis for James Cone's assertion that God is black, were difficult for students. Class discussion of God of the Oppressed was marked by a profound sense of disbelief. Was Cone “warping the Bible”? Shouldn't James Cone just “get over it [lynching] and move on”? Many struggled to see the relevance of Cone's discussion about the blackness of God for their own lives. Perhaps even more troubling was the fact that many did not view black liberation theology as a credible way of approaching the task of theology.11 To be truthful, we are left with more questions than answers in analyzing this final theme. Perhaps the biggest mistake we made in teaching Cone and other scholars of black theology was to assume familiarity with the history of racism, particularly lynching, in the U.S. To our surprise, a good portion of the students had never studied lynching as a part of U.S. history. While most had heard the term before, they could not define it. To seriously encounter this aspect of U.S. history for the first time in a theology course not only points to problematic gaps in secondary education, but may also, in the student's mindset, raise questions about Cone's credibility. This questioning of Cone's credibility is evident in statements like, “If this event really happened, why didn't I learn about it in my high school history courses? Why am I just hearing about it now?” Pedagogically speaking, we suggest that these gaps in student education point to the need for ongoing interdisciplinary teaching at the undergraduate level. Many colleges and universities have a core curriculum, sometimes partially designed around the promotion of transformational learning.12 Integration of learning about structural inequalities is something that needs to be taught across the liberal arts or full university curriculum. Encountering historical and present inequalities in more than one course would likely deepen student reflection on their own social location in the midst of culturally entrenched racism as well as assist students in translating this newfound awareness into the agency to work for social justice.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Key Terms and Presuppositions
  5. Study Design and Participant Demographics
  6. Emotional Responses
  7. Cognitive Dissonance
  8. Conclusion
  9. Bibliography
  10. Appendix A

Studies involving the use of human subjects in research are not common in theological literature despite the fact that a major aspect of theological research involves an endeavor to understand human experience. This project attempted to take seriously the student learning experience in an effort to develop effective pedagogical strategies for understanding race in predominantly white undergraduate theology classrooms. We found that students are afraid of talking and learning about the extent of racism in the U.S., and that they are frustrated at being implicated in a racist culture, especially if they feel unable to effect change. Unless students are given time in and outside of the classroom to unpack the emotions surrounding racism, negative feelings may remain an obstacle to genuine learning. Instructors should empower students to define the parameters of civil discourse via course contracts. Furthermore they should create assignments that encourage students to reflect on their emotional responses to the topic. They should also model open and honest discussion by telling students about their own personal experiences of conscientization regarding issues of racism and white privilege.

We further discovered that students have difficulty integrating conceptual knowledge, like definitions of white privilege and institutional racism, with personal experiences. This difficulty points to the continuing invisibility of racism in white U.S. culture, despite its persistence, and highlights the challenges that instructors will face as they discuss the concepts of racism and white privilege with their students. Instructors should harness the power of service learning to integrate course material with students' lived experiences. They should not assume student familiarity with the history and present day manifestations of racial inequality in the U.S.

The various pedagogical strategies we have suggested may begin to meet the challenges of insecurity, frustration, and cognitive dissonance so that our teaching of racism and white privilege is more effective, more meaningful, and more transformational. In this way, we may begin to shift students' worldviews from a simplistic “narrative of hard work” bolstered by the white racial frame, and from a racially comfortable narrative of “white moral innocence,” to a more complex worldview that involves critical thinking wherein they seek to transform themselves and the social structures in which they participate.

Footnotes
  1. 1

    We want to acknowledge and thank Duquesne's Center for Teaching Excellence and the Scholarship of Multicultural Teaching and Learning faculty research group (2010–2011) for their support and assistance throughout this study. We thank especially Laurel Willingham-McLain, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, for her continual support. We also want to thank our department chair Dr. Maureen O'Brien for reading our initial draft of the IRB application and for her support throughout the project. Finally, we thank our research assistants Jeffrey Schooley and Mark Ortwein for their help with data analysis and our anonymous reviewers for numerous helpful suggestions to strengthen this essay.

  2. 2

    This study was approved by Duquesne University's Institutional Review Board (IRB) for research involving human subjects under the title “The Experience of Learning about Racism and White Privilege in an Undergraduate Theology Classroom,” IRB Protocol number 1092.

  3. 3

    In accord with IRB protocol at our institution, students were informed that their decision to participate in the study would have no bearing on their final grade in the class and that they could withdraw from the study at any time with no penalties. If they chose to withdraw, any data already collected would be excluded from the research. Instructors for each course were not privy to information as to which students were participating in the study during the courses they were teaching.

  4. 4

    The decision to focus on these two emotions, as opposed to others, is a direct reflection of the frequency of their appearance in student writing assignments and classroom discussions. This is not to suggest that insecurity or frustration are the only two emotions experienced by students or relevant to pedagogical reflection on racism. To be sure, shame also holds a great deal of relevance. For further discussion of shame in relation to whiteness, see Thandeka (2000). It is worth noting that to acknowledge openly the experience of shame likely requires a level of trust that goes beyond most undergraduate classroom settings.

  5. 5

    “Racial tagging” is the practice of describing people of color first and foremost by reference to their race. Racial tagging is usually unnecessary and is often done unconsciously.

  6. 6

    Camosy's article is highly practical. In addition to encouraging humility and courtesy among discussion partners, Camosy discourages “binary thinking” that sets discussion partners up as enemies who belong to oppositional groups, such as “liberals” and “conservatives.” He also suggests discussion partners avoid trying to win “rhetorical points” through incendiary comments that might make one “feel good” but actually contribute to polarization and misunderstanding.

  7. 7
  8. 8

    It is worth acknowledging that there are a number of other good resources for teaching theological perspectives on racism and white privilege. These include, but are not limited to, Cone (2011), Perkins (2004), and West (2006). Our use of the Massingale (2010) and Cone (1997) texts was dictated by a number of factors, including cost, availability on the market, and materials taught in other theology courses on campus.

  9. 9

    The instructions for this assignment were as follows: Take a moment to conjure up an “image” of God as black. If you see yourself as a person of faith, what do you think would happen in your relationship with God if you began to image God in this way? Whether or not you see yourself as a person of faith, does “imaging” God as black change the way you think about who God is? Finally, how do you feel about being asked to do this experiment? Does imaging God as black feel liberating? Deviant? A relief? Wrong? Neutral? Or something else?

  10. 10

    While the cultural conditioning of viewing God as black was the focus of this assignment, the exercise also revealed a cultural conditioning of God as male. As several students remarked, they found it easier to image God as black than female. These preliminary findings indicate that similar research needs to be done with respect to teaching about God and gender.

  11. 11

    Similar issues arose in class discussion of feminist liberation theologies.

  12. 12

    For example, our own institution requires courses under a “Social Justice” theme heading as part of its University Core Curriculum.

Bibliography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Key Terms and Presuppositions
  5. Study Design and Participant Demographics
  6. Emotional Responses
  7. Cognitive Dissonance
  8. Conclusion
  9. Bibliography
  10. Appendix A
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  • Camosy, Charles C. 2012. “Five Tips for Creating Civil Discourse in an Era of Polarization.” The Seattle Times. http://seattletimes.com/html/opinion/2018728414_guest20charlescamosy.html (accessed October 18, 2013).
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Appendix A

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Key Terms and Presuppositions
  5. Study Design and Participant Demographics
  6. Emotional Responses
  7. Cognitive Dissonance
  8. Conclusion
  9. Bibliography
  10. Appendix A

Think, Pair, Share Sample Assignment:

“Some possible responses to being asked to discuss racism.”

Students were asked to review and consider the following list of possible responses at being asked to discuss racism to see if any resonated with them, or if new responses not listed here surfaced. They wrote their responses down, shared them in pairs, and as large groups. Finally, they completed a short written reflection describing their reactions as part of a course journal.

  • ■ 
    Fear of being accused of being racist.
  • ■ 
    Fear of the majority of people dismissing your perspective.
  • ■ 
    Fear of saying something that will offend someone – especially someone of another race.
  • ■ 
    Fear of saying things that might be perceived as racist.
  • ■ 
    Fear of hearing comments that seem racist.
  • ■ 
    Anger/irritation at the suggestion that you might have privileges due to things you can't control such as race.
  • ■ 
    Anger/irritation at the suggestion that you might be at a disadvantage due to things you can't control such as race.
  • ■ 
    Anger/irritation because you have been a victim of racism or other social disadvantage.
  • ■ 
    Anger/irritation because you have been a victim of prejudice based on race or other social disadvantage.
  • ■ 
    Anger/irritation because you have a sense that you have worked hard to get to where you are.
  • ■ 
    Anger/irritation because the professor asking you to talk about race/racism is white.
  • ■ 
    Anger/irritation at feeling as though you are “supposed” to feel guilty about racism.
  • ■ 
    Guilt at having previously made racist jokes/comments.
  • ■ 
    Guilt at having previously laughed at or participated in racist jokes/comments/conversation.
  • ■ 
    Guilt because of the general social reality of racism, even if you don't consider yourself racist.
  • ■ 
    Frustration because you don't feel like you are disadvantaged due to race even though you are part of a disadvantaged “group.”
  • ■ 
    Frustration because you do feel disadvantaged even though you are part of a privileged “group.”
  • ■ 
    Frustration because you do not feel that racism is really a problem in contemporary U.S. society.
  • ■ 
    Relief that someone is talking openly about racism.
  • ■ 
    Relief at receiving permission to talk openly about racism.