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Race Ethnicity and Education

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Should ethnicity matter when teaching about

race and racism in the classroom?

Shirin Housee

To cite this article: Shirin Housee (2008) Should ethnicity matter when teaching about
race and racism in the classroom?, Race Ethnicity and Education, 11:4, 415-428, DOI:

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Published online: 24 Nov 2008.

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Race Ethnicity and Education
Vol. 11, No. 4, December 2008, 415428

Should ethnicity matter when teaching about race and racism in

the classroom?
Shirin Housee*

Department of Sociology, University of Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton, UK

& Article
Education (online)

Teaching about race and racism to a diverse student group can lead to some very
interesting exchanges. Some of these moments are much to do with the subject content.
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Learning about racism often pulls on our emotional strings: black students sometimes
express their hurt and anger, while white students sometimes remain silent or express
their hurt, shame and discomfort. The lecturers racialised identity is an important factor
in these emotional exchanges. Black lecturers are sometimes judged for their loyalties
and sensibilities with the black community, while white lecturers are questioned for
their understanding and sympathies with race/racism issues. This paper considers how
social identities and physical appearances impact on the teaching and learning process
and issues of student and lecturer positionalities and identities in the Higher Education
context. In particular, it examines how much being white or black can matter in teaching
and learning about race and racism, and the importance of critical pedagogy. Theoretical
reflections on identity construction and management are themed through these
discussions. The conclusion argues that the teaching of race and racism is not only
about identity or ethnicity, but the development of teaching strategies that are inclusive
of black experiences; and questions power structures and relations found in whitearchy
and patriarchy.
Keywords: Critical Race Theory; student centred learning; black experience; racialised
identities; counter-narrative

This article draws from a C-SAP funded research project in 20012003 on Pedagogies of
Teaching Race by Susie Jacobs, John Gabriel, Shirin Housee and Sami Ramadani. It
follows up some of the more race-specific issues of identities in the classroom, and indi-
cates the impact of racialised identities on the teaching and learning experience. It begins
with my own perceptions and experiences of teaching race and racism, and then compares
these with those of six other Higher Education lecturers who teach or have taught on similar
The project consisted of three main strands:

(1) Collecting the material and setting up a database of sociology courses on race and
racism/ethnicity and nationalism in 20012002;
(2) Carrying out interviews with 34 lecturers in mainland UK concerning their experi-
ences of teaching specialist race modules;
(3) Eight student focus group interviews with students enrolled on race/ethnicity
options, all conducted in new universities across England.


ISSN 1361-3324 print/ISSN 1470-109X online

2008 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/13613320802478960
416 S. Housee

I was responsible for the interviews in the Midlands region. I interviewed six lecturers: two
Asian (1)1 female lecturers, two white (2) female lecturers, one white male lecturer and one
African-Caribbean (3) male lecturer. The discussions in this paper refer only to these six
specific interviews.
Lecturers interviewed were asked the same questions. As most of these were open-
ended, they had opportunity to elaborate. All interviews in the Pedagogies project were
tape-recorded. Lecturers were asked about their ethnic/racialised identities; the subject
content of courses taught; and personal experiences of teaching in this field. The following
are a selection of the 31 questions asked within the project:

In your opinion, what are the needs and expectations of your students on the race/
ethnicity courses/options (curriculum and content)?
Would you say that the expectations of teaching race and racism are similar to those
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relating to other topics?

Do you perceive the various ethnic groups of students to experience the course
In your particular courses, do issues of who has the right to speak arise at certain times
in race teaching?
Teachers of race sometimes face complex situations. Does conflict occur in your
Have you experienced overt racism in your class?

Interviews lasted approximately one and a half hours.

This article follows the race-specific issues of identities in the classroom and ques-
tions whether racialised identities have an impact on the teaching and learning experience.
The research focus in this paper evolves from my own experiences of teaching these
subjects. The author, being of South Asian origin, has been teaching race and racism
modules for over 20 years; during this time, it has been apparent that the issues of racial-
ised identities have been a point of debate or of silence. Here, I examine whether racialised
social identities matter or indeed make a difference to the student learning experience. I
begin with my own perceptions and experiences of teaching race and racism in Higher
Education. The authors experience is then compared with six other Higher Education
lecturers (as described above) who teach or have taught on modules/courses about race
and racism.
I teach at one of Britains newer universities, the University of Wolverhampton in the
West Midlands. This university is one of the highest recruiters of people from disadvan-
taged backgrounds and has a strong record in recruiting women and ethnic minority
students. Teaching in a university where over 30% of our students are from minority ethnic
backgrounds can be challenging. Such cultural diversity in Higher Education is posing ques-
tions about identities and their significance to teaching on particular modules such as race
and racism.

Only those who feel it can teach it

During my early years of teaching on a second-level undergraduate course on racism in the
British context, I often heard black students question the idea of white lecturers teaching on
modules about race and racism. These criticisms focused less on the academic abilities of
these lecturers than on their capacity to really understand the lived experiences and issues
of black (4) communities. For these students, the teaching of race and racism was more
Race Ethnicity and Education 417

than the textbook stuff; cultural and racialised empathy, for them, meant that only those
who are black can feel it and can teach it. In other words, black lecturers have a lived
experience of race and racism, and it was this connection that allowed for empathy with
black students. These students conflated issues of pedagogy and academic expertise with
racialised identities, and made it clear on a number of occasions that they believed lived
experience to be a necessary qualification for understanding and teaching about race and
racism (Housee 2006).
The following is an account of a specific moment where a group of black students shared
their objection to white lecturers teaching race and racism modules. My white colleague
and I delivered the module in two parts, each taking a separate block. From the start, it was
clear that some of the group (comprising a varied black group, including Asian, African-
Caribbean, and multiple religious backgrounds) responded differently to the lecturers
ethnicity and attended lectures selectively. More bluntly, these students absented them-
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selves from the sessions delivered by my white colleague. When challenged, they drew on
essentialist discourses to argue that only blacks can teach race and racism and that white
folks cannot sincerely teach race/ethnicity/racism issues because they do not understand and
feel the issues in the same way.
I argued that the teaching of any academic subject be it around race/racism or gender/
women should never be the preserve of particular gendered or racialised people. For my
part, the only qualification for this post was academic: an understanding of the sociology of
race and racism. I argued that any lecturer, white or black, should have the opportunity to
teach this module.
The students were unconvinced and insisted that teaching about racism required cultural
and racialised affinities between lecturer and student. They suggested that I, because of
my ethnic (minority) background, would have a greater understanding of, and a greater
empathy with, their experiences of racism. Whilst I assured the students that affinity
between lecturer and student was of great value and that I appreciated a multi-ethnic pres-
ence in my classroom, it became clear that they had conflated the academic understanding
of the subject of race/racism with the experience of racism. Their understanding of who
had the right to teach race and racism was based on essentialist notions of black experience
as opposed to academic experience.
I acknowledged that we all come from a certain cultural space and history that informs
our teaching. I also agreed that black experience is very valuable in empowering all
students, black and white. However, as I argue now, the experience of racism should not be
a necessary requirement for the teaching of race/racism. For me, the challenge was to
break down these barriers and open teaching to those best qualified in terms of knowledge,
skills and passion rather than ethnic background. I wanted to see white lecturers teaching
race and racism issues, and black lecturers teaching mainstream topics to white majority
These students who helped me clarify these ideas were not hostile. To them, the question
was simple: Can subjects around race/racism be properly taught by white folks? because
if they really dont feel it, can they really teach it. I understood then, and appreciate even
more today, that these students were referring to a particular experience of racism: anti-
black racism. They assumed that I shared a collective memory of postcolonial black migrant
experience that connected me to other (black) ethnic minorities. This memory created raci-
alised/cultural affinities between black lecturer and black students. Without these affinities,
there could be no real understanding of racism, and certainly no authentic teaching around
race and racism; only the stuff of books that might or might not take black people seriously
as subjects rather than objects of study (Housee 2001).
418 S. Housee

The teaching of race and racism, and perhaps of other subjects, such as gender, cannot
escape personal exposure and experience. When I teach about, say, school exclusions, I
draw on OFSTED reports and the debates on institutional racism. This, I argue, anyone
with the necessary academic/sociological background can teach. However, when I draw on
my own experiences of racist schooling to illustrate and challenge the literature, I share
particular moments that may connect with my black students through a complex process of
identification. In this, I can teach the former (institutional racism) and empathise with
the latter (black experience) and share this with them. This is a good learning moment for
black students; it legitimises their experiences and allows them the space and confidence to
talk about their own experiences of racism in ways that contribute to a sociological under-
standing and response to the issues. It is also a good learning moment for white students: it
may be their only window to race/racism as lived experience rather than sociological
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Lived experience of racism has become an important issue in the teaching of race and
racism. Critical Race Theory (CRT) has provided me with some of the foundations from
which to explore the use of black experience as a teaching tool for race and ethnicity. Its
three main tenets are: centring race; emphasising the importance of black voices and
experiences in the classroom, and questioning ostensible neutrality. CRT originates as a
counter-discourse generated by black legal scholars in the USA. Amongst its originators are
D. Bell, who defined CRT as a body of legal scholarship a majority of whose members are
both existentially people of colour and ideologically committed to the struggle against
racism (Bell 1995, 888).
More recently, CRT scholars such as Tate (1997), Ladson-Billings (2005) and Dixon
and Rousseau (2005) have applied critical race analyses to educational issues around curric-
ulum, instruction and assessment. CRT specifically calls for recognition of the experiential
knowledge of people of colour. Personal experiences are explored to make sense of the
wider public world and stories are used to counteract and to subvert the reality of the domi-
nant voice. These previously marginalised voices, Dixon and Rousseau observe (2005, 11),
can provide a counterstory a means to counteract or challenge the dominant story
[and] can be used as a tool for exposing, analyzing and challenging the majoritarian stories
of racial privilege.
My students objection to white lecturers teaching race, then, was based on the notion
that these teachers, by definition, could not bring lived experience to the classroom. For
these students, lived experience was paramount to understanding the racism/racial discrim-
ination in the text. For them, if white lecturers could not empathise with the real world of
racism, then they cannot teach it. More importantly, these black students felt that they,
in turn, could not easily share their specific experience of racism in a class led by white
teachers. As Catherine Sleeter (1993, 169) concludes:

Educators of colour are much more likely to bring life experiences and viewpoints that critique
white supremacy than are white teachers and to engage in activities that challenges various
forms of racism. They are also less likely to marginalise minority intellectual discourse. The
life experiences of people of colour can be politicised to challenge racism in education more
readily than can those of white people.

When I use my own experiences in class, it opens the space for black students to tell
their own stories. My black presence creates an ease that it would be difficult for a white
lecturer to replicate. Students often talk about their silence and/or their refusal to talk in
such classes. Rather than an indicator of sullenness or attitude, Wagner (2005, 265) says
that it
Race Ethnicity and Education 419

is not uncommon for marginalised students to adopt silence as a strategy of resistance,

thereby refusing to provide the point of view of the other for the benefit of the White student
or teacher.

It isnt cos youre white but what whiteness has come to mean
If the first reason why the black students believed that white lecturers were ill-equipped to
teach race and racism focused on the lecturers perceived lack of experience and empathy,
the second concerned the social significance of their whiteness. The students resisted my
white colleague teaching race and racism because they could not trust the power and privi-
lege of her whiteness. As minority students in a white HE institution, with experiences of
that institutions racist action and inactions towards them, the students identified my white
colleague with the power represented by whiteness. Their politics were both personalised
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and generalised at the same time: a simple matter of black and white. This position left
unanalysed the more complex questions around whiteness as an ideological discourse and
system of political power. There was no need to engage with them, because as Sleeter
(1993, 1667) continues:

Whiteness was taken as the norm, as natural [meaning] power and taken-for-granted

Whiteness, as with other racialised categories, is not simply about physical attributes or skin
colour, but the relationships between those things and the social, political and historical
contexts that give them significance. Whiteness, in this context, is premised upon power
relationships born out of slavery and colonialism and racism, a complex network of struc-
tures that marginalise and racialise others and privilege whites economically, politically and
psychologically at their expense. As Levine-Rasky (2000, 277) notes:

Whiteness as an identity has assumed dominance through the same process in which blackness
has become a subordinate identity; white privilege therefore should be understood as a rela-
tional phenomenon to blackness.

I often reflect on these earlier days, wondering what we could have done to build trust with
these students. Their experiences at university had confirmed their understanding of the
relationships between whiteness and privilege and blackness and exclusion. However, to
me, their objection was misplaced: they had conflated my colleagues whiteness with her
institution and the broader whitearchy (my preferred term drawn from patriarchy and
hierarchy). To move beyond simple essentialism, whitearchy and whiteness need to be
problematised, interrogated and separated from white people themselves. Individuals are
still accountable and responsible for their actions, but it is useful to make a distinction
between whiteness expressed as individual prejudice and whiteness expressed as institution-
alised racism. In both cases, though, whiteness is a marker of power in relationship to
Levine-Rasky (2000, 272) notes that this kind of understanding of whiteness as a social
marker of power has begun to

make inroads in the literature for educational equity and pedagogy. Writings are emerging
that refocus discussions from the them and us to whiteness itself. From this perspective the
task involves a rigorous, critical problematisation of whiteness as the active participant in
systems of domination.
420 S. Housee

Marking whitearchy is about recognising its ideological, socio-economic and political

history; it is about acknowledging Eurocentric racisms and their role in framing the acqui-
sition and use of knowledge. The knowledge gained through the biographies and social
experiences of staff and students informs teaching and learning relationships. Current anti-
racist thinking, as outlined by CRT, argues that neither teachers nor students can claim to
be neutral in the acquisition of knowledge. White lecturers are often seen as being on the
other side, the holders of privilege, status and power. Often black students have only this
one reading of their white lecturers. The question here is, how can white lecturers work with
marginalised groups in a way that shifts the power relationships that privilege whiteness?
A suggestion by Anne Wagner (2005, 269270) is that:

We dominant group members must work to overcome our unearned privilege bestowed upon
us, simply because of the colour of our White skin, and educate ourselves about the reality
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and prevalence of racism.

This, suggests Back (2004) should not be seen in terms of white folks inability to shed the
racist resentment and thinking that supports whitearchy. The challenge for white intellectu-
als is to engage with their own racism and that of their colleagues and institutions. He

What I want is to acknowledge that racism has damaged reason, damaged academic and civic
freedoms and damaged the project of education itself. Admitting this means pursuing a kind of
resolute and ongoing reckoning with whiteness it is an ongoing questioning that strives to
step out of whiteness brilliant shadow. (Back 2004, 5)

He adds that this kind of questioning, this reflexivity, should be troublesome and uncom-
fortable and driven by shame rather than guilt. I believe that the black students were search-
ing for this form of authenticity and identification when they interrogated my white
colleagues entitlement to be heard on matters of race and racism. They were very clear
about the academic messages that whiteness brings to the class. They also raised issues of
positionalities in academia by questioning who teaches what to whom and how. The key
here is not the colour of the lecturers skin but the politics of their pedagogy. What matters
should be on the use of critical pedagogical teaching strategies that question patriarchy and
whitearchy, rather than the gendered and racialised identities of teachers, despite the fact
that they may matter to students.
At this point it became clear that both White lecturers and Black lecturers have an impor-
tant job within the academy. Teaching race and racism is about examining racial inequality,
discrimination, and institutional racism, which deals with evidence and argument, and
applies critical anti-racist thinking to the teaching. I argue that anyone, black or white, with
the relevant academic/sociological background should be able to teach this. I would like to
envisage universities where lecturers from diverse ethnic backgrounds teach race and
racism, and do so with an anti-racist perspective and strategy. The importance of anti-racist
practice is for me the yardstick by which one should be judged. Of course black experience
is important, and an added bonus; but I also argue here that white lecturers can bring impor-
tant anti-racist experience to class, as suggested by Anne Wagner (2005, 271272):

[T]here are benefits in White lecturers teaching race and racism: from an anti-racist
perspective [because] students will be exposed to a White antiracist individual, who may
challenge White students to take the issue of racism seriously, reinforcing that the issue is not
solely a concern for people of colour.
Race Ethnicity and Education 421

The question of what matters to students is very important. Too often, even when
constructed as customers in cultures of negotiation, black students views are often disre-
garded unless they fit in with what the institution is already doing. In matters of race,
racism, exclusion and diversity, these tendencies are compounded. The aim is not simply to
dismiss student concerns about staff entitlement to teach. Clearly, whiteness represents
power in the real world, and to disregard this is pedagogically and politically inappropriate
and disempowering for black students. Instead, whiteness can be deconstructed and re-
worked through anti-racist teaching practices to allow for analyses that are more sophisti-
cated and grounded. This challenging of whitearchy also raises questions for the re-working
of blackness in the classroom. Appeals to blackness can be empowering for black students
and encourage greater student participation and more engaged academic writing. However,
black cultural affinity and experience should not be a qualification for teaching around
race and racism (Fishman and McCarthy 2005).
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Today, I am the only lecturer on the race module; this is regrettable, for a number of
reasons. I work with colleagues who sometimes resist teaching about race or racism on
their modules and often ask me to take particular lectures for them. Despite this unease, I
believe that if white folks do not teach race/racism issues, then whiteness becomes asso-
ciated with mainstream sociology, and blackness with race and racism. As a result, our
students learning experience is limited and their perceptions confused, as whiteness
remains at the centre of sociology, and blackness at the margins.
No formal academic space/teaching forum should be exclusionary. It needs to be reaf-
firmed that black only spaces tend to be ghettoised, associated only with black folks and
marginal to the real central concerns of the discipline. The real danger in seeing black-only
spaces, where only black lecturers teach race/racism, is those students ideas that only
blacks should teach it are fully confirmed. More importantly, if blacks alone teach around
race/racism, the implication is that this is all we can teach.

Thinking about our differences and identities in the classroom

As teachers, we are required to think about our identities and how we present ourselves.
Lecturers identities are constructed, not only by ourselves, but also by our interactions with
others. I used to refer to myself as a black woman, but have noticed this becoming more
difficult over the last decade. Most students either correct me or ask me to explain myself.
Today, my South Asian-ness and my Muslim name seem to be of interest to students, as old
coalitions fall apart and the war on terror throws up new ones.
In higher education classrooms, as elsewhere in the new times, our identities are an
issue, if not the issue. I know that the moment I walk into a classroom, the students read
certain messages about my self as a black/Asian woman. Of course, there are multiple
readings centring on affinity, cultural identity and differences and power relations and posi-
tions. For example, black students might read me as being on their side as black students.
My blackness is enough to establish a non-hierarchical affinity; despite my being on the
other side of the desk, I am still seen (on one level) as one of them, the black students. At
another level, black students say they like to see black lecturers teaching, being in a position
of power (at least to them we are!). They say they gain confidence by our black and often
gendered presence. I have had black students say, You give us hope, because you are like
us. We think, if you can do it, so can we. For these black students, our representation offers
a role model for their empowerment.
Our identities can be used more broadly as a teaching tool. Ropers-Huilman (1997, 342)
suggests that:
422 S. Housee

Teachers identities and the experiences that shaped those identities can be used in various
ways as teaching tools, both to make explicit power relations within certain socially
constructed identities and to teach students different perspectives based on events or situations
that class participants had not experienced.

The social construction of identities is important for students to grasp. Contemporary iden-
tity argues that identities are not unified around a coherent self, although they represent
themselves as complete. Hall (1990) argued that what we call our self is made up of multi-
ple selves, with the possibility of multiple identities. The selection of these multiples that
we come to identify as our self is not a solitary activity, but defined in relation to others,
and acquires its meaning from what one is not. For example, it would not make sense to say
one is black, if white was not identified and signified; and vice-versa. Our sense and expe-
riences of ourselves are directly linked to the specific historical, social and political context
in which we find ourselves, and to the nature (often oppositional) of the interactions we
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encounter (Hall, 1990).

Student perceptions of our identities as lecturers are mediated by the messages they read
from our outer self. African-Caribbean students often read me politically, as someone who
understands and feels about racism in the wider context of discrimination and injustices. To
these students, my (perceived) similarities of blackness with them are measured by our
difference from (skin-deep) whiteness. To Asian students, and particularly Muslim students,
my identity is read and affinities assumed in cultural and religious terms. Our cultural,
ethnic, and racialised identities are, it seems to me, always mediated by our students
perceptions of us. In these terms, identities matter very much when lecturers teach on issues
about race, racism and ethnicity. In my own experiences, there is no escaping the impact
of our identities on our teaching and their learning.
Given this, I was interested to see whether colleagues teaching on race and racism
modules at other institutions had similar experiences. I interviewed six higher education
lecturers who teach or have taught on race and racism courses, to explore whether social
identities mattered in their teaching. The sample consisted of four females, two Asian and
two white; and two males, one African-Caribbean and the other white. The interviews
explored three broad issues: their experiences of teaching race and racism, and whether
these differed from their other classes; the effects, if any, of ethnicity on the teaching and
learning experience; and students perceptions of the teaching of race and racism.
To the question of whether teaching about race and racism was different from other
subjects, this Asian female lecturer said:

Teaching race is different to other subjects, because other than the black students, there is a lot
of resistance to the subject. Also it can be emotional for both black and white students. It does
get to the heart of their identity. Sometimes you dont know what to say when they hear horror
stories say about slavery. I dont want to come across as a female Malcolm X. I am aware of
this. I do the conventional stuff of lecturer professionalism. I dont want to make race and
racism the only important subject.

In terms of her identity, she said:

I came out of an age where Asians, along with most ethnic minorities, saw each other as black.
Being black for me means, I look at Africa and other black experience with equal importance
in my teaching.

She added that her Asian female identity had made a difference to the teaching and learning
experience, and that student responses seemed to differ according to their ethnicity. She
Race Ethnicity and Education 423

made it clear that Asian students, particularly women, saw her as a role model and their
reading of her cultural identity formed the basis for their affinity:

Female Asian students do connect with me and they really like seeing an Asian woman teach-
ing. It somehow empowers them; it gives authority to their identity. I legitimate their being, by
saying what they would like to say.

She connected with the African-Caribbean students on a broader black identity level. Here,
she argued, students identified her with their political blackness and the professionalism that

Vocal black/Afro-Caribbean students know that the black lecturer will not look down on them.
They recognise that they are sharing the same space, so when they are angry, they feel youll
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understand and they can talk about their experiences confidently. For black students, race
modules are life-affirming. Feelings they had to hold in, they could now let rip a bit. Its a
language that makes sense to them.

This illustrates the broad range of empathies that black students draw on to sustain them-
selves and each other. They found the lecturers presence empowering in that it created a
classroom space that validated their experiences where they free and safe(r) in sharing their
black experiences. This mirrored my own experiences, as did her description of white
student responses, where:

White students, on the other hand, are often silent, but you know they take the subject seri-
ously, because they often produce very good work, with good political understanding of

The challenge was to ensure that the classroom was also a safe environment for these
students. She wanted to be able to examine whiteness without making white students feel
guilty about racism:

For white students, I hope I am not just doing the guilt tripping, but that they realise the racia-
lised nature of the world and whiteness is not the norm or neutral. They need to be made
aware of this as a privilege. I think it is difficult to see race if you are white. Hopefully, my
teaching about whiteness makes this visible.

The topics of whiteness and grasping the racialised nature of the world ran through my inter-
views with the two white female lecturers. Both of them said that they had chosen to teach
on the subject race and racism partly because of their anti-racist family backgrounds. The
first said:

My political background brought me to teaching this subject. My parents were very political,
and were involved in socialist and anti-colonial struggles, and active in anti-racist struggles.

The second offered similar sentiments:

My involvement in teaching the sociology of race was related to my background. In the 60s,
I was involved with anti-racist struggle, socialist and anti-immigration issues, and I was
involved with the Indian Workers Association. All this informed and led me to teaching about

She continued:
424 S. Housee

Teaching race was very rewarding: it was a personal, political as well as an academic journey
for me.

As to whether being white and female mattered to these two lecturers, the first said:

As a white lecturer, teaching about race has not been easy. You enter the class looking for
ways to be accepted and, sometimes, this requires that you look to your own identity and
oppressed past, as you search for empathy. I am of Irish and Jewish descent; I teach other
racisms, such as anti-Irish and anti-Semitic racism, because I want students to be aware of other
experiences of racism.

Whereas the first lecturer attempted to make connections between her own ethnic histories,
the second recognised that she cannot have complete empathy with the black students.
However, she argued that this does not affect her teaching about racism:
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As a white lecturer, I do not know how it feels to be discriminated against, but I can teach
about the practice. I tell students about how racism discriminates, using examples of, say, the
Immigration Act.

She continues:

As a white person, I have a different perspective to black experience. My whiteness does not
create any difficulties. I need to remember that whites also are heroes of anti-racist struggles;
this is important for us to remember. I feel passionately about issues of race and racism, and
I recognise that as a white, middle-class person, I am protected. But [as] Nelson Mandela once
said, Unless we are all secure, nobody is.

However, the first lecturer made it clear that, despite these credentials and principles:

Some [black] students felt that white lecturers were their enemies. My presence tremendously
challenges them. I would enter the classroom for a battle and often won. Sometimes black
students dont like the idea of a white lecturer teaching about race and racism. It was chal-
lenging. I have to draw from my own background an anti-Semitic experience to legitimise
my teaching. Black student experience on the module has been enlightened. They tell me that
they had not realised that other ethnic minority groups are also subject to racism. In the main,
my students want to learn about racism, about multicultural society. They want to become
good anti-racists, and many students are surprised by the knowledge of other experiences of

This also illustrates her commitment that all her students, black and white, become open to
anti-racist politics, even though white students still tended toward silence:

White students sometimes do not feel they can speak about racism, and they let the Asian and
African-Caribbean students speak. I do think we should create a safe environment for all to
speak. I remember one occasion when a white student said to me, Every time I come to your
lectures, you make me feel like a racist. I said, This is not my aim. You need to explore that
for yourself.

However, she did note that there has been a shift of this dynamic, as classrooms become
more diverse and multi-ethnic:

White students are more confident now. They are comfortable in speaking about racism. Also,
there are much more diverse views amongst black students now. At one time, I found that a
Race Ethnicity and Education 425

black student would not contradict another black student. Now, all students are more comfort-
able to talk amongst students.

This lecturer was comfortable being white and teaching race and racism based on non-
essentialist principles. She said:

Just like I dont agree that male lecturers cannot teach about gender, I believe that whites
should and can teach race and racism very effectively. Yes, ethnic minorities do have a
deeper meaning with the group that is oppressed, but, we can still provide a good learning

The African-Caribbean male lecturer wanted to distinguish between teaching about race
and teaching about racism. He argued that his course was not about discussing black people,
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but the racism in society. In this, like the other interviewees, he felt a responsibility to create
a safe environment:

Racism is an emotive issue we dont teach in a style where we are navel-gazing, we do not
put the black students under such exposure.

Beyond this, he felt that his identity informed his teaching in the sense that:

Being black can help. I can say what a white lecturer cannot. I remember saying to black
students, Lets talk about racism, and suggesting how racism has caused problems for us and
messes us up: talking about conceptions of beauty, for example. This is easy for me to do; I am
not sure a white lecturer would be at ease with asking such question.

In terms of student identities and the degree to which white students and black students
experienced race and racism courses differently, he said:

I welcome black voice I try to make sure that black students work with the whites in class. I
think it is also important to ask white students what it is like to be white. This is just as valuable
as knowing what it is like to be Asian and African-Caribbean. I have seen moments in my class
where the students have separated themselves by friendships, and the class is clearly divided
into black and white on opposite sides.

He added that it was important to address issues around white identity in teaching. It was
necessary to bring out whiteness to expose the racialised and class issues associated with
whitearchy. This was especially the case at old universities, such as his, where black
student experience was marginal and there was a need to dispel any creeping negativity or
racism against black experience:

Lots of our students are from white middle-class areas of Britain. For many, this is the first
time they have come to a multi-racial city they are shocked. For a lot of these students,
this course educates them to a kind of Britain that they dont know about. It gets rid of their
Little England hang-up. It is an eye opener: they come with a negative image of a large inner

The white male lecturer said that he too taught about racism rather than race. He argued
that his role was not simply to promote an understanding of different experiences, but to
teach in ways that challenge race thinking and open out the classroom, so all students
black and white have the confidence to speak to and learn from each other:
426 S. Housee

As the centre for race teaching and research, we are a department very committed to the issue.
Teaching race is difficult. You dont just talk about your experience; you need to talk about
the students preconceptions and misconceptions, and stereotypes. Pedagogically, this is quite
difficult to do. These courses never work if people cant say what they think because they are
terrified of being accused of being a racist.

In terms of the impact of his own identity on his teaching, this lecturer refused to categorise
himself. He said that people can make what they want of his identity, but he does not like
to label himself or anyone else. This is a familiar and attractive argument, but despite his
refusal to categorise, students will read him through the values placed on whiteness and
maleness. These labels are often associated with power and privilege, and need to be recog-
nised if the power relations between lecturer and students are to be acknowledged and the
classroom opened to student engagement (Back 2004).
This lecturer also recognised issues in his classrooms around the right to speak. There
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were often silences, but he aimed to create a space conducive to white students feeling
comfortable enough to speak and where black students views and experiences were not
seen as the sole sources of authority. Central to this was student participation and interac-
tion; however, there were often very difficult moments, when students identities were
brought to the fore and challenged.

It is important to make students feel secure enough, all, black and white, so they can speak in
class. Last year, a black British woman, a fierce advocate of Afro-centricism, enormously
irritated two Indian women in class. It was the one time that the dynamics of the group broke
up. I could not negotiate this at all. The seminars became polarised very quickly and students
sided with one or the other this was quite hard.

He said that, even without such difficult moments, white students often needed encourage-
ment to break their silence, because:

White students do not presume they know about racism in the same way, but their voices are
more confident when they are in a majority.

It was important for white students to feel confident enough to use their right to speak, and
to challenge the racism that appeared in class, the lecturer continued:

There was an incident once when this black student spoke out in class and said all whites are
the same. This white student spoke out furiously and said that is not the case; she was taken
note of by all students.

Throughout this research, there have been references to points of conflict that centre around
racialised or ethnicised readings of identities black, white, Asian, Muslim or Hindu and
the right to speak and to be heard. The lecturer underlines the importance of a pedagogy that
allows these to be unpacked and questioned:

My understanding of any good teaching on issues of racism is that it enhances the students
own understanding of racism in the context of a broadly political progressive framework.
And I see the purpose of this course is to be anti-racist. To me, good teaching is always an
emergent outcome between the student and the teachers; its never one-way. You cannot herd
people into a room to change them. It is really about how you are going to maximise the
potential for the students who do respond within the teaching context. For these students,
youll make a difference; and it is partly because of what they bring to class. Good teaching
is the coming together of these things: what they bring to class, and how they respond to
Race Ethnicity and Education 427

For this lecturer, good progressive teaching methods are at the centre of the unlearning of
racism, and fundamental to anti-racist and critical race pedagogy and politics.

Concluding points
This article has explored the importance of ethnic background and racialised experiences as
pedagogical issues. The vehicle for this has been a discussion around how much our iden-
tities matter when teaching on race and racism issues. My own experiences suggested that
they matter a great deal. Interviews with six colleagues across the West Midlands confirmed
that lecturer and student identities do shape classroom dynamics and impact on the teaching
and learning experience. Issues of identity and affinity were underlined by the black inter-
viewees, who pointed to the importance of racialised identities in building the trust and
confidence necessary for black ethnic minority students to survive in hostile environments.
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For the black lecturers, their presence was important for black and white students, as it
helped to dispel the idea that universities are white places.
Racialised identities were also important for the white lecturers. They also noted the
degree to which students, black and white, responded differently to their presence. They
discussed how black students often challenged their right to speak on race and racism
issues, and the particular importance of an anti-racist strategy at such points. Concerns
around anti-racism and the examination of whiteness brought to the fore discussions about
the politics and the pedagogy of race/racism in the classroom. Here, all the lecturers
agreed that the teaching of race and racism does not necessarily require the social and
cultural experience of blackness.
It is politically important for the student body to see white lecturers leading anti-racist
critiques in education. Furthermore, whiteness seems to matter less if the lecturer interro-
gates the power issues associated with whitearchy. Even so, all three white lecturers were
committed anti-racist thinkers, but had experienced difficulties in the classroom. They
were clear about their political commitments and did not feel guilty about racism, but
saw it as their job to provide an educational experience that challenged students and
helped them to untangle and unlearn this racism. For black students, this might mean
marking whitearchy; for white students, it might entail making whitearchy and whiteness
The teaching of politically sensitive issues like race and racism seems to require
checks and balances that are unnecessary in other subjects. This is to do with the increased
interpersonal and political dynamics of the class setting, where students and lecturers can
find it difficult to separate the everyday reality of living in a racist and racialised world
from the world of academia. This blurring of worlds and words can generate an emotional
charge that powers a focus on ethnicity. For black students, ethnicity matters, because
without the experience of racism, white lecturers have to teach from outside the subject.
How, then, can they teach about it in a way that respects black students experience of the
However, it is clear that the experience of racism alone does not guarantee academic or
pedagogic capacity to deliver material inclusively and effectively. Personal experience can
allow for deeper rapport, but should not be seen as the only necessary skill that is offered in
the class that teaches race and racism.
To me, what counts in the classroom is less how ones identity or ethnicity are read by
students than how ones teaching strategy is inclusive of black experiences and uses them
to question the structures, relations and processes of power found in whitearchy and patri-
archy. The application of critical pedagogical teaching methods that centre whitearchy, is
428 S. Housee

inclusive of marginalised voice, listens to their counter-stories, and promotes broader criti-
cal race thinking and engagement are the markers of effective teaching around race and
racism. These are what really matter in our work as lecturers.

Thanks to the C-SAP (Centre for Sociology, Anthropology and Politics within the Higher Education
Academy) and to Manchester Metropolitan University, and London Metropolitan University, for
funding this project. Thanks as well to my co-researchers for permission to publish this paper. Big
thanks to Paul Grant, whose critical political mind and meticulous editing eye has helped to sharpen
my analysis.

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1. The research used more than one consideration in assigning ethnic categorisation to lecturers and
students, as outlined below:
(1) South Asian is used to refer to those who define their ethnic origin as the South Asian
subcontinent, which includes Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.
(2) White refers to folks of European descent. Whiteness, like any other racialised category, is
not about physical attributes or skin colour, but refers to the debate that acknowledges the
social, political and historical contexts of colonialism and European dominance.
(3) African-Caribbean is used to refer to those who define their origin as the African continent.
(4) Black is used to refer to those people of South Asian and African/Caribbean decent. The
term black is a political reference to the recognition of a common history of colonialism and
contemporary racism that is experienced in the diasporas. It is accepted that the term black
is not used to negate difference or to imply homogeneity; indeed, it is a term that is often

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