Michelle Cohn: Students should take advantage of classes about race

“Does anyone here think they benefit from gentrification?”

Our classroom is silent. We shift in our seats, unsure of whether acknowledging the question would make other students judge us. Some of us slowly raise our hands, glancing around the room to see if other people are admitting their privilege. This is an American studies class: We’ve talked about race, but we haven’t mentioned our part in it yet. We haven’t made it personal until just now, and it’s uncomfortable.

Our professor poses the next question: “Can we talk about it?” We do. We explore the nuances by talking in detail – about our own experiences, about where we grew up and about what change we’ve seen in communities. It’s an open and honest discussion – the type of discussion that students should be having more often.

We all come into college with different levels of knowledge, especially when it comes to race. With class registration coming up, students – especially white students – should strongly consider taking one of the classes GW offers that is focused on race. This would open more people up to more engaging, informed discussions about it.

For example, the sociology department offers classes like “Race and Minority Relations,” the American studies department offers “Latinos in the United States” and even the University Writing program offers “Writing for Social Change: Civil Rights in D.C.”

In certain classes I have taken, professors have warned about offensive language, images or stories that we study to understand the culture of the past. Reading about the horrors of slavery or the Atlantic Passage can be very uncomfortable, but the importance of learning about them is paramount in understanding our society today.

It’s important to take classes that grapple with sensitive subjects like race because those subjects are often accompanied by common misconceptions. For example, Gregory Squires, chair of the department of sociology, said that people sometimes have misconceptions about how racial inequality forms.

“Racial inequality is not always the result of intentional acts of prejudice,” Squires said. “Implicit bias and structural or institutional discrimination may constitute more fundamental underpinnings of racial inequality than actions explicitly motivated by racial bias.”

It isn’t always easy to talk about race. One of my high school teachers used to tell us, “The hardest thing for someone to do is admit they benefit from a corrupt system.” It’s incredibly difficult to have conversations about race, often because not everyone is familiar with the necessary vocabulary (like privilege or microaggression) and some people can get offended.

But recent racially charged events and protests at Yale and Brown universities, and the University of Missouri suggest that many college campuses harbor at least some racial tension. Even this year’s American studies department conference included a keynote speech on the subject of “safe spaces.” All schools, GW included, should explore and discuss these issues more thoroughly.

Bringing together a multitude of teenagers from different backgrounds to a singular area and giving them more freedom than they have ever had is part of what makes college amazing. However, it can also mean that people are free to do things that are offensive, like hostparties with racist themes, or make hateful threats on social media.

Regardless of how much you think you already know, you should still try a class about race. As an American studies major, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that everything I know about race barely scrapes the surface of everything that I should know.

Of course, classes can’t teach us everything there is to know. Race is an identity, a personal experience, and something that everyone deals with differently. We will never fully understand how it feels to live in someone else’s skin, but learning about perspectives different than our own is at least a step in the right direction.

Many of the race-related classes offered don’t have prerequisites, so students of any major can take them. In addition, a lot of the courses about race count for G-PAC requirements in humanities, social sciences and global and cross-cultural subjects. And since some of us may want to be policymakers in the future, we need to be aware of the institutions and underlying biases in American culture so that we can accurately advocate and write legislation.

The fact is, learning about race in the context of popular culture just isn’t enough and reading news stories can’t always give us the whole picture. There are economic, political and social institutions at play that many of us aren’t aware of because they’re so ingrained in our daily lives, we don’t notice them.

“While there are no silver bullets to resolve these issues, education must certainly be a part of any effort to ameliorate racial prejudice and inequality,” Squires said.

There are reasons why police brutality continues to persist decades after the Civil Rights Movement, and why discriminatory practices in workplaces and schools still thrive. To begin gaining an understanding of these issues, education is essential.

Michelle Cohn, a sophomore majoring in American studies, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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