Have Black Lives Matter protests changed the curriculum?

In 1903 the African-American sociologist WEB Du Bois coined the term ‘double consciousness’. American racism, he said, forced African-Americans to see themselves two ways. Among themselves, they were wives, husbands, friends, children. At the same time, America’s racial apartheid, ‘Jim Crow’, forced African-Americans to measure themselves as White America did, that is, with “contempt”.

While discussing with African-American scholars how last spring’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests affected the curriculum in universities across North America, I was brought face to face with a latter-day version of ‘double consciousness’.

When speaking about how their teaching and assignments are designed to chip away at racism, the African-American professors Anthony Pinn of Rice University in Houston, Texas, and Ebony McGee of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, sounded much like Professor Alexandra Rutherford, who teaches the history of psychology at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

At key moments, however, Pinn and McGee’s words and tone changed as they spoke of how African-Americans live with the daily threat of violence at the hands of white Americans.

As did the presidents of North American universities, York University’s president, Rhonda L Lenton, spoke out against anti-black racism during the BLM protests last spring.

At the time when BLM protests were occurring in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, she said: “It is not enough to simply condemn anti-black racism. We have a shared responsibility to uphold and promote the values of respect, equity, diversity and inclusion … we are putting this responsibility at the centre of our teaching and research.”

Responding to President Lenton’s call and discussions with colleagues, Rutherford told me: “I felt I wanted to do something more useful than simply making a statement of support.”

She totally revamped both her graduate and undergraduate courses in the history of psychology. “You have to remember that York is one of the most ethnically and racially diverse schools in Canada. Many of our students did not see themselves in the ‘Great White Men’ history (with a few white women thrown into the mix).”

Though her courses had always included information that wasn’t part of the ‘Great White Men’ history of psychology, BLM protests prompted her to revamp the courses. “I shifted the course so that it highlighted psychology’s historical participation in scientific racism and its role in colonialism,” she said.

Scientific racism can most easily be understood by looking at the founder of the American Psychological Association, G Stanley Hall. He is perhaps best known now for inviting Sigmund Freud and Carl G Jung to lecture at Clark University in 1909.

“He was notorious for his racist theory of human development. During World War I, he developed the IQ tests that were subsequently used to justify and promote a racial hierarchy of intelligence,” says Rutherford.

To engage her students in re-imagining the history of psychology, she adopted a technique developed by Critical Race Theorists called ‘counter-storying’, that is, telling history from a perspective other than the majoritarian, standard story, which is told from the point of view of white privilege.

“What would it look like to counter-story the history of psychology? I asked my students to expose its complicity not only in the history of eugenics but also in the history of racism,” she said. One of the key thinkers Rutherford uses is Eve Tuck, a professor of critical race and indigenous studies at the University of Toronto.

“I have my students read her essays that argue that black and indigenous people have been written about according to a damaged narrative, that there is something wrong with them, as seen through the eyes of the dominant society. I try to get my students to move beyond this and to change the story of the history of psychology,” which includes writing such a chapter in an imagined textbook.

US universities respond with new hires

Pinn of Rice University, whose area of expertise is the history of religion, began our discussion by noting that across the United States many universities have responded to the BLM protests with new hires.

“Think of all the schools hiring scholars to do work related to the history of racism and culture of people of African descent.”

At his university, four scholars have already been hired and there are plans for six more. The positions are partnerships between departments, such as English, art history and anthropology and the Center for African and African American Studies that Pinn directs.

He was also hopeful that the Task Force on Slavery, Segregation and Racial Injustice that he is a member of will come up with solid proposals to rethink the university’s curriculum as a whole.

During the BLM protests last spring, one of the lightning rods on campus was the statue of William Marsh Rice in the university’s quadrangle. I had not researched the founder of the university, but it was obvious from the way Pinn spoke that Rice was a slave holder.

Pinn praises the “silent protests by African-American students who every day would sit at the statue to highlight the contradiction between their presence and the legacy that that statue represents for them”.

Even before last year’s BLM protests, Pinn had developed a course on religion and BLM. “My commitment,” he told me, “was to teach the material until it was no longer relevant.”

His focus is not, as might be expected, the ‘Black Church’, the subject of a just published book by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Rather, his course looks at how BLM challenges the moral and ethical sensibilities of America. “It forces us to rethink the language, grammar and vocabulary we use to explore and explain life.”

The central question his courses ask is, “How do you understand religion if you centre the troubled topic of black humanity?”

In the spring of 2019, the last academic year before COVID and following BLM protests, rather than assign a paper at the end of this course, Pinn tasked his students with a public-facing project.

Using funds provided by the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning, which Pinn also directs, his students conducted a survey asking Rice’s students, faculty and staff to give a sense of what it is like to be black on their campus. The students chose quotes and posted them in the student centre.

Feeling out of place

“The overwhelming sense of these quotes was that black people felt out of place. This is an environment that doesn’t understand or appreciate them.”

Some students and faculty spoke in terms that would have been familiar to Du Bois, of experiencing an ‘imposter syndrome’. Despite the fact that whites make up less than 50% of the school’s student body, Rice’s black students (some 10%) experienced their school as a ‘white space’. Blacks at Rice feel they are held suspect.

“The assumption is that they did not earn their place; they are there only because of affirmative action.”

Towards the end of our interview, I returned to the question of what it means to centre being black in the study of religion? His answer showed that behind his belief in the power of the curriculum to effect change, lay an extraordinary painful consciousness.

“To be black in the context of the United States or in the Western World is to be marginalised and despised.”

‘Always in the presence of death’

Then, after a moment, he added, “It is already and always to be in the presence of death.” He didn’t need to add George Floyd’s, Breonna Taylor’s or the dozens of other names BLM protesters recall on their signs.

Though Professor McGee of Vanderbilt University began by telling me that the “BLM protests have come and gone, and nothing has really changed”, her voice was hopeful when speaking about her courses and, especially, the curricula workshops available on Zoom.

“Strategies for Advancing Democracy, Equity, and Justice in and through Education,” for example, scheduled for 4 March, which features Dr Kevin K Kumashiro, former dean of the University of San Francisco’s School of Education, will present participants with classroom practices “for advancing democracy, equity and social justice in and through education”.

In her own courses, such as “Race, Identity, and Agency in Education”, McGee uses role-playing to undermine racialised perceptions. Speaking of many of her students and to me, she says: “You are a white, privileged male. Be a black woman for a second. Now embody that experience and let’s have a conversation about what it’s like to be in a black woman’s body.”

McGee didn’t have to add that by role-playing a black woman, white males conceptually take on the history of rape of slaves and, after 1865, rape of freed black women, their daughters and granddaughters.

“Or, if you’re a white guy, talk about the ways in which you’ve been privileged because of your whiteness and maleness.”

Such role-plays are of a piece with Pinn’s point about decentring the dominant narrative. “Students find these activities compelling. They are a population coming into its own. And they are anxious to think critically about the world.”

Ever-present fear

Yet, at key points, McGee showed that beneath her optimism is the ever-present fear of violence. The area around Vanderbilt University is replete with white supremacists, she said, underscoring the point by saying that a mere 74 miles up the road is Pulaski, Tennessee, where the Ku Klux Klan was formed by six ex-Confederate officers in December of 1865, a mere eight months after the end of the American Civil War.

When I asked her if there had been any racially motivated attacks on campus since the BLM protests and-or as a result of her teaching Critical Race Theory, she responded as she did to her dean.

“You know it’s so interesting that you asked me that question. My response to you is, ‘Does there have to be? Does someone have to get hurt before you understand the trauma that black faculty and students of colour are facing walking into classrooms that are now considered dangerous. Does someone really have to get shot up for you to listen and hear us?’”

For African-Americans, the fear generated by acts of violence ensures the impact of that violence spreads far beyond the situations in which it actually takes place; it becomes something that could happen at any unexpected moment.

“We don’t need to have violence occur to know that violence is in the air,” McGee says.