Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

Preventing Microaggressions: Creating a Safe Space to Discuss Race in the Classroom

  • November 30, 2017
  •    BY Chloe Bland Ph.D. (Contributor)

By Chloe G. Bland, Ph.D., Chair, Psychology Department, Assistant Professor, College of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ

As white educator, my first and central responsibility is to become aware of the myriad power dynamics that exist in my classroom because any lack of awareness of my power, my privilege, and our shared cultural norms makes it very likely that I will perpetrate a microaggression as I interact with my students.

Therefore, I heighten my own awareness of where I personally fit in the system of power and privilege. As a faculty member, I always have power and privilege. Add to that white privilege and my own history of ignorance about race. It is incumbent upon me to use my power and privilege to support, validate, and legitimize discussion of race in the classroom. Otherwise I am in grave danger of creating a hostile environment for my students.

I find it important to keep up to date on strategies that work to reduce my own perpetration of microaggressions in the classroom. Sue, Lin, Torino, Capodilupo, & Rivera, (2009) suggest letting your students know that discussing race is okay by actively creating a safe space at the very beginning of the year. For example, this can be accomplished with activities where students get to bring a part of themselves to class and share it with the group.

The Artifact Game

I have used multiple variations on this theme. However, my favorite activity is the artifact game. I first learned this activity from Elizabeth Williams-Riley and Bari Katz at the Common Ground Institute sponsored by the American Conference on Diversity in January, 2016. Each student brings in an artifact—defined as some specific, tangible object but nothing more detailed than that so as not to influence students’ choices- that is representative of who they are, broadly construed. Everyone gets a chance to share their artifact and why it is important to them. The magic of this exercise is that it instantly exposes our complex identities. We often think we know our students, and our students often think they know their peers. Yet, there is always so much more beneath the surface.

Once we become familiar with each other’s nuanced identities, there is a palpable shift toward a kinder and more respectful classroom climate. I developed and teach a class called, The Psychology of Racism, where I do this exercise in the beginning of the semester, before we delve into the sensitive topic of racism. The atmosphere instantly changes. For example, I have had students from vastly different backgrounds and cultures begin to identify with each other. The personal stories that emerge from this exercise bring students closer and open a space for more difficult and deeper conversations.

Validating Feelings

Another important piece in creating an atmosphere that is safe for everyone is to validate experiences and feelings of all students. Too often, when race is discussed in a classroom setting white students get uncomfortable and try to shutdown or defend themselves (I know this from being the person who is uncomfortable with the discussion). Some of the subconscious avoidance tactics I have personally employed when finding myself in an uncomfortable discussion of race include eye rolling, shifting or slouching, doodling, fidgeting, becoming quiet or trying to defend oneself, or crying. While crying is not always problematic, it can be used by people in the majority culture to shut down conversations about race when they feel uncomfortable. Such reactions create an unsafe space for everyone in the class, but particularly for People of Color. The underlying message that is communicated when white students take these actions is, “I am fragile and refuse to engage with issues that challenge my worldview.”

Part of our jobs as instructor may include speaking to white students who display these typical reactions to discussions of race. When I was a scared white student just waking up to the racial realities in the United States, I believed anything I did or said was okay because I knew I was a good person and always had good intentions, even when i did or said something that offended those around me. I have learned that in fact, I was wrong. Good intentions do not have a privileged place in discussions of race. We must hold ourselves accountable for the effects of our words and actions, regardless of our intentions.

Chloe G. Bland, Ph.D., serves as Chair of the Psychology Department and Assistant Professor at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, NJ. Her email is cbland@cse.edu

 

    • November 30, 2017
  •    BY Chloe Bland Ph.D. (Contributor)
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