I am sure that many of you by now are aware that there is an ongoing crisis of racial injustice in the United States.
First: black lives matter.
Second: I am going to give some advice here that white people can implement in their classrooms. This advice will not solve racism and does not supersede the need for everyone to educate themselves on black history and racial injustice. It does not supersede the words, needs, or guidelines already put out there by people of color. This is a supplemental collection of practical suggestions that you can use in addition to those resources. As a dancer, I’ve really appreciated this list of questions by Ballet Black, and their list of questions for ballet companies inspired this post.
Third: there is a difference between a one-off action and a systemic change. Right now we need a combination of both, but with a priority on the latter. Don’t burn out on one big thing if it’s going to stop you making long-term change. Work with the resources you have.
With those three caveats, here are some questions and suggestions to implement in your classrooms and check for in your teaching practice. Some are specifically related to blackness, and some are about inclusivity more broadly. I have tried to avoid suggestions that require extra labor from black professionals, as across industry in general folks from marginalized populations are already asked to do more work for the same recognition and reward.
- Require your students to watch and discuss media/performances by black artists. How often do you do this a semester? Do you have a broad range of examples and practices?
- Require your students to read black authors, both on blackness and on subjects other than blackness. How often do you do this a semester? Do you include black authors of multiple genders?
- Present black scholars/creators as experts during your teaching. Who are you citing? Do you cite black authors on subjects beyond black history/performance?
- Teach black perspectives on subjects. Do you offer more than one narrative? Do you show students how narratives can differ based on the power you have?
- Pay a black teacher to teach your class at least once a semester. Introduce them as an expert. Have a black instructor teach ballet. Have a black instructor teach your ballet class West African Dance. What is the difference and the value of each of those experiences? How would you have a conversation about that with your class?
- When was the last time you played music by a black musician to accompany class? Do you tell your students whose music is playing?
- When was the last time you watched art made by someone black for your own pleasure?
- If you could choose to own one piece of art by a black artist, what would it be?
- Who is your favorite black author?
- What was the last movie you saw with a black director? A black protagonist?
- When was the last time you took a class from a black instructor? What black instructors have inspired you?
- What creators are your students most excited about? Who do they follow on social media? How have you brought those influences into your classroom?
- If a student asked you to explain Jim Crow laws, the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights movement, or the contemporary protests, how would you reply? Would your answer change if a black person could hear you?
- You have a pre-professional opportunity for five students in your class. Who does your mind immediately go to?
- Look at your grades for the last semester or the last five semesters. Who got the lowest grades? Is there a group of students you consistently give lower grades to? Why? Are there certain assignments where there’s a racial imbalance in the grading?
- Do you grade written assignments based on “standardized” English? What systems of support do you have in place for students who speak an English dialect or English as a second language? Do you teach standards for format and citation? How do you penalize people if they get those standards wrong? Do you explain why you’ve chosen a writing format e.g. Chicago or MLA?
- What financial burden do you put on students in your classes? What clothes and books and tickets do you require? Does your syllabus have a clear procedure for what students can do if they can’t afford these things?
- Do you have a “student in distress” and a “disruptive student” policy in your classroom? Do either of these involve the police? What resources will you draw on instead of the police?
- Think of the last five audition notices or job opportunities you’ve seen. Did they include a diversity statement? Did the notice specifically invite people of color?
- Establish an independent board to review the grant and tenure process in your department. Are marginalized professors expected to do more work than their peers?
- Describe the last three interactions you had with a black colleague. Were you asking them for help or labor? Did you talk about their life outside of work? Did you make a positive or negative judgement about them? Did you express it?
- How many black colleagues do you have? How do they feel about racism in your shared workplace? In the wider world? What micro-aggressions do they face? What support does your workplace offer them right now? What do they need?
- If you don’t have black colleagues, why not? When was the last time you hung out with a black person, either virtually or in person?
- How fluent do students need to be in black history and culture and dance to pass your class/program? What about white history, culture and dance?
- When was the last time you publicly said something was racist? Have you ever told your students that something was racist?
These 25 suggestions, which you will almost certainly have to adapt for your teaching, boil down into three main ideas:
- You must be fluent in the past and present of blackness. Without a working knowledge of black history you cannot understand the impact of racism in the lives of black people today. However, black people are more than their shared past, and you should be familiar with contemporary black artists, creators, and people. If you do not find genuine pleasure in your black friends, in black artists or writers… you need to expand the content you’re consuming.
- You must make blackness visible in your classroom. Cite the experts, play the music, speak about the issues. Silence makes it harder for everyone and conveys the message that you do not have the strength to be an ally.
- Racism acts at a person level, a community level, and at a systemic level. We must address all three of these levels in order to be effective. You have to recognize racism in yourself and in the world that surrounds you and use that recognition as a force for change.
I can tell you that this process is uncomfortable. It is hard. You will get push back and you will feel like you can’t get it right. You will get tired. You will mess things up, and that doesn’t mean you should stop. Please go first to resources that aren’t your black friends if you want to know more or do more. If you use resources by black people, find where they want you to donate and give some money.
It begins with the knowledge that black lives matter.
We won’t know where it ends unless we keep going.