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Creating Antiracist Spaces Where Black Students Can Breathe and Thrive

2020 besieged us with two deadly viruses: COVID-19 and racism. Both have proven disproportionately deadly for Black bodies. Black students in colleges and universities around the country, who are already dealing with the pandemic, anti-Black racism and police brutality, are often subjected to microaggressions and unsafe classroom spaces. These conditions have a cumulative impact of inflicting more trauma, stress, and emotional exhaustion on Black students. In order to succeed and thrive, Black students need vocal and committed antiracist educators who are intentionally creating antiracist spaces for them. The time for faculty to do this work is now because Black students on our campuses are not okay.

Dr. Traci DennisDr. Traci Dennis

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi in his New York Times best-selling book, How to be an Antiracist, asserts that “the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it—and then dismantle it.” Until we name and confront our current and past racist history and all of its ugly truths head on, we will never be able to engage in the ongoing and never-ending work that being a true antiracist requires.

It is not okay to remain neutral in the racism struggle or shy away from addressing the complexities of racism in our course content and in our class discussions. When we fail to identify and describe racism as a structure and advance that racist ideas are only held by “bad people,” we send the message that the historical, structural, systemic and institutional racism and oppression that impacts the lives and livelihood of so many of our Black students daily is a figment of their imagination. This silence also denies the lived realities of Black students who are experiencing racism every day of their existence in every space they occupy.

To dismantle racism, faculty must first address the systemic features of racism that show up in their institutions and address the ways in which they are complicit in furthering oppressive environments for Black students. Race is at the foundation of everything that is going on in this country and faculty must commit to taking an active role in acknowledging, discussing, dismantling, and disrupting the racist acts, ideologies and practices that permeate their institutions.

Below are suggested actions to begin building antiracist spaces in which all students can thrive:

  1. Acknowledge stereotypes, microaggressions and biases in your teaching and your personal life

Turning your classroom into an antiracist space involves identifying and owning racist ideas, acts and practices. Pay attention to how you label and interact with your Black students and Black people in general. If you are assigning an image or idea to a certain group of students who share the same ascribed identity or you believe something about a specific group of your students due to the students’ racial make-up, then you are stereotyping that group. If you tell a Black student in your class that they are “articulate” this is a microaggression. As you interact with your students daily pay attention to whether your actions and interactions (e.g. grading, relationship building) are biased. In addition, pay attention to how you move in society. Are there times when you make assumptions or judgments about a group of people or individuals that is solely based on race?

  1. Listen to your Black students

If Black students are telling you that they are not able to come to class or ask for an extension on an assignment or a project, have compassion and grant them the time they need for restorative self-care. Many students are experiencing emotional exhaustion and fatigue and need time to grieve and process. These students have the daily challenge of showing up and tending to “business as usual” in a time where their safety and security — not school and classwork — may be on the forefront of their minds.

  1. Establish safe spaces for your Black students

Refrain from having Black students take on additional “labor” and trauma by asking them to share their experiences or feelings about racism with the class. If students are not comfortable or are still trying to grieve and process, putting them on the spot to talk about emotionally charged topics that are still very raw is retraumatizing and insensitive. It is also not the responsibility of students to educate the class.

  1. Address the complexity of racism in your curriculum and course content (no matter what subject you teach)

When you sidestep and resist talking about racism and hate acts in your course and your curriculum this sends a very clear message to Black students that they are not safe in your classroom or your course. Silence is often seen as complicity and Black students need to know and understand that as a faculty member you are willing to engage in conversations about what is going on in the country right now no matter how uncomfortable or painful it may be for you.

As you prepare to return to your classrooms and campuses in the fall whether virtually or in person, remember college classrooms can be safe spaces for all students to learn and grow. In order to make this a reality, faculty must acknowledge and address stereotypes, microaggressions and biases, listen to Black students, establish safe spaces for Black students and bring conversations about race and racism and systems and structures of oppression front and center.

Dr. Traci Dennis is a lecturer in the School of Education at American University. 

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