Anti-racist teaching online
WORKING DRAFT (MANUSCRIPT UNDER REVIEW): What does it mean to be anti-racist educator online?
Written with input from Lauri Goldkind (Fordham University) and Lisa Johnson (Salem State University)
In the new normal faced by educators, we acknowledge that covid-19 is moving from a pandemic to an endemic. As many educators make the move to planning fully online courses or using online tools while teaching part of a semester remotely, it is my hope that they are thinking how to bring anti-racist principles with them into their classrooms. As the scholar Dr. Ibram X. Kendi notes “there is no neutrality in racism,” commenting further that the opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist,’ but ‘anti-racist’ (Kendi, 2019).This involves an active versus a passive stance for educators. Being not racist is not good enough as we work to make the best learning environments for both our students of color and our White students. But what is the baseline we are dealing with? As Humphrey and Davis (2021, para. 2) note “the shift online has not removed the racist norms that were normative in face-to-face classrooms.” Online education continues to be an uncharted and underutilized discursive space for engaging in antiracist work (Humphrey and Davis, 2021). In explaining the ways in which race informs online education, Humphrey and Davis (2021, para 10) explain:
“The major players in online education still hold tightly to racist Enlightenment ideals of rugged individualism and the belief in the disembodied articulation of the self. In other words, white supremacy and its chief actor, whiteness, still maintain a hegemonic hold on online learning. More explicitly, race-neutral language transposes whiteness to educational technology as normative, reifying that white people are the standard for humanity, thus relegating blackness to sub-human. Online education operates with race-neutral rhetoric that obscures how race informs everything.”
As Humphrey and Davis (2021, para 20) reflect “antiracist education accepts the presence of bias and stereotypes but requires employing diligent and consistent investigation into the source of racism and how racist ideas manifest structurally, culturally, politically, and interpersonally.” And anti-racism and inclusivity apply to every type of course we teach in terms of pedagogy and method regardless of course content.
We know that with online teaching, pedagogy should guide the work, as opposed to technology. And we also know that generally speaking, an educator can do just about all that they would have done in person, online, with some adjustments, after getting used to the technology. So, let’s start with what we know about anti-racist pedagogical theory as it was developed in the face-to-face setting. Dr. Kyoko Kishimoto argues that anti-racist pedagogy encompasses much more than what goes on in the classroom. They argue that educators must develop an awareness of their positionality through the process of reflective practice. Further, they argue that this is crucial for the effective implementation of anti-racist pedagogy, which consists of the following components: incorporating the topics of race and inequality into course content; teaching from an anti-racist pedagogical approach, and anti-racist organizing within the campus and linking our efforts to the surrounding community. Dr. Kishimoto notes that anti-racist pedagogy can be thought of as an organizing approach at both the institutional and community level that goes way beyond the classroom.
An expanded framework for understanding the concept of anti-racist pedagogy is presented by The Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia University, identifying additional first steps educators can take: self-educate and acknowledge racial trauma; interrogate your positionally and (un)conscious biases; address curricular gaps with intentional course design; foster a compassionate class community and meet students where they are engage the wider campus community and commit to action beyond the classroom.
In order to apply these concepts to the online teaching environment, I draw on my own experience as well as three primary sources engaged in a careful consideration of anti-racist pedagogy in online teaching in the current dual pandemic environment. One presentation recorded in mid-2020 focused on how to engage in anti-racist and inclusive online teaching during the racial justice uprisings as well as the pandemic (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). The other source is an article published in mid-2021 calling for a shift to anti-racist online teaching for all educators, and calling out the absence of specific references to anti-racist pedagogy in the literature (Humphrey and Davis, 2021). A third source reviewed of 11 years worth of data yielding close to 3,000 articles, a total of 10 addressed anti-oppressive practices in general (Valcarlos, Wolgemuth, Haraf, and Fisk 2018, 351). These authors summarize four common themes that professors can draw on as anti-racist educators: legitimizing students’ personal narratives, emotions, and culture, requiring reflection/discussion, establishing expectations of critical awareness, and democratizing both educator and student roles. So how do we take this learning and apply it specifically to anti-racist practice online?
The following is a merger of the Kishimoto and Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning principles for anti-racist pedagogy, as they was designed for the face to face context, but now applied to the online learning space:
A theoretical model for anti-racist pedagogy in online spaces:
- Incorporating the topics of race and inequality into course content by addressing curricular gaps with intentional course design online
- Teaching from an anti-racist pedagogical approach online
- Self-educate and acknowledge racial trauma as it relates to online teaching
- Interrogate your positionally and (un)conscious biases related to online teaching
- Foster a compassionate class community and meet students where they are as online learners
- Anti-racist organizing actions within the campus and linking our efforts to the surrounding community while online.
Below is a literature-informed discussion of implementation tips for anti-racist pedagogy using these principles in the online context. While a number of the points made below do apply to the face to face context, they should not be left out of the online context as they are still vitally important parts of the anti-racist pedagogy framework established above.
Incorporating the topics of race and inequality into course content by addressing curricular gaps with intentional course design online
It is argued that educators need to engage in the constant reinforcement of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in all aspects of teaching (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). One of the clearest and easiest ways we can do this is through the inclusion of content related to race, racism and anti-racism in our courses. Professors can do this through diversifying our syllabus, digressing from the canon, decentering knowledge, and diminishing some voices and opinions while magnifying others (Appleton, 2019). This is not unique to online learning, but should be mentioned nonetheless given its central role in the anti-racist pedagogical theoretical framework. The online environment makes this specific work more possible with “additional resource” links that wouldn’t be available in an in-person format, allowing students to explore on their own as they wish. The naming of these links may be especially important for engaging students, such as “Resources for White students interested in learning about anti-racism” or “Latinx and Hispanic scientists in U.S. history.”
Experts argue that addressing race and racism during a given semester is vital for students of color to be successful in a course (any course!), so that their experiences are not overlooked or ignored and this includes online courses. In other words, all students need to be seen in concrete ways. Allowing for these learning opportunities is important for students of color especially. Imagine a student thinking “What happens if my professor doesn’t talk about this topic that is major national news?” We can’t avoid or ignore topics or race or racism as this sends a message that we aren’t informed or even that we don’t care about the topic – or about the lived experience of our students (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020).
As we engage in the crafting of our online course, we need to ask ourselves the same questions we would ask ourselves of an in-person course “Whose voices are centered in this syllabus, and can I lift up the voices of people of color?” “What topics are centered?” “Am I addressing how race and racism play into the history and current state of the field or discipline?” “How has this history famed the course you are teaching?” You will also want to discuss with students the question “where are we now and where do we want to go?” For White educators, Humphrey and Davis (2021) recommend asking “what about their socialization and relationship to teaching and learning prompts them to center whiteness?
While we won’t stop racism with our one classroom conversation, we can plant seeds to help our students with the world they live in. We don’t have to monopolize the whole semester with these conversations, but we must take it on in some way. As an instructor, learning how to create space in which students feel good enough to engage in an open debate can feel exhausting and may mean taking on extra preparation work. It also may mean critiquing our own biases about race which may seem like a daunting task (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020).
Imagine your students of color wondering “What if my professor doesn’t know how to address race when it comes up in class?” This means that we must move beyond avoidance and towards inclusion, and be ready for potentially difficult dialogues and conflict in the classroom. There are many guides out there for how to engage in difficult dialogues around race and racism in the classroom that we can learn from (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). These rules apply in the online classroom just as much as they do in an in-person classroom. With online spaces, we may need to be prepared to follow-up with students offline after “hot moments” akin to the after-class discussion.
Another question to pose is “Who are my students and can they see themselves in my field?” Look at what are you unconsciously communicating in your PowerPoint graphics, pre-class session music that so many have adopted when using tools such as Zoom, textbooks and language (Humphrey and Davis, 2021). You need to consider the values you want to model for your class community – some do this through crafting anti-racist statement on their learning management system page.
Teaching from an anti-racist pedagogical approach online
Teaching from an anti-racist pedagogical approach online means starting with an audit of your entire teaching mechanism: syllabus, course outline, course objectives, website structure, the whole gamut. It means stepping outside of yourself and looking at your work with a fresh eye. Much of this work relates to being self-reflective about the ways in which racism may have unintentionally informed your teaching. This can often be done in community, namely in conversations with peers who are exploring the same efforts. We can think of this as “examin[ing] racial and ethnic inequities that may be embedded and perpetuated by institutional policies and practices and consider[ing] ways of addressing power imbalances we encountered” (Davis & Livingstone, 2016, p. 198). This may also be described as engaging in what Freire (2000) referred to as praxis, or “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed” (p. 126). A model presented by Davis and Livingstone (2016) proposes a peer group which involves reflection, support, and shared accountability. We can also move towards the practice of what is known as equity-minded sensemaking as it relates to course outcomes – something that is much easier with the data available to us through the use of online assignment rubrics, for example (McNair, Bensimon, Malcolm-Piqueux, 2020, 20). This concept of equity-minded sense-making:
“is…[a] process of critical reflection, contextualization, and meaning-making. Equity-minded sensemaking goes beyond examining data and noticing equity gaps in outcomes. It involves interpreting equity gaps as a signal that practices are not working as intended and asking equity-minded questions about how and why current practices are failing to serve students experiencing inequities. Equity-minded sensemaking can be fostered among practitioners through the use of open-ended prompts to guide discussions of data disaggregated by race/ethnicity.”
One other concrete example of an anti-racist practice relates to how one thinks about the use of recording while doing online teaching (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). It is important to rethink the virtual classroom both equitably and protectively when using recording technology by being intentional about what kinds of conversations are recorded. For example, when making spaces for conversations about race and racism, you are allowing students to ‘wrestle’ with concepts in vulnerable ways that should not be recorded in an era when viral videos are commonplace. Protective spaces are needed for students in order to foster learning and they need to know that this is the case in order to feel confident about their participation online.
A final consideration in online course design relates to the level of reading and writing difficulty that a professor assigns (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). This is especially important given that many students experience online courses as more labor intensive than in-person courses due to the more writing-intensive nature of many of these courses due to discussion boards. This is important to consider because in times of stress, writing work takes longer (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). Also, online courses tend to favor discussion boards, which take more time and energy than face-to-face class discussions. Less privileged groups may be under more stress and this may impact their participation in academics as well as their learning outcomes (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). This may mean a reconsideration of reading and writing assignments. For example, instead of assigning one long reading, give students different ways to get the same knowledge, offering them options to choose from (a universal design approach), such as a short reading, a long reading or a video (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020; Humphrey and Davis, 2021). In the universal design framework:
Teachers provide (students have)
- Flexible options for student engagement (choices which will engage student interest)
- Flexible ways of presenting lesson content (options for how they learn)
- Flexible methods of expression and assessment (choices for how they demonstrate their learning)
Finally, it is important to acknowledge that the teaching process also requires that both students and professors “bring their full selves (this is a collective self, not an individual self) into the online learning environment” (Humphrey and Davis, 2021, para. 30). This is important as teaching and learning are not neutral acts. This means creating online mechanisms for getting to know one another as a foundation for interaction and dialogue.
Self-educate and acknowledge racial trauma as it relates to online teaching
Self-education is a core element of anti-racist practice whether you are teaching online or in-person. Self-education relates to learning about race and racism in relation to your field or discipline but also in relation to topics like racial trauma as it may play out in your online classroom. Racial trauma “can be defined as the cumulative traumatizing impact of racism on a racialized individual, which can include individual acts of racial discrimination combined with systemic racism, and typically includes historical, cultural, and community trauma as well” (Williams, Haeny, and Holmes, 2021, 1050). Working hard to understand how different communities of students are reacting to their learning environments during these dual pandemics is vital (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). This means working to stay informed through reading and listening to a variety of sources in order to be in touch with student and community perspectives. Especially important is the need to not assume that all students are the same in experience or material conditions (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). For example, how do certain students’ families caregiving expectations of them change as they move home during a covid-19 lockdown? And how may that impact how students want to be seen on camera during an online course? Recently, a colleague spoke of a Latinx/Hispanic student’s struggle to meet family caregiving responsibilities while attending class, leading him to tune in from his car as he drove his grandmother to a medical appointment. This causes a need for faculty flexibility and compassion.
Interrogate your positionally and (un)conscious biases related to online teaching
Another core element of anti-racist practice is interrogating your positionality and unconscious biases, regardless of whether you are teaching face to face or online. Positionality is defined as engaging in a consideration of one’s social identities and how they may lead to privileged or oppressed positions in the context of work in and around the online classroom. Considering this ‘positionality’ is vital for educators to engage in prior to meeting students who may have different positionalities from them in a sort of ‘pre-engagement’ phase. Considering positionality involves recognizing how society and culture impact teaching as well as how we ourselves influence teaching. You might ask yourself “How do I create and influence the knowledge about my teaching that I use to make decisions about this course?” By engaging in intentional self-reflection, we move from being passive educators to active anti-racist educators. Positionalities tie closely to the ways in which we may hold unconscious biases about racial groups. As you begin to practice implementing anti-racist pedagogy, you might also want to start by grounding yourself in listening to this podcast from Shimon Cohen, This podcast is about Black students’ experiences of their educational experience. In reflecting on the episode, Shimon Cohen notes “Something that jumped out to me about their stories is how education is so violent towards Black students on so many levels. This has to change.”
Questions we may want to ask ourselves include “What makes a good student online and what makes a good teacher online?” “Are my answers to these questions linked to a nostalgia for the past or more informed by the current moment?” And “What are the unique elements of this dynamic in online teaching?” This will help us to re-imagine our teaching to serve needs of all of our students, in case our teaching is unintentionally targeted to a White audience or dominated by White ways of organizing and administering (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). Given the omnipresence of White culture and White ways of being in higher education, we are called upon as anti-racist educators to question our deepest beliefs, traditions, practices and policies to think about how they may possibly contribute to forms of exclusion (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). This includes the technical aspects of designing learning management systems, and setting up structures that guide students on how to become oriented to it and use it effectively.
Foster a compassionate class community and meet students where they are as online learners
Advocacy for equal access to the technologies required for students to participate in online education is at the forefront of creating a compassionate class community that meets students where they are at – especially students traditionally historically left out of educational processes (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). This will necessitate becoming aware of one’s university’s hardware lending programs, for example.
Some students who have returned home when campuses are closed may not have access to their own computer all the time or at all. Students at home with only one computer may be limiting their study time and online participation. Some students may be working on their telephones.
Another consideration is the fact that students’ on campus life may have facilitated more time for course engagement than their current situation allows while living at home. Adding to this scenario, in some families, cultural expectations may result in some students being encouraged to take care of siblings instead of spending time doing online participation (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). For some students who are having problems creating spaces in their homes to do course work, some professors have co-created fun ‘contracts’ with students to give to parents/caregivers, shared recorded study sounds, or made ‘do not disturb’ signs such as ‘excellence in the making as resources (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). This all needs to be taken into consideration in course planning and in ongoing conversations with students as the semester unfolds.
Once students have the technology they need to participate in a course, it is important to help students learn how to participate productively in the professor’s particular online course, as every course is designed differently (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). Facilitating communication through a welcome video, announcements and uplifting messages that help students to access content and processes will be important. Creating a separate information sheet for students on how to navigate a particular course online, how to prepare for tests or assignments, how much time to devote to different activities, reminders about how to participate and engage can all be very impactful for students (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). Communicating frequently in multiple formats (such as emails, announcements, discussion responses, surveys and clear explicit instructions) will be a central tool for good online teaching (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020; Humphrey and Davis, 2021). Do aggressive outreach to get students into your office hours. Your goal in all of this is to make students feel that they can approach you – and if they can’t approach you, create an “ask a fellow student” discussion board as the next best thing (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). You can always weigh in on that board to correct or add something.
To foster community, educators also need to practice intentionality as they work to help students to feel a part of the community which means being treated with respect, dignity, value and kindness (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). This is a central element in being able to have full and equitable participation in an online course where there is no face to face element during which a natural connection can be made. Educators need to be explicitly inclusive and empathetic without assuming they know what their students are facing in the learning process as students have wildly different experiences from one another and from the instructor (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). It is important to note that this engagement work of checking in on students is often extra work on top of class preparation and maintenance. In an online course, a professor might send out a private survey to all students with a pass/fail grade to ensure participation, asking students to share any information that is important for the professor to know about regarding the student’s learning situation. For example, for some students, all of a sudden their lived realities change when moving home, they may have a discomfort around people seeing their home environment, for example, and wish to leave their camera off. One student of mine did this because the only place she could join our class from was her bathroom. This type of check-in may be especially important for students of color in primarily White institutions, who will be the only, or one of a few faces of color online.
Timing of the course may also be an issue for students engaged in family caregiving or work during the disruptions caused by the pandemic/endemic. Asynchronous courses allow students to complete work on their own timeframe, but synchronous course meetings may prove more challenging for some students. Allowing for course recordings, or recording lectures ahead of time through the use of the flipped classroom model may be useful for such students (Aquil, et al., 2021).
On a session-by-session basis, professors can ask students in synchronous courses to do a brief check in in the chat box (such as “use one word to describe how you are feeling about school today”), screening for students with problems who they can follow up with later. Professors can also ask students to create memes describing students’ experiences of the semester as a way to be more lighthearted and show interest in the student experience (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). It is important to remember that students of color have reported more discomfort due to their race during covid, are more likely to work in the front line professions and are more likely to live in at-risk neighborhoods (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). Acknowledging the challenges students are going through in this confusing and rough time and the ways it links to current and historic trauma helps to encourage student engagement (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). Humphrey and Davis (2021) model a personal ‘artifact exercise’ that allows students to authentically get to know one another as a foundation for future dialogue as a way to get at this principle.
Key to preparing for future dialogue is the need to be anticipatory. Humphrey and Davis (2021) note that to be antiracist is to anticipate and welcome conflict as a companion in the learning process. Preparing for this through the co-creating of shared agreements around how the group will function online is a vital aspect of fostering community (and obtaining buy-in). Shared agreements might include:
- Participate as you are able, with your camera on if you can
- Engage with one another respectfully acknowledging that this is a really difficult and challenging topic for many and also a challenging time in our world
- Respect one another’s views
- Maintain confidentiality – leave details in this Zoom room, but take learning with you
- If you are confused about a comment, ask for clarification, but assume positive intent
- Take feedback with an open heart and don’t be defensive, own your own impact
- Prepare to be vulnerable and uncomfortable in your learning…that’s the way learning often happens!
- Ask for help!
- Take care of yourself!
Creating a compassionate class community that meets students where they are at involves being flexible, being engaged, compassionate and empathetic in a time that is characterized as ‘not business as usual’ (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). Generally, it is advised that professors drop versus add assignments, engage in the use of flexible deadlines and when offering extra credit, to keep it manageable so that students already privileged with extra time do not have added advantages. It is advised that professors give opportunities for students to revisit assignments if they have not done well, with clear instructions along the lines of “this is what you’ve done, this is what I need you to do, this is where I need you to go with your work” in an encouraging manner (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020). Your goal here is not to create barriers that ensure failure, rather, you want to outline paths to success.
Anti-racist organizing actions within the campus and linking our efforts to the surrounding community while online
The element of anti-racist pedagogy that is most often left out of teaching, in my experience, is larger community involvement. In the online environment, the community can be brought in as guest speakers or through students’ discussions of community experiences curated through professor-generated assignments. Professors may want to engage alumni of color that want to be involved in helping students as well. These alumni can act as mentors and role models, speaking in classes about their work, their experiences and their pathways (Adams, Nicholls, Frie, and Fischer, 2020).
This essay, a work in progress, has drawn on the existing theoretical frameworks about anti-racist pedagogy in the face to face context and reflected on the ways in which this needs to be considered in the online arena. One of the most important things that professors can remember is that they don’t need to be experts in everything, and it is alright to reach out to colleagues for support. As faculty work to embrace the above-described principles, it is important to take it one step at a time, and reflect on one’s practice along the way.
Adams, B., Nicholls, H., Frie, A. and Fischer, T. (2020). Anti-Racist and Inclusive Online Teaching during the Racial Justice Uprisings and the Pandemic. Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. University of Wisconsin: Oshkosh. https://www.uwosh.edu/cetl/professional-development/instructional-development-training-online-initiative/facilitating-an-online-class/anti-racist-and-inclusive-online-teaching-during-the-racial-justice-uprisings-and-the-pandemic
Aqil, A. R., Malik, M., Jacques, K. A., Lee, K., Parker, L. J., Kennedy, C. E., Mooney, G., & German, D. (2021). Engaging in Anti-Oppressive Public Health Teaching: Challenges and Recommendations. Pedagogy in Health Promotion, 7(4), 344–353.
Davis, A., & Livingstone, A. (2016). Sharing stories of racism in doctoral education: The anti-racism project. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 36(2), 197-215. https://doi.org/10.1080/08841233.2016.1147521
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed: 30th anniversary edition. Bloomsbury.
Humphrey, D. and Davis, C. (May 11, 2021). “The future started yesterday and we’re already late:” The case for antiracist online teaching. Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/the-future-started-yesterday-and-were-already-late-the-case-for-antiracist-online-teaching/
Kendi, I. X., (2019). How to be an antiracist. One World/Penguin Random House.
Kishimoto, K. (2018). Anti-racist pedagogy: from faculty’s self-reflection to organizing within and beyond the classroom. Race, ethnicity and education. 540-554.https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2016.1248824
McNair, T.B., Bensimon, E.M., & Malcolm-Piqueux, L. (2020). From equity talk to equity walk: Expanding practitioner knowledge for racial justice in higher education. Josey-Bass.
Valcarlos, M., Wolgemuth, J. Haraf, S. and Fisk, N. 2020. Anti-Oppressive Pedagogies in Online Learning: A Critical Review. Distance Education 41(3): 345–360. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2020.1763783.
Williams, M., Haeny, A. and Holmes, S. (2021). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Racial Trauma. PTSD Research Quarterly. 32(1), 1050-1035.