Racism in the Classroom: Why Does This Keep Happening and What Can We Do?

Racism in the Classroom: Why Does This Keep Happening and What Can We Do?

If your institution has trouble hiring and retaining black academics there is no time like the present to ask yourself why. What are the barriers in your field or institution for black academics? As every publication in higher education keeps reminding us, we currently have more Ph.D.s than jobs for Ph.D.s in academia (though there might be a “slight dip” helping to stem the tide of unemployed Ph.D.s). We should be spoiled for choice when it comes to hiring. But only roughly 5% of these Ph.Ds are being awarded to black people (12). There are a number of reasons why black students chose not to persist to graduate programs, and ultimately into the professoriate. 

In research fields, one way to combat this is to actively promote black students so that they gain experience and exposure. If you supervise student research and you do not work with black students ask yourself why. After my first few years as a professor I was supervising several very talented and motivated students who all happened to be men. This did not sit well with me. Psychology happens to be a female dominated field, at least at the undergraduate level. I also feel particularly strongly about promoting women in the sciences. So why was I only working with men? Where were all the women? It occurred to me that I was being very passive in my recruitment of student researchers. I simply accepted students who approached me about doing research. This gaffe was particularly embarrassing since I know how shy and hesitant I was as an undergraduate despite being well-qualified. After that realization I started actively recruiting student researchers. At the end of the semester I sent an email to students who did particularly well in my class to let them know that they did well and that if they were interested I would be happy to do research with them. The change in the makeup of my research assistants was dramatic. Now my lab is almost entirely composed of women, many of them women of color. 

As much as I would like to take total credit for this transformation in my lab, it was not my one email alone that convinced students to join my lab. The same semester I decided to start actively recruited I was approached by one of my top students about doing research. She had gotten advice to get involved in research early and wanted to know more about how to do it. She was a black woman who was also very active in other clubs and activities on campus, and a role model for other students. When I asked my student researchers why they wanted to get involved with research several of them said it was this student’s passion and enthusiasm for research that got them interested. Representation matters. These students saw someone like themselves, someone they could relate to, being involved in research and that opened up the possibility to them.

Beyond promoting black students, we also need to be promoting black colleagues and asking what we can do to make more supportive and inclusive environments. Several of my colleagues have said they want to hire more diverse faculty in their departments, but can’t seem to find any applicants of color in their field. Our job postings say that we believe in diversity and that we want to hire people from all backgrounds – but only people from certain backgrounds are applying. Why? How are we building a supportive and inclusive environment on and off campuses? How is that being communicated to the outside world so that a potential applicant would feel comfortable applying? Are we actively recruiting and seeking out black academics? 

We will not fix these problems overnight. We cannot attend one workshop on diversity and think that we have now become experts. We cannot check off best practices on a list and claim to solve racism in the classroom. We cannot hire one black faculty member and say that we have solved representation in our field. We need to commit to continuing to educate ourselves and to continue to listen to our students and colleagues about the issues that affect them. We need to know that we will make mistakes and that we can learn from those mistakes to do better. 

(1) U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. (2014). Civil rights data collection: Data snapshot (School discipline; Issue Brief No. 1). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

(2). Scott, T. M., Gage, N., Hirn, R., & Han, H. (2019). Teacher and student race as a predictor for negative feedback during instruction. School Psychology, 34(1), 22-31.

(3) Blake, J. J., Butler, B. R., Lewis, C. W., & Darensbourg, A. (2011). Unmasking the inequitable discipline experiences of urban black girls: Implications for urban educational stakeholders. Urban Review, 43, 90-106

(4) Reardon, S. F. (2013). The widening income achievement gap. Educational Leadership, 70(8), 10-16.

(5) Rothstein, R. (2017). The Color of Law. Liverright.

(6) Roithmayr, D. (2014). Reproducing Racism: How everyday choices lock in white advantage. NYU Press.

(7) Kaestle, C. F. (2016). Federalism and inequality in education: What can history tell us?, inKirsch I., Braun, H. (eds) The Dynamics of Opportunity in America (pp 35-96). Springer, Cham.

(8) Peterson, D. S. (2014). A culturally responsive alternative to “drill and kill” literacy strategies. Multicultural Perspectives 16(4): 234-239. 

(9) Adjapong, E. S., & Endim, C. (2015). Rethinking pedagogy in urban spaces: Implementing hip-hop pedagogy in the urban science classroom. Journal of Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research, 11: 66–77. 

(10) Bishop, R., Ladwig, J., & Berryman, M. (2014). The centrality of relationships for pedagogy: The whanaugatanga thesis. American Educational Research Journal, online

(11) Milner, H. R. (2010). Start where you are, but don’t stay there: Understanding diversity, opportunity gaps, and teaching in today’s classrooms. Harvard Education Press.

(12) National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (2018). Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2017. Alexandria, VA. National Science Foundation