Equity and Accessibility
Anti-racism aims to identify and deconstruct the ways racism shapes systems, policies, relationships, perceptions, and norms. In particular, anti-racism is an ongoing project, practice, and value, rather than a state that can be definitively achieved. How, then, does an instructor go about continuously developing, sustaining, and nurturing an anti-racist classroom? Answers to this question will depend on the subject you teach and the variety of ways you as an instructor are positioned within a society structured by forms of racial dominance that are interconnected with other systems of inequality and exploitation. In light of this, this page does not provide a checklist that will guarantee that you have achieved an anti-racist classroom. Instead, it recommends immediate steps you can take and broader concerns you should consider in order to consistently and deliberately enact anti-racist values within your teaching and course planning.
Campus Resources and Initiatives
In recent years, faculty have formed groups committed to examining race, racism, and anti-racism. Starting in AY 2020-2021, the Center for Engaged Pedagogy hosted an institute on anti-racism for faculty. In 2021, this group redefined itself as a community of practice that aims to identify, explore, and share anti-racist pedagogical practices across a range of disciplines. Outside of the Center, several faculty in First-Year Experience have formed an ongoing Anti-Racist Reading Group. Inspired by this group’s work, the CEP developed a teaching and research resource page for instructors, students, and staff. This page brings together reading lists, sample syllabi, and research guides, as well as recommends additional texts, videos, and podcasts that are organized by fields of study and special topics. Barnard, Columbia, and Teacher’s College are also organizing a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative that will facilitate faculty discussions about race and racism alongside other topics. If you are interested in forming an affinity group on related topics or joining one that is already underway, contact the Center for Engaged Pedagogy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anti-Racist Classroom Practices
“Don’t ignore race!” This common piece of advice usefully reminds us that an anti-racist classroom can neither avoid the topic of race nor transcend the effects of racism by focusing exclusively on shared experiences or supposedly universal ideals. But what does refusing to ignore race look like in practice?
An initial step toward answering this question can be taken by asking yourself how race matters in the classroom and the subject areas you are teaching. Does the topic of race only emerge when covering the writings, lives, or experiences of people of color? Who is expected to speak on race in classroom discussions and what sorts of expectations govern the ways that knowledge is shared and used? In the texts that you’ve assigned, whose ideas and experiences are presumed to be a universal standard that everyone should encounter and whose are considered particular or supplementary to the core objectives of your class? Are there particular skills or bases of knowledge that you consider the “ideal” student to already be able to wield?
While you may want to reflect on these questions before you enter the classroom, you can also pose them to your students and use the discussion that follows to collaboratively develop a set of community guidelines and shared practices for an anti-racist classroom.
The subject of race cannot be ignored or “moved beyond” in a deliberately anti-racist classroom. This is because race and racism are social relations that undergird a broad range of experiences, forms of knowledge, and normative expectations, and are thus there whether one likes it or not. If race and racism are foundational to current social reality, then one requires an intentional agenda in order to contribute to the project of developing anti-racist social realities.
Asao B. Inoue describes an anti-racist agenda in the following way:
A helpful anti-racist agenda offers an understanding or explanation of race, racism, and the particular racial formations that develop in and around the classroom and program in question. It defines and explains the particular realms of experience that both individuals and groups find themselves involved in at that site or classroom. … It explains the particular brands of whiteness … that occur in the classroom and in assessments. It acknowledges the need and power in telling stories and offering narratives about anti-racist struggle.... … Finally, anti-racist agendas should, perhaps through discussions with students, reveal the difference ... between feeling safe and feeling comfortable (Performing Antiracist Pedagogy, xvii-xviii, 2017).
One way of developing and foregrounding such an agenda in your classrooms is to research how structures of racial inequality shape your course’s subject matter, the methods and areas of research you’ll be covering that semester, your experiences in the broader field of study you’re engaging, and even the institution and geographical area where your course is offered. Questions of race and racism, in such an approach, are not ancillary to the main topics of your course but absolutely central to it. As a teacher, you are uniquely positioned to model and support multiple forms of critical interrogation that account for the structural but transformable role that racism plays in the norms, expectations, and valued experiences that underwrite what you’re teaching.
Moreover, as Inoue observes, anti-racist agendas acknowledge the crucial difference between feeling safe and feeling comfortable in critical engagements with social inequality. In addition to reflecting by yourself on what spells that difference and how you can facilitate discussions and exercises that are both safe and uncomfortable, you may invite students to articulate and sit with the difference between these feelings. Consider hosting discussions and developing assignments that encourage students to reflect critically on the formative role that race and racism have played in the development of the field and subject that they are learning from you.
The resources and protections a person has regular access to might not seem obvious to them until they are confronted with someone else who is directly or indirectly barred from accessing the same things. Being self-reflective and self-reflexive about the resources and protections you have (or may be perceived as having) access to before that encounter can be an important step in sustaining an anti-racist classroom. You may ask yourself questions like these (or introduce them as a topic of reflection and discussion with your students when developing community guidelines): What kinds of resources can you reasonably expect to access or be denied as an effect of your social positioning in the world? How might these affordances or denials shape your interactions in and outside of the classroom? What kinds of narratives do you tell yourself about your students and/or colleagues, what might be some of the assumptions informing those narratives, and how might you challenge them as you prepare and teach?
Regardless of the subject you teach, an anti-racist classroom is one that takes seriously the legacies of racism and the scholarly and creative contributions of those people who have been the targets of systems of racial oppression. Consider doing an audit of your own classes and areas of expertise in order to determine how you can make your syllabus reflect an expansive range of perspectives and narratives. Whose viewpoints does your syllabus tend to foreground? What kinds of sources do you tend to draw from in order to introduce students to an area of study and its norms of research and analysis?
In the process of doing this audit, it may be helpful to think about whether there is a way to expand the types of knowledge production and validation included in your course. Beyond what you may teach yourself, it may be rewarding to invite guests who approach anti-racism from different angles (as academics, artists, activists, journalists, others whose work is directly relevant to your course) to broaden your course’s perspective and to integrate a variety of perspectives, narratives, and counter-narratives.
You may also consider broadening the range of ways you create opportunities for students to interact with the course material and one another. Given the wide variety of ways that this can occur, we recommend that you schedule an appointment with a member of the CEP team to identify discussion methods, active learning strategies, and other modes of engagement that will advance the learning goals of your course and align with your pedagogical style.
Lillian Comas-Díaz, Gordon Nagayama Hall, and Helen A. Neville define racial trauma as a form of race-based stress experienced by Black people, indigenous people, and people of color in response to threatening events and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination (“Racial Trauma: Theory, Research, and Healing,” 2019). The need to understand and account for racial trauma is particularly acute right now. Images of racist violence circulate with incredible speed in these social media saturated times. People will respond to these images in unpredictable, unconscious ways. Yet whatever their effects, and limiting our frame momentarily to just the United States, they are almost certainly compounded by the highly pressurized atmosphere of this historical moment: an increasingly polarized political culture in which right-wing candidates seek election by appealing to nationalism, xenophobia, anti-Blackness, patriarchy, and antisemitic conspiratorial thinking; an enduring pandemic that is viciously reshaping the health and experiences of working class Black people, indigenous people, and people of color; an active campaign led by a coalition of school privatization advocates and cultural conservatives to pathologize and demonize LGBTQ+ teachers and students, as well as anyone else who engages in critical examinations race, gender, and sexuality in schools; an evolving landscape of struggle over reproductive rights and bodily autonomy, which has already seen an expansion of police powers that rely on racialized rhetorics of surveillance and punishment; and the ongoing empowerment of police and federal agents in the face of mass mobilizations against anti-Black state violence, to name just a few.
In light of this, consider how you as an instructor can acknowledge and exercise awareness about the traumas and pressures that many students are negotiating in their daily lives and may be finding intensified during this protracted time of political upheaval and reaction. Consult the Trauma-Informed Pedagogy page on our site as you consider the best ways to recognize the range of race-based injuries that are part of today. Also use your syllabus, course page, and other modes of communication to make students aware of Barnard’s Furman Counseling Center, the Women of Color Support Group, the Student of Color Crisis Text Line, Student Life, and the Equity Office.
Classes that make a concerted effort to examine the politics of race and marginalized forms of knowledge about racism are not immune from dynamics that can lead Black students, students of color, and indigenous students to feel as though they or their communities are being put under a microscope. One of the complex ways this occurs is through a practice that the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò calls deference politics. The politics of deference are typically at play when groups treat it as a moral good unto itself to “[hand] conversational authority and attentional goods to whoever is already in the room and appears to fit a social category associated with some form of oppression—regardless of what they have or have not actually experienced, or what they do or do not actually know about the matter at hand” (Elite Capture, 70, 2022). As Táíwò observes, deference politics often emerge from good intentions, and they are highly common in both academic and activist spaces that are committed to social justice. Indeed, deferential practices have recently become conventional in universities and colleges in the United States, particularly where instructors and administrators have sought to respond to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
The prevalence of deference politics presents two immediate problems for the creation and maintenance of anti-racist classrooms. First, in the process of trying to center students with marginalized identities, the practice of deference tends to put the onus of instruction on individuals who presumably bear the burden of racism’s negative effects. In this form, deference limits the practice of anti-racism to assigning authority and recognition to individuals (a worthy practice, to be clear) without necessarily committing the group as a whole to figuring out how they can collectively critique and dismantle racist systems. Second, as Táíwò also observes, deference politics also tends to limit the practice of anti-racism to the process of regulating dynamics inside the rooms that people already occupy, rather than asking everyone to account for how the rooms themselves have been constructed through inequities. As he writes:
From the structural perspective, the rooms we don’t enter, the experiences we don’t have (and the reasons we are able to avoid them) might have more to teach us about the world and our place in it than anything said inside. If so, the deferential approach [...] actually prevents “centering” or even hearing from the most marginalized, since it focuses on the interactions inside the rooms we occupy, rather than calling us to account for the interactions we needn’t and typically don’t have (80).
Táíwò suggests at the end of this quote that the pitfalls of deference politics might be critically engaged by taking seriously the question of what the practice of accountability consists of in anti-racist classrooms. As you prepare to teach, you may sit with the question of what accountability means to you and what practices you can create as an instructor for students to imagine themselves—both individually and collectively—as accountable subjects within a society structured by multiple and interacting forms of domination and exploitation.
Such questions might also be productively engaged with students by incorporating them into a community agreements exercise at the start of the semester. Barnard students have also grappled with a phenomenon that is similar to what Táíwò calls deference politics. Consult the resource Centering/Burdening to learn more about their perspectives on these issues and the pedagogical practices they would like to see Barnard instructors cultivate in order to address them.
Many groups on campus and in the broader Morningside Heights-Harlem community are already doing anti-racist work that extends beyond the classroom. Consider inviting speakers from campus and community groups to speak about how their activism intersects with the topics you are studying. Also, consider collaborating with groups to develop scaffolded assignments and research projects that will critically examine racism within local institutions and your own disciplines. In any case, regardless of whether you find it possible to bring in a guest speaker, becoming familiar with not just anti-racist literature but with anti-racist activism and activist groups affords something else: it can allow you to direct students to organizations, initiatives, and contexts where they can enact anti-racism as they move outside of your classroom.
As observed elsewhere on this page, the keyword “anti-racism” has ascended rapidly in institutions of higher education since 2020. It is not uncommon for colleges and universities in the United States to identify a commitment to anti-racist inquiry as a key part of their institutional missions. While this is salutary in some respects, it also comes with problems that anyone committed to a robust anti-racism—that is, one committed to dismantling racist systems and constructing more liberatory ones—will have to confront. One of these problems is the occasional lack of specificity that characterizes “anti-racism” itself: the term now assumes such a broad rhetorical function in colleges and universities that it can float freely from any social movements or defined commitments. To be clear, anti-racism’s lack of specificity has its advantages as well, perhaps first and foremost of which is its ability to function as a beacon toward which people who are interested in critical approaches to pedagogy can orient themselves and begin collectively specifying their task. In an era marked by institutional processes of disciplinary siloing and practical concerns with social distancing, this has had a positive effect. But the less welcome upshot of the contemporary discourse of anti-racism is that, defined primarily as an oppositional stance, it can allow individuals and institutions to sidestep the question of what exactly they are for.
Those interested in creating and sustaining anti-racist classrooms may then find some benefit in questioning the limits that contemporary discourses of anti-racism place on visions of education’s role in producing a more just world. To go beyond “anti-racism” then may require those of us who design and teach classes to say what our classes are for, what social and theoretical movements have made them possible, and what accountability to those broader political contexts requires within an educational setting. What practices, values, and commitments do students and instructors have to become accountable to when they draw from legacies of black feminism? From woman of color feminisms, indigenous and native feminisms, or anti-colonial and transnational feminisms? As Rachel Lee observes (writing in the context of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies), the histories and visions of activism, cultural production, and theoretical scholarship that animate these intellectual and social movements are not identical to each other and risk being obscured when they are treated as if they speak with a unified “anti-racist” voice (2002). Answering these questions and cultivating classes that explore them might just require instructors and students alike to move together beyond “anti-racism” itself.
Gender Inclusivity in the Classroom
This guide addresses gender inclusivity at Barnard, particularly in classroom settings. Using gender-neutral language and respecting people’s pronouns goes a long way in making students feel a sense of belonging and allowing them to feel present in their learning experiences. Click here to go to the guide.