Part 7 of 10

How to Teach in Trump’s America [Bringing up Race, Immigration, Sexuality and everything else in Higher Ed]

7 Cognitive dissonance leads to learning


Cognitive dissonance and push back from students means they are listening, so keep going.  The looks on students faces that say, “this doesn’t apply to me,” the eye rolls, the exasperated sighs, the whispered comments of “can you believe this?” to other students - it’s enough to make you either want to sink into the floor or keep going.  I tell you, do the latter.  Do not allow ignorance to arouse your fight or flight response, do not let it oppress you.  In my experience, these are the same students who will surprise you with a moving final presentation advocating for the rights of transgender students but they have to start somewhere. 

When students take issue with what you’re saying be excited they are listening.  When they are annoyed with your stance, be excited that they are in class.  When they fill their papers with stereotypes and negative perceptions of those different from them, say; at least they are self-evaluating.  All of this is necessary.  If we stop having these types of conversations we let the ignorance remain unchallenged, we are allowing a system of hate to continue.  Instead we get them to see it and then walk them through what effect that worldview has on, not only themselves but others. 

When I introduce race I explain how it is not rooted in science there is no evidence that diseases are inherently tied to race, there is no support that shows that these phenotypic differences are linked to our intelligence. In fact I share this with them. I give them the reason why we have been told these untruths about race for our entire lives, it was to preserve a hierarchy.  When I state that race is a social construct I then ask them this simple question, “can people of color be racist?” 

The answers are vary, I’ve been in classrooms where there were high-pitched and adamant yes’s, I’ve also been in rooms where the responses are mixed.  There have also been the classrooms where there was a resounding no. 

The correct answer is no.  People of color cannot be racist.  We can be prejudice, we can discriminate but we do not have the position in society to be racist.  Racism is often confused with prejudice and discrimination but racism is much more calculating than someone hurling a racial slur at their neighbor.  Racism is the system that paved the way for redlining, that kept blacks from voting by developing questions like, “how many bubbles in a bar of soap” before they could register to vote.  Racism is what kept schools separate but equal, when we all know how unequal those schools ultimately were.  Racism is a system, an institution that is held up by the dominant group.  In order for racism to work it needs to be rooted within our society; in our politics and in every other aspect.  Racism is not individual it is institutionalized.  People of color are not allowed in those institutions we do not have the power to keep an entire group of people out of organizations. 

Of course this lecture creates looks of shock and a lot of discomfort because we have never had to think this way.  It is imperative however to include in my lecture about language and perception.  We have often called individuals racist.  We have discussed the US as post racial because of the color of Barack Obama’s skin but it is oh so evident when you understand the history of race and the definition of terms like racism, prejudice and discrimination, how untrue that ideal is. 

Remember this is a process.  This is journey.  This is a challenge but it is necessary.  Cognitive dissonance is the theory that when one of our core beliefs is challenged we are faced with two choices.  One is to either change all of our other points of view to align with this new information or to reject the new information to avoid the discomfort of dissonance that we experience.  When your students are rolling their eyes this is what they are experiencing.  Just keep coming to class, keep teaching your curriculum and know that you are not alone.