Monthly Archives: January 2009

Let’s Talk about Race … in the Classroom

By Marybeth Gasman

I am fortunate to work in a school of education that cares enough to examine itself in terms of its treatment of students of color.  That said, I recently sat through a school-wide faculty meeting in which the results of a survey of our students of color were discussed. For anyone who knows the research in the area of race and teaching, the results of the survey said nothing new:

  • some students of color don’t feel represented in the curriculum
  • some faculty members are not equipped to handle conflicts around race in the classroom
  • some students of color feel singled-out
  • alternative perspectives are not welcome or encouraged by some faculty

These same issues surface over and over, but what do faculty members do about them?

Some faculty members ignore these issues, claiming that they amount to identity politics. However, these folks forget that if students say they had an experience, they had it and felt it. There are faculty members who long to change the way they are teaching – to be more inclusive – but they have no idea how and are often afraid to ask for help. Of them, I ask how much damage are we doing to students of color (and majority students, for that matter) by remaining silent?

And, there are still faculty members, regardless of their racial and ethnic background, who think that they know how to facilitate discussions around issues of race, but do more damage than good.  Often these professors are more focused on facilitating conversations in which students merely vent rather than working toward real solutions. Although having a safe space for self expression is important, creating solutions to racial problems and divisions is much more powerful.

Regardless of academic discipline (and I mean that), there are ways to create an inclusive classroom. In terms of syllabi, it is possible to include articles written by individuals from a wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds and about issues that touch the lives of people from various racial and ethnic perspectives. One can bring in examples that are relevant to everyone in a course rather than just the majority. In terms of assignments, one can keep an open mind in terms of the diversity of answers to most problems. And, of most importance, when racial incidents arise in the classroom, faculty members need to speak up, facilitate helpful discussions around the incidents, and provide support for those who are offended and the offender (otherwise the offender doesn’t learn).

This last point is perhaps the hardest part of creating an inclusive classroom. However, there are numerous resources for increasing one’s ability to lead discussions about race (see an example below). In addition, most colleges and universities have a teaching center with experts trained in handling conflict in the classroom. Also, most institutions offer workshops and presentations for faculty and students on issues of race and how these issues manifest in the classroom (these workshops aren’t typically well attended but should be). Lastly, one can ask a faculty colleague who is known for good teaching and facilitation of class discussion for advice. As professors, admitting you don’t know it all can be risky, but doing a disservice to our students, in my opinion, is even more risky.


Maher and Tetrealult (1997), “Learning in the Dark: How Assumptions of Whiteness Shape Classroom Knowledge,” Harvard Educational Review.

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).

Miss America’s Racial Milestones

Miss America’s Racial Milestones

elwood-watson1By Elwood Watson

While I was watching television the other day, I saw a commercial promoting the Miss America pageant which is scheduled to air January 24th on the TLC Network. The advertisement took me back to the late 1990s when a colleague of mine introduced me to some research that she was compiling on the annual event.

Being the ever curious scholar that I am, I began to launch my own inquiry as to how much scholarly work had been done on the pageant. Lo and behold, I was surprised, in fact, shocked to see how little academic scholarship had been written about the pageant. I informed my colleague of this fact.

Needless to say, sensing an opportunity to break some previously unfertile ground in the profession, the two of us decided to engage in a collaborative effort to produce some original work on the event. After a few years of intense, tedious, meticulous, exhaustive research and editing the culminating result was the anthology – There She Is Miss America: The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant which was published in 2004 by Palgrave Macmillan. We were both pleased with the reaction the collection of essays received from cultural studies and humanities scholars. While we had some reviews (fewer than three) that gave the book a tepid or less than flattering review, the vast majority of critiques were very complimentary. Without sounding arrogant, we both did not need to be affirmed by critics as to the validity of our work. It was original, groundbreaking, scholarly and met all the requisites of what academic scholarship should entail.

Over the past few years, every time something even remotely related to the pageant comes up, either one or both of us are contacted by a media representative to give some commentary about the pageant.

One of the reasons that we decided to engage in research on this annual event was the fact that it was so multifaceted and controversial in its scope. Indeed, controversy is a factor that has plagued the pageant during its eight decade history. One of the most contentious issues that the pageant has had to confront is its racially inflected history. This was particularly the case during the early decades of the pageant. From its inception in 1921 to the famous boardwalk protest in September 1968, race had been an albatross around its neck. In fact, for the first 35 years, all non-White women were barred from participating in the pageant. In response to such exclusion, the Miss Black America Pageant was founded in September 1968 in an effort to celebrate Black beauty. While the pageant had had a few Asian and Native American contestants by the 1960s, it was not until the September 1970 pageant that the first Black contestant, Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa competed in the national competition. Through the 1970s and beyond more and more Black women and other women of color competed in the contest breaking tradition along the way. Some of these milestones were

• Deborah Lipford, Miss Delaware 1976, became the first Black woman to place in the top 10.

• In the September 1980 pageant, two Black contestants, Doris Hayes, Miss Washington State and Lencola Sullivan, Miss Arkansas made the top 10. Sullivan shattered another barrier, cracking the top 5 as she was 4th runner up.

• Vanessa Williams and Suzette Charles make history as first runner up and Miss America 1984. Williams’s spectacular win would come to an end ten months into her reign when photos of her and another woman appeared in Penthouse magazine. Charles would take over as her successor for the remaining seven weeks and become the 2nd Black woman to wear the crown.

• In September 1987, Mississippi, a state with a notorious history of racial strife, sends a Black contestant, Toni Seawright to the pageant.

• Debbye Turner, Miss America 1990, becomes the third Black woman to win the crown.

• Marjorie Judith Vincent, Miss America 1991, succeeds Turner and becomes the pageants fourth Black winner. Back to back Black winners was another racial milestone.

• Eighteen-year-old Kimberly Aiken, Miss America 1994, becomes the pageant’s fifth Black winner. She is one of the pageant’s youngest winners and the first Black woman from the south (South Carolina) to win the crown.

• Angela Perez Baraquio, Miss America 2001 is the first Asian American contestant to win the crown.

• Multiracial Erika Harold, Miss America 2003, is the sixth Black woman to win the crown.

• Erica Dunlap, Miss America 2004, becomes the pageant’s seventh Black winner.

• In 2006, The U.S Virgin Islands became an official participant in the pageant.

While Vanessa Williams’ green eyes and light complexion, Suzette Charles’ biracial background, Debbye Turner’s, dark, yet Anglo defined features and Marjorie Vincent’s classic Black features were the subject of media attention, later winners did not face such intense scrutiny. In fact, by the time Kimberly Aiken captured the crown, very little was made of the race of these contestants. However, this did not mean that the pageant had moved totally beyond the issue of race.

From time to time the comments of some contestants in interviews made it clear that some of them believed that pageant judges were being “preferential to non-White contestants” or was becoming “politically correct.” Such comments demonstrate that despite the significant racial strides the pageant has made, that it is an issue that remains a controversial part of the pageant as it does in society at large.

Despite its past racial shortcomings, the Miss America Pageant has made considerable progress over its 88-year history. Given our increasingly multi racial society, there will no doubt be more women of color who will win the crown as time progresses. While there has not been a Latino Miss America, (its competitor Miss USA has crowned seven Latino winners) it will probably be only a matter of time before this happens.

My colleague and I plan to tune in on January 24th to watch one young lady’s dream come true.

Much to do about Morris Brown College?

By Marybeth Gasman

Over the past few weeks – since the Atlanta Journal and Constitution announced that Morris Brown College couldn’t pay its water bill – several of my friends in the Black college community have called to talk about the historic institution. The first question thrown out for contemplation is “Do we really need all 103 HBCUs?” My usual response to this question is “well, wait a minute…we need to remember that all of these HBCUs are different and although they are all committed to educating African American students (as well as many others), each institution has its own unique situation, successes and problems.”

What my friends are actually asking is “do we really need the weaker HBCUs?” Or more specifically, “are the Morris Browns in the HBCU community – those institutions that seem to not make it despite infusions of support decade after decade – still needed?”

Although rarely talked about outside of the HBCU community, questions often surface about the impact of Morris Brown’s failure on other HBCUs. Because the mainstream media, the general public, and many within the higher education community see all HBCUs as being the same, Morris Brown’s failure can shine a negative spotlight on HBCUs as a whole.

When Morris Brown came under fire in early 2000, I was a staunch supporter of the institution. In fact, I wrote a long article about the media’s unfair treatment of the college and HBCUs in general. Given Morris Brown’s venerable history and commitment to educating African Americans (which I have never doubted) as well as its status as one of a few HBCUs created by African Americans (former slaves, in fact), I could see no reason why the institution should close. When anyone would say, “Morris Brown is over” or “Morris Brown is dead,” I kept hoping that the institution would survive. Why? First, I have had the privilege of working with several Morris Brown College graduates who eventually pursued Ph.D.s in higher education. These students were wonderful and spoke very highly of their experiences at the historic institution. Of course, they laughed about the long financial aid lines and the lack of modern residence halls, but they made no jokes about the education they received. They had been empowered, motivated, pushed, cared for, and celebrated by the faculty and staff at the institution and I had all of the evidence right in front of me. These were students who excelled in their doctoral programs – young people with dreams of becoming faculty members who would empower their own students.

But, as Morris Brown College faces yet another crisis, I am not sure that the institution should continue in its current state. Once it leaps this next financial hurdle (another water payment of $200,000 due February 17th), what will be next? The institution’s acting president Stanley Pritchett Jr. believes that Morris Brown will survive. But, will it and is mere survival enough? Perhaps it would be wiser for Morris Brown to merge with Clark-Atlanta University? Or conceivably, it could become the junior college of the Atlanta University Center, with transfer agreements to the other HBCUs in the consortium? Or maybe the institution could start an affiliation with Georgia State University – a growing institution that produces more Black undergraduate degree holders than any other historically White institution and boasts no majority population among its student body? I realize that my suggestions will make some people angry. But, wouldn’t we rather see the dreams and visions of the Morris Brown founders further realized rather than limping along trying to avoid the next pothole in the road. Mergers are hard and someone always loses – but someone also wins and in this case it might be the 240 currently-enrolled students – who would be able to attend an accredited institution, offering a solid and committed curriculum, with long-term financial stability.

The leaders, alumni, and supporters of Morris Brown College need to think long and hard about the institution’s future – thinking creatively about either how to save it (which means really committing to supporting the institution year after year – not just when a crisis arises) or how to maintain its legacy in another form.

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).