Over the past twelve years, I have functioned in the capacity of both adjunct faculty and National Faculty at Lesley University, a private university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I have had the distinct pleasure of teaching courses across the United States for the division of Creative Arts in Learning (CAL) as a part of the Graduate School of Education. As a professor of arts integration, I teach practicing K-12 educators to incorporate a variety of arts disciplines into core curriculum areas. Mirroring current public school national teacher demographics, my students are overwhelmingly middle class, white, and female. These assignments have been and continue to be nothing less than gratifying, offering opportunities for expanding my teaching into new dimensions.

Very often, I find myself working in cities or towns where there are very few, if any, people who look like me, and it is even more common to find myself teaching in classrooms where I am the only person of color in the room. I have become accustomed to knowing, feeling, and internalizing what I call “solo spaces.” In fact, I have made a conscious decision to use this unique position to my advantage as an instructor. I have been consistently gratified in discovering how my presence as an African American professor from the South has presented itself as a segue into creating meaningful teachable moments to frame broader issues pertaining to race, cultural identity, and class.

The following dialogue is an example of an exchange I had with white students in a small town located in the western part of the United States. To facilitate this dialogue I deliberately employed four communication strategies to navigate through student inquiries pertaining to race: (a) assessing underlying meanings, (b) using humor, (c) reframing questions and statements, and(d) probing to discover new information.

Student 1: Don’t you feel weird being the only black person in this class?

Teacher: Actually, I feel pretty weird whether I’m the only black person or not! (Humor) 

But all jokes aside, by “weird” are you asking if I feel uncomfortable? (Assessing )

Student 1: Sorta! You don’t “spazz out” when you don’t see other black people?

Teacher: Well, I do like to see other black people, but I’m okay if I don’t.

Student #1: I don’t know if I could do that!

Teacher: Do you mean that it would be difficult if you were the only white person in a group of people who were racially different from you? (Assessing)

Student #1: I just couldn’t do it. It would freak me out!

Teacher: Sounds like it would make you very uncomfortable. Do you have any idea why you feel that way? (Probing) I would love to hear feelings from the rest of you as well.

Student #1: I just have always been around people like myself and it feels scary to think I’m in the minority.

Student #2: Yeah, we just aren’t used to being around people different from ourselves.

But, I lived in Atlanta for a while, so I’m used to seeing all kinds of people. I like it out here but there’s no diversity. Everybody looks the same, believes in the same thing, and sees life the same way. I don’t like that.

Teacher: I can appreciate that. There are many people who feel exactly like you. Are there others in class who share similar feelings? Different feelings?

So, it sounds like some of you have been exposed to more diverse populations than others, and those of you who have had more experiences with diversity appear to have a higher comfort level with being in the minority than those of you who have had fewer experiences.(Reframing)

I lived in the South during the period of school desegregation, so I became accustomed to being the only person of color at an early age. So, to answer the original question, I guess I don’t feel exceptionally weird.

It’s just my natural way of being!

Now, what might all this mean if we’re teaching students who may be the only person of color in your classroom? (Probing)

Student #1: I guess I shouldn’t think they’re uncomfortable or feel bad just because they look different. Sometimes, I bend over backwards because I feel sorry for them.

Teacher: Kinda like you were feeling sorry for me? (Probing)

Student #1: Exactly!

Student #2: Yeah, we make so many assumptions about our kids based on how we would feel…it’s not really fair.

Teacher: So, Student #1, look what you started! We now know that just because a student is a minority in your classroom community, he or she may not necessarily feel uncomfortable. We also know that our lived experiences may shape how we react to being placed in particular situations.

After breaking down the initial tension with humor, I became ecstatic, even, somewhat humbled, about the elevated level of participation that followed. The beauty of the overall process rested in an awakening that culminated after the student-teacher dialogue. Once I posed the question relative to how our conversation might pertain to their own classes, the students constructed their individual ideas and came to terms with the need to turn the tides of their thinking. In essence, the processes I chose to employ led to a lucrative exchange that propelled my students to become considerably more culturally sensitive.

M. Francine Jennings based this blog on her chapter in Culturally Responsive Teaching and Reflection in Higher Education.

M. Francine Jennings teaches Integrated Teaching through the Arts, with a focus on Creative Movement, Critical Action Research, Diversity and Reflective Thinking. She also performs her own one-woman show, highlighting the life of Harriet Tubman. This blog is based on her chapter in Culturally Responsive Teaching and Reflection in Higher Education, edited by Sharlene Voogd Cochrane (a Courage & Renewal facilitator), Meenakshi Chhabra, Marjorie Jones, and Deborah Spragg (Routledge, 2017).

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