New ‘Race and Racism in America’ course to be offered spring 2022

From left to right: alumna Javonne Bowles, graduate student Denelle Smith, sophomore Reena Pidaparti and doctoral student Marie Vergamini. Members of VCU’s Committee on Racial Equity worked to develop the course Race and Racism in America. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Varsha Vasudevan, Contributing Writer

A new course titled Race and Racism in America has been developed by VCU faculty and student members of CORE, the VCU Committee on Racial Equity. The course will focus on racial literacy and racism in workplaces, and will be offered in spring 2022.  

Racial literacy is defined as the ability to acknowledge racism and “examine the effects of race and institutionalized systems,” according to the National Council of Teachers of English

The students who were a part of developing this course were a mix of undergraduates, graduate students and alumni, according to Marie Vergamini, integrative life sciences doctoral student and member of CORE. 

Amy Rector, associate anthropology professor and faculty member of CORE said there are nine sections of the class being offered in the spring, seven of which are hybrid, as well as two completely asynchronous sections. The class is worth three credits. Most of the material, modules and assignments are available online, with two-thirds of the material being asynchronous. The course is pass or fail, with weekly smaller assignments along with group activities.

“Basically, every student that’s taking this at the same time can be a part of that big conversation together as they’re learning about these things,” Rector said. 

The student members of CORE created an online petition after discussing plans for the class in the spring. The petition was open to all and demanded the university provide a racial literacy course, according to a previous report by The Commonwealth Times. There were a total of 146 signatures from students, administrators and faculty members, Vergamini stated. 

We also have letters of support from such as the collective, SGA [Student Government Association], GSA [Graduate Student Association], Faculty Senate, and Faculty Council,” Vergamini stated. 

Rector and the students in CORE who helped create the course are still pushing for it to be made mandatory, however there are “an unsurprising number of levels of bureaucracy to go through,” Rector said. 

Students in VCU’s Committee on Racial Equity work together at James Branch Cabell Library. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Rector said faculty governance around the process is beneficial, because the organization received the number of votes and overall support needed to create the class. She said she remains hopeful the course will be required in the future. 

The course also fulfills the general education requirement in the “Diversities of Human Experiences” category, VCU spokesperson Michael Porter stated in an email. Race and Racism in America examines “how racism operates in the U.S.according to the course description.

The course description states that the class will address “four key areas,” including “origins, ideology, maintenance and resistance to race and racism in the U.S.”  

“[The course] applies an intersectional lens to examine how race interlocks with other systems of power,” according to the VCU Bulletin. 

Rector said Mignonne Guy, chair of the department of African American Studies and founder of CORE, was the one who initially outlined and pushed for the course. Rector said she wanted to get involved with the course after meeting Guy. Guy was unavailable for an interview by the time of publication. 

“Helping our students have the right vocabulary to talk about the influence of race and racism in the U.S. is so critical, so that VCU students can go out and change the world,” Rector said. “But without kind of having a shared knowledge of these things, it’s just not going to be possible to do.” 

Rector; Guy; Elizabeth Canfield, a professor in the department of gender, sexuality and women’s studies; Susan Bodnar-Deren, professor of sociology and Adam Ewing, associate chair of the African American studies department are all teaching the course next semester, according to the university’s class registration website.

Ewing, who is a member of CORE, said the curriculum of the class focuses on the history and development of racism in the United States, and “how racism has manifested historically in the United States.” He said the course also considers the interdisciplinary nature of racism in fields such as computer programming and artificial intelligence. 

“It looks at the way in which racism manifests in institutions in urban planning, in education, in criminal justice for example,” Ewing said. “And finally, it also examines solutions. So you know, what are things people have done to propose anti-racist solutions?”

Ewing said the class is beneficial for all students because of its broad application on students’ careers. 

“It gives students a really critical tool for understanding the workforces that they’re going to be in, and if they are committed to having, you know, workplaces that are anti-racist or that do not perpetuate racial inequality,” Ewing said, “it’s really important for them to understand how racism manifests in those spaces.” 

Vergamini said last spring that CORE was focused on getting the course approved. In the summer, the CORE faculty worked on outlining and finalizing the curriculum, which included getting recordings from guest lecturers for the course, Vergamini said. 

“Since spring 2021 to now, it’s been building the course so that it’ll be ready for spring 2022,” Vergamini said. 

Vergamini said she wanted to be a part of the course because it promotes racial literacy, which is a critical tool that confronts the “misrepresentation in the history books.” 

“It irritated me how obvious oppression is, and racism is, and how nobody does anything,” Vergamini said. “This course, what it was described to me, felt like this was a good start.” 

Freshman biochemistry student Sasha Wang said that this is the appropriate course to improve racial literacy among students, and should be mandatory, “because then everyone is forced to learn about it.” 

“Kind of just like how we’re forced to learn about the history of the United States, we also have to stay up to date with the issues that surround us as well,” Wang said. “I definitely think it would be a good requirement to have.” 

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