The University Record, March 18, 2002

Book says no one is an expert on race

By Deborah Greene
Office of the Vice President for Communications

As American higher education strives to develop and maintain ethnically and racially diverse student communities, the classroom often serves as the diversity “laboratory.” Helen Fox, lecturer in English language and literature and in Residential College social sciences, has written a new book that addresses the dynamic when long-held beliefs and biases come to the fore in classroom discussions, making educational discourse both richer and more complex.

“I found myself struggling with ways to help students think more deeply about their assumptions, prejudices, and opinions about race and race-related topics, such as affirmative action, welfare violence, and economic inequalities in U.S. society and in the world,” Fox says. “I needed good, accessible texts that would answer students’ questions. I needed advice on how to manage classroom discussion: What to do with silence, for example, and how (or if) to own emotions; why I would feel so angry when a privileged white student would casually refer to ‘white trash’ or ‘low class’ people; or my frustration with the anger of students of color who were asked what seemed to me at the time perfectly reasonable questions about their experiences. I needed a guidebook for college teaching about race and there wasn’t one out there. So I decided to write one, based on my own experiences, my reading and study of race and racism in the literature, and interviews of 35 U-M faculty who teach about race, and 70 undergraduate and graduate students who have experienced first-hand the racial climate at Michigan, inside and outside of the classroom.”

The result is Fox’s “When Race Breaks Out: Conversations about Race and Racism in College Classrooms” (Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2001). Early on, Fox offers two eye-opening chapters, each aptly titled an “Insider’s Guide.” One offers definitions and explicative comments on race, ethnicity and identity, while the other focuses on discrimination, racism and race hatred in which the reader will find answers to many commonly held questions that may seem too elemental, or too sensitive to ask aloud. These include: What is the difference between, and the relative merit of, labels such as Native American, Indian, First Nation? What does APA mean? What are the “one-drop” and “hypo-descent” rules? What are the manifestations of modern racism, and how do they compare to “traditional” or “old fashioned” racism? Chapters on “Having a ‘Civil Conversation,’” and “Classroom Confrontations,” “Start with Students Where They Are,” “Mixing It Up,” and “Exercises, Assignments, and Advice” are followed by extensive notes and annotated resources. “When Race Breaks Out” is an authoritative and accessible source for faculty in every discipline.

“The most important thing for the reader to get from this book, is that everyone and no one is an expert on race—that we all fear talking about race, we fear being honest about race, and we all can learn both the facts that are generally withheld from us, and the perspectives of people who experience race and racism very differently than we do,” Fox says.

Following a faculty-based presentation/working session on the book at the University of Texas-Austin late last year, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching staged another in mid-Feb. at U-M, in which participants explored the book’s resources and discussed conceptual and basic “how-to” issues.

“CRLT promotes multicultural practice as part of our mission,” says A. T. Miller, CRLT’s coordinator of multicultural teaching and learning. “We try to connect with faculty throughout the University to network and otherwise make information available, so knowledge and experience spread around. Dr. Fox’s book is a valuable resource to share.” CRLT stages at least four workshops on multi-cultural practices each semester and produces race and ethnicity resource packets, U-M-specific and national data and statistics, advisories and articles about successful classroom practices, race and identity theory, practical guidelines and resources.

To be added to the CRLT information notice listserve, send e-mail to atmiller@umich.edu,. or call Miller, (734) 936-0639.

“When Race Breaks Out” can be ordered at local bookstores.