Learning Curve


A compelling class seen through the eyes of professor and student



The Student:

Willow Lung

Junior in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity

I was as nervous as I always am when I start a new quarter and a new class. First thing I was asked that first day of class was to tell about myself. Myself? Isn't a class supposed to be about what the teachers want from us? Apparently not. And so, there I was in "Understanding Racial and Ethnic Identity: Increasing Self-Understanding," telling 15 strangers all about myself. I told them what I expected to get out of the class, how and why I identified myself ethnically, and what "baggage" I was bringing.

"Pessimism is what I bring," I told them. "I am pessimistic that this society is ever going to change or that we will ever get past racism." I listened, too, as others talked about themselves in the kind of open conversation that would take people years to have. I learned things about them that I didn't know about my best friend, my mother or even myself.

Eventually, we all became naturally comfortable with one another. We all had made that first step to talking honestly about things that have been distorted for hundreds of years in America.

Each week we concentrated on a different ethnic group or identity: Black, Native American, Asian American, Mexican American, White, and Biracial/Multiracial. Each week consisted of a lecture by either teaching assistant VaLecia Adams or Professor Teresa LaFromboise and a presentation by a small group of students. The lecture was intended to expose us to research on different racial identity theories and to prepare us for the next day's student presentation.

But nothing could have prepared us for these extraordinary events. The first one set the tone. A graduate student in our class presented on the many stereotypes about Black Americans that have arisen from their association with rap music. He explained its history, its content and its relevance in his own life.

Each presentation was a personal story on how a student had come to embrace or discover his or her ethnic identity. And one day came my turn. The comfort I had found through five weeks of classes was replaced by fear. I was scared that people were not going to understand what I stood for. But they did. My presentation was on Biracial identity. I told them of my humble beginnings and the struggles I have gone through since coming to Stanford. As I talked, I started to notice open and comforting faces surrounding me. They understood what I am, what I represent and what I feel as an Afro American­Chinese American person in the U.S.

During the final week of class, we reflected on what we had learned. Some had become much more race conscious; some more accepting of others' differences; some were now less tolerant of others' prejudices, and many were more hopeful. I was one of them.

I remembered when I could be labeled as the "class pessimist." It seemed to me then that nothing in this damn country would ever be fair and that so few people cared enough to try to do anything about it, and that the ones who did care never would have the power to make a change. But as I looked around the room, I saw the progress we made in this corner of the world. Maybe we can make a

The Professor:

Teresa LaFromboise

Associate Professor of Education

At the time VaLecia Adams approached me about her desire to offer a course on racial identity development I was considering a request for propo-sals from the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity for the development of a core course on the subject.

To present psychological and educational matters on racial and ethnic identity, when America has become confessional about its obsession with race and when ethnic studies courses have been placed yet again under review, was paradoxical and yet timely. The opportunity to blend our work, mine on the orthogonal nature of bicultural competence and hers on the role of mutuality in African American identity formation, was intriguing.

Racial/ethnic identity development is a learned aspect of an individual's overall personality development. The sense of belonging associated with one's racial/ethnic group emerges from the process of broadening, narrowing and crystallizing boundaries in the quest to remain distinct yet fit into an increasingly pluralistic society. Racial/ethnic identity, combined with an understanding of one's gender, spiritual affiliation, family, work and community roles, all lead to a person's sense of uniqueness and individuality. Most theories situate the process primarily in adolescence. However, racial/ethnic identity development is thought to occur across the lifespan.

As questions began to arise about how to design the class I reflected upon conversations with my daughter during her move to the reservation as a young woman reared primarily on university campuses. At times she thrived in learning how to deal with the specific cultures associated with her multiple identities, i.e., national identity, Turtle Mountain Chippewa and American; regional identity, Northern Plains; ethnic identity, Métis (Chippewa, Cree and French); and religious identity, traditional Ojibwa and Catholic.

I anticipated that the students would probably be ready for the topic. They had recently changed their environments to attend Stanford, travel, make new friends and do community service. Many had formed new social groups. But I also knew that some would continue to espouse loyalty to only one racial/ethnic identity despite the multiplicity of the cultural backgrounds that go into that identity and mounting evidence that as people increase their identification with a particular culture, identification with their primary culture does not necessarily decline. Students would also differ in patterns of combinations of racial/ethnic identification due to their experiences with majority or minority societies and their relative status and economic position.

How to present scholarly material that was often painful yet encourage student identification with that material without the class evolving into a therapeutic collective on racial politics? Lately scholars have tried to reconceptualize the process of racial/ethnic identity development moving beyond reactions associated with oppression to a better understanding of the cognitions, affect and behavior that often culminate in a heightened sense of empowerment. Both perspectives were in order.

Education 156X, "Understanding Racial and Ethnic Identity: Increasing Self-Understanding," was created to help students review racial identity development models, and the role of race in the identity formation of Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans and African Americans; to recognize the multifaceted nature of personal identity; and to select aspects of racial/ethnic identity models that increase one's own self-

Empirical research has shown links between positive racial/ethnic identity development and self-esteem, affective states, overall psychological well-being and coping. Our students could be a showcase. They have gained a perspective on racial/ethnic identity and are now better equipped to cope with racial and ethnic matters wherever their future endeavors may lead. ST

Learning Curve (Plain text)

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November/December 1998


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