The Politics of Race Course Titles

Aptly titled courses and robust descriptions teach students a valuable lesson in speaking uncomfortable racial truths to white power, argues Ted Thornhill.

By Ted Thornhill – April 6, 2018 – Inside Higher Ed

Race and Ethnic Relations. Excited? Neither is anyone else. I certainly wasn’t when I took a course by this title as an undergraduate sociology major. And I don’t imagine my students were intrigued by Race Relations, the title of the first race course I taught as a graduate student about a decade ago.

Those courses have titles and descriptions that are about as compelling as particle board furniture instructions. They belie the complex and vital content we teach in them, and they contribute to promoting and buttressing inaccurate beliefs about racial matters. So why do so many of us continue to teach race courses with these types of names? It needn’t be this way.

Aptly titled race courses and robust course descriptions teach students a valuable first lesson in speaking uncomfortable racial truths to white power. They can also serve as powerful searchlights, drawing local, national and even international attention to the white supremacist nature of American society, and that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, such courses are few and far between. 

Faculty members title their courses for a variety of reasons including disciplinary convention, piquing student interest, capturing the essence of the course within an arbitrary character limit and sometimes making a political statement. However, I suspect that oftentimes faculty members, and certainly graduate students, who teach race courses end up teaching whatever is on the books. Those courses often have titles that evade the centrality of white racial domination, such as Race and Ethnic Relations, Race Relations and Ethnic Relations. A cursory review of course catalogs at most historically and predominantly white institutions verifies that. Such an exercise reveals that the overwhelming majority of race courses are devoid, in title and description, of a critical (i.e., accurate) understanding of race and white racism.

I randomly chose a regional state university in the South, pulled up their 400-page 2017-18 undergraduate course catalog and searched three words: “race,” “racism” and “white.” Here’s what I found. There were three race courses with titles like those noted above. The term “racism” appears exactly once, in the description of a lower-level social problems course. The only references to the word “white” were white-collar crime, a person’s last name and white-water kayaking.

Conducting this exercise a second time brought me to the course catalog of a flagship state university in the Midwest and the insipidly titled and ubiquitous course Race and Ethnicity. Its description was more white liberal pablum that provides students with no inkling of the gravity of white racial domination. Instead, it suggests that “prejudice” and “discrimination” are equally injurious for people of color and whites, and that we are all arrayed in a racially pluralistic society, similarly provisioned with power, resources and opportunities, jockeying for a competitive advantage.

Most race course titles reinforce white comfort. Consider the growing number of faculty members that the right-wing mob is attacking for teaching courses about white racism and white supremacy (note that faculty are not attacked by this white racist monster for teaching courses titled Race and Ethnic Relations). In response to the reactionary outcry to my white racism course this spring, I wrote an essay titled “Why I Teach a Course Called White Racism.” I explained that the title was “scholarly and succinct, precise and powerful.” It is also entirely my prerogative as an expert on racism to name my course.

Faculty members who teach race courses, should not be asked to explain why we chose a title any more than a professor of mechanical engineering should have to explain a course titled Biomechanics and Neural Control of Movement. I know nothing about mechanical engineering. But if a mechanical engineering professor found it appropriate to title one of their courses Biomechanics and Neural Control of Movement, I should defer to their expertise.

Some people may claim this is a poor analogy because mechanical engineering is not a controversial issue. It is true that mechanical engineering isn’t controversial until a mechanical system failure occurs (think airplanes, elevators and self-driving vehicles) that results in death or dismemberment. But to the extent that race and white racism may be considered controversial, it is solely because Europeans and their white descendants gave birth to racism and are now ignorant, indifferent or delusional about racial matters — not because there is something inherently controversial about the topic.

I’ve heard no persuasive reasons why race courses should not have provocative titles. I’ve been told such titles: 1) single out white racism (yes … they should), 2) create racial division (we’re already racially divided; these titles actually explain the cause of that division), 3) disincline white students from taking such courses (this is not a problem) and 4) provoke violent white racists (this threat is overstated, and we can’t live in fear of violent white racists).

Names are powerful. Social scientists who teach about race and white racism understand this well. Numerous audit studies have shown that simply having a “black-sounding,” “Arab-sounding” or “Latino-sounding” name increases the likelihood that one will experience racial discrimination in the labor market. And names are more than simply a proxy for race used by some whites to facilitate their racially discriminatory proclivities. Names may be imbued with deep, long and/or painful memories, histories and contemporary realities — think Robert E. Lee, Jim Crow, Rosewood, David Duke, Charleston, Richard Spencer, Donald Trump.

Race course titles matter. White racists know they matter. That’s why they become enraged when they learn about such courses. And it’s not solely the vile and violent white racists who are seething about honestly titled race courses. Racist white moderates and liberals more apt to quaff from the chalice of colorblindness than the goblet of hate and violence also take issue with these courses. And a fair number of such more genteel white racists work right alongside us. Their opposition, to the extent that their sense of white entitlement compels them to communicate it publicly, is often expressed as “concern.” Concern for what? White folks’ feelings?

I know why we sometimes censor ourselves — tenure and promotion considerations, safety and security, less aggravation. And some folks are just generally nonconfrontational. But we need to stay cognizant that when we teach race courses with intellectually bankrupt and whitewashed titles and/or descriptions, we are communicating something we probably don’t intend. And we provide white racists and naïve people of color a degree of comfort they don’t deserve.

Ted Thornhill is an assistant professor of sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University. He will be speaking at Academic Freedom Week on Panel 2: White Supremacy in Academia.