A Time for Inclusion
From the March 2002 AAHE Bulletin
Several years ago I developed a multicultural communication course for a small Midwestern private religious university with an overwhelmingly white student body. Developing a diversity course for a decidedly nondiverse population (93 percent white) posed new challenges to my teaching practices.
While the class does draw a high percentage of minority students, it is not unusual for one or two students to be the only members of a particular minority group. Given this set of circumstances, I was confronted with a dilemma: How could I foster a supportive environment for members of racial and religious minorities while encouraging dialogues that examined controversial issues from a variety of perspectives? This article is the result of classroom experiences, discussions with students, and personal reflection on that challenge.
Safe Space for Dialogue
A common stumbling block to developing a supportive environment in which students feel comfortable discussing what are often socially taboo or politically incorrect topics is the common reaction of white students to glance furtively at classmates who are members of the group being discussed. Even though the minority students have not been asked to “speak for their race” — a problem reported by many students of color in conversations — the white students de facto view them as representatives.
Two strategies can sidestep this common reaction. The first is to employ unexpected comparisons. For example, when discussing racial epithets or stereotyping, instead of selecting the expected black/white comparisons, I use Irish, Italian, and gender examples. Some students are visibly startled as they are confronted with this more inclusive perspective. They are aware that Irish and Italian Americans were targets of discrimination at various times in our history, and since many students at my institution reflect those heritages, they respond to the issue differently than if I used other groups as examples. Because we know that empathy is instrumental in motivating people to help others, it makes sense to engender empathy with the examples we select in class.
In fact, selecting less obvious examples achieves three goals: It turns the “picture” to a different angle, resulting in a fresh view of a common topic; it permits the discussion to include all groups; and it allows for cross-group comparisons. No one group — or student — is made to feel stigmatized or singled out; neither is any group ignored as unimportant. This technique also allows for discussions of similarities and differences in the treatment of various groups.
A second strategy that sidesteps the tendency to expect minority students to “represent their race” is to use supplementary readings and films as the focus of discussion, rather than just lecture. “What does this author argue?” is a good way to prompt students to explore the issues for themselves. Presenting topics over which students are free to disagree allows them the opportunity to work through the issues and “own” the knowledge in a way that is not offered in the traditional lecture approach.
Discussion without research can prove counterproductive, however. Our students enter a discussion on race, religion, or gender with a full — rather than blank — slate. What students often lack is judgment about the generalizability of specific examples or the ability to see another side of the events as told at home. An obvious remedy would be to have students share their own stories. Unfortunately, if students do not self-censor their stories, the result is that minority students must face reading or hearing about their classmates’ negative reactions to their group, which hardly fosters a supportive classroom environment.
An alternative approach is to have students learn secondhand about events that affect others. In one assignment, students read a weekly magazine designed for members of another race or religion. Over a semester, all students are exposed to issues and stories not typically covered in what they would normally read. Another assignment that has proven quite powerful is to have students select a topic, such as racial profiling by customs agents or mistreatment of minorities, and then research stories of discrimination. Each of these approaches allows students to learn other people’s stories without making anyone feel personally vulnerable.
To broaden traditional course readings, texts can be supplemented with short readings that present diverse perspectives. This allows students to apply concepts beyond themselves or their group. Studies demonstrate that people of different races and socioeconomic levels can differ in their views of society’s institutions (police, courts, scientists, etc.). Having students read alternative views allows them to explore why those differences exist.
Because a key tenet of an effective communicator is the ability to adjust to one’s audience, material that students can relate to only enhances the learning process. In “Walking While Black, Suspicious Minds and the Color-Blind” author P. Butler (CommonQuest, Winter 1998) recounts his experiences with police as he walked home after his car broke down just a few blocks from his house. Given college students’ own often antagonistic relationships with the police, the story resonates with their feelings of alienation from the power structure. The use in sports of certain words or images for team names and logos provides yet another avenue to relate to students’ lives on issues of diversity.
Films that can be used to introduce diversity concepts without placing a spotlight on students include Double Happiness, a film about a Chinese-Canadian woman living in the West who tries to both please and resist her Chinese parents; Smoke Signals, which focuses on the reconciliation between a Native American father and a son; and School Daze, an early Spike Lee film that takes place over one weekend on the campus of a hypothetical African American university. Each of these films touches on topics covered in interpersonal communication classes and addresses common issues that college students confront.
Having students consider how their own life might be different if they had been born a different race (or gender or sexual orientation) can fit course sections that focus on empathy and taking an “other” orientation in conversations. A colleague, for example, has developed an assignment in which students select an identity different from their own, conduct an in-depth interview with a member of that other group, and then write how their own autobiography would be different had they been born into that group.
How do we counter the reinforcing of stereotypes? One way is to select readings written by members of the group being studied. Possible sources can range from short magazine pieces to books. Good examples include Leonce Gaiter’s “The Revolt of the Black Bourgeoisie” (New York Times Magazine, June 26, 1994), in which he rejects the identification of “black” with inner-city, Ebonic speakers; Our Voices: Essays in Culture, Ethnicity, and Communication, edited by Alberto Gonzalez, Marsha Houston, and Victoria Chen (Roxbury, Los Angeles, 1997), in which each chapter is written by a member of the group being described; and Severt Young Bear and R.D. Theisz’s Standing in the Light: A Lakota Way of Seeing (University of Nebraska Press, 1994), which provides an excellent supplement to a traditional text in examining such concepts as listening, self-concept, and verbal communication.
First, it establishes an unstated — and therefore unexamined — assumption that whites represent the norm. That is the effect anytime our textbooks bracket a group by chapter or box within a chapter; it reinforces the view that the bracketed group is “the other” in society whereas whites can to be assumed to represent the basis of comparison or the desired reality. Further, by including readings or films on whites, the group becomes just one among the subjects of the course — not greater, not lesser, just one more part. Not excluding whites is particularly important in countering false dichotomies and their damaging “we vs. them” mentality, and in encouraging the realization that whites are one component of a multifaceted society.
Second, excluding whites from the discussion alienates white students in the class in the same way that students of color are alienated when they are not included as subjects. It is particularly important to bring white students into the process to consider topics such as white privilege and institutionalized racism. If we want our interpersonal communication courses to improve the ability of individuals to communicate with people of a wide range of backgrounds, then it is imperative that we include discussions of power.
Responding to Offensive Remarks
Early in my teaching career, a student made the statement “There are two kinds of blacks . . . .” I responded immediately, forcefully contradicting her view; but in so doing, I also undercut any true discussion of that view. Even as the words passed my lips, I knew I had erred. By responding as an individual, I had abrogated my responsibilities as a teacher. Learning how to respond to racist (or sexist, or homophobic, or anti-Semitic) remarks, in fact, has proven the greatest challenge in my efforts to be inclusive at my overwhelmingly white university. At my institution, such comments are expressed not only because white students are in the majority but also because of how these students define racism. They associate “racism” only with extreme antisocial actions; that is, anything short of Klan membership is merely “freedom of speech.” Even if students don’t express such ideas during class, their papers reveal the pervasiveness of such thoughts.
Over the years, students have made an amazing array of statements. Learning to respond in a way that invites investigation was a challenge for me that required great thought and took several missteps. But the lesson has been a most valuable one. Now when a student makes an offensive statement, I realize that the response need not come from me. Not only is it better for students to think through the issue themselves, the strategy of generating a discussion on the merits and implications of a comment invites all of the students to join in the process of discovery. They will, after all, leave my class and discuss these issues on their own.
If we invest in a process rather than a person to be responsible for all the tasks, we make use of everyone’s contributions. As their instructor it is my responsibility to train students in steps of analysis and to moderate — that is, to ask questions, when needed, that guide students in their analysis. Under this approach, students learn to explore unstated assumptions and implications, as well as to articulate and defend their positions. In short, they learn to develop critical-thinking skills that will be useful throughout their lives.
Today we find ourselves trying to balance a variety of needs and demands. How we respond has repercussions beyond the classroom into society itself. If our goal is to improve society, then knowledge is one step in that direction. We also reap a side benefit when we pursue a policy of inclusiveness: increased self-knowledge.
Linda G. Seward is an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at John Carroll University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Included in Communication
This article is based on the chapter “A Time for Inclusion: Strategies for Encouraging the Success of All Students” by Linda G. Seward, from the book Included in Communication: Learning Climates that Cultivate Racial and Ethnic Diversity (2002), Judith S. Trent, editor. The book is published by AAHE with the National Communication Association.
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