From Intent to Impact: Being Antiracist is Not a Passive Endeavor

Woodland Community College

In response to the Summer 2020 special edition of the Senate Rostrum and the heightened focus on Black Lives Matter for many white allies like myself, I’ve renewed and expanded my personal and professional focus on inclusion, diversity, equity, antiracism, and accessibility (IDEAA), challenging myself to move out of my own privileged comfort zone to question Eurocentric visions and values in our education system, including my own classroom. The special Rostrum issue, in particular an article by Adrienne Brown,[1] inspired a deeper sense of urgency for me to personally engage in this work, and then bring it into my classroom and more broadly, onto my campus through my role as curriculum co-chair. Brown eloquently expresses the damage that can be done when “someone’s intent does not match their impact,” provoking deep introspection. I have taken to heart her call to “Educate yourself.”

Personally, the most important step I have taken has been to read – and to re-read – stories by and about historically and currently marginalized people. As a sociologist, I am no stranger to books on systemic racism, but since July 2020, I have read over 200 fiction and nonfiction works by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors that added more depth to my understanding and awareness. Though I already fervently considered myself an ally, reading these stories with new urgency and an open mind has helped to de-center my own Eurocentric socialization and decolonize my own assumptions about the world.

As a sociologist, I had previously felt, if not smug, well then, complacent that I was already integrating IDEAA into my curriculum. My own research background focuses on disability studies, and teaching sociology classes explicitly about race and ethnicity, sex and gender, marriage and family, and social problems gives me ample opportunities to promote IDEAA and social justice in the classroom. And yet – troubling gaps remained in my course retention and success, notably for Black and Latino men. Sociology teaches us to focus on the rules of the game, not the players, leading me to ask: Why is my intent not creating enough impact in the classroom? What more can I do? What more can my college and community do to level the playing field and to ensure that the rules of the game are fair?

While the more macro solutions for an equitable playing field are beyond the scope of this article,[2] I did learn a valuable lesson during these past few years of reading and reflection: It’s not just what you teach, but how you teach it. I am thankful to my colleague Michelle Bean for introducing me to the work of Zaretta Hammond, who writes about three dimensions of IDEAA work in education: multiculturalism, social justice education, and cultural responsiveness.[3] Seeing the three dimensions mapped out was a lightbulb moment for me: I have already been consciously engaging in the multicultural and social justice education in my course content and materials; what was missing was the third dimension, cultural responsiveness. I was teaching my classes in the way I had been taught as a student. Lacking any formal teacher training, I had been making choices about how to structure lecture and discussion, how to design assignments, and how to assess learning based on what I liked and responded to when I was a student. It amazes me now to think about how I could have missed the fact that my experience – as a white, cisgender, straight, US-born, non-first-generation college student – was vastly different from most of my students. Don’t get me wrong: I have been an outspoken proponent of diversity and equity for as long as I have been a faculty member, but it wasn’t translated into my course delivery.

Since this realization, in my own classes I have made many changes. I used to tell students, “I can’t grade you on opinions, so leave them out of your graded assignments.” Now, I have divided assignments into two parts, so that students can also get credit for the work they do to connect – or critique – how the course materials relate to their experiences. I have added even more explicit examples of systemic racism and intersectionality in nearly every lecture and discussion topic. I have made it clearer whether and why certain research or theories are Eurocentric in their assumptions or study population. In my research methods class, I added more discussion on Indigenous ways of knowing and the racism and sexism in Eurocentric social science research.

I don’t claim these changes are enough, or that there aren’t better ideas out there. At times, I have been overcome with self-doubt, with dread of saying the wrong thing, with discomfort in my own skin. Nobody likes to feel that way. And that’s the point. How many of my students – my colleagues –experience this on a daily basis? While no one should have to feel that way all the time, it is just as unhealthy to never experience it. For those of us with privilege, we need to go out of our way to experience that discomfort, and to recognize that part of privilege is that we can step away. The discomfort is temporary. I am learning to seek and sit with discomfort and uncertainty. It has been humbling and difficult and undeniably rewarding. While it is too soon to tell what fruits these changes will bear in my retention and success rates, I already feel a stronger connection to my students and a renewed sense of excitement in preparing for and teaching my courses.

I have heard colleagues approach this emphasis on IDEAA with trepidation or skepticism, with fears about ceding academic freedom and expertise or somehow reducing the standards and quality of our courses. While academic senates must be vigilant about protecting faculty primacy and authority, I would also challenge my colleagues to ask how much our current curriculum and instruction is really a product of our freedom or expertise. In my case, so much of how I structured my class was simply recreating the system I have been exposed to. I have found this IDEAA work to be extremely validating of my expertise in my discipline and my right as a faculty to stop reproducing the status quo. For the first time in many years, I am looking at my curriculum, my students, and myself with fresh eyes, and it is deeply meaningful. The wish to connect, communicate, and educate is what has driven many of us to become faculty, after all. This is what we do. This is our calling.

What is the road forward? At my college, I have teamed up with like-minded faculty in other disciplines to share our experiences with our colleagues for professional development activities. I have worked with my curriculum committee to incorporate more explicit consideration of IDEAA in our curriculum review, resulting in an array of changes, from more student-centered course descriptions and increased focus on OER materials to explicit inclusion of IDEAA in content, objectives, SLOs, and assignments. The work is just beginning, but it is long overdue.

1. Brown, Adrienne C. (2020). “Deconstructing Collegiality and Construction Courageous Conversations in California Community Colleges.” ASCCC Rostrum, July 2020.
2. For good starting points in learning about addressing structural racism on a societal level, see Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, and An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
3. Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin / Sage