I thought I was woke, the white female student had written as the opening to her final reflection paper. But I realized I wasn’t. Now I have so many more questions than answers.
At first, I was struck by the informality, which I encourage for some assignments in my new journalism course on race, gender, sexuality and class at University of Colorado Boulder. Then, the gnawing questions followed, the same ones that are always there for me as a teacher of race issues.
Is this success? Or is this failure?
I’m ostensibly an expert. As a newspaper reporter, I covered race and ethnicity for many years and then transitioned to academia, where I’ve published and taught on news media and race. In my first academic appointment, at American University in Washington, I designed and piloted one of the country’s first mandatory curriculums for first-year students on race and social identity, American University Experience II, which will roll out to about 2,000 first-year students this fall.
These kinds of classes are in vogue, as universities focus on diversity education and the first-year student experience. Faculty and staff are also the focus of implicit-bias and inclusion workshops. Outside of academia, Starbucks recently generated headlines — and controversy — with its companywide anti-bias training in response to the arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia store. The four-hour curriculum taught to 175,000 employees immediately provoked public critique: for excluding people of color who aren’t black, for being anti-police, for the choice of spokesman (the rapper Common) and catchphrases (“color brave”) that felt more trendy than relevant.
Any curriculum, no matter who created or narrated it, would have been met with resistance; it’s mandatory education on a topic that strikes us in the most personal ways. Few people get upset if they’re told they don’t know everything about trigonometry, or that what their parents raised them to believe about organic chemistry was wrong.
The country, as well as its politics and race relations, have gotten more complex and volatile in recent years. When I created my first class on race and journalism in January 2009, my students exuberantly fanned out across Washington to report on the inauguration of the first black president. Back in the classroom, I hoped I could dispel the notion that Obama’s election signified a “post-racial America.”
I didn’t have to worry for long. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and so many others, the rise of Black Lives Matter — followed by the All Lives Matter backlash — and then the 2016 presidential campaign made my job feel, day by day, more intellectually impossible. Racist incidents on my own campus were emotionally crushing, to students, faculty and staff alike.
How could anyone keep up and process it all? How could I purport to teach about an issue and country I understood less and less with each passing month? Could I watch one more cellphone video, read one more tweet?
At the University of Colorado Boulder, I was asked to create a course that would help students grasp — or, in many cases, have their first meaningful exposure to — issues of race, gender, sexuality and socioeconomic class, through the lens of the news media.
I decided to do something different, in the spirit of the American University course. In the pilot year, we had called the section instructors “facilitators,” to underscore the idea that we were guides for difficult conversations, rather than those who endow sacred knowledge.
Partway through my new course at the University of Colorado, I put my students in charge. They signed up in groups to take on one of six broad topics on race, immigrant identity, feminism and misogyny, sexuality, trans and nonbinary identity, and socioeconomic class.
Each week, the student group in charge assigned the readings. They chose academic articles, journalistic stories about current events, YouTube videos, documentary films, podcasts, even tweetstorms. The group then led the class discussion. I pointedly sat in the back of the room. Now, I wasn’t even a facilitator. I was a fellow student.
I sat in on discussions on Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo; whether it’s okay to say “All Lives Matter;” the “Roseanne” reboot (before the racist tweet and cancellation); anti-Muslim hate crimes after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks (presented by a Muslim international student who had been a toddler in 2001); the military transgender ban, and the way the LGBTQ community is portrayed in popular culture.
Before I turned the keys of the class over, students found my class assignments of theoretical readings about systemic oppression to be discomforting. They looked around the room during the classes I led, noticing which group (men, straight people, whites) would go silent that day.
When students moderated discussions about current events and pop culture, they naturally wanted to reached across divides. When an African American student taught about police profiling, she acknowledged her fear when her father leaves the house on weekends in a hoodie. Her co-teacher, a Sikh Indian American student, echoed, “That’s how I feel when my father goes out in a turban every day.”
For every spontaneous revelation, there were aspects of the class that were less successful, usually those I had carefully managed and designed. I was an authority, and an imperfect one at that — too cis female, not white enough, not black or Latina enough, not queer enough and never young enough — for most of my students to feel a seamless relatability when topics hit close to home. Projecting authority, however compassionately wielded, about social injustice created a chilling effect. Transferring authority to them started a real conversation, even if it was one that, as my formerly woke student had noted, generated more questions than answers.
She emerged from my class less sure of herself than she had started. Yet, in this failure was my success. I won’t give up on assigning students important, if challenging, readings, even if it makes them uncomfortable. But I promise to do more learning with my students, by letting them teach each other — and me.
Starbucks learned that four hours is not enough. A semester is not enough. A lifetime is not enough. We are never woke, unless woke is a state of acknowledging our humility and being truly open to learn more. When the subject of study is ourselves, we never fully arrive because there is always more we can learn from each other.
Angie Chuang is an associate professor of journalism at University of Colorado Boulder College of Media, Communication and Information. She researches and teaches on representations of race and identity in the news media.