For this month’s column, we reflect on the importance of communicating that Black Lives Matter in our classrooms and share a variety of strategies to accomplish this. Please note that these short blurbs (some of which have been edited for length) are just the beginning. We will be sharing additional thoughts and resources in the coming days and weeks. Stay tuned to the STP Facebook group and the DIV2PSYCHTEACHER listserv.
Teceta: One of the things that educators can miss is the disproportionate impact that particular current events can have on our students who have different identities than we do. While we may know of a horrific event like the Pulse shooting, we may not understand the magnitude of the pain for our LGBTQ students if we identify as a sexual majority group member. As educators with any number of dominant identities, we may not know the psychic pain of students who hold subjugated, marginalized, and minoritized identities.
We all were horrified by the murder of George Floyd and have watched our nation roil in the aftermath. For those of us in the Black community, these events have hit hard, and are deeply painful reminders of how much racism is embedded into the structures of America. Informed by these events and the subjugation of the past 400 years is the psychic weight of being Black- the knowledge of the devaluation of Blackness and the precariousness of Black life. It is this piece that educators who are not Black can miss. Keeping equity-minded top of mind is important at all times.
The first part of this is to develop awareness of the ways that Black bodies are policed, demeaned, harmed--in large ways and small. The second piece is to develop critical consciousness around one’s own belief systems and identifying internalized oppression that has been embedded due to centuries of racialized narratives. Reading blog posts and articles and listening to podcasts centered on Black experiences, White privilege, and White anti-racism is one way to accomplish this. The final piece is allyship and advocacy on behalf of Black students. In the classroom, this means diverse readings which center the voices of Black folks and other people of color. It means giving assignments designed to have students uncover and reflect on their identities of privilege and the allyship they can enact in their lives. While it is important to create space in the classroom to talk about current events, it is equally as important (if not more important) to recognize that these events will have a disproportionate effect on some students and adapt your teaching with that reality in mind.
Sasha: In their first goal for undergraduate psychology majors, the APA states that baccalaureate graduates should be able to describe how psychological principles can inform public policy. As educators, we have the opportunity and the privilege to cultivate informed citizens. More specifically, we have a responsibility to ensure that the current moment of protest and unrest is not a passing one. Many of our colleagues and students will eventually feel their pain ease and will try to step away from these uncomfortable conversations. Hopefully, if you are reading this column, you will not be one of them. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
If you are teaching a course or mentoring students when events come to a head, as they have with the murder of George Floyd, I implore you to speak and not be silent. Reach out to your students and colleagues, as well as your friends and family. Do not continue the work of your courses, service, and/or scholarship as if nothing is going on in the world. As the COVID-19 pandemic required faculty around the world to shift their classes online, a number of articles and resources were published--almost immediately--to help people adapt their teaching for the “new normal.” I would like to suggest that a pandemic is not the only kind of crisis that might require you to amend your teaching plans. The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and all of those before them were widely publicized and traumatic. We must acknowledge the hurt and the pain and alter our teaching plan for the course, as appropriate. This summer, I am teaching an online course on Memory and the Law. I posted announcements acknowledging current events and assuring my students that they could contact me if they needed to speak or required any accommodations. I ensured that the discussion (already in-progress) on how eyewitness testimony is altered through interaction with police investigators included thoughtful consideration of how biases and prejudices influence these interactions, particularly when community members do not feel as if the police are their allies.
Finally, I ask that you consider the additional layer in the coming weeks when you wish others to “stay safe.” As has become inescapably clear, this is something that can be much more difficult for some people every single day. I offered a similar recommendation in our previous column on COVID-19 and I will do so here again: Do not assume how your students are doing or what they need. Ask them. And remember that you have needs as well. Stay safe.
Dina: I don’t think we should underestimate the power in simply stating, unequivocally, that Black Lives Matter in our classrooms. As psychology educators, we can and should do more to foster ethical and social responsibility in a diverse world (one of the APA’s goals for the undergraduate psychology major). We should not only educate students about the history and continued presence of systemic racism and anti-Blackness in our society, but also help our students recognize and address their own potential for prejudice and discrimination so they can truly become anti-racist. While there are a number of resources that explain systems like mass incarceration, police brutality and economic and educational inequality, I recommend making a special point to assign readings/media from Black scholars to ensure their voices are heard and represented. (For a video addressing the phrase “all lives matter,” I specifically recommend Jesse Williams’ viral 2016 BET Awards Speech.)
In addition to readings and popular media (like Ava DuVernay’s film When They See Us, now accompanied by a great interactive learning guide), you can also have students complete active learning activities that can help them acknowledge their own biases and understand how certain biases can translate into unspeakable tragedies. I have students take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) for skin tone to see for themselves how common it is to have an implicit preference for the majority group like the majority of the class did. Some white students were worried about being “racist,” but were oddly comforted to learn that even many young Black girls heartbreakingly shared their implicit bias and chose white Barbie dolls over Black Barbie dolls in studies. After the murder of Atatiana Jefferson, students in my social psychology methods class discussed how the officer’s bias likely prompted him to believe that Jefferson was a dangerous threat, despite being unarmed in her own home with her hands up. Such tragedies illustrate how psychological biases (some subtle and others not-so-subtle) can impact our behavior if we are not vigilant to their influence. This is precisely why we must work to be more cognizant of and consistently challenge our biases and encourage our students to do the same. However, a number of studies (and real-life incidents) have repeatedly shown that simply making people aware of their biases isn’t enough to effect change. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, it takes deliberate and persistent work to get closer to true anti-racism, and the onus should be on those with any amount of privilege (including non-Black people of color) to use it to effect change in themselves and others. I hope you’ll join me in this fight.
Leslie: In many of the social studies classes I took in middle school and high school, teachers encouraged us to think about what we would do if we lived through Big Moments in History™️. Would we be the ones who volunteered our homes as part of the Underground Railroad? Would we be the ones marching in the streets for racially integrated classrooms? I remember many, if not all, of my classmates patting themselves on the back for how they obviously would have done (what we now recognize as) the right thing without second thought. I share this journey through time to make one thing inescapably clear: What you have been doing for the past several years (and, arguably, for your entire life) is what you would have done then.
As individuals, we all have different skills and capacities; but, as educators, we can all teach. One of my favorite things about teaching psychology is that it can help students put scientific terms to the things they certainly notice every single day and give them a different lens through which they can understand their own actions and the actions of those around them. In my introductory class alone, we cover the just-world beliefs that lead some people to wonder “why [the victim] didn’t just comply” in defense of extrajudicial killings and the zero-sum beliefs that underlie the phrase “all lives matter.” We reflect on how the Stanford Prison Experiment (both in spite of and due to its shortcomings) might help us understand real-world acts of brutality, from Abu Ghraib to over-policed streets around the country, and I provide tips, grounded in the classic Asch and Milgram studies, for being that one person who speaks up or refuses to cause harm. We discuss racism as a public health crisis, addressing disparities in maternal mortality and cardiovascular health, and how bias, both explicit and implicit, on the part of medical professionals can limit the care that Black Americans receive, not to mention how the stress of racism can precipitate any number of mental health concerns. We owe it to our students (and to society at large) not to simply teach terms and concepts, but to communicate how they can use what they are learning to contribute to a safer and more equitable world for all.
As psychologists, it is so easy to convey that your Black students’ lives matter by integrating that message into the substantive content that we already teach. The question is whether you will choose to do so.
Viji: I suspect that there are a number of us who, as faculty, are not sure how Black Lives Matter fits in our curriculum, or racism, or anti-racism fits in our course(s). I’m a prime example of this -- on the surface, how would you expect someone teaching the core psychology and neuroscience courses like statistics and research methods approach “fitting in” these topics? While there are certainly a number of strategies, I’d like to suggest that we can convey that Black Lives Matter not just in what we teach, but how we teach.
One such strategy is to acknowledge racism and racist events as they happen. As educators, we don’t teach content, we teach students. When events like these occur (and I’ll add: they are not happening more frequently, they are being recorded and exposed more frequently), we have a responsibility to acknowledge the hurt and pain that this causes in our students, in ourselves, and those around us. I recall an instance like this in my course years ago, where our campus community was brought to our knees. The hurt was palpable. I was grieving, and I knew many of my students were too. I took a moment outside my classroom door before entering to take a deep breath to compose myself. I set up as I normally did and when it was time to start class, I started by saying something very simple: “I know this is a painful time for many of you. I’m so sorry. I am thinking of you and if you ever want to talk, I’ll always be willing to listen and support you in any way I can.” After class, several students contacted me in person and by email to say I was the first professor to have acknowledged that incident. I know that it may seem difficult to name it, but by not acknowledging these painful moments, we are also conveying something to our students. If it feels uncomfortable to say something like this, send a message like this to your students by email. Ignoring it is not the answer. Speaking out about racism is not political, it is human and it is just; our students and trainees need to hear this.
But this single strategy is only the tip of the iceberg. I encourage everyone to look at who is doing the labor of diversity, equity and inclusion work on your campus. Until this is everyone’s job, we will not succeed. Yes, there is a lot of work to be done “out there” in society to fight racism, but there is also a lot of work to be done in our own institutions, departments, and classrooms to fight racism. I hope you will join me in this fight; we could use everyone.
Jennifer: In addition to the wonderful suggestions listed by my colleagues, I use teaching as an opportunity to illuminate the role psychology has played (and still does play) in supporting systems of oppression. I do this across my classes by highlighting examples based on the topic (e.g., "Even the Rat was White" by Robert Guthrie, "Homosexuality" in the DSM-I & -II). I also assign Dr. Martin Luthar King's speech to the American Psychological Association in 1967, on the role of the behavioral scientist in the civil rights movement. He stated, "White America needs to understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism and the understanding needs to be carefully documented and consequently more difficult to reject" (para. 7). There are many poignant statements from his speech that still resonate today. This leads us to discuss the importance of psychologists in the social justice movement, and the ways we can use self-awareness, research, teaching, and advocacy to make positive social change.