In the last few weeks, colleges have been rattled by stories of racial tension on campus. This week, the president of the University of Missouri resigned after black football players promised to boycott games in response to his administration’s failure to adequately address racially charged incidents on campus. Last week, the president of the University of Louisville apologized for dressing up as a “Mexican” at a Halloween party. And at Yale, where I am a professor,students are demonstrating against a campus climate they describe as inhospitable to students of color.
Such incidents have become so routine that universities have a standard way of addressing them. The racist incident occurs. Students protest and administrators apologize. Calls for increased “diversity” are followed by the creation of committees that make suggestions just in time for the next campus crisis.
We can and should do better. There is a concrete strategy that universities can employ so these incidents will happen less frequently, students of color can feel more welcomed, and questions of race and ethnicity can be discussed productively across the entire campus community. Make race and ethnic studies courses mandatory for all students.
Part of the reason why racist incidents persist – swastikas scrawled in feces, nooses hung from trees on campus, for instance – is because universities are failing to do what they do best: teach. At their best, colleges and universities are places where students and faculty can come together to question and think critically about the world we live in. But when it comes to the topic of race, things get touchy. Rather than teach and foster dialogue, universities often take the easier but ultimately ineffective path to just issue apologies and create committees.
True, most college campuses already offer courses on race and ethnicity that students can choose to take. But as the director of Undergraduate Studies in the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Program at Yale, I often find that I am preaching to the choir – students of color and their allies for whom issues related to race and ethnicity are deeply personal. The courses my colleagues and I teach are among the few places on campus where their experiences are validated, contextualized and engaged in an academic framework.
Why aren’t more students voluntary enrolling in these classes? Some may dismiss race and ethnic studies courses as lacking relevancy to their lives. Others may feel concerned about “saying the wrong thing” in class, or worse, being labeled a “racist.” Still others might lack interest, fail to see the importance, or simply not care.
It’s not difficult to understand why this is the case. Children are taught that talking about race is impolite, a social miscue that can only bring trouble. School curricula either minimize discussions of race or worse, attempt to sanitize the past with, for example, rewritings of history that describe African slaves as “workers.” At the university level, the continued treatment of ethnic studies courses as electives suggests their content is simply less important.
Campus wide enrollment in critical race and ethnic studies could help head off incidents on campus. Take Halloween, for example. Every year, images of students in blackface and other offensive forms of dress surface. They are labeled as racist, pictures are shared on social media, and then the predictable sides take form. Some will defend it as “just a joke,” or as “free speech” while others will forcibly declare that “culture is not a costume.”
In the space of an ethnic studies course, professors can and do address questions that some might not feel comfortable asking such as why, exactly, is such a costume racist? The answer could speak to the history of blackface minstrelsy and racial impersonation in the United Sates and the vital role it played in shoring up the logic of racial and ethnic inferiority.
Students introduced to the long history of scholarship in race and ethnic studies by trained faculty are given the tools to understand issues of deep national relevance. How much more nuanced would our national conversation on immigration be if people understood the history of the U.S. military and economic policies toward Latin America? Why are people fleeing their homes for the United States? Probing these questions adds a layer of complexity around the presence of people of color in the United States missing from mainstream discourse. Asking and engaging them is the work of the university.
For this generation of college students, being called a racist is profoundly disturbing. They understand racism as personal – a direct act committed on one person by another. But by being in an ethnic studies classroom, students have the chance to explore just how deeply entrenched racial preconceptions are in the American imagination and the ways in which those preconceptions are less obvious but no less impactful on the lives of people of color, as recent studies on implicit bias have shown. When a professor can expose students to how racism has broader effects, the likelihood that students can appreciate that race goes beyond interpersonal relations and is instead a structuring force of our shared social lives dramatically increases.
If the goal of a liberal arts education is to help create engaged citizens capable of thinking critically and opening dialogue across a range of topics, then race and ethnic studies must be part of the mandatory general education requirements. Such a move would be a meaningful way toward breaking the cycle of how we talk about race at college and fostering constructive dialogues on campus and beyond.
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