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CAMPUS CORRESPONDENCE : How Race Can Make a Difference in Teaching African-American Studies

October 16, 1994|LESLIE D. HARRIS | Leslie D. Harris is a junior majoring in journalism at Howard University

WASHINGTON — The protest of African-American students at California State University, Northridge, over the hiring of a white instructor--the only one--in the school's Pan-African Studies department is yet another example of how issues can be reduced to race. In this case, though, the racial lines being drawn are particularly instructive.

Katherine Komis is probably qualified for the job of teaching introductory English. After all, she was not hired to teach African history. Still, I doubt she will be as effective as an African-American teacher would be teaching English in the department.

As scholar Sabrina Hope King once put it: " . . . teaching African-American students successfully requires more than merely mastering subject matter; it also consists of engaging students in reflections about the status quo, which in this country has often served to oppress African-American people."

Accordingly, black instructors in African studies can establish a special rapport with their black students simply because teacher and pupil, both being black, share certain experiences. And those common experiences partly shape their approaches to teaching.

Now, some would turn this argument around, saying that only whites should teach English or British literature. But that would miss the point.

Whites have not been grossly misinformed about themselves. Their experiences have been favorably represented in history books. They have not been flagrantly stereotyped by the media.

This is not true for African-Americans. For too long, we have been made to feel that our history is unimportant. Most of what we know about ourselves and our contributions to the world is misleading, if not downright false.

We are living in a time when racism, and the stereotypes it fosters and reinforces, are more subtle and dangerous than ever before. So it is understandable why black students, ever conscious of racial discrimination and their negative media images, would have difficulty accepting a white professor in a Pan-African Studies department.

In the December issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, black students at Iowa State University accused Christie Farnham Pope, a white professor teaching black history, of dismissing Afrocentric views without discussion. Similar controversies have occurred at Weber and Portland state universities.

Of course, not all white teachers are biased, but, I know from my experience in a predominantly white school system that I was done a great injustice.

When I was in high school in Marietta, Ga., I always sensed a distance between me and my white teachers. I had to work extra hard to prove myself to them and to my white classmates. I was rarely given personal encouragement.

Because of this, I chose to attend Howard University, a black college. I correctly assumed that its professors would be more interested in my progress. Indeed, many go out of their way to prepare me and other black students for careers. And I have been blessed with black teachers of black studies who are free from ingrained biases and stereotypes. As a result, I have not been misinformed about my history.

A professor's ability to effectively teach African studies involves more than mastering the material, as important as that is. It is also aided by having a special relationship to the subject matter. That is, having lived a part of it.

It takes more than qualifications to teach in a Pan-African Studies department. It takes a special gift that not everyone possesses.*

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