Teaching Race and International Politics: Notes from a Canadian Classroom

8 September 2020, 1008 EDT

Eric Van Rythoven (PhD) is an Instructor in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.  His research focuses on the intersection between the politics of emotion, International Relations, and security.  His articles have been published in the Journal of Global Security Studies, the European Journal of International Relations, Security Dialogue, among others and he is the co-editor (with Mira Sucharov) of Methodology and Emotion in International Relations (Routledge, 2019).  You can learn more about his research and writing at his website.

This is the fourth post in our series on Race&IR.

How should we approach discussions of race and racism in the classroom? Increasingly, issues of race are receiving more attention in the field of IR.  Whether it is through a series of high-profile articles discussing why race matters in IR, or why the field remains blind to racism, debates about race and racism are taking a more prominent place in the field.  Yet comparatively less attention has been given  to how to teach race in the classroom.  This mirrors broader patterns of intellectual life in IR where the “published discipline” dominates scholarly attention and the “taught discipline” appears as an afterthought (Ettinger, 2020).  But if we take calls to think about the taught discipline seriously, how then should we approach teaching race in the classroom?

This post contributes to the conversation by discussing the results from a brief survey on student views on teaching race and international politics in a Canadian classroom.  The survey (n=100) was supported through Carleton University’s Students as Partners Program (SaPP) where faculty can offer paid experience to undergraduate students to help develop curriculum and teaching resources.  Respondents were primarily students from IR courses, but also included those studying Canadian Foreign Policy. 

As part of our project we wanted to hear students’ views on teaching race in the classroom, including what topics they are interested in learning about, as well as what they see as some of the barriers to learning.  Situated in a diverse city in a unique national context, it is important to caution against generalizations. Yet in what follows we highlight some of the main findings and bring them into dialogue with the broader pedagogy literature on race and IR.

More, not less

When asked whether they believe the Department of Political Science should be teaching more content on race, less, or about the same, students overwhelming responded ‘more’.  37% of students called for ‘more’, while 30% called for ‘significantly more’.  Only 5% called for ‘less’,  while 5% called for ‘far less’.  The result is similar when they were asked if courses at Carleton in general should be teaching more content on race.  31% responded ‘more’ and 34% responded ‘significantly more’, while only 10% called for ‘less’ and 6% called for ‘far less’.

This matters because, as Wendy Theodore (2008, 455) highlights, instructors often confront the view among students that race is “irrelevant” for understanding international politics.  This is especially true when students treat race and racism as “historical categories” that no longer matter in contemporary politics (2008, 456).  In the worst-case scenario the result can be resentment and hostility from students as they feel compelled to focus on what they see as irrelevant or anachronistic.

We certainly have respondents who fits this dynamic and return to this below.  But overwhelming, we see students wanting more discussion of race and racism, not less.

Non-western thinkers, security, and migration

In order to gauge areas of interest we asked students to rate the level of importance for 13 topics ranging from “Non-Western Thinkers” to “Islamophobia” to “Race and Migration” and beyond.  Each topic was assessed on a Likert scale ranging from 1 (unimportant) to 5 (very important).  Students were also able add topics not listed that they would like to see discussed in class (they came up with some good ones including “Asian IR Theory’ and “Anti-Semitism”).

Out the responses a few key themes stand out.  First, students think everything is important.  The lowest rated topic was ‘Anti-Racism and Social Movements’ and this received an average of 3.9.  This supports our earlier observation that there is an appetite for discussing race in the context of international politics.  Second, the top three categories included “ Non-Western Thinkers” (4.28), “Race, Security, and Conflict” (4.27), and “Race and Migration” (4.19).

The demand for content from non-western thinkers dovetails with a series of recent calls to diversify the focus of introductory IR courses.  This call was echoed in students’ written responses:

“I would like to see more Readings by people of colour authors and academics, as well as global south authors, because their voices should be amplified when discussing race in international politics.”

“I would love for there to be more academic sources / articles / theories that have been written by people of colour, especially women of colour.”

“A broader range of readings from authors of various ethnicities, and not solely focusing on western thinkers.”

“BIPOC authors. Not just using journal articles. Academia is so elitist that the polarity between scholarly and non-scholarly material overlooks the disproportionate rates of BIPOC experts. Rather students should respect testimonies, interviews, reports, etc as knowledge especially if it is coming from an oppressed group.”

Jonneke Koomen (2019) offers a compelling example of what this looks like in her “International Relations/Black Internationalism” course.  By coupling convention IR readings with the work of seminal black internationalist thinkers, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Haile Selassie, Koomen provides a crucial point of context and critique for the traditional IR cannon.  Similarly, Anna Meier’s course syllabus offers an example of how to discuss race and migration in a way that uses documentaries to foreground the voices and experiences of displaced persons.

Case studies—yes please!  Group work—no thanks!

With the pandemic on top of mind and distance teaching rapidly becoming the norm we were curious about which activities students believed were effective for learning.  We asked students to rate which activities best facilitate their learning across 13 choices on a Likert scale ranging from 1 (unhelpful) to 5 (very useful).  The top three responses were in-depth case studies (4.08), guest speakers (3.92), and short written assignments (3.9).  Interestingly, lectures with Power Point were highly valued (3.77) challenging the notion that students suffer from lecture fatigue.

The preference for in-depth case studies did not come as a surprise.  Last semester I used Jeremy Youde’s (2005) study of counter-epistemic communities, AIDS, and South Africa in our discussion of global health.  The article has a rich discussion of the history of colonialism and anti-black racism in South Africa and how this figured into contemporary policies to combat the AIDS/HIV crisis.  It was easily one of the most popular readings of the course.

The lowest three responses were group presentations (2.3), blogging/message boards (2.46), and meme-making (2.56).  The response to group presentations confirmed my suspicious that group projects were problematic as I get complaints about freeriding and interpersonal conflict almost every semester.  Other students saw activities like making IR memes as unserious.  As one student responded: “‘meme making’ and ‘journal writing’ offends the rigour that university classes ought to demand”.

White professors and the challenge of discussing race

In an open response question we asked students what they think are some of the challenges or barriers in learning about race and international politics.  One of the most common themes in the answers was the whiteness of faculty:

“Many professors, to be blunt, are white. This poses a challenge when teaching about race in general. They have not experience[d] racism directly and I think there needs to be a level of personal touch when it comes to these teachings…”

“It’s sometimes difficult to learn about race and international politics from people who do not have lived experience with it. However, this can be mitigated by using guest speakers and acknowledging privilege in being able to speak about this, rather than having lived it.”

“…Another challenge would be that the majority of professors at most universities including Carleton are white. While I actually believe it’s especially important that white professors do talk about race, it is even more important that these professors understand that they are approaching something they have never experienced and as such attempt to educate themselves as much as possible…”

“White professors teaching about race when they have no experience in race. We need more diverse and experienced professors to teach topics on race. Even if we have guest speakers to come in and teach about the topics on race.”

“The person teaching said topics often falls under one or all of the following categories: white, male, of a higher socio-economic class. This is a big problem with Carleton’s Political Science Department … There’s very little you can learn from a professor who is just teaching you these topics from a “textbook knowledge” perspective, who has never encountered racism, discrimination, prejudice of any kind…”

For many students, the insulation of white faculty from the experiences of discrimination means that they often lack the credibility to speak authoritatively on racism.  This does not mean, however, that students believe white faculty should avoid the topic of race.  Instead, students underscored how it requires hiring more diverse faculty, inviting guest speakers, including readings by BIPOC authors, and generally becoming more informed on issues of race and racism.

Navigating these tensions can be difficult.  As Bousfield, Johnson, and Montsion detail, recognizing one’s “positional whiteness” can lead to an “an ongoing struggle is to incorporate intersectional voices in our teaching without claiming representational authority for them” (2019, 177).  At the same time however, white faculty enjoy a privileged position to challenge predominantly white classrooms over the putative absence of race from discussions of international politics.  While BIPOC faculty are often dismissed as “bitter and disgruntled” for raising issues of race (Theodore, 2009, 457), the same dismissals are less effective when the topic of race is broached by white faculty.  White faculty then, have a responsibility to use their privileged position to role-model discussions of race and racism to audiences which might otherwise dismiss the topic out of hand.

Discussions of race are uncomfortable, but in different ways

One of the open questions we asked was if there are any reasons why students might feel uncomfortable when discussing issues of race in class.  In my experience conversations could be become visibly more tense and heated during our discussion of race.  While some students suggested there was no problem, several students described uncomfortable experiences but in markedly different ways.

For many students of color, the discussion became burdensome and emotionally exhausting:

“Microaggressions and internalized biases can come out in these conversations. It can get exhausting when classmates do not view others’ concerns as legitimate because they themselves have not experienced racial bias. This can also place an unfair burden on students of colour. POC have to be calm / logical while explaining why something is prejudiced or risk being invalidated by virtue of emotionality, or accept problematic views. Tip-toeing around the comfort of others just to be heard takes a toll. It should be a choice whether to devote emotional energy dismantling ignorance– but often it’s not. Having to advocate for your own humanity is draining.”

“Because I’m a visible Muslim woman, when discussing issues of islamophobia I am stared at or called out by the teacher to comment”

“Being the token Indigenous person in my program, I’m used to people talking about issues that affect me and either a) thinking I know the answers to everything or b) talking about the issues without considering that they affect me personally”

“As a racialized person, I do not think it is fair of me to speak for my race when I’ve [only] lived in one body, and seen the parts of the world my body has carried me to. Some of these experiences are quite personal and can bring up strong emotions. These kinds of experiences are better handled in works of fiction which speak to nature of these experiences without forcing people to share things they would rather keep”.

Other students however, raised concerns over censorship, white privilege, and appearing offensive:

“Censorship. As a “Conservative” student, I find conservative view points are often overridden and disregarded. While I would personally characterize my view along a more “progressive conservative” spectrum, I do not always feel comfortable expressing views in class… A target is then painted on me as an elitist or racist. This effects my learning environment. University student discourse should encourage respectful open discourse…”

“I am white, and because of this I generally feel uncomfortable when discussing race, as it forces me to consider my own privilege and past, which is awkward. Furthermore, I do not feel knowledgeable enough on the issues to truly contribute to discussions. That said, this is the exact reason I believe these conversations are important…”

“The fear of being wrong or pitiful ally incorrect when dissecting topics or racism. Thus resulting in not speaking and learning about them at all.”

“It [is] hard for group discussions because I don’t want to say anything to offend anyone.”

In their discussion of teaching race and IR Bousfield, Johnson, and Montsion (2019) talk about the need for “affective leadership” to manage the emotions of students in the classroom.  For Johnson this means teachers can model behaviour by expressing anger, compassion, and even confusion and struggle when discussing emotional issues (2019, 183).  The point is not to get students to ape the instructor’s feelings, nor to privilege certain emotional responses over others.  The point is to emphasize that the classroom is a place for difficult conversations, even if they are emotionally uncomfortable. 

Finally, questions need to be raised over whether student comfort needs to be the primary consideration in discussions of race in the classroom.  Bilgic, Dhami, and Onkal (2018), for example, call for building a safe albeit “uncomfortable classroom” that leads students to question their previously settled beliefs about the self, other, and the meaning of ‘security’.  Some of our respondents would agree and called for embracing uncomfortable conversations:

 “Talking about race is uncomfortable. It will never be comfortable. Black and Indigenous people have to live with discomfort every day of their lives. White people do not. Trying to make talking about race a comfortable exercise is futile and actively props up white supremacy by trying to coddle white people and convince them that these systems aren’t violent. What we need to do is stop focusing on comfort and start focusing on enlightening white people to the realities of the world from Black and Indigenous perspectives.”

Dissenting viewpoints: please stop talking about race

As expected, not all students were supportive of discussing issues of race and racism in class.  While representing a very small minority, these responses came in essentially two varieties.  The first assumes that any discussion was part of an effort to indoctrinate students into a broader political agenda:

“…university campuses have become exploited by a hodge-podge of intersectional neo-Marxists and authoritarian leftists who use their academic position to preach from a pulpit of self-righteousness. Everything is presented as a construction of the patriarchy/capitalism/white people to the point where its overly predictable and even laughable to the average student who has learned to just bite their tongue and regurgitate/play along with this obscene nonsense…”

In my experience these responses are not really about the topic at hand and instead are linked to a series of preconceived notions about what is happening in the university.  The more common response is simply to question the validity and relevance of these conversations:

“Personally I don’t think that race should be factored in when analyzing international politics. Understanding the historic impact of racialized policies has some value, but as an analytical lens, I feel that it is a dead end.”

“The premier challenge of involving race in international politics is in its inclusion at too high of a level of importance. By placing too much importance on race as opposed to national and international success in each nations agenda…”

Faculty should be wary about over-investing time and effort in a small group of skeptical students.  At the same time, we need to be prepared to confront skepticism over the significance of race in international politics.  After all, there is a “common sense” about the boundaries of IR, and this common sense often excludes issues of race (Chowdry and Rai, 2009, 85).  We should not be surprised that students become socialized into this common sense, any more than how they might be socialized to think of gender as ‘unimportant’.  Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer for how to unsettle this common sense.  For some, it will mean creating an “uncomfortable classrooms” by exposing students to the positionality of their knowledge claims.  For others, it may mean using accessible examples from popular culture to provoke reflexivity amongst students over the connections between race and politics.  Regardless of the specific strategy, educators should be mindful of how this common sense can generate a lasting skepticism over discussions of race in the classroom.