Monday, October 7, 2013

“Paper Cuts Hurt Too”: Getting Students to See Race when they Claim that They Don’t

I teach courses that deal with race and racism, gender and sexism, class and classism. The challenge I often confront is how to get students, students of color and Euro-American students, to “see” race and racism. Many of these students have been introduced to race via multiculturalism. One of the challenges of a multicultural curriculum lies in the ideology that we are all “one.” Additionally, students are often taught that to see race somehow makes them individually “bad” because only evil people see race and to see race is to be a racist. Thus students often argue that they don't see race. 

For my students of color, they too don’t see race. Many of these students subscribe to the ideology that we are now living in a non-racial society as a result of the ideology of individualism. The ideology of individualism is often worn as a badge of honor to prove that they “belong”.

I won’t necessarily focus on how the myth of multiculturalism hurts both students of color and Euro-American students alike, albeit in different ways. Instead, my focus is on how to get them to see race and racism as ideologies that are still present in their lifetime.

To help my students to see race, I rely on the analogy of a paper cut. It’s not perfect. But it at least gets most students to envision the existence of racism as something that they might not “see” but that can simultaneously exist.

As I introduce my students to theories of race and racism I often ask, “How many of you have had a paper cut?” Every hand floats into the air. I then ask them, about their experience with the pain associated with such a cut. Many will say that for something often so small and invisible that the pain can be intense. Then we talk about getting others to see the cut. Think about it, you know the paper cut exist because of the pain and more than likely it bled. However, after you’ve wiped away the blood, the obvious evidence, it is almost impossible to get someone to see your injury. The evidence of your pain is not always evident to the naked eye.

I then begin to introduce students to the legacy of slavery. While the institution of slavery is no longer evident (as they envision it as a result of what they see on television), the impact of slavery is ever present in today’s society. Why? Because racism and the hierarchy of race have not disappeared. They might not be able to see it (and believe me when I tell you that we have an entirely different lecture on why they believe they don’t see race, when they use it as an organizing principle) but their understanding of absence does not render race absent.  After all, someone telling you that they don’t see your paper cut does not mean that it does not exist.

We then use this analogy to transition into conversations on institutional racism and how it’s possible to have racism without racist (see Bonilla-Silva). With this analogy, students are better able to comprehend passive racism and active racism in a way that is non-threatening as it takes away the “I” from the conversations. Thereby allowing us to have more in-depth conversations that go beyond personal guilt.

This is the sixth post of my 31-day blogging challenge. You can tweet me at Dr_JZ using hastag #31dbc to share your thoughts on how you teach on difficult topics. 

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