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Q&A: CMU professor discusses her book on teaching anti-racist literature

Carlin Borsheim-Black, English language and literature faculty member, poses on Nov. 25 in her office located in Anspach Hall.

Carlin Borsheim-Black spent years teaching English to predominantly white schools in Michigan.

Throughout her experience, the Central Michigan University English Language and Literature faculty member struggled to figure out how to teach books that dealt with race and racism.

"(I realized) I needed to do a lot of work myself to develop my own understanding of race and racism in order to be able to teach it," Borsheim-Black said. "I hadn’t had that experience in my own K-12 education. We didn’t talk about that, and if we did talk about it, it was sort of on a surface level."

Borsheim-Black partnered with Sophia Sarigianides, a Westfield State University English education professor, to research teaching anti-racist literature as a white teacher to a mostly white class. The two professors used their studies to co-author “Letting Go of Literary Whiteness: Antiracist Literature for White Students.” 

Central Michigan Life sat down with Borshiem-Black to discuss her book and teaching experiences. 

CM Life: Can you tell us more about your book?

Borsheim-Black: The book is really about helping students develop their own racial literacy, especially when we are teaching in a white context. 

This is the book that I needed when I was a high school English teacher teaching in Charlotte, Michigan. I taught 10th grade, drama, creative writing, British literature and all of those things. When I was teaching, I found myself talking about race and racism with my students a lot. We’d be reading things like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Huckleberry Finn” and “Of Mice and Men.” I had to do a lot of my own work to get a deeper understanding of racism. I also needed some better strategies for doing that work in my high school classroom, and now in my teacher education classroom. Because it is not something that commonly gets done in classrooms, there are not a lot of examples of how to do it well. 

A lot of times we have questions like, should I be sharing my personal views on this issue? What if students disagree and things get heated? Is this something I should be talking about in class anyway? Sarigianides and I worked for several years to answer some of those questions and develop strategies, which we practice in our own classrooms. 

How did you develop these strategies?

This has been my work for the last 15-20 years. It started when I was a high school teacher just trying some things on my own and realizing what the challenges were. When I went to graduate school, it was the focus of my research. I did a research study where I interviewed teachers and also visited the classrooms of several teachers around the state of Michigan. I observed during discussions of race and racism in literature, that sort of thing, and then analyzed and wrote about what I saw there. 

How would you describe the partnership between Sarigianides and yourself?

When Sarigianides and I started working together, nearly five years ago, we formed a reading partnership where we gathered all the existing research in the field. We read a lot of research by scholars of color really developing our own thinking, and then she and I developed our own research study into our own classrooms at our universities. I would say we developed the book by 10-15 years, some on our own, of research, teaching, interviews, reading, took a long time.  

What have you learned from this process?

For me, writing this book has been an important journey in learning about my own racial identity as a white woman and a white educator, but it is as much a beginning as an ending. I feel like we have developed some answers and offered something valuable in the book, but Sophia and I are still in the process of learning more about how to do it better, so we will continue to write about it in the future.

What would you say are the most important strategies your book discusses?

One of things we are talking about is identifying race concepts to be learned, rather than just opinions or beliefs to be discussed. When we do that, teachers can articulate very specific racial literacy objectives that tie to the literature that they are teaching. This helps teachers think how to build assignments. We are using very familiar teaching techniques to teach about race and racism, so the strategies aren't necessarily new to the classroom, but they are new when it comes to teaching about race and racism. 

What are some of the books you are trying to help others teach?

We approach it in two ways. On one hand, many of the books that we cite are pieces that are a part of the high school canon. They are pieces that English teachers end up teaching quite a bit, so you might not be surprised to hear "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "A Raisin in the Sun." But on the other hand, part of our work is to interrupt that cannon and expand that cannon because it has been predominantly white. 

What we do is cite lots of examples of very positive, uplifting, celebratory contemporary stories of people of color. Some of the newer novels we discuss in the book are "The Crossover," "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and "One Crazy Summer." We are giving teachers examples of some young adult and some of that classic literature that formed the foreground voices of people of color.

How have you used “Letting Go of Literary Whiteness: Antiracist Literature for White Students” in your classes at CMU?

I use different chapters for different classes. For example, I teach the course "Teaching Literature in Secondary Schools," and I use a couple of the chapters from the book to help my students think about how to design an anti-racist unit for "To Kill a Mockingbird." In the course "Young Adult Literature," we use different chapters to analyze and evaluate books, to think about their potential as anti-racist texts, like do they represent people of color in positive, empowering ways, or as victims, that sort of thing. I use different chapters in different ways.

What is your next step to continue your research?

Our next study is going to focus on when you are having discussions about race and racism in a predominantly white space, there are often a few students of color. We want to explore what is happening for those students of color in that moment or during those discussions and what can we do to support those students. 

Students of color often tell us that they don't want to be asked to speak for their race, so that's one thing we can suggest. We need more strategies for supporting because that is a difficult position to be in. People need to be able to talk about it and develop their own thinking, but not at the expense of the people of color in the room.