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Can a college course teach students to 'unlearn' racism?
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Can a college course teach students to 'unlearn' racism?

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Students wear masks on campus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. The university announced that it would cancel all in-person undergraduate learning starting on Wednesday following a cluster of COVID-19 cases on campus. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Many Americans are asking how they can be more sensitive to members of different racial groups, a desire fueling sales of books like “How to be an Anti-racist” and the presence of “Hate has no home here” signs in front yards. But how to achieve that goal is anything but clear. Jeni Cross is a sociologist at Colorado State University who says she’s found an effective approach in her course ‘Social Production of Reality.’

Can a college course unteach racism?

Many of my students tell me it can. They say my course improves their tolerance toward others, allows them to put themselves in another person’s shoes and makes them more willing to take action to end discrimination and inequality.

Twenty years ago, I started asking this question on my final exam: “What is one thing you’ve learned from this class that you’ll remember long after this class is over?” Year after year, about 25% of the class says something like, “I have learned to be more tolerant of people who are different from me.”

When this first started happening, I was surprised. I never once mention the word tolerance in class, nor is increasing tolerance a learning objective.

When I asked for more detail, every student detailed how the class increased awareness of their own thoughts, how they increased effort to suspend judgment and made new efforts to listen and understand the viewpoint and experiences of others. Many also described taking new actions based on seeing their own privilege more clearly.

One student said, “I will remember that some people’s reality is different and not the same as mine. I learned a lot about others culturally and maybe a glimpse of what it’s like to be a minority or ‘different’ in some way. That has helped me to be more compassionate.”

I used a survey to compare how students’ attitudes changed in a variety of social science classes – not just my own. I found that student attitudes about their political ideology, empathy and race changed very little after most classes. My course stood out because attitudes related to both race and empathy improved substantially.

So what sets my course apart? I believe it is the focus on teaching students to be aware of their own thoughts and judgments and how those thoughts shape their actions.

What does your course say about race?

Rather than focus on race, the class explores theories which emphasize the social nature of reality. One example is the Thomas Theorem, which states that when people define a situation as real, then it is real in its consequences.

Take baseball. Fans may argue with the umpire’s call, but we agree to give the umpire authority and so the scoreboard and history books record that call, thus making it reality. Believing that there will be a toilet paper shortage can create one if enough people believe it, even when the supply of toilet paper hasn’t changed. Race, like baseball and toilet paper shortages, becomes real because of how we see it, define it and then act toward each other based on those meanings.

Sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant wrote, “Race is not something rooted in nature…but it is not an illusion. While it may not be real in a biological sense, race is indeed real as a social category with definite social consequences.” Race is created not from our biology, but from the ways in which we understand ourselves, interact with others and build our society.

Why does ‘race’ feel so real?

We are constantly reinforcing the idea of race and our individual identities. While our racial identities cannot be identified by genetic uniqueness, we have taught ourselves to see race in our skin color, facial features, hair texture and culture. Race then becomes socially and culturally real, with some really unjust consequences. Blacks are 3-5 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than whites. Black women are three times more likely to die in a pregnancy-related death than white women. These facts are real, and they are produced not by biology but by social relationships, health and environmental inequalities, policies and institutional practices that treat Black men and women differently than white men and women.

We are faced with a paradox. As long as we see and label race, we then act as though it is a meaningful difference, which ultimately produces unequal consequences. In contrast, if we act as though we don’t see race or claim color blindness, then we are denying that race is a vital social category in our culture which shapes all our lives.

Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla Silva argued that developing empathy with others is one of the prerequisites for redefining the racial order. While the students in my class call it tolerance, their descriptions are better named empathy.

How can one semester matter?

One semester is all it takes to learn to become aware of your own thoughts and to actively choose to change your judgments and build a new capacity for empathy. When we endeavor to deeply understand other people’s experiences, we also build the capacity and will for new actions. Like all things, it takes practice to make it a habit. All semester I tell the students, “In every moment, every interaction, you have a choice, a choice to repeat the scripts you were taught and reinforce our current social rules and experiences, or to choose a new path and create a new reality.”

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Does the color of the instructor matter?

Teaching about race and racism brings challenges for all instructors regardless of their own race. What’s more, it is problematic to leave this challenging work only to instructors of color, who are a minority in American higher education.

Building trust and being vulnerable, telling stories of my own mistakes and growth, makes it possible for a white woman like me to talk about race in ways that help white students not feel defensive and allow students of color to feel safe. I can’t say I’ve always been perfect, but my students have been brave enough to teach me and learn with me to build our capacity for empathy and action.

The Conversation

Jennifer E. Cross does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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