Editor's note: This column was originally published on Sep. 23, 2019.
There’s a graduation requirement I’d like every college and university to adopt, just like math or writing. All students should take an accessible course on race and ethnicity if racial equity is to be an achievable goal.
As a sociology professor at Dartmouth College, I teach such a class, and it is at once exhausting and exhilarating. It is not easy to learn about, let alone talk about, racism. In the course, we learn how the very idea of race was invented with colonialism — but even 400 years after the start of slavery in America, race still exerts a powerful influence on life chances, working through institutions like higher education, the criminal justice system and the labor market.
By the end of the term, students have a deep understanding of these complex social problems, and realistic ideas for how to make change through our relationships and institutions.
Lift the curtain on 'white blindness'
Everyone learns, but I find that the small handful of white students in the class usually learn the most. That’s because for the first time in their lives, they begin to look at themselves as members of a racial group. They understand that being a good person does not make them innocent but rather they, too, are implicated in a system of racial dominance.
After spending their young lives in a condition of “white blindness,” that is, the inability to see their own racial privilege, they begin to awaken to the notion that racism has systematically kept others down while benefiting them and other white people.
But their white blindness is not an accident; it is cultivated in our elementary and high schools. Except for a few states in the throes of implementing ethnic studies requirements in their K-12 curricula, America’s public schools do not require white students to contend with history in an inclusive, critical way.
What’s more, our geographically separate and financially unequal public schools do not give white students opportunities to see themselves as anything but individuals participating in a meritocratic system where their hard work earns them just rewards.
Society needs clarity on race
For many white students, by the time they get to college and elect to take a race and ethnicity class, it is the first time they have questioned their advantages: how their grandparents likely benefited from affirmative action as part of the GI Bill, how the federal government kept the suburbs white — which allowed their parents to accrue the wealth that sent them to college, and how mass incarceration and felon disenfranchisement give their white voices more say in our democracy.
Arguably the greatest tragedy, however, is that people of color, like white people, do not question American cultural messages of individual responsibility and equal opportunity. Because they are taught a white-centered history, they may internalize a narrative of personal failure for their social and economic standing.
But lack of clarity about history is also a tragedy for greater society, because it leads to a false confidence about the simplicity of rectifying racial injustice through appeals to personal goodness rather than structural intervention.
Students in my class particularly resonate with James Baldwin’s description of the “personal incoherence” that arises from the historical narratives we learn — and those we don’t — in school. More than 50 years ago, Baldwin said, “People who imagine history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”
Good intentions aren't enough
Near the end of the course I teach, we use this quotation as a starting point to talk about our personal responsibilities to disrupt the white blindness we observe at Dartmouth College and other predominantly white institutions. One white student who took the class more than two years ago (because it fit in her schedule!) recently wrote me a thank you note describing how because of the class, she is committed to keeping helping others at the center of her personal mission.
As it is now, students self-select into the course, and most who do are students of color. Because white students have managed to avoid critical discussions of race their whole lives before college, they tend to see racial and ethnic inequality as “not their issue.” Rather, it is generally the students who already have an inkling of racial injustice who seek out more information, who challenge themselves to be uncomfortable every day in the process. It is also an injustice, though, that only these students take on the burden of learning about, critiquing and challenging the system of oppression.
Requiring a course on race and ethnicity for all college students would send the message that both the university and society value the kind of learning that produces informed and critical citizens for a world after graduation. We can’t just drift into racial equity with good intentions, nor put much hope in generational change. We need to actively, purposefully take the blinders off.
Emily Walton is an associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College and a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Race and ethnicity course should be mandatory to graduate from college