Approximately 180 students seated themselves for a routine lecture in the Hall of Science at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). The clock had just struck 2 p.m., yet conversations at a low volume continued throughout the room.
Intercultural communications professor Aaron Cargile roamed down every row, double high-fiving each student he passed. Some of the students approached him with a half smile, gently tapping the palms of his hands or fist-bumping his knuckles. Others eagerly awaited their turns and high-fived Cargile with great enthusiasm, trying to create the loudest sound possible.
After he finished his greetings with the last row, he made his way back to the front of the class and raised his hand.
“I am racist,” he calmly stated.
The casual chatter fell silent, and everyone stared forward and locked eyes with Cargile, bewildered.
Should I be angry? Should I defend him? Does that mean I’m racist, too? Mixed emotions spun around the class like a beehive, yet nobody said a word.
This is a practice that Cargile exercises towards the end of the term for all of his intercultural-communication classes. He’s been teaching the course at CSULB for 20 years.
“I acknowledge my own racism,” he said. “We live in a racist society, and you don’t need to get all hung up on that. It’s a matter of fact.”
Cargile explained that if he voiced that he is racist to the rest of campus, it could result in a very different, more vocal or even physical reaction. The purpose of the practice is for everyone to acknowledge his or her own hidden thoughts about racism. If this knowledgeable, compassionate individual said that he is racist, then what about me?
Several Long Beach high school teachers and students have affirmed that an intercultural-communication or an ethnic-studies class would be beneficial for the ways they teach, learn and interact with each other.
Intercultural communication is the study of the relationship between culture and communication with emphasis given to social, psychological, linguistic and nonverbal variables, according to CSULB’s class description.
Ethnic studies is very similar to intercultural communications. “The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies,” a research review by Christine Sleeter from the National Education Association, defined ethnic studies to be centered on the knowledge and perspectives of an ethnic or racial group, reflecting narratives and points of view rooted in that group’s experiences.
“I think all students would benefit,” said George Walton, dean and algebra teacher at Robert Andrew Millikan High School. “We need to be able to have that dialogue and understand other people and understand other cultures so that we can work together.”
Sleeter noted that, in an experimental study, L.J. Carrell found that college students who completed a course in intercultural communication directly focused on cultural awareness obtained significant gains in empathy.
Another study by Nicholas Bowman reported that college student participation in diversity experiences made a significant and positive impact on cognitive development, which includes critical thinking, moral reasoning and problem solving.
Intercultural communication and ethnic studies have proven to be beneficial, yet the majority of Long Beach high school students have not had the opportunity to be exposed to a course in these fields of study.
Last year, more than 100,000 copies of history textbooks were distributed to Texas school districts that referred to Africans in American plantations between the 1500s and 1800s as “workers” instead of slaves. Another section of the book called Europeans coming to America “indentured servants.”
Yves Sanchez, 18, a graduate from Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo High School, shook his head in disapproval at the idea of modifying textbooks.
“That’s pretty ridiculous, honestly,” he said. “I think [history] should be taught as it was and not in a specific way for people to feel less offended.”
Cargile noted this is the effort of conservative, political activists who explicitly demand withdrawing this information from history textbooks. Unlike most subjects, history professors must reteach several topics that teachers had inaccurately taught their students. In the book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen deciphers fact from fiction in grade-school history.
“I understand and appreciate the fear, and I think they underestimate the ability of students to add without contradiction that [they] can learn about these terrible things and also learn about the amazing things,” Cargile said.
However, sometimes when students – particularly White students – are confronted with the history of racism and its influences in society, they resist from any meaningful discussion by disconnecting themselves from stories of oppressors, and they avoid acknowledging differences between their peers and themselves.
In an article Cargile produced with Julia Johnson and Marc Rich titled, “Why Are You Shoving This Down Our Throats?” he addresses different types of resistance by using his students’ feedback.
“Why am I held accountable for what people did a hundred years ago?” one student asked. “I never had any slaves…I don’t feel that I personally owe any group anything for the past unjust treatment.”
Comments like this have made educators fearful of teaching lessons on racism and oppression. This article reports analyses of different complaints in an effort to provide the best responses for future cases.
A study from this year found that Long Beach is the thirteenth most diverse city in the U.S. Last year, it was ranked second. WalletHub, a personal finance social-network site, examined 313 of the largest cities in the country by analyzing household diversity, social-class diversity, ethno-racial diversity and economic diversity.
Cabrillo, located in Westside Long Beach, is primarily made up of Hispanic students. The second most populated is African American at 14%. Less than 2% are White. Of the student body, 89.3% are socio-economically disadvantaged and 21.6% are English-language learners, according to the school website.
Millikan resides on the opposite side of Long Beach. More than half the student population is Hispanic, and 26% of students are White, the second most populated race. 51.3% of their students are socio-economically disadvantaged, and almost 60% live outside of its enrollment area, according to the school website.
That being said, socio-economic classes among Millikan student body are more diverse, which can create a separation in how they interact.
“We’ve got the kids around here that are very comfortable, and we’ve got the kids coming from different parts of Long Beach that have different circumstances,” Walton said. “Some are worried about, ‘Hey, I don’t have enough money to get to school tomorrow [for] the bus,’ and others are like, ‘Hey, my mom just bought me a brand new car because I turned 15.’”
One of the legislations that aid this issue at Millikan is the required dress code. Cabrillo has not implemented a uniform policy.
Growing up, Walton was one of four Black students when he attended high school in Thousand Oakes. He moved to Long Beach for college and immediately decided he never wanted to leave.
“In some ways, it was a culture shock,” he said. “But it was so refreshing to have that diversity and not feel singled out.”
Walton taught at Jordan before he transferred to Millikan. There, he sometimes had classes that consisted only one White student. He has now been teaching at Millikan for four years. More recently, he became an active leader of its Male Academy, a group for male students that is geared to improve the graduation rate of underrepresented, promising, male students and prepare them for college and career options. Walton noted that the majority of members are males of color.
“A lot of times, there’s a lot of students that we get that are kind of looked at as the ‘mess-ups’ – the knuckleheads of campus,” he said. “But you get them in the right situation and give them some of the right tools, and they can really transfer that…There’s some raw leadership skills, and we need to refine that and sort of translate that into other arenas.”
This group attends Building Bridges Camp, a three-day program for students to engage in human relations, discussion groups and activities that intensively deconstruct racism and their own participation in discrimination. It is a part of California Conference for Equality and Justice, a human relations organization whose mission is to rid bias, bigotry and racism through education, conflict-resolution and advocacy. Multiple groups from other schools attend the same weekends.
Walton described the kids as “defiant” and “uninterested” on the first day of camp. He crossed his arms, slumped in his chair and rolled his eyes, imitating their gestures.
“The curriculum is designed to help build that trust within the group first before we start having the hard conversations,” he said.
Karen Shoop, a ninth-grade English teacher at Cabrillo, has been a staff leader of the Building Bridges Camp for 10 years. She described similar characteristics of the way the students acted at the beginning of camp compared to the end.
“What you end up is people going through a really, deeply, transformative experience, and I have frequently seen students who wouldn’t even talk to each other at the beginning of camp hugging and weeping…” she said. She briefly paused, and tears glossed her eyes as she continued, “…On the last day because it is so intensive for them. One thing that makes it difficult is it opens wounds, but it gives it a balm. And that’s what makes it so transformative. The process gives voice to things that are often voiceless.”
For the program to be most effective, camp leaders also have to put themselves in vulnerable positions. Shoop noted that different boundaries are established. Everyone calls each other by their first names, and everyone takes part in the discussions.
“That sort of willingness to be vulnerable establishes the right energy for this work to take place,” she said.
Cargile also discussed the importance of exposing himself in order to connect with his class. Though factors of racism can be explained through history, social psychology and culture, the content can be extremely personal.
“They don’t want a monologue; they want a dialogue,” he said. “They want you to respond to what you are seeing here and now…If you want someone from a different franchise cultural group and a dominant cultural group to really try to trust you, be honest with them.”
Though the feedback from students who attended Building Bridges is almost always positive, both Walton and Shoop agreed that the camp is not for everyone. Because the process is so emotionally demanding, it is better suited for students with some maturity. They can only benefit if they are open and not resistant.
CSULB is now offering a Saturday class called U.S. Diversity and the Ethnic Experience. Millikan, Cabrillo, Poly, Lakewood, Wilson and Jordan high schools each have 70 spaces available. The class also provides three college credits and 10 high school credits.
The class focuses on Asian American, American Indian, African and Chicano-Latino history, culture and present issues. Its purposes include defining and comprehending theories of race and ethnicity, understanding differences between racial prejudice and racism as social practice, as well as the differences between individual and institutional racism, according to the Long Beach Unified School District.
The course began its first semester last fall. Cabrillo graduate Marta Velarde, 17, took the class and found it very useful. She and her family emigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala when she was 8 years old. She had a difficult time adjusting because she didn’t know any English.
“I feel like everyone should take the class because then everyone would have a feel for what other races went through,” she said. “People would just be more informed, and then [they] could try to change the way everything would be for the future.”
Velarde plans to enroll in more similar courses later in her college career.
CSULB also has a project through its Multicultural Center called Students Talk About Race (STAR), which provides forums to share their personal thoughts and experiences about diversity, assist them in recognizing personal and social cues of racism, help them accept and embrace differences among people, and contribute to community mindedness and volunteerism among college students.
Since 1992, STAR has recruited more than 2,500 college volunteers, trained them to be facilitators in cross-cultural communication and placed them into 76 middle schools and high schools. More than 18,000 students have participated in STAR.
Intercultural communication and ethnic studies are important because they provide an understanding of how the connection between oneself and his or her history relates to others and their histories, and that includes religion and sexuality.
“There are queer people of multiple races, faiths, cultures…and the picture keeps getting more and more complex all the time,” Shoop noted. “…which I think is terrific because I have always believed that the nature of reality is a deeper complexity than we can even acknowledge or process on our human level. So the [more] we interact and communicate…the greater the range of understanding can be.”
In addition to bringing awareness, this type of communication teaches students to listen, be vulnerable and be honest.
“It’s only by being vulnerable and acknowledging your own struggle with culture that you can model that for other people,” Cargile said. “The most common comment about the class is that it’s real. It’s something about learning it from this experiential, interpretive point that gives it a resonance, and then you put that in the context of the theory and the history and the psychology, and then it all kind of comes together.”