Webinars and blogs have increased in recent months, reflecting increased attention to the long-standing, deeply ingrained analytical marginalization of the race in international relations (IR). Many well-intentioned colleagues are now wringing their hands; How could researchers and teachers have missed such a widespread problem? After many years of raising such concerns, sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, I hope that IR has finally reached a transformative turning point.
Still, I’m still confused as to why, two decades after the 21st centuryst In the 20th century, many educators still find it so difficult to include race and racism in their curriculum. The handwringers usually claim they have no in-depth knowledge or inconvenience with the terminology, but any new perspective or unfamiliar material should never be viewed as a barrier. After all, academics are supposed to be lifelong learners. Indeed, recognition of race and racism may require an additional dose of humility, as well as the allocation of time for wider reading. However, omissions go deeper than what could be corrected through personal revelation.
Some people rightly fear a backlash, be it from students, colleagues, or public critics of science. Job security and white privileges offer unequal degrees of protection. While the responsibility rests primarily with the institutions to address this fear factor directly, individuals can help by normalizing course content that deals with race and racism. Otherwise, whether limited by fear or blinked by ignorance, the result is too many instructors acting as gatekeepers by default when we need more door openers. The lack of an open discussion of race in most introductory textbooks, especially those aimed at wide markets, reflects and exacerbates the problem – clash of civilizations, anyone?
In response to these concerns, Kelly Zvobgo and Meredith Loken (2020) offered a “curriculum” by pointing out a variety of ways in which races permeate the basis of IR across key concepts and classic examples. Your piece gives the instructors permission to address the race from the start or at least as an additional topic. By offering a curriculum instead of a template, they suggest resources. Anyone looking for content or educational advice can follow its links as well as recommendations from other scientists or institutes.
How do we then implement this agenda? Since everyone inevitably makes decisions in a certain context, I also do without any template. Instead, I am offering two overarching guidelines from my own efforts (over many years at multiple institutions) to redesign courses that bridge the gap between the general universalization format for introductory courses and my students’ experiences. I formulate each guideline as a question to encourage self-reflection. In response to each question, I offer tips based on my own experience as a white Chicago woman.
Precaution: Some of us also have the privileged responsibility of training future generations of academics, both through mentoring teaching assistants and designing advanced courses. My nudges apply there too, but the additional limitations of professional training deserve more attention than I can cover here. Complementary or alternative tactics may also be more useful in themed courses.
Where do you teach
The manifestations of racial hierarchies will not be the same everywhere, so the way people talk about race – or avoid talking about race – necessarily varies according to global location. Each of us faces this challenge in a unique way. Let’s start with continental divisions. Since I have spent (almost) my entire teaching career in the US, this is my main reference point. However, my own factual tone, which I learned in southern Africa, does not translate easily into the US context. Conversely, in southern Africa I re-calibrated the way I was talking about the US because so many people have articulated either a superficial Hollywood glitz or a dogmatic class analysis of neo-imperialism.
Tip: Treat race or racism in a register that makes sense wherever you live.
For those of us in the US, teaching about imperialism has the potential to profoundly challenge both national narratives and academic truisms around 19th Century isolationism and 20th centuryth liberal hegemony of the century. Because controversy can unsettle students and bias theories warn us about filter effects, teachers need to grapple with how to convey new perspectives. For years I was able to remotely address race races by including content on apartheid and its legacy for human rights. South Africa provided a film that reduced potential defenses and thus opened up the possibility of recognizing segregation in Chicago or Syracuse. Unfortunately, this content no longer works with current cohorts who know more about Trevor Noah than Nelson Mandela.
Although I have abandoned any pretense of subtlety in response to the Trump administration’s overt racism, I still rely on distancing as a tactic to reduce the preparedness of my politically and socio-economically diverse students. Using IR tools, my lectures historicize and internationalize symbols of the Confederate in order to emphasize slavery and the civil war in the USA and thus to establish connections to protests of the Black Lives Matter and symbols of transnational white supremacist movements. This detour also enables me to make British imperialism relevant from the perspective of a former settler colony. Then I combine hegemonic stability and power transfer theories with an arc of US ascension that includes the empire within the hemisphere. This semester, I conducted an anonymous survey to see how many students already knew these 19th Century history and learned that only half of the class did.
Tip: Talk about races as they manifest themselves in the communities you teach.
As mentioned many times, U.S.-based academics play a disproportionate role in defining the mainstream. Thus, Anglophone voices predominate. I cannot adequately address language issues here, so I only note the marginalization of Francophone writings and stories in North America. For example, just because I teach a course on Canadian politics did I find out about longstanding ties between Haiti and Quebec. Next, I aim to incorporate the transformative effects of the Haitian Revolution into my IR courses. In the meantime I have gradually replaced South Africa with Canada as a foil to generate alternative reference points. This shift makes sense because Syracuse is close to the northern border. Elsewhere, the southern border and Spanish may be more pronounced, or recognition from immigrant communities, and their languages may resonate.
Based on my Canadian colleagues, I increasingly include content about indigenous peoples that is not even mentioned in most IR textbooks. In particular, the war of 1812 attracted particular attention in my course because of its links to local history and for theoretical reasons. In particular, indigenous allies fail from state-centered analysis, and I point out that democratic peace theory typically begins in 1815, omitting a notable case of democracies at war. In addition, this attention to local Onondaga (Iroquois) perspectives is resonating in the campus discussions on double marginalization and goes beyond decolonization as a mere metaphor.
Who do you teach?
Due to innumerable implicit assumptions about the audience, it is not easy to include different voices – instead of introducing them superficially. The majority of students in many U.S. schools are white, usually with little vocabulary to have meaningful conversation on a sensitive topic. Perhaps the goal is just to make the race a topic of discussion in a way that students accept rather than distract, but in my experience most white students look for ways to talk about race and racism. Our classrooms include students from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds and we should never assume that white students have all-white families.
Precaution: We know that student reviews remain biased. For trainers without tenure, this terrain can be professionally and personally dangerous. Observations that I offer here cannot fix these problems. Rewriting the rules requires a collective effort that goes beyond these small steps as part of a course type. Nor do I claim to be successful. Instead, I’ll share some ways I’ve tried to parry predictable criticism without compromising on core commitments.
Tip: off-center yourself.
Many educators – especially women and minorities – have no choice but to invest considerable time and energy in building authority to speak. In the early days of my career, women (we were few of us) joked about wanting to wear ties. Fast forward: A quick look at academic social media shows that the problem persists in multiple dimensions. In contrast, for many white male professors, the key to success is recognizing their automatic authority. For example, I recall a discussion where the only white man in the group expressed his shock at the revelation that female colleagues routinely had to navigate around students who suspected they were using their first names. However, the insistence on the use of titles creates other difficulties.
Adding controversial topics to a course reveals irreconcilable challenges between emphasizing authority and making room for other voices. Some students invariably regard the textbook as an authority. My reviews, for example, usually have a little criticism of Tangents. Yet, as we know, even textbooks that have tried to include gender omit race. I conclude that complaints about tangents refer to additional coverage in lectures related to race. A basic tactic is to reinforce the content of the lecture with assigned readings, thereby transferring expertise. It can still be difficult to find supplements that are good for a specific audience. Fortunately, a variety of new digital resources are opening up, including many videos and podcasts that contain various images by experts on technical subjects.
Tip: Never get complacent.
When I was teaching in Chicago, we often navigated for better or for worse using the local ethnicity vocabulary. Also, more than some students had done military service, sometimes in the wars we studied in class. Others belonged to diaspora communities associated with conflicts around the world. As a result, I have seen my students as experts on many topics. Still, I missed a lot of hints. For example, it was only after my move to Syracuse that I realized the anomalous status of Puerto Rico and its impact on US imperialism thanks to occasional inquiries from students. How could I still be so clueless after so many years of writing and teaching about races?
Time for another dose of humility: decades of apprenticeship students who had served in the military have still not sensitized me sufficiently to the variety of traumas. Like many colleagues around the country, and probably around the world, I had routinely given out a short memo on “Foreign Policy Recommendations”. During the busy 2016 season, students who ranged from Bernie supporters to libertarians had the opportunity to select a candidate and devise an appropriate agenda. The morning after the November 2016 elections, I looked at many amazed faces in the classroom and realized that the final paper needed to be changed immediately. It would be cruel to ask people affected by racist campaign rhetoric to write policy recommendations for a non-apologetically bigoted government. Despite efforts to make my classroom a safe place, I had failed. Since then, I’ve been paying more attention to procedures and tasks to prevent accidental damage.
I started writing these thoughts down in the weeks leading up to the November 2020 elections and ended up with the toned-down episodes. While my future classroom will continue to include Trump voters, as well as the local community, I am cautiously optimistic that my course can deepen his open engagement with race and racism without so much political filtering. In addition, structural inequalities uncovered by the global coronavirus pandemic and climate change will provide new insights – for my students and for me – about the multiple effects of race on IR. Yet so much of what I’ve learned over the years goes beyond the content. To act credibly and constructively, many of us don’t need to learn the Confession to reconfigure our courses and classrooms.
Over the years I have benefited from working with notable teaching assistants whose influence has influenced my pedagogy. And I am fortunate to be part of supporting professional networks where we speak openly about these issues. Even so, I struggled with uneasiness to share personal experiences beyond the narrow confines of professional development boards at conferences. Special thanks to Lamis Abdelaaty, Kim Turner and Wendy Wong.
Further reading on e-international relations