When the Professional Becomes Personal: Opportunities and Challenges for Faculty of Color Teaching DEI Courses
Overview of the Blog Series
Although they are underrepresented in Christian higher education, faculty of color are overrepresented among those teaching the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) courses – at times, the single DEI course – within their department. For faculty of color, there are rewards and challenges that come with the responsibility of teaching DEI courses. In this 3-part series of posts, we provide a reflection highlighting the professional and personal journeys of three faculty of color from diverse backgrounds (Asian, Black, and Latino) from Seattle Pacific University. In doing so, we hope to share stories that will validate the experiences of other faculty of color working in Christian institutions. At the same time, we also expect that these stories will provide rich and nuanced perspectives to counter the homogenizing narrative of faculty of color that are often perpetuated.
When I joined my department (undergraduate psychology) many years ago, I was the only faculty of color, and my main teaching assignment was Cross-Cultural Psychology (To be clear, I had prior experience in teaching this course, and I wanted to make it a regular part of my teaching duties; so, this was not a case of the one faculty of color being stereotyped into teaching the DEI class in the department). Although this course had been taught in the department for a long time, at the time I was hired, there were two things working against the effectiveness of the course: It was fewer credits than a typical class in the major (3 versus 5 credits in the quarter system), and it was an elective class. As such, one of the first things I requested soon after I inherited the course was for it to be changed to a 5-credit course. After a few years of delivering the course as a 5-credit class, I then asked that it be created as a required departmental course. Underlying this request was my belief that in order for the class content to be taken seriously, our department needed to align it with the other required classes in the major.
Once I began teaching the course as a required class in the major, I soon noticed an unanticipated consequence: a shift in the type of students who showed up in my class. When the class was an elective course in the major, the motivation to engage in cross-cultural topics was at a similar level across students – high. But the necessary opening up of the course to any students in the major (and requiring them to take it) brought students with a wide range of motivations and interests regarding DEI.
In the below space, I name and describe three different groups that I have observed over the years in my Cross-Cultural Psychology course. By presenting these profiles, my intent is not to stereotype my students; they are all image bearers uniquely created with complex histories, gifts, and intellectual capabilities. At the same time, I have experienced consistent patterns among my students over the years that are helpful to keep in mind as a general framework in mentoring and teaching them about diversity issues in psychology. As such, below, I provide brief reflections on rewards and challenges of teaching each type of student, especially in connection to my identity as a faculty of color teaching this course.
“Already Bought In”
These are the students who are “right there with me” on the need for cross-cultural psychology as a sub-discipline of psychology. Before the class was required for the major, these students made up the vast majority of my roster. They are troubled by the discrepancy between the way things ought to be in psychology (representation of all of God’s people and their experiences), and the ways things are (biased toward the study of Americans, especially White Americans1). They recognize the need for clearly naming these biases and ultimately transforming the field of psychology to reflect better the human diversity in God’s creation. They readily agree that part of studying diversity means going beyond celebrating cultures to engaging in difficult but necessary conversations about race, ethnicity, gender, and culture. They accept that my personal experiences as a Korean who grew up in the Philippines but now claims America as home are going to be shared as examples in this class, and they can draw meaningful connections, as appropriate, to their own experiences and identities.
The reward of teaching this group of students is obvious. As someone who believes in bringing the self – the whole self – into the classroom, to have my experiences and identities validated by my students feels…good. I do not have to “sell” the importance of studying topics such as White privilege, racial microaggressions, and mental health disparities. On a person-to-person level, I feel psychologically safe with these students.
One significant challenge with this group of students has been that at times, they have been asked to pause or slow down their learning temporarily. This helps to center the emotions and thoughts of their peers who might need the classroom space (e.g., a student processing their own feelings of dissonance after a new realization about the complexities of contemporary forms of racism; see below discussion about “unsure but curious” category). In an ideal world, I would love to host the “already bought in” students in an (currently non-existent in my department) Advanced Cross-Cultural Psychology course.
These students become growingly opposed to the materials that I teach as the academic term progresses. In particular, I notice that they tend to be quite engaged with the early materials of the quarter (e.g., definition of culture, cultural research methods) but push back more and more when the later materials of the term are presented (e.g., discussion of contemporary forms of racism, mental health disparities). They raise questions like “Why is this a required course in psychology?” and might even probe for hidden motives or agendas I might have as an instructor of color. They sometimes convey a strong theological conviction about why the materials presented in this course are misguided or even hurtful. Sometimes, they come across as being there just to get through it. Other times, they might request that I use fewer examples from my own cultural backgrounds to make the materials more relatable to all students. On this sentiment, I can’t help but wonder if a White faculty colleague receives similar level of complaints from students about personal connections/examples that they draw from. (Editor’s note—as a white faculty who shares many personal examples I have never received this complaint). When challenged about their social location and the resources that accompany it, they might counter with examples of oppressions experienced due to the same social location (e.g., This is how I experience oppression as a White student).
To be candid, I have to dig deep to recognize the rewards of teaching students in this group. Often, I wonder if I have made any learning impact on the student, or if I have instead helped to harden beliefs and perspectives further that might have accompanied the student into the classroom.
In contrast, I can readily name the challenges of teaching this group of students. Sometimes the resistance is passive but unmistakable, such as notable emotional withdrawal from class conversations. Other times the resistance is more blatant, such as rejection of my offer to have officer hour conversations. And of course, there are the nasty statements in my course feedback that attack me as a person of color, question the authenticity of my Christian faith, mock my cultural values as a Korean, and so on.
“Unsure but Curious”
These students bring a certain level of anxiety (e.g., White fragility2) into my classroom. They might have grown up in largely homogenous contexts that defaulted to, for example, a racially-color blind approach to understanding racially diversity around us. As undergraduate students at a Christian liberal arts institution, they are beginning to see why it is problematic not to consider culture in psychology, but at the same time to have an entire class devoted to this topic seems rather intense. Moreover, because they might not have acquired the vocabulary to engage meaningfully in conversations about diversity, and therefore they might feel afraid of “saying the wrong thing” and offending others around them. As students, they respect my examples and scholarship as a Korean American faculty, but sometimes have difficulty connecting to these elements to their own lives. When connections do happen, that itself might make them uncomfortable, and they might withdraw to psychological spaces that are more familiar to them (e.g., withdraw from White identity conversation, rejoin when discussing acculturation; see Janet Helms’ work3 on White racial identity development for similar types of emotional or cognitive retreat to comfortable spaces).
The challenge of teaching the “unsure but curious” students, in a real sense, can also be a reward. That is, I often grapple with the balance between pushing the students enough, but not too much that they end up leaving the metaphorical table of our learning community. When I am able to find this sweet spot with students, I find it deeply fulfilling to walk alongside students who are engaging in deep exploration of their own identities and learning about others’. For example, I require my students to watch the documentary The Color of Fear4, which features a powerful and honest conversation on racism, White supremacy, and interethnic relations in the United States. After this film, it is common for some students to approach me individually to process the strong emotions that were triggered (e.g., “One of the characters reminded me of my family member, and I do not know how to make sense of it”). Tears might be shed; stories of being silent in the face of family members’ prejudicial attitudes might be disclosed; and practical means to commit to justice work and be a good neighbor to communities around us – an ally – might be discussed as a way forward.
Despite the complexities of teaching the three types of students that I specified here, it is also my conviction that God has led these students’ lives to intersect with mine as a Korean child of missionaries who grew up in the Philippines, now living in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. In the limited time I have with my students, I hope that I can help them learn something new about Cross-Cultural Psychology, whether they are already convinced, entirely skeptical, or somewhat hesitant about the course materials.
- Jeffrey J. Arnett, “The Neglected 95%: Why American Psychology Needs to Become Less American,” American Psychologist 63, no.7 (2008): 602–614.
- Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” Counterpoints 497, (2016): 245-253.
- Janet E. Helms, “An Update of Helm’s White and People of Color Racial Identity Models,” in Handbook of Multicultural Counseling, eds. Joseph G. Ponterotto, J. Manuel Casas, Lisa A. Suzuki, and Charlene M. Alexander (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995), 181–198.
- The Color of Fear, directed by Lee Mun Wah (1994; Ukiah, CA: StirFry Seminars, 1994), DVD.