Utilizing an African American studies course to garner critical consciousness among students: considerations for improving campus climate.

Author:Campbell, Blaze


It is crucial that colleges and universities provide transformative and educational opportunities about the historical and contemporary significance of race in the United States so that critical consciousness is provoked among students. Igniting transformational thinking about race will create inclusive campus environments where students of all races can thrive academically as well as socially, feel supported, and feel acknowledged. While countless predominately white institutions (PWIs) espouse an obligation to "diversity" by adopting buzzwords within their mission statements such as multiculturalism, pluralism, and equity (Harper & Quaye, 2009) the practices employed to uphold such commitment are not always identifiable. It is important to note "diversity" encompasses a wide range of factors such as: age, gender, sexuality, race, class, religion, mental/physical ability, etc. However, within this context the word diversity is being used to deal exclusively with race. As such, it is being defined as the presence of historically underrepresented and systematically oppressed groups, specifically African Americans.

Students of color consistently report their perception of campus life at PWIs as racist and lacking in acceptance (Harper & Hurtado, 2007). According to Harper and Hurtado (2007) the racial climates across predominately white college campuses consistently indicate that there are disparate gaps in social satisfaction among racial groups, institutional neglect in regards to fostering interracial interactions, pervasiveness of whiteness in curricula and activities as the norm, and issues regarding race remain an avoidable topic at these institutions. This research seeks to examine what actions PWIs can take to truly uphold diversity when the contemporary lived experiences of students of color indicate otherwise. Furthermore, how can a PWI initiate dialogue about racial oppression (1) in a supposedly post-racial society?

Young people must be educated about the systematic issues that sustain hostile race relations on college campuses and beyond. Providing spaces for college students to learn and reflect on race have important implications for their racial development, campus environments, and how students contribute to society post-graduation. The mere presence of historically underrepresented and systematically oppressed groups on campus and in classrooms is not enough. This is substantiated by the fact that African American student graduation rate is twenty percentage points lower than white students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014). One cause for this disparity stems from the environment of PWIs, which are not supporting the personal, social, and cognitive development of black students (Fleming, 1984). As one scholar puts it, "true equity does not cease at enrolling black college students, but enrolling black students closer to their presence in the population and they need to graduate" (Love, p. 28). In other words, enrolling black students does not automatically indicate racial equity on these campuses.

Additionally, white students who have been conditioned to discriminate against people of color and uphold white supremacist ideology, subtly and unsubtly, due to their pre-college socialization need to be re-educated and Student and Academic Affairs professionals need to make it their responsibility to foster the process of "re-conditioning" these students (Evans, et al., 2009). The development students undergo cognitively, affectively, morally, and interpersonally wholeheartedly depends on their university's ability to nurture this growth inside and outside of the classroom. Hence, being able to create campus environments that are truly inclusive is the first step to adequately engage and support students of color and have positive implications for white students as well.

While some may assert schools' primary purpose is to provide individuals economic opportunities like job security, there is a growing movement within the counseling field, k-12 education, and higher education that argues true education goes beyond the accumulation and recitation of de-contextualized information. Throughout the United States' history, the fundamental purpose of education has been to prepare students to be informed, democratic citizens (Andrzejewski & Alessio, 1999; Hytten, 2006). According to Apple and Beane (1995) democratic citizenship education seeks to develop just citizens that strive for the common good (Apple & Beane, 1995). While most schools identify democratic or global citizenship as the purpose of education, it is not always clear how this goal is reflected in the current curriculums. According to Andrzejewski and Alessio: (1999)

Our educational experiences did not provide us with the information and tools to understand what is happening in the world, how it affects our lives, the lives of others and the planet itself. We were not taught how we, as ordinary (non-rich) people, might live our lives and actively participate in creating a safer, more humane, sustainable world. (p. 1) The preceding quote illuminates the need for an alternative pedagogy to replace the one that is currently being utilized. A teaching method that connects class content with present day problems need to be employed as, the regurgitation and repetition of information with no explicit connection to students' lives is not a productive way to engage students.

Developing critical consciousness among students will lead to more inclusive, engaging college campuses. Critical consciousness refers to a reflective awareness of the inequalities imbedded in the social relationships in society (Freire, 1970). Content that focuses on race is usually difficult for students to grapple with, especially when the discussion includes people who hold conflicting views. However, it is through these difficult conversations students are able to experience growth.

This paper examines four strategies PWIs can implement to provoke critical consciousness among students that will truly demonstrate their commitment to diversity by way of a general education African American Studies (2) course: These recommendations are as follows: (1) course must be grounded in social justice education, (2) provide opportunities for ally-ship development among students, (3) facilitate structured dialogues about race, and (4) provide service learning opportunities as an extension of course responsibilities. Shifting the way in which students see race will impact the way they interact with one another and positively impact the overall racial campus climate. Therefore, it is imperative opportunities for students to develop critical consciousness be embedded in aspects of college life. Hopefully, higher education professionals can use the strategies discussed in this paper as a starting point to develop initiatives at their institutions that will help foster a truly inclusive environment that go beyond lip reverence. The strategies discussed in this paper will benefit the overall campus environment in regards to race relations because students of all races will be exposed to opportunities to garner critical consciousness towards issues about race.

Theoretical Thrust

The arguments presented in this paper are firmly grounded upon the certainty that the historical experiences of black people as a result of racism should be used as an educational means to teach individuals about race relations (Kershaw, 1992). Kershaw writes (1992):

Historically, the status of African Americans in the United States has been dominated by race. To attempt an understanding of present race relations, a knowledge of past relations is essential. Without a historical knowledge of race relations, it is impossible to understand if the status has changed, how it has changed, when, and so on. (p. 478) Critical Race Theory supports (CRT) this contention and works as the theoretical backbone of this work. CRT is an interdisciplinary methodology that seeks to deconstruct and critique racism and power (Delgado & Stefanic, 2011) and is based on four main tenets: (1) racism is ingrained in everyday life in the United States, so much so, it often goes unnoticed, (2) the voices of people of color are a critical component to challenging white privilege, (3) the white racial group will only support the advancement of people of color if it benefits them in some way, and (4) notions of color blindness and race neutrality need to be challenged because they negate the lived experiences of people of color (Delgado & Stefanic, 2012). According to Tatum (1992):

It is virtually impossible to live in U.S. contemporary society and not be exposed to some aspect of the personal, cultural, and/or institutional manifestations of racism in our society. It is also assumed that, as a result, all of us have received some misinformation about those groups disadvantaged by racism. (p. 3) The preceding passage reflects the deep-rooted relationship between racism and the United States. Racism is defined as a "system of advantage based on race," (Wellman, 1977). This system is based on white supremacy and is the main function of racism, benefiting EuroAmericans exclusively (Welsing, 1974). Therefore, this work is situated within a CRT framework as, CRT examines the relationship between race, racism, and privilege (Delgado and Stefancic, 2012).

Furthermore, African American Studies scholars have the social responsibility to work towards a more just society. In this regard, social responsibility refers to the notion that knowledge formation should always be produced to aid in the liberation of oppressive and unjust aspects of society (Campbell, 2015). When reading the subsequent sections it should be realized these are the ideological perspectives that frame...

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