A new course called, “Prejudice, Stigma and Race Consciousness” was offered for the first time this semester in response to a petition signed by thousands of students over the summer that requested the university implement a course that specifically addresses discrimination. The plea followed months of protests surrounding the police shooting deaths of Black individuals.
“If we all had an understanding of what racism, stigma and prejudice feels like, perhaps we can have more productive conversations as a general society,” said Alexis Mootoo, adjunct instructor in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies and the Humanities, part of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Mootoo’s coursework is a chronological outline of how economics, colonialism and labor shaped race and gender issues. In preparation, she spent the summer researching material to include the experiences of different marginalized communities within American history. Mootoo’s lectures include perspectives from Native Americans, Blacks, Irish, Jews, Latinx, Asians and LGBTQ+ populations.
“It’s easy to hone-in on a particular concept of race, but I’m more interested in people understanding that racism is pervasive across the board,” Mootoo said.
Students who enrolled in the class were asked to complete a survey about race at the beginning and end of the semester. This gave them the opportunity to reflect on how their point of view may have changed about race and prejudice. The class also covered xenophobia, the impact of microaggressions and how to develop anti-racist mindsets.
“The class changes opinions that you’ve lived with most of your life,” said Kathleen Doemer, an interdisciplinary social sciences major and 72-year-old returning student. “When I meet people now, I make more of an attempt to look inward.”
Mootoo used a variety of teaching materials to help students learn and discuss the diversity and depths of the problems pertaining to race. Students shared stories about their experiences and evaluated perspectives about how different factors shape ideas about race and communities of color.
“We have a really interesting population at USF, and I think it’s important to understand all of those people, where they come from, what their backgrounds are and to just be sensitive,” said Elizabeth Clifford, a non-degree-seeking student and assistant director of space management and analysis in the department of Facilities Management.
“The class made me look in the mirror, because I’m white and my daily navigation in the world is different than a person of color,” Clifford said.
The petition posted on Change.org’s site on June 5 by two of Mootoo’s former students, Valentina Acosta (‘18) and geosciences major Nicholas Stewart. They were inspired by Mootoo’s teachings and worked together to write the petition after feeling distraught over the police shooting deaths that prompted world-wide protests.
“The course should be mandatory,” Stewart said. “Everyone should have some understanding of intersectionality of privilege, race and socioeconomic mobility.”
More than 3,000 signatures were gathered within two weeks, at which point USF cross-listed the course in the anthropology and sociology departments. Forty students registered for the hybrid in-person/online course just in the first day.
“It's a testament to the interest, because at this point, the course doesn’t meet any of the university’s general education requirements,” said Robert Potter, senior associate dean of the Office of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Changing the curriculum is a lengthy process that requires many layers of approvals, but by offering this course under “Special Topics,” Potter says he was able to make it immediately available and help make a real impact on the current student body.
The vision of the Stewart and Acosta’s petition is to incorporate this type of learning in the overall university curriculum. The hope is that students will enter their professional lives with a strong understanding of diverse standpoints and experiences and consider how their decisions impact marginalized communities.
“With everything you learn, you can start to see how different things are affected and you can make your own judgments and thought processes,” Acosta said. “But you need to be given the opportunity to have that understanding and it should be as early as possible.”
The course is also being offered during the spring 2021 semester. It’s one of several ways the university is addressing systemic racism. USF recently launched a comprehensive website, which will serve as a collective resource and information warehouse for content related to USF’s commitment to anti-racism. Highlights include opportunities for community involvement, training resources for faculty and staff, and tools and links for students to find courses related to anti-racism.