“Discussing Race in the Classroom & Beyond”: Campus Fishbowl Promotes Dialogue

By Isabel Tehan

On Thursday, Sept. 15, a fishbowl discussion entitled “Discussing Race in the Classroom & Beyond” was held in Rehm Library, where students, faculty, and staff came together to discuss racial identity within the Holy Cross community.

Fishbowl discussions facilitate conversation, provide a safe space for constructive feedback, and supply ideas on how to improve the current standard. Professors from a variety of disciplines, as well as students, were in attendance to discuss how to speak about race in different Holy Cross courses. The main topic questioned was how the campus can improve the quality of discussions regarding race in the classroom.

Students and professors alike expressed that fear, particularly from white students, prevents discussions from achieving a level of candor in the classroom. “White anxiety” was referenced multiple times as a way to describe how white students are particularly afraid of offending other students, while still wanting to engage in conversation. This anxiety can cause conversations to be cut short, as a result of too many impersonal and vague comments. In an effort to avoid seeming racist, white students withdraw from participation in the discussion of race. Students seem to feel that it is easier to talk about race in an abstract way than it is to express personal stories.

Discomfort with discussing race in the classroom is clearly not an experience unique to white students at Holy Cross. Students of color often feel that they are being singled out in their classes when a conversation about race occurs. Several students expressed that they have been asked to comment on their experiences as an authoritative opinion from someone of their race, causing them discomfort. Multiple students offered that they have been the only person of color in a class and feel that they are the proverbial elephant in the room.While some professors want to acknowledge the discomfort of racialized conversations in their classrooms, they worry that a student may say something that is either a microaggression—a term that refers to daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental misconceptions, whether intentional or unintentional—or a macroaggression—a large scale, or overt aggression, toward those a different race, culture, etc.

It is important to acknowledge that the campus climate at Holy Cross causes students of color some anxiety in relation to how faculty members and other students may perceive them. While the fishbowl’s purpose was to discuss race in the classroom, both students and faculty members referenced the segregation that exists on this campus. While discussing race in the classroom cannot immediately solve this campus-wide issue, the classroom should be a safe space to talk about racial matters that affect different facets of campus life.

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