Race, Ethnicity, and Me is a collection of autobiographical essays written by Trinity University students as an assignment for a course taught by Professor David Spener in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. In their essays, students use research findings and scholarly concepts to analyze their own experiences involving racial and ethnic identities in the United States.
The collection is intended for use by students and educators as a tool for promoting dialogue about diversity issues as they affect their academic institutions and communities. The essays it contains were written by students in the fall 2008 and 2011 semesters.
Student Involvement decided to partner with this project, because we feel that it can be used effectively as a tool for us to educate each other about diversity. Furthermore, the project aligned itself with our values, mission and goals. By exploring self-authorship, students were better able to analyze their own experiences, but also relate to each other and their stories. Self-authorship allows individuals to reflect on their personal experiences as they relate to the world around them. Trinity students began to understand diversity at its core, how it affects people and the world we live in because it was no longer an amorphous subject, but something, or rather someone, more concrete. Race, Ethnicity, and Me can help guide students toward self-authorship using an ethnic and racial lens, integrating curricular and co-curricular learning to develop global citizens.
I have been teaching a course on racial and ethnic relations in the United States every fall semester since I joined the Trinity University faculty in 1997. Given the history and contemporary reality of racial and ethnic conflict in the United States, it has never been an easy course to teach. The context in which I teach makes it all the more challenging. I am a white, middle-class professor teaching in a private liberal arts college, where the majority of students are also white and middle class, which is located in a Texas city where the majority of residents are working-class people of color.
In this context, I feel that it is important for me to teach an explicitly anti-racist curriculum that focuses on the dramatic racial and ethnic inequalities that still characterize many aspects of U.S. society nearly a half century after the civil rights victories of the mid 1960s. I push students in this course to confront the ways that the white majority in the United States have benefited from the historical oppression and exploitation of people of color and continue to enjoy a privileged position in society based on their whiteness. Moreover, I try to take the side of society’s underdogs in the course, teaching students about the many ways that people of color in this country have struggled against discrimination and for their right to respect and inclusion in all spheres of national life.
Reactions to the curriculum have varied. Some students feel their eyes have been opened and understand U.S. society in a new way. Others feel that the approach is too one-sided and fails to acknowledge the ways that whites in U.S. society are also discriminated against in the post-civil rights period. Some minority students taking the course feel affirmed and are pleased to be given new analytical tools for understanding their own experiences, while others object to taking the course from a privileged white professor who so obviously is teaching outside the realm of his own personal experience. I’ve learned that you can never please everyone in a course like this. Nonetheless, I keep trying to remind students how these issues are important and relevant to their lives. I think that I have been fairly successful in this regard.
One of the ways I’ve tried to get students to understand the significance of racial and ethnic realities in the United States is to have them write about the influence these issues have had in their own lives. In the fall of 2008, I gave them the assignment of writing autobiographical essays about their personal experiences with race and ethnicity. In addition to relating specific experiences that had been important in their lives, I asked that they use the concepts and research findings published by sociologists and anthropologists to analyze those experiences in order to come to a deeper intellectual understanding of them.
It was not an easy assignment for students to complete, since it required an unusual combination of intense personal reflection and academic research about a complex and emotionally-charged set of issues. Most of the students in the class took their assignment extremely seriously, struggling to get their stories “right,” both autobiographically and analytically. After they turned their essays in, I found that many of them, in fact, had gotten their stories very right. I was impressed with the honesty of their reflections and their ability to make the connection between the personal and the intellectual. They seemed to have learned a lot by writing the essays and I certainly learned a lot from reading them.
At the end of a college semester, students and faculty typically wrap-up their work and move on. Professors return papers to students with comments and corrections and report grades to the registrar. Students are either happy or unhappy with their grades and either file or throw their papers away. And that’s usually the end of it. No matter how insightful the paper or how important the issues it addresses, no one beside the student and the professor usually reads it.
That would have been an unfortunate end for the essays contained in this collection. Not only did they merit a wider reading, they had a lot to teach students and educators who are concerned with issues involving racial and ethnic identities. After discussing it with students, I began to investigate ways to publish their essays. We found an enthusiastic partner in Trinity’s Office of Campus and Community Involvement, which agreed to publish Race, Ethnicity, and Me electronically on its website. Publishing the essays on-line meant we could get them out quickly and free-of-charge to a worldwide audience. In this age of social networking media, it also meant that students could share their stories with their peers as they saw fit, on the Trinity campus and beyond.
The authors of the essays contained in Race, Ethnicity, and Me are not academics or professional writers. Rather, they are students with compelling stories to tell and critical perspectives to offer on some of the most pressing issues facing U.S. society today. Each of the essays relates experiences and relays messages that are vital to deepening our understanding of how racial and ethnic divisions continue to affect our lives. Each of them is also animated by the conviction that these divisions may still one day be overcome.