"When Race Breaks Out": Conversations About Race and Racism in College Classrooms

reviewed by Cleveland Hayes - February 23, 2015

coverTitle: "When Race Breaks Out": Conversations About Race and Racism in College Classrooms
Author(s): Helen Fox
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433105926, Pages: 221, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

When Race Breaks Out moves the reader towards an understanding of the centrality of race and racism in the United States. Fox provides a reflective, step-by-step way for the reader to understand that in order to advocate for social change, the reader must also acknowledge the intersection of race with other forms of subordination (Kohli, 2009; Sleeter & Bernal, 2004). Similar to the work of Thompson (2003), this volume puts whiteness at the center in order to decenter it. In many volumes on race and racism, whiteness is neither problematized nor particularized because it assumes a status of normalcy (Chaisson, 2004; DeCuir & Dixson, 2004; Tate, 2003); however, Fox begins to decenter whiteness by providing a narrative space for students to share their experiences with race and racism without letting white students hijack the conversation. She prevents whiteness from serving as the dominant and normal status against which the “Racial Other” is measured, and from making others less privileged, less powerful, and less legitimate (Hayes & Juarez, 2009).

In addition to decentering whiteness, When Race Breaks Out values the experiential knowledge of the students in the classes. Solorzano & Yosso (2001) argue that critical race theory in educational research recognizes that the experiential knowledge of students of color is legitimate, appropriate, and critical to understanding, analyzing, and teaching about racial subordination in the field of education. Life stories tend to be accurate representations of the perceived realities of subjects’ lives and can be used to elicit structured stories and details from the individuals involved (Delgado, 1989; McCray, Sindelar, Kilgore, & Neal, 2002).

The stories that are shared in the book are important: the field of education needs successful testimonies of those who have been marginalized in some manner because these stories can help educators understand how we prepare teachers in today’s racially charged society. When Race Breaks Out deconstructs the notion of what Hytten and Warren (2003) call appeals to authenticity. In their model, when white students cite their own experiences to counter or contradict the non-white voices in the student’s classes, the students are using their experiences as a means to undermine the experiences of the other groups in the class.

When Race Breaks Out is also a powerful volume because of its commitment to social justice. Fox’s commitment to social justice includes a critique of liberalism, claims of neutrality, objectivity, color blindness, and meritocracy as a camouflage for the self-interest of powerful entities of society (Tate, 1997). Only aggressive, color conscious efforts to change the way things are done will do much to ameliorate misery (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001; Tate, 1997).

From the perspective of the reader, the book begins breaking up what Stacy Lee (1996) calls the “hegemonic device.” Lee defines hegemonic device as the strategy used by whites to maintain the racial hierarchy and set the standard for how minorities should behave. Breaking the hegemonic device disrupts the dominance of whites in the racial hierarchy by redirecting the causes of racial inequities back to their root causes; When Race Breaks Out holds decision-makers accountable for their participation in practices that result in the patterned exclusion of non-white groups (Solorzano & Bernal, 2001; Fasching-Varner, 2009; Lee, 1996; Lewis, 2006).

From the practical lens of this book, Fox provides a perspective of social justice with important strategies for handling the difficult conversation about race in the college classroom. I think people often take for granted that the college classroom is a safe space for people to include the professor in difficult conversations. However, while Fox does provide the reader with practical application, I would caution the reader—and this is very important—against viewing the narratives of the students and the practical application as a recipe cookbook, how-to-guide, or other kind of source for magic formulas on how to have conversation about race in the classroom. As I define it, teaching and learning is cultural work, a way of thinking and thus approaching life and its many domains, not a technocratic, rational, objective, and mechanistic process or procedure (Quijada Cercer, Alvarez, & Rios, 2010).  

Lastly, however, readers of this book can gleam for their own work a sense of activism. Activism helps those who do this kind of work to actively reinsert themselves into public spaces and dialogues, and help others to gain access to the valued resources and opportunities they have been excluded from or denied. This activism demands that students have an understanding of the inequities in society, as well as the “how to” knowledge to begin to fix those inequities.  


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 23, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17866, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 1:39:29 PM

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