Teaching Strategies

Responding to Racist Incidents 

The recent vandalism of the Multicultural Learning Experience Living & Learning Community is a disturbing, though not unique, expression of racism on campus that has left some students feeling “targeted,” according to reporting done by The Heights. For some, this incident also contains echoes of the recent uptick in white supremacist terrorist movements, all of which may be contributing to significant stress amongst members of the BC community, and especially amongst Black, Indigenous and other people of color who are targeted by such events. Many students and instructors will be carrying the impact of this incident into educational spaces, and there are a few things you can do as an instructor to support those who are experiencing distress.  

What to Do Before a Racist Incident 

Before a racist incident occurs on campus that you need to discuss with your class, you can take steps to foster the kind of classroom environment that makes it more likely that students will feel able to engage with one another on the topic and do so in good faith. There are a number of ways you can try to ground a learning environment in trust and relationship, including:

  • Invest in relationship building: Create opportunities throughout the semester for students to spend time getting to know you and one another. This can happen by  holding 1:1 or group meetings with all your students, by holding time in class to check in with students and see how they are doing, by giving students meaningful opportunities to work with one another, or by investing class interactions with friendly humor, amongst other things.
  • Provide opportunities for personal reflection and sharing: Provide opportunities for students to connect course material to their personal experiences and share some of those reflections, as is appropriate, with peers or the whole class. When structuring these moments it can be important to give students a choice over if and what they share and to indicate ahead of time if students will be expected to share, so that students can make informed choices about how they want to engage in the activity.  
  • Agree to — and critically reflect on — ground rules for discussion: Work collaboratively with students to decide on ground rules for how you all want to engage value-laden and emotionally-significant conversations. You can revisit them throughout the semester as necessary and appeal to them during “hot” conversations. You may also want to spend some time critically reflecting on those ground rules and asking your students to do so, recognizing that the ground rules are not created in a vacuum and can be inequitably enforced in ways that exacerbate rather than mitigate an inequitable learning environment. Acknowledging the potential for bias to yourself and to your students can also model the self-awareness and vulnerability that is often necessary during value-laden conversations.
  • Practice talking about weighty, sensitive topics: Students are more likely to be prepared to talk about a racist incident that is closer to home if they have already had some practice talking with one another about critical social issues. If your course content doesn’t easily allow you to engage in such conversations, you may have the opportunity to do so by talking about injustices within the history of your field or by addressing the reason for any employment disparities in your field. 

Options for Responding 

As we stated in our guide to Teaching After an Election, students appreciate when instructors acknowledge upheavals occurring in the wider world, but instructors can make that acknowledgement in a wide variety of ways (Huston & DiPietro 2007). In this case, you may decide to take any number of approaches, including:

  • Sending an email to students to acknowledge what happened and how it might be influencing students’ learning   
  • Setting aside a few minutes at the beginning of class to express your care, concern, and commitment
  • Providing students time to privately reflect on their own experience and the action they can take to contribute to a more welcoming environment to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community members
  • Explicitly inviting students to office hours if they’d like to discuss the event or talk with you about how it might be impacting their learning 
  • Devoting time to an optional discussion for students who want to discuss the event with you and their peers 
  • Facilitating a conversation with all your students about their reflections
  • Applying course content to the event in order to better understand and respond to it
  • Sharing resources available on campus to support students 

Preparing to Respond

Whenever you are preparing to respond to a current event or community crisis in the classroom, there are a number of factors you may want to consider, and we’ve described some of those in our resource on Teaching After an Election. However, there are a few factors you may want to especially consider when responding to a racist incident on campus, including:

  • Give yourself time to process and prepare: If you want to effectively talk with your students about this event, whether one-on-one or as a full class, you’ll likely need to set aside some time to process the incident for yourself. What about the incident stands out to you? What biases might you have that could inform your response? What do you want to share with your students? Who else can you talk to sort through the rest of your response, before or after speaking with students? To the extent possible at the time, have a handle on the details of the event so that you can be prepared to correct any misinformation that might surface in discussion.
  • Clarify your goals: You may decide to talk about this incident with your students for any number of reasons: because of your sense of what it means to be a member of the campus community, because the class content speaks directly to the incident at hand, because you want your students to know that you are aware of the incident and the impact it might have on their learning, etc. Being transparent with students about why you are bringing it up allows you to clarify the boundaries of the conversation while sharing a little more about how you understand your role as a teacher and researcher.
  • Make your commitments clear: Racist incidents that occur on campus — the environment that many students consider their home — can threaten BIPOC students’ fundamental sense of safety. Speaking transparently about your commitment to creating a campus that is safe and welcoming to students of color, and, if applicable, to the specific community targeted in the incident, can help to reestablish some threads of trust and safety for students. You can also make your commitments clear by centering the voices of targeted students and community members when describing the incident. Campus newspaper reports often feature student quotes and can enable you to center those voices without asking BIPOC students in your class to speak for a diverse community or educate their white peers.
  • Plan for what you’ll do if the conversation gets “hot”: If a conversation takes a turn and a microaggression occurs or you notice that you all are struggling to remain present to one another, you’re more likely to respond effectively if you’ve planned for that likelihood in advance. You may want to review a model for responding to microaggressions, or be prepared to claim some time to take a breath by asking students to take a moment to write quietly or stretch.
  • Be ready to be uncomfortable: When discussing race, faculty of color can face, amongst other things, a presumption of bias from white students that can be hurtful and frustrating and can derail conversations. White faculty, on the other hand, may have less experience talking about race and many report feeling anxious and defensive when broaching the topic (Sue 2013). While it might not be possible to circumvent discomfort, knowing that it will likely be uncomfortable going in and having a plan to debrief the session with a friend or colleague afterwards can make it easier to make sense of the conversation, interpret your responses, and hold yourself accountable for future conversations.

Factors to Consider when Facilitating a Conversation 

If you are planning to open a more robust conversation with students, there are some steps you can take to make that conversation a genuine opportunity for reflection and learning.

  • Provide structure to the conversation: Providing some structure to the conversation can help you maintain the boundaries of what you want to discuss and can give everyone a chance to listen and process before needing to jump into conversation. A few different approaches can be useful: 
    • Think-pair-share: Pose a question to students, give them a chance to reflect on their own before asking them to share with a neighbor and then opening the conversation up to the whole class. 
    • Fish bowl: See if any students volunteer, with advance notice, to engage in a small group conversation that the rest of the class observes. The whole class is then invited to respond to the conversation. 
    • Go around: Pose a question or a prompt and give every student a chance to answer it briefly, allowing students to pass. Conclude the conversation after everyone who wants to has been able to share, or after an open discussion of the contributions.
  • Acknowledge emotion and embodiment: Research into “race talk” (Sue 2013) shows that being able to recognize and speak about emotional responses is key to facilitating discussions that contribute to learning while reducing the risk of causing further harm to students of color. Depending on your own context, you might decide to share a little bit about your own emotional response or normalize that students might be experiencing a wide range of emotional responses. You may also need to help students identify and acknowledge an emotional response that is appearing in the conversation. Giving students permission to physically release tension by stretching in their chairs or moving around, if they can do so safely, can also help students attend to their physical well-being and reduce stress.
  • Express Gratitude: Thank students who speak honestly and vulnerably, recognizing that “race talk” can often feel risky. If it feels appropriate based on the preceding conversation, thank students for remaining present to one another and for practicing engaging in necessary conversations about racism.
  • Help students identify next steps: At the end of the conversation students may be feeling overwhelmed or defeated. Spending some time brainstorming with students about actions they can take to advance racial justice and care for themselves and one another can help students leave the conversation feeling empowered rather than resigned. 

Additional Resources