Teaching about race demands talking — and doing

May 31, 2013 11:00 AM

Mary Ann Travis

Lack of knowledge about race in America makes a person look kind of dumb, Melissa Harris-Perry told a group of more than a thousand educators on Wednesday (May 29). But some college students have not yet encountered the topic of race at all, she said. “They know very little about it.” And no one should assume that merely seeing a movie about race or even just being black oneself is enough to fill that knowledge gap.

Melissa Harris-Perry

Melissa Harris-Perry is a Tulane professor of political science, founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics at the Newcomb College Institute, and host of her own TV show on MSNBC. (Photo by Sabree Hill)

Harris-Perry, a professor of political science at Tulane University, was the keynote speaker at the 26th annual National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education held in New Orleans at the Riverside Hilton Hotel.

“What counts as knowing is having actual data and information about issues of race and ethnicity,” she said.

What matters is deep intellectual analysis, including serious reading of books and listening to and absorbing academic lectures, Harris-Perry said. But while traditional methods are essential for teaching race, “a more active pedagogy is also necessary.”

“One of the ways that students become more capable of engaging with the difficult questions of race is when we have them not just talking about things but actually doing things,” she said.

She suggested approaches such as sending students off-campus out into the community, having them blog about their experiences and create media content. It’s important to let go of the “missionary model of service learning” and instead create long-term partnerships with community organizations in which the community partners set the parameters for how students serve them.

As part of the five-day conference, Tulane President Scott Cowen along with the presidents of other New Orleans–area universities, Norman Francis of Xavier, Walter Kimbrough of Dillard, Victor Ukpolo of Southern and Kevin Wildes of Loyola, participated in a panel discussion on how their institutions responded to the Katrina crisis.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 website@tulane.edu