Comparative Race and Ethnicity: Studying black culture in a safe space

Taussia Boadi

When I think about black people and our history, my mind immediately jumps to the Triangle Trade and slavery in America, as if the history of black people began when American chattel slavery did. I often forget about the rich history and culture that existed in Africa outside of slavery. I forget about the rise out of oppression and the birth of modern African nations.

In Atlantic World and US History at school, we are taught about black people in the context of oppression. There were times in those history classes when I felt that students, along with myself, were neglecting the full history of black people. I sometimes thought about addressing this by throwing in a quick comment about the fact that there is more to black history than oppression, though I never did in fear of judgement. I did not want to be viewed as the black student who felt the need to be the spokesperson for all black people. This made these spaces feel less “safe” for me. I only noticed this unfortunate reality when I began taking Comparative Race and Ethnicity (CRAE).

CRAE is a course at our school that, according to the program of studies, “examines race and ethnic relations in the United States and in other contemporary multiethnic/multiracial societies in the Americas (Brazil, Canada, the Caribbean), Asia, and Africa.” What the course description doesn’t give you, however, is a description of the space the class takes place in and the way it changes your thinking.

The first book we read in CRAE was Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane. In his powerful novel, Mathabane describes his experience growing up as a black boy in apartheid-era South Africa. While the book describes the realities of apartheid in raw, descriptive detail, it also shows the various cultures and customs of South Africans at the time, such as the ones involving witchcraft and healing which were brought to urban areas from the homelands. The book also discussed the black customs that were kept alive despite oppression by the white ruling class.

Before reading Kaffir Boy, I barely had any knowledge of South Africa outside of apartheid. I didn’t know anything about the persevering black leaders that brought the country out of the darkness it was in. CRAE opened my eyes and allowed me to see Africa in a different light.

I find it surprisingly easy to exclusively focus on black history that pertains to the construction of America. CRAE helped me realize that is a flawed way of thinking because it helps to perpetuate negative stereotypes about black people today. In learning about the glorious parts of black history, I find myself more willing to embrace my history rather than trying to avoid conversations about it. As humans, we tend to subconsciously associate ourselves with people who are similar to us. For example, I often associate with my people of color (POC) schoolmates outside of the classroom, mainly because in the classroom there aren’t many of us. I find that conversations involving race flow easily because there is an innate sense of understanding since we may share similar experiences and struggles.

Since taking CRAE, I find myself feeling unusually comfortable in class, participating in discussions without feeling like I have to censor myself. I attribute that, in part, to my teachers who create a respectful environment and lead meaningful conversations. I also attribute this to the racial diversity of the class itself.

The class gives students a space to learn about and unpack the race relations that we don’t get to talk about in ninth and tenth grade history classes. I believe that aspect of the class attracts POC students. Being in class with other black students is extremely empowering because I know that in the space, there will be people who can relate to what I say.

Additionally, unlike Atlantic World and US History, there is a mutual understanding between students of the necessity of a safe space. To me, a safe space is a place where we actively listen and try to understand what others say instead of trying to craft a response. People can express their opinions without fear of being attacked. This aspect of the class is responsible for making me feel more comfortable discussing such heavy topics.

My experience in CRAE has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve learned to lean into discomfort. When I speak up, I have no fear of being judged, nor do I find myself censoring what I say the way I used to.

CRAE made me realize the importance of safe spaces in the classrooms and in school in general. Knowing that judgment won’t be passed and my opinions won’t be shut down when I say “controversial” things gives me courage. Knowing that my classmates will try to understand what I say, even though they might not relate, is reassuring. We need to work on establishing safe spaces in all classes because I know that there are still people who are afraid to contribute in sensitive conversations. When safe spaces are established, students will finally feel like they can use their voice without fear.