Creating a Safe Space to Talk About Race

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Critical race theory (CRT) is an academic movement that has been around since the 1970s. Essentially, it is a framework that evaluates social, cultural, and legal issues through the lens of race and racism, particularly as they relate to power structures. What began as a theory that was mostly explored in law schools became more widely accepted throughout academia in the ‘80s and ‘90s and, in more recent decades, its influence on mainstream public discourse has become profound. 

In 2021 CRT has also been very much a cultural flashpoint, both locally and nationally. Last year the Trump administration directed federal agencies to end diversity and racial sensitivity trainings that incorporated CRT. Republican lawmakers around the country have followed suit, proposing a wave of legislation that seeks to ban the teaching of CRT in K-12 classrooms. Bills at the state and municipal levels have been put forth in Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Idaho, among others. 

Rhode Island has not been immune to the controversy either. In March three Republican legislators introduced a bill to prohibit “teaching divisive concepts.” The list of concepts they seek to ban runs the gamut from “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” to “the state of Rhode Island or the United States of America is fundamentally racist or sexist,” but critics viewed it as an attempt to present the broader nationwide pushback against CRT in a kinder, gentler package. 

More recently, school districts around the state, including, as of this writing, South Kingstown, Barrington and Westerly, have been hit with a barrage of requests under the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA), seeking access to items such as curricular materials, slides from training sessions for faculty and staff, emails from school administrators that include phrases like “Black Lives Matter” and “white privilege,” and even, in the case of Westerly, an “inventory of American flags in classrooms.” Though the requests have been initiated by individual parents and activists, they are part of a coordinated effort by Parents Defending Education, a national conservative nonprofit that opposes the teaching of CRT in classrooms. 

Here at Rhode Island College, however, faculty are not shying away from the challenging subjects and difficult conversations that critical race theory provokes.  

“The words ‘race relations’ make people want to run,” says Assistant Professor Aswood Bousseau, who teaches an elective course called American Racism and Social Work. “Among students who are white and those of color, I can tell they’re thinking, ‘What are we going to do here?’ Within 14 weeks in my class, my goal is for students to grow from being terrified about it to feeling more comfortable talking about it.”  

Bousseau, who also co-chairs the school’s Dialogue on Diversity and Inclusion Committee, couldn’t have foreseen the impact when she started teaching this course three years ago. Some of her students shared that she was their first teacher of color, and indeed, she is one of only a handful of professors of color at Rhode Island College. Others knew nothing about race-related matters such as Jim Crow laws. Another student told Bousseau that her course helped him cope after the killing of George Floyd, an African American man whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers sparked a global social justice movement last year.  

Her course is taught through the lens of CRT, framing racism as an everyday experience for most people of color and suggesting that a large part of society has no interest in doing away with racism because it benefits white elites and the white working class. Bousseau, whose background includes research on quality of life after traumatic experiences, calls the backlash against CRT unfounded.  

“It’s under attack because people are saying it purposely highlights race and our differences,” she counters. “Well, we are different. Before CRT, I lived this and didn’t know there was a theory to explain it. Now, there’s a language to describe it.”  

She says her class benefits because the theory “is a good way for students to understand why studying racism is important and how race is constructed. They need to think about the tenets of this theory to guide their practice as they leave RIC.”  

Bousseau also teamed up with fellow School of Social Work Associate Professor Diane Martell to compose a paper that examines how CRT can assist students in their social work practice.  Martell addressed the macro application of the theory while Bousseau contributed from the perspective of a clinician.  

Another professor who is tackling these issues head on is Assistant Professor Sadhana Bery, director and the only faculty member in RIC’s Africana Studies Program. Last semester, she reintroduced her course succinctly titled Black Lives Matter.  

After the killing of Floyd in 2020 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests nationally and globally, Bery was flooded with emails from current majors and alumni of the program anxious to discuss the issues of the day. 

“I set up Zoom meetings, where we could all meet regularly,” she says. “I also provided readings. It was because of these conversations that I decided it would be a good time to bring back my Black Lives Matter course.” 

“I begin the course by examining the system of racism in this country,” she says. 

“You can’t talk about the Black Lives Matter movement until you look at the systemic white supremacy in which it exists. Racism is more than privilege, it’s more than entitlement, it’s a social system.” 

Through extensive films, readings and discussion boards, her students explored such questions as: What does it mean to argue, as the proponents of Black Lives Matter argue, that when Black people are free, everyone is free? What are the global movements that have been inspired by Black Lives Matter? What does trauma, repair, and healing look like? And what is your vision of freedom and justice? 

Students complete the course with a final paper on how Black Lives Matter intersects with their lives and present a 15-to-20-minute talk on the vision that Black Lives Matter is creating for the future. Lastly, they come up with an action plan focused on what they can do to take an active role in change. 

As a nation, there is an urgent need, Bery says, to understand the Black experience and the impact of race on the life and institutions of the United States. Of the Africana Studies Program she says, “This is the only program on campus that offers courses on Black history and the Black experience. I believe it is important work. It has been my life work.”  

Alumni of the Africana Studies Program agree about the program’s importance. Charina Herrera ‘20, who is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University’s Department of African American Studies, declares, “Without the Africana Studies Program at RIC, I would not be where I am today. The program gave me the foundation and the inspiration to continue to love, to study and to struggle.” 

In her American Racism and Social Work course, Bousseau encourages students to share their emotions by writing entries in a journal. She says the journals serve as a haven for students to express their thoughts about race and release feelings they may not feel comfortable sharing during class.  

“I don’t want any student who takes my class to feel attacked, blamed or shamed,” Bousseau says. “That’s not productive. It’s about how do we conclude that racism exists and what are we going to do about it? If only two of my students apply that perspective and share it with others, I feel like I’ve done my job.”