How I've implemented an anti-racist approach in my teaching
Updated: Jun 11, 2020
There are so many resources available for those seeking to decolonize their syllabus and to implement anti-racist pedagogies in their teaching. Some of these include:
this syllabus by Debra Thompson on Black Lives Matter and American Democracy
Institutionalized Racism: A Syllabus on JStor
10 Ways for Non-Black Academics to Value Black Lives by Stacey Ault
Yarimar Bonilla on Decolonizing Decolonization
Pedagogies of Cruelty by Claudio Carvalhaes
I suggest looking at those first, as many of them have been written and curated by Black, Indigenous and POC scholars. I have been inspired by that work, and also have wanted to keep track of my own efforts to implement an anti-racist pedagogical approach. The following blog post details some of my efforts.
Question: Is my syllabus diverse? Do the scholars and ideas represented in my syllabus reproduce a received “canon” or do they represent current thinking, radical roots, and diverse viewpoints on the topics addressed by the course? Are under-represented scholars, communities, and perspectives represented? Strategy: Part of this can begin with arithmetic. How many white authors do I assign? How many BIPOC authors do I assign? How many male authors? How many female and gender non conforming authors do I assign? I answer these questions with a spreadsheet. While it can be fraught sometimes to identify authors’ racial, ethnic or gender identity, and I do not encourage making assumptions on the basis of surname (I have been assumed to be Latina because of my last name and I am white), often a look at the author profile or university bio of an author will reveal how they identify. I make a spreadsheet for all of my course readings, I indicate how many authors are identifiably BIPOC and women, and then I count it up, using Excel to calculate percentages. When I began to do this several semesters ago, I realized that although I valued diversity in my syllabus and did include a lot of non-white authors and women, that the proportions of white to non-white and male to female/gender non-conforming were not what I would have guessed. By counting, I hold myself accountable to my values. For a recent course this past Spring on Food and Migration, I found 72% of the authors I was assigning were people of color or female/gender non-conforming authors, and 33% were both. This gives me a number to improve upon each semester.
Question: How is my understanding of what is necessary to read, write and know in this course shaped by white supremacist ideas about whose work matters? Do BIPOC authors have to earn their spot in my syllabus or do white authors? Rather than thinking about a “canon” and then sprinkling in diverse perspectives, what if I approach the course as an inquiry into the subject of the course: Whose ideas have shaped this field of study? Whose knowledge “counts” and whose knowledge has been systematically marginalized? Strategy: Every course I teach is about epistemology. How do we know what we know? For example, I teach a lot at the intersection of health and migration. We spend a lot of time on health disparities and exploring how for many immigrants, living in the US means a decline in health outcomes over time. I have researched and written (here and here) about how embodied experiences and knowledge that immigrants bring with them are often marginalized by a healthcare system that is not only austerity-oriented but also demeaning toward knowledge that is not viewed as “authoritative” according to very specific metrics of scientific authority and prestige. We examine the toll that structural inequalities and racism take on bodies over time. Understanding the knowledge of marginalized people as knowledge requires centering them in our teaching and learning, not just sprinkling them on top. To not substantively alter our understanding of the canon is to reproduce it, even if we think we are being anti-racist by adding non-white authors to our syllabi. Books I’ve read that have really shaped my thinking about this in my research areas include: Zapotec Science by Roberto Gonzalez, The Extractive Zone by Macarena Gómez-Barris, and Light in the Darkness by Gloria Anzaldúa.
Hack the algorithm. When I started actively shifting my own personal reading habits toward an anti-racist learning project, I had to look for where to start. I found one or two authors, and then after reading them, read the books they cited the most. Little by little, the algorithms adapted. At first, Amazon (see below* about how I’m trying to break my Amazon Kindle habit) continued to recommend whatever I had been reading before. I’ll be honest that when I was still in the early years of parenting, I was in triage mode and my reading consisted mainly of things I directly felt I had to read for my research. When my kids could finally handle me reading a chapter of a novel while they were in the bath, I started reading again “for pleasure.” The algorithms in Amazon , Goodreads, Netflix, etc. are continually trying to target us as consumers. Based on the patterns I established, they fed me books in my research areas and the trashy novels I was reading at the time. Algorithms gather data on what we consume and try to feed us suggestions for more of the same. A lot of white people now seem interested in developing an anti-racist reading list and are (inappropriately) relying on colleagues and friends of color to tell them what to read. This is labor that no one owes them. I suggest picking a book, any book. How about How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi? Then, see what the algorithm suggests next. Notice who he cites. Notice what other people who read his book recommend. You’ll find Carol Anderson, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ijeoma Oluo, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Sonya Renee Taylor, Robin DeAngelo, Saidiya Hartman, Sarah Broom, Brittney Cooper and Patrisse Khan Cullors, to name a few I’ve found really important. When I switched back from thinking I needed trashy novels to wanting good novels, I found life-changing work by Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward and Ayana Mathis and rediscovered Toni Morrison. And now, the algorithm feeds me more and alerts me when new books come out. This enables me to keep growing and learning without the initial effort of identifying who to read first. I also keep a list of everything I read, and like the spreadsheet I keep for my syllabi, I actually make a note for myself to see how many white, Black, Latinx, Asian authors I’m reading and also the gender representation.
How do we teach and conduct research? One thing that blew my mind was a talk at Lehman College in 2019 by Joshua Schrier- I’ll write more about this another time- in which he argued that basically there’s “an anthropogenic bias in science”. He was studying the processes by which chemists decide to choose different metals in their efforts to produce lighter, stronger and cheaper amalgamations. In my anthropologists’ ears, I heard the social is everywhere. There’s no neutral technology, every bias in society is also in our search engines and our research methods. This blew my mind and has since radicalized how I think about teaching research. When we send students to library orientation sessions to "learn how to do research,” we are asking them to rely on search engines to tell them what exists. And “what exists” is mediated by a ton of different filters and factors that are mediated by social hierarchies, biases and racism. Structural racism exists in higher education as it does in society. Who is in academia, who publishes, where they publish, and how much they are cited are all factors shaped heavily by structural racism and marginalization of BIPOC authors. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has written a bunch of discipline-altering papers on this from her work as a theoretical physicist and feminist theorist. Our disciplines are impoverished not because marginalized and absent voices of color mean a lack of “diversity” but because marginalized and absent scholars have ideas that are missing in our understanding of our world. We can’t know what we don’t know, and we have to ask ourselves what we would know if our disciplines included the perspectives of those historically and still today left out. A big part of teaching “research literacy” is teaching students to look at citation indexes to see if something has been cited a lot, and asking them to look for cues that something is from a “legitimate” scholarly source. If students pull in a citation from a heavily cited and prestigious journal, and they format the citation correctly, we’re usually proud of our efforts all around. But what if, not unlike Amazon, the algorithms of scholarly search engines are also feeding us what others have said is important, and if what others have said is important is only what has been mutually reinforced by a self-serving, hierarchical, white-male-cis vision of what is “good” science? Now, I require my students to dig more, to try to hack the search engines and search for articles that may have not have been given their due when they were released. As we know (most recently with the #BlackInTheIvory and #PublishingPaidMe posts on Twitter) Black scholars and other scholars and authors of color are routinely marginalized, silenced, suppressed and pushed aside in the academy. They may not be as able to publish or are obliged to alter what they publish to meet arbitrary and biased expectations about what is “valid” or “relevant." Many opt out or are pushed out. We don’t know what we’re missing, but we can make an effort to find what is there and cite the shit out of it. I now ask my students to expend more effort on identifying sources that are relevant and not heavily cited by underrepresented authors as I do on asking them to find and cite things with proper format. Key in this is drawing on and honoring the labor of scholars who write and curate collections that include under-represented voices. For my teaching, I've found resources like Vanessa García Polanco's Dominican Food Syllabus and the Annotated Bibliography on Structural Racism in the US Food System to be so helpful and also a great model for students to see the power in citation.
This brings me to #CiteBlackWomen. Not only in syllabi, but in my writing, I am making a concerted effort to cite Black women. Created in 2017 by Christen A. Smith, the Cite Black Women Collective seeks to "to push people to engage in a radical praxis of citation that acknowledges and honors Black women’s transnational intellectual production.” While I wish I’d started earlier and am embarrassed by my own paltry efforts at inclusive citation in the past, I am now intent on making sure that my bibliographies are representative of the work that is there, not only the usual suspects that get cited as canonical in any given field of study. I make an effort to see that I am not inadvertently missing citations of BIPOC scholars who work in a given area, but I am also trying to take it a step further to find the work of people that I may not have been previously familiar with. As a tenured faculty member and established author, I have maximal authority within academic hierarchies to cite as I see fit, and I see fit to use citations as a tool for equity. Junior and marginalized scholars get top billing in my citations and my bibliographies. When we are students, citation is often a test: how well we identify the dominant schools of thought in our discipline and whether we are able to rattle off the major thinkers and texts that represent them is a major part of what is assessed in research papers and theses, culminating in PhD comprehensive exams and dissertation bibliographies. An omission of a “major” scholar or text is a mark against any emerging scholar in the eyes of many dissertation committees, as well as in peer review of manuscripts. But identifying what’s missing is actually much harder work and not often honored as work. We should work on teaching our students to own the citation as a power move. It is a way of naming and marking what we value and creating a self-reinforcing loop of visibility for scholars and communities that have not been given their due.
Honor and study the work of those who have been trying to decolonize the academy for decades. I’ve been really impacted by the work of Clelia Rodríguez in her book Decolonizing Academia. In the book she describes how in her efforts to give her students a decolonized syllabus, she once gave them a blank sheet of black paper. She emphasizes unlearning as being as important as learning. Gloria Anzaldúa asks us to, like Coyolxaqui, to see radical dismemberment (as violent as it is) as a necessary precursor to putting ourselves back together again. I’ve also been inspired by La Paperson’s A Third University is Possible and Saidiya Hartman’s historiography in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, as well as ideas by Sylvia Wynter, Fred Moten, bell hooks on refusal, silence and opacity. Audra Simpson, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Ashanté Reese, and Wayne Yang and Eve Tuck have shaped my understanding of how my discipline and my own praxis as an anthropologist have been generated by a euro-centric, violent, colonial assumption of a right to knowledge. I don’t get to know everything, and if I am to be non-violent and anti-colonialist in my pedagogy, I have to come to terms with that.
Talk up colleagues and students doing important work. Another form of citational politics is the way that we talk about our colleagues and their teaching, as well as students and their projects. By citing work that’s happening on my own campus in my teaching and anytime I can as I move through meetings and coffee dates, I can help bring attention to the work going on among us. I try to make my colleagues’ efforts even more visible and amplify their efforts when I have the opportunity. Students will seek out professors they know to be doing good work, and faculty and staff funnel opportunities to students they hear about the most. This isn’t fair to those who are doing their work modestly and quietly, but it is a way to bring more attention to those who could be overlooked or under appreciated in the institutional day to day. For my colleagues who are faculty members of color and are more likely to face bias in student evaluations, this can help reinforce why students should take seriously the work their professors are doing and their legitimacy in doing it. Obviously this can spill over into all kinds of other spaces, like how we retweet on Twitter, whether we accept and how we approach invitations to evaluate dossiers and manuscripts or write book reviews, how we share and celebrate the events, activities and insights our colleagues and students share with us, and whether we show up when invited to the book talks, panels, dialogues and film screenings they plan.
Publish together. While as a loner in a discipline of loners, co-authorship and collaborative research and writing are things I’m late to, I’m trying to catch up. Writing with colleagues and students is one of the best ways to learn from each other, and, as long as publications are one of the most valuable currencies in the realm of academia, it is one of the most efficient ways I can transfer my social capital as a tenured professor to people emerging as scholars. Obviously, how we do the research, how we write and publish, even the order of names, are areas that need lots of reflection: do we reproduce or disrupt academic and social hierarchies in our praxis of collaboration? But deciding that we value co-production and trying to do it is an important first step toward addressing the issues of fairness that arise in the work.
Finally, I have to end by recommending the most worldview-transforming book I’ve read. Heavy by Kiese Laymon altered my thinking about history, white supremacism and violence to Black bodies; academia, teaching and generosity; childhood sexual abuse and how we survive it; lies and truth, and how we can try to heal each other by loving each other more and better. Of all of the things I’ve read, this is the text I keep coming back to and to which I am most grateful for its effect on my heart and my mind.
*Re: Amazon. I’m trying to do better. I have aging eyes, insomnia and a husband who can’t sleep if I turn on a reading light. I love reading on a Kindle and while I still read tons of book books, a good chunk of what I read is on an e-reader in low-light situations. Once I finally crossed over from life-long financial insecurity to relative financial security, I swore I’d never deprive myself of a book I wanted, and one-click downloads on the Kindle make me feel rich in a way that my past self, the little girl that would lug home dozens of books from the library just to prevent “running out” before the next library run, couldn’t imagine. However, Amazon is evil. I know this. So, I am now making a more concerted effort to download e-books from my university and public libraries and purchase e-books through independent books stores, publishers, and online independent booksellers like Indiebound.org. Publishers like Haymarket will sell e-books that are easily downloadable to my Kindle. No, it’s not one click, but it’s worth a few extra clicks to stick it to the man. Sometimes, when a book is important to me, I’ll download it AND purchase it in hard copy so that I am both getting an easily accessible text that I can read and putting my money toward work that is important. As far as journal articles, when I download an article through my library, I am contributing to a different algorithm. Every click and download contributes data that what I am downloading is valuable and needed and worth investing in.