This past fall I taught my first course in Race and Ethnic relations as a doctoral student. It was cross-listed in African American Studies and Sociology. While organizing the course, I reflected back to my own college experiences. As a Chicana from the small town of Battle Creek, Michigan and the first in my family to attend college, I was often “the only” person of color or “one of a handful” of women in most of my classrooms. It was an experience that often left me feeling excluded or invisible. Eventually, I found a home in African American Studies and signed up for every course that I could fit into my schedule.
Majoring in African American studies taught me to see myself in Marlon Riggs Ethnic Notions, find myself Malcolm X’s autobiography and hear myself in Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddamn. While these experiences were not necessarily my own, they touched a part of my spirit that connected with what it means to experience injustice. However, as time went on, I remember longing to see articles and documentaries by people whose names ended in a -z or vowel. I remember wanting desperately to “see myself” in the pages of books and the joy of eventually discovering works like Gloria Anzaldua’s Making Face, Making Soul. Because of these experiences, I knew that the gift I wanted to give my students was the chance to see their “self” in the course.
Prior to beginning my PhD journey, I had served as a Director of Multicultural Affairs in Higher Ed for nearly eight years. Over the course of my career, I observed that the term “inclusivity” had become more trite than true…more descriptive than active. For example, inclusivity meant printing admission brochures in Spanish but not necessarily visiting the communities to distribute them. Inclusivity, I recognized, required intentionality. It requires asking, “Who is not represented? Who has not been invited to the proverbial table? What am I missing? What are my blind spots?” These were the questions I asked as I designed my syllabus.
I knew I could not reach every student, but I was going to try my hardest. The first few weeks were dedicated to the social history of each racial group (i.e. Black, Latino, Asian, Native American, White) but I also made sure to include a week on Multiracial/Biracial identities. As I progressed into more contemporary issues, I continued to be as inclusive as possible. For example during the week I called “Queering the Color Line” I included readings about Black Lesbian families (Moore 2011), Two Spirit identity development (Adams & Phillips 2009), Asian American parents of Lesbian daughters and Gay sons (Hom 2007) and Gay, Mexican and Immigrant men (Thing 2010). My students told me that this was the most eye-opening week of the course because these were issues that are not often discussed in their every day lives.
When exploring stereotypes in film, I screened not only Ethnic Notions but also The Bronze Screen: 100 Years of the Latino Image in Hollywood, The Slanted Screen, Reel Injun: On The Trail of the Hollywood Indian and clips from Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. From this, students were able to see exactly how racism works through cultural representations and ask crucial questions of how and why such images emerged. They saw examples not just of the practice of blackface but also “brown” face, “red” face and “yellow” face. They were amazed at how frequently racial stereotypes appeared in something as innocent as Disney and Bugs Bunny cartoons.
During the week that I focused on education, I was able to present my own research on the history of school desegregation. I was pleased that most students had heard of Brown v. Board of Education. But none of my students had heard of Mendez v. Westminster, a 1947 case involving Mexican American students, Piper v. Big Pine, a 1924 case involving Native American students and Tape v. Hurley, an 1885 case involving Chinese American students. By comparing and contrasting the cases, students were able to see that the struggle for civil rights in the United States extends beyond the Black/White binary and is not limited to the 50s. They were able to see acts of resistance by communities whose study is often limited to immigration (Latinos), genocidal history (Native Americans) and model minority status (Asian Americans). I was proud to show them these multiracial bricks before Brown.
Teaching my first course on race affirmed for me that inclusivity requires intentionality. Because I know what it feels like to be excluded or invisible in certain spaces, I believe I have an obligation to fight that much harder to be inclusive and provide an opportunity for my students to “see themselves” in the materials I assign.
Marisela Martinez-Cola is currently a third year doctoral student in Sociology at Emory University. She is working on her dissertation prospectus called “The Bricks Before Brown: A Comparative Historical Case Study of the Asian American, Latino and Native American Contributions to the School Desegregation Movement in the United States.” She earned her J.D. from Loyola University Chicago School of Law in 1999 and her B.A. in African American Studies and Psychology from The University of Michigan in 1996. Prior to beginning her PhD, Marisela served as a Director of Multicultural Affairs for almost eight years at a variety of institutions around the country including Davenport University, The George Washington University, The University of Georgia and Agnes Scott College.