Pedagogical Strategies to Acknowledge and Discuss Institutional Legacies of Racism
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Pedagogical Strategies to Acknowledge and Discuss Institutional Legacies of Racism

By Valentina Iturbe-LaGrave, Director for Inclusive Teaching Practices, and Kate Crowe, Associate Professor and Curator of Archive and Special Collections

For centuries, institutions of higher education across the nation have grappled with painful legacies of racism dating back to their foundation in the colonial era. In some cases, these histories have led universities to pay reparations to descendants of enslaved people. The present crisis invites us to reckon with our institutional past in powerful ways, and remind us of the importance of trauma-informed pedagogies. As students confront these painful and triggering legacies, it is imperative for faculty to engage in meaningful learning experiences that help them contextualize their reactions within robust historical and theoretical contexts that foster critical thinking.

Here are six steps to help you get started:

Step 1: Establish Shared Language  

Establishing a shared baseline understanding of key terminology to discuss legacies of racism begins with providing the language to name and understand painful histories.

Here are useful definitions adapted from Jewell & Durand and others:

  • Ancestral trauma: the transmission of trauma from survivors to the next generations.
  • Colonialism: a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another (Kohn & Kavita, 2017).
  • Global majority: an empowering people-centered term that reminds folx* that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people are (numerically) the majority of people in the world.
  • Institutions: established laws, policies, customs, and procedures that are a part of our culture and way of being.
  • Intergenerational trauma: the transmission or passing down of trauma from the first generation, who endured the trauma, to the next, and so on, in various forms (Cities of Peace, 2016).
  • Oppression: the systemic and systematic suppression of a group, or groups, by a group in power.
  • Racism: is a personal prejudice, bias, and the systemic misuse and abuse of power by institutions.
  • Solidarity: coming together with shared goals and actions and building a unified, lasting relationship with a person or group.
  • Stereotype: a common oversimplified and/or distorted view of a person, thing, group, etc. that is not based on any fact.
  • Trauma: Any major event (witnessed or experienced) that upsets or interrupts our ability to cope with daily life (Cities of Peace, 2016)
  • Trigger: an experience that causes someone to recall a past traumatic memory (Cities of Peace, 2016).
  • White Supremacy: the belief that white people are superior to those who are Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other Folx of the Global Majority because they are white.

What other terms may be necessary for students to move forward in their understanding of institutional legacies of power, privilege, and oppression? How can you ensure shared understanding of key concepts?

Step 2: Focus on Trauma-Informed Facilitation

Adapted from Cities of Peace, 2016:

  • Establish community agreements: co-create discussion, speaking and listening ground rules.
  • Empathy-building: Think about and ask yourself how your privilege, embodiment, authority may impact your students and their trust in you. Learn about your students, provide materials that speak to your students’ lived experiences. Think intersectionally, and consider that oppression can be experienced in multiple ways and that there are many layers to it: historical, intergenerational, gender-based, racial, class, ability.
  • Create a safer space: Intentionally inviting participants, facilitators, and guest speakers from diverse backgrounds (age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, class, etc.).
  • Content: Connecting structural violence to interpersonal violence. Centering stories of QTPOC/migrants/femmes/people with disabilities. Include uplifting stories of resilience and resistance. Use primary and secondary, culturally relevant resource list, as well as tangible materials. Design a dynamic curriculum (i.e., poetry, film, dance, zines, academic research, oral histories, etc.)
  • Facilitation methodology: plan your session in advance. Focus on content development, community/ relationship building, creating the space, providing students with a detailed class plan. Prepare students for the discussion when possible, provide resources such as readings and critical pre-reading questions.
  • Holistic needs: allow students to step away from Zoom if they need a break, allow students to drink water/eat if needed, and build-in breaks so students can move.

Step 3: Acknowledge DU’s Past

Our University Archives are reflective of our institutional context and history. DU’s history is inextricably linked to the circumstances surrounding our founding, the establishment of Colorado Territory, and the twin “original sins” tied to the establishment of the United States – slavery and the genocide of Native peoples. Our University Archives collections contain virulently racist images, documents, films, and other materials. Archivists have been able to work with faculty to incorporate some of these materials into instruction that encourages students to think critically about how racism and white supremacy have manifested in our institution and nation’s history. Through exploration in the DU archives, students have explored the perspectives of:

  • Japanese American students attending the University of Denver after being forcibly removed from their homes on the West Coast of the U.S. during World War II.
  • The experiences of early Black women alumnae through the Seeking Grace project.
  • Original biographical research on immigrants who attended or were affiliated with DU.

We in the Archives are always looking for new ways to partner with faculty on instruction that will increase students’ critical information literacy, especially related to their ability to engage with our country’s history related to race and racism.

Archives are not neutral; they are full of gaps and silences – gaps, where archivists have not actively solicited papers or records from people of color, and silences, where archivists (a profession predominated by white women) are not reflective of the communities they seek to document and archives are consciously withheld because of an understandable lack of trust. This issue is not unique to the University of Denver, archives throughout higher education are reckoning with how to address issues of racism and other forms of systemic oppression present in their collections. Acknowledging the racism present in our collections and the archival profession is imperative to critical and productive engagement with archival materials. At the same time, working with these materials can be deeply painful and sometimes traumatizing for impacted communities. Being mindful of these two factors, the staff of the Archives have committed to:

  • Review our descriptive/cataloging guidelines to incorporate anti-oppressive practices based on, among other guides, the one developed by Archives 4 Black Lives in Philadelphia.
  • Work with interested communities of color on campus to more effectively and ethically collect materials that document their lived experiences.

Finally, our archives also contain numerous examples of student as well as faculty activism in furtherance of greater inclusion, equity, and equality for DU and the larger Denver community.   The archives, in this sense, should also be thought of as a site where those of us at DU can learn how our historical predecessors found agency on a campus and in a community of larger social tensions.   

Step 4: Acknowledge Students’ Emotions

Discussing DU’s institutional legacy of racism is undoubtedly triggering and re-traumatizing for many students. The current context is defined by immeasurable individual and community race-related trauma. Especially when references to the school’s past appear without warning, such as in the news, acknowledging and validating students’ emotions is an important step in engaging these conversations. Here is a useful reflection prompt to share with students before class:

How are you feeling? from Jewell & Durand, 2020.

“Imagine we’re all traveling along the same lake. We start at the same place and the end goal is the same [equity, solidarity, justice, being seen, understanding difficult histories, solving complex problems, etc.] but we have different means and paces to get to where we need to be. Some feel too fast, others not fast enough” (Jewell & Durand, 2020, p. 111).

  • How are you feeling?
  • Where are you in this lake we’re all traveling in?
  • Do you feel like you’re swimming, paddling in the canoe, or on a speedboat?
  • Do you want to keep going at this pace?
  • If you do, how can you support the folx* who are moving at a different pace than you?
  • Do you want to speed up, or slow down?
  • Is your pace sustainable?
  • What will happen if you chance pace?

Step 5: Prepare for Discussion

When Looking at Archival Materials

  1. What types of items are these? Describe each item in a few sentences, including the main idea/concept of each, when it was produced, what person/group of people produced it, and why/for what purpose you think it was produced.
  2. What can you tell about the people/groups that created the items based on a review of the items (and any additional contextual information provided by the archivist)? Are the creators of the items also the subjects of the items?
  3. What are the uses of these items for research? What information can we derive from them? What do they let us confirm?
  4. What are the limits of these items for research? What do they not contain, or what other questions are you left with?
  5. What can you tell about the lived experience of the people and groups as it is presented in the items? What do you think life was like during this period for both the subjects of the items and the creator of the items?
  6. What kinds of research questions could these items be used to answer?
  7. What kinds of research questions do these items raise for you?

When Discussing Contentious Topics

Epistemological Questions adapted from Brookfield & Preskill, 2005.

  • To what extent does the writing / reading / image seem culturally biased?
  • To what extent are description and prescription confused in an irresponsible and inaccurate way? Can you provide specific examples?
  • To what extent are the central insights grounded in documented empirical evidence?
  • To what extent are the ideas presented as an uncritical extension of the paradigm within which the author works?
  • What can you identify as the author’s context, and why is this important?

Political Questions from Brookfield & Preskill, 2005.

  • Whose interests are served by the publication of this text?
  • What contribution does the text make to the understanding and realization of democratic forms and processes?
  • To what extent does this text challenge or confirm existing ideologies, values, and structures?

Step 6: Check-In with Students

Critical Incident Questionnaire from Brookfield & Preskill, 2005.

Because these are difficult discussion that might bring up past experiences of racial trauma for students, it is critical to gauge how they feel the discussion went. This is a helpful approach:

Please take about five minutes to respond to the questions below about our class. In the next class I will share the group’s responses with all of you. Thanks for taking the time to do this. What you write will help make the class more responsive to your concerns.

  • At what moment in class this weekend did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
  • At what moment in class this weekend were you most distanced from what was happening?
  • What action that anyone (teacher or student) took this weekend did you find most affirming or helpful?
  • What action that anyone took this weekend did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What about the class this weekend surprised you the most? (This could be about your own reactions to what went on, something that someone did, or anything else that occurs).

References

Brookfield, S. & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: tools and techniques for democratic classrooms (2nd ed.). Jossey Bass.

Cities of Peace Teach In Curriculum  (2016) Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5410941be4b06256da3bac7c/t/5849c4b1893fc02ec4c3e94d/1481229517968/CoP_online.pdf

Jewell, T. & Durand, A. (2020). This Book is Anti-Racist. Minneapolis, MN: Quatro.

Kohn, Margaret and Reddy, Kavita, “Colonialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/colonialism/>.

Notes

*Folx is a gender-neutral term created by activist communities.

Please visit the Office of Teaching and Learning Inclusive Teaching Practices website for specific in-class activities, etc.

Contact the Director for Inclusive Teaching Practices should you require one-on-one support.

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