The Importance of Addressing Racism in the Classroom

Jennifer Ward, Ellen Watson, and Dr. Cathryn van Kessel offer their experiences and suggestions.

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Earlier this year, some instructors approached the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) with a problem: students were sharing racist statements on class discussion boards and they were not sure how to address it. Jennifer Ward, one of CTL's Educational Developers, empathised with their situation. When Jennifer was a graduate student working towards a MA in Adult Education and Cultural Studies, she completed her coursework online. While presenting through a screen about the Nunavut law program for Inuit students, another student posted a comment that perpetuated racist ideologies and stereotypes.

"I remember sitting at the computer feeling really hurt and mad," Jennifer recalls. "I felt powerless in that moment, and then I felt upset with myself for feeling powerless. This is how some students who are racialized may feel. Moments like that can make them feel like they don't belong." When her instructor stepped in and informed the classroom why the comment was unacceptable, Jennifer felt secure that her instructor was standing up not only for her, but for all Indigenous people.

As an instructor in the Faculty of Education, Jennifer also knew that the move to remote learning mandated by the COVID-19 pandemic had the potential to perpetuate and exacerbate racist interactions that can already happen in face-to-face environments. "Online there's the opportunity to be anonymous. People will say things online they wouldn't say in person."

As one way to help provide instructors with tools for addressing racism in the classroom, Jennifer and Educational Developer Ellen Watson put together a podcast episode. The two spoke with Dr. Cathryn van Kessel from the Department of Secondary Education for her expertise about the connections between anxiety and racism.

"For my part, I want to help others understand the defensive behaviour you might see when you confront someone about [their own racism]," Cathryn says. "Freezing up when you hear or see a racist comment is a natural reaction, but it would be great if we had the tools to respond differently. We want to help people understand why they have these feelings and reactions, and how to learn in that uncomfortable space, because being silent is being complicit. We don't want that professor, instructor, or whoever is in charge of that online classroom to feel like they can't say something because they don't know what to do."

Ellen says that it is important for instructors to take feedback from their students - for instance, a student might alert them to a comment or gesture that, due to privilege, the instructor did not recognize as racist. Cathryn suggests that instructors not worry about getting their response "perfect."

"There are multiple ways of responding; there is no such thing as a best practice," Cathryn says. "Your relationship with your students is so unique - your personality is unique. The important thing is to form a response and not let the racist comment stand."

"There is a lot of knowledge to be gained from the mistakes we make," Jennifer says. "As educators, we should be learning from ourselves."

After launching the "Addressing Racism in the Classroom" podcast, CTL hosted an "Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity in Higher Education" webinar. On June 23, the second webinar in the series will take the form of a Q&A session about how instructors can address racism in the classroom and incorporate equity, diversity, and inclusion in higher education. Participants are encouraged to submit or ask live questions specific to how they are approaching their classroom or planning, or their unique fears and challenges. Participants who register for the second webinar will be provided with materials from the first webinar and podcast.

"I hope people will listen to the podcast and feel empowered and not overwhelmed," Cathryn says. "Issues of equity and anti-racism are always important. We hope this webinar is a way to help instructors feel empowered to prioritize EDI and build it into other opportunities."

Visit the Centre for Teaching and Learning's website for resources about inclusive teaching and learning, and to register for the webinar "Addressing Racism and Incorporating EDI in the Classroom: Part II" on June 23, 2020 at 12 pm MST.Centre for Teaching and Learning's website for resources about inclusive teaching and learning, and to register for the webinar "Addressing Racism and Incorporating EDI in the Classroom: Part II" on June 23, 2020 at 12 pm MST.