Yesterday I attended a round table at my university titled, “Teaching and Learning in the Racialized Classroom.” From the program’s description: the “engaging roundtable discussion seeks to provide students, teaching assistants, instructors and faculty with a candid discussion about the myriad ways in which race impacts the teaching and learning experience — especially in classes in which women are teaching about racialized identities, power, and communities.Questions up for discussion include: How are instructors’ and students’ bodies and identities being read? How do instructors and students respond to one another given this reading of identities? What are some multiple strategies of addressing identity in the classroom?”

I was interested in this discussion because it intersects with two aspects of my life right now. I’m currently teaching a course that could be called a “diversity” class for a local undergraduate social work program. This class is actually the second in a series, the first of which honestly was more in-depth and substantial than the diversity course I took in my Master’s program. I have taught the first course in the series twice, and was happy to be asked to teach the second course, which delves much further than just learning about different racial/ethnic populations to explore social work practice. So, as a woman of color teaching a class on issues of diversity for a professional program dominated by white practitioners, I was very interested in hearing what others had to say about the ways I, as a female teacher of color, read and are read by the students in my class.

In addition, over the past month, this topic has come up in a couple of conversations amongst a group of friends who regularly get together. However, we are not only discussing the educator of color in the classroom but including the reverse situation of white educators teaching in a diverse classroom of K-12 students. This group of friends includes several educators, three of whom are white women and three of whom are women of color (myself included). One of the things that happened was that comments made by the educators of color were viewed negatively by the white educators, the white educators attempted to “educate” the educators of color based on a White, liberal framework that did not account for the differences and nuances with teachers and students of color, and feelings were hurt on both sides.

I’ve been pondering this for the past few weeks, trying to figure this out more clearly in my own mind. Pedagogically, as a group we are pretty similar. However, the issues were centered around race – explicitly and implicitly. Which reinforces to me that it doesn’t matter how much a group is politically and intellectually like-minded, race and culture are always present in the conversation as much as people would like to think they are not. So I was also interested to see how this roundtable addressed how a diverse group of white and people of color educators discuss the racialized classroom.

A few of the key quotes that were made in the roundtable I thought were provocative and have been on my mind:

  • the tyranny of comfort gets translated as civility
  • asking for the “we” (solidarity, consensus) to happen in the classroom is problematic, because when the White students/teacher leave the room, there is no more “we” – they can leave the “we” in the room. Students and educators of color, however, don’t get to leave it in the room, because we carry it in our bodies the minute we leave the room
  • White faculty can be disturbed but not hurt personally by racism in the classroom – and how do they intervene if they don’t have the same personal experiences of oppression?
  • privilege allows you to shift politics in a heartbeat as soon as it becomes uncomfortable or personally threatening
  • there is a sharp disconnect between theory and praxis. You can talk the theory, but when it happens in the classroom it’s back to the status quo
  • people of color enter the classroom already in power differential as a result of our racialized bodies

There is actually another issue at play here, at least for my classroom of students this semester. Which is, that the social work profession will not be able to really get a handle on issues of diversity until several things happen – most particularly, until the profession stops assuming that the social work practitioners are all going to be White and the clients are all going to be people of color.

The students in the class I’m teaching are an incredibly diverse group of students – diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, gender, socioeconomic status, culture, immigration status, age, ability, national origin, and religion. My frustration is that I’m teaching a class in which the “typical” social work professional – white and female – makes up less than 25% of my class (and including the white males make up less than 1/3 of the class) having to use textbooks and other materials written for the White practitioner for the client of color.

This is yet another example of systemic racism, the assumption that the White students will be the social work practitioners, that people of color are not social work practitioners; that bias and prejudice and cultural differences are not areas social workers of color need to think about or examine, that as a person of color we do not also carry privileges that we need to be aware of, for example assuming that I, as a Korean American who might be working with a Korean American client,  will not need to factor in the power differentials I carry by virtue of my profession.

I realize the field is still dominated by White persons, and White social work professionals need to examine their privilege and assumptions and biases. I am definitely not suggesting that we stop teaching to White students.

But how are social workers of color supposed to see themselves reflected in the profession at all, if all our textbooks and courses operate from a traditional “diversity” model in which White people are the professionals and people of color are only reflected in the client population, pathologized as those who need interventions and the great White savior to “empower” us? Despite the hand-wringing over the difficulty recruiting and retaining social workers of color to our college and university BSW and MSW programs, what is our profession doing about changing the frame that the social work profession is for White folks? Our textbooks and syllabi reflect the status quo in which our field sees White practitioners as the norm and clients of color as the norm.