Anti-Racism and the Writing Classroom:

A workbook for FYW teachers.

I am afraid of making mistakes, and being called out…

The inevitability of doing harm—and the necessity of reflecting, taking responsibility for what we have done, owning our failures and seeking to do better—is the only process by which one can pursue anti-racism.  Everybody makes mistakes.  Nobody knows all the answers.  Anti-racism is a practice, not a state of superior being or a declared title, and that practice requires us to let our individual defensiveness go—to assume accountability—in order to join community that is generous and committed.  How can we get past guilt and avoidance and discomfort, and see ourselves and our teaching practices as they are?  

Consider a scenario where you begin a class by posting a map of the world, and each student is meant to identify as best they can where they and their ancestors come from as a way of building community and getting to know each other, and to honor the (often invisibly) diverse places students in the class come from.  As a second move in this class activity, you ask students to move to a place where their ancestors lived 400 years ago. What do you do when your Black student points out that 400 years ago was pre U.S Chattel Slavery, and they don’t know where their ancestors are from because of this?

Questions to think about: 

  • How do you honor the discomfort you’ve created for the student(s)?
  • How do you avoid defending your intentions?
  • How do you hold yourself accountable as the instructor?

In this scenario, we as instructors have authority and power and students are in the more vulnerable position.  In the moment, a natural response would be to defend ourselves, to let the student and the class know that we aren’t racist and that we understand history and that the intent of the exercise is to name and honor diverse origins.  But that is centering ourselves, not taking responsibility for how the student was impacted.  Instead, we can admit we hadn’t thought of this impact and apologize to the student– we can model the sort of listening that opens possibility and allows for our own growth, and that of our students.  

Within our own teaching community, there are times when people should be held to account, but the basis of our work together as colleagues should not be a calling out, but a calling in—an invitation for understanding and growth. Consider a scenario where you say something that another colleague is hurt by, and they come to you to express how they were impacted.  Of course it’s our instinct to explain ourselves, to express our lack of intent and innocence, to defend ourselves.  But that is centering ourselves and our sense of ourselves as good, not thinking about how our colleague was impacted and acknowledging that harm.  What would happen if we listened and apologized, acknowledged the harm, and recognized that this colleague is giving us an opportunity to grow and understand in community? Anti-racism is relational and positional, and finding ways to learn together, in good relations well-tended to, is something we must do with each other if we’re to have any hope of doing so in a classroom. 

We should ask ourselves:

  • How can we help each other understand what it means to engage in intersectional, anti-racist pedagogy in our first-year writing classrooms? 
  •  How can we share experiences and stories, curriculum and practice, so that we all can find our own ways of better serving our diverse students?

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