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Expanding the Conversation on Racial Inclusion

The conversation about racial diversity and inclusion at BYU has grown increasingly urgent since the events of Charlottesville in 2017, and the continuing pattern of racial oppression and injustice has brought these issues to the forefront of national attention.

Following President Worthen's injunction, offered at the opening of the school year, to stand firmly against racism and violence in any form and commit to promoting a culture of safety, kindness, respect, and love, professors and students in the College of Humanities have been working together since these events to create safe spaces where people of all backgrounds can come together to become better listeners and more informed citizens.

Racial Inclusion Illustration
Photo by Bekah Mecham

To help facilitate conversations about race, diversity, and inclusion in the classroom, the College of Humanities created a “College Inclusion Statement.”

Associate Dean Corry Cropper explained the purpose behind the statement: “Whatever our race and education level, we’re in this together to support and comfort one another and to share one another’s burdens.”

The College of Humanities is uniquely positioned to engage in these conversations because the purpose of studying humanities is to “help students see things from a different perspective,” Cropper said. “Whether that’s from a sixteenth-century perspective, or a Classical perspective, or a contemporary-French perspective, studying literature, art, and language helps us understand people who are different from us, people who think differently and help us to gain empathy for another worldview.”

The College of Humanities, and BYU as a whole, has placed stronger emphasis on teaching about race and inclusion, and professors are constantly seeking for meaningful ways to incorporate these important conversations in their classrooms.

One such professor is Kristin Matthews (English), who contributed to the college inclusion statement and is involved in diversity and belonging efforts on the department, college, and university level. Matthews planned to teach a senior seminar titled “African American Literature and the Politics of Home” during the fall 2020 semester. Despite having taught this class in past semesters, Matthews knew she needed to do more as she spent weeks at home watching protests in response to racial injustice.

As Matthews watched the summer unfold, she wrestled with how to revise the syllabus to respond more intimately to current events. She decided to make her course deliberately focused on listening to Black voices and thinking critically about the current conversations on racism, inclusion, and belonging.

On the first page of her revised syllabus, which included the College’s inclusion statement, Matthews wrote, “America has been called ‘home the brave’ and ‘land of the free.’ ‘Home’ invites ideas of inclusion, community, and safety. At the same time, ‘home’ also communicates a sense of ‘belongingness’ that, while including some, necessarily excludes others from particular spaces, places, and orders. Understood in these ways, ‘home’ becomes a concept that is at once philosophical, psychological, and political.”

Throughout the semester, Matthews facilitated conversations about race in her classroom by assigning texts that posed “key questions about ‘home’ and its relationship to geography, ancestry, language, history, displacement, class, and gender.”

Matthews knew that discussing these texts was essential to her students’ understanding. “It’s through story and through listening to and learning from the stories of those who may be different from us that we develop the compassion needed to see each other and to recognize each other as human.”

Because this course was a senior seminar, Matthews required each student to complete a substantial final project or paper for the class. One of her students, Elizabeth Daley, a senior majoring in English teaching, thought about how she could illustrate what she learned during the course in a non-traditional project that would prove useful in her future teaching career. She decided to research and craft teaching materials focused on facilitating conversations about race and diversity.

Throughout the semester, Daley “researched the history and the current implementation of multiculturalism, culturally responsive pedagogy, and anti-racism in public schools, both in America and without,” and she developed a vast array of methods and materials that have helped her this semester as she completes her student teaching requirement.

On Daley’s fourth day in a high school classroom, she finished teaching the play A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry. She led her students in a discussion that analyzed the complexities of the American Dream and assigned them to write “personal goals for their futures and their hopes for the country as a whole.”

Since that lesson, Daley said, “There have been a lot of really productive conversations and assignments where students explained they didn’t realize that [racism] was such an issue today.”

After her experience in Matthews’s class, Daley feels more confident in her ability to “connect students with literature and help facilitate discussions and critical thinking that elevate Black voices and can help the students understand [another perspective].”

As an educator, Daley’s goal, like Matthews’s, is to help teach students about the harsh realities of racism and “create accountability and a space where we can learn from Black voices in a structured way with reliable sources.”

Classes grappling with diversity and inclusion are becoming more common at BYU, which Matthews believes is an important first step—education can lead to transformation. “At the end of the class,” Matthews reminisced, “we discussed how there is no silver bullet to end racism. There is no one thing that we can do, and it probably won’t end in our lifetime. But this shouldn’t discourage us from doing the work.”

Matthews suggested asking what we can do within our own spheres to combat racism, whether that be challenging our assumptions and biases, speaking up in situations when we see or hear racism at work, or even translating what we learn from these conversations into post-graduate professions.

Understanding the history and perpetuation of racism in America “helps us to be better citizens, neighbors, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” said Matthews. “Of course, there’s no one way to do this work, but expanding our idea of home—moving out the tent stakes to make the tent bigger (to use biblical language) so that more people can fit under it in safety and love—is key to creating a more perfect union and building Zion.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Humanities alumni magazine.