UI College of Law class encourages discussion about race

BY MICHELLE KIM | APRIL 10, 2013 5:00 AM

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One class in the University of Iowa College of Law is prompting students to become more comfortable with talking and writing about race.

UI Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig teaches a seminar in Critical Race Theory this semester, and she added a new op-ed exercise to the course as an approach to integrating race in the class. Students say it has changed their perceptions of race.

Onwuachi-Willig said the op-ed exercise has been included in the course for three main reasons: to enable the students to hone their writing skills, to learn how to speak to a broader audience about controversial topics, and to apply the critical skills for civil-rights or public-interest lawyers. 

“Their comfort level in speaking about racial issues has increased,” Onwuachi-Willig wrote in an email.

The ethnic distribution in the law school shows that minorities represent a smaller enrollment than previously.

The 520 students include 15 international students, 16 African Americans, 30 Asians, 22 Latinos, and 351 whites.

While the course encourages students to talk and write openly about ethnicity, the Critical Race Theory Seminar has only one straight white male, making him the minority in the course.

“It’s kind of unique for me because I’m the only white, heterosexual male in the class,” law student Samuel Aden said. “A minority is a different experience, and there was hesitancy that I felt.”

The course also challenges students to think of ethnicity in a different perspective from what they have always known. 

“I think it’s a human nature to believe that everyone is on an equal playing field, but I think my classmates and I now understand that that is not true,” law student Jasmyn Harrington, a co-president of the Black Law Student Association, wrote in an email. “I now know that I am privileged over other African Americans who have darker skin than me, although I had never examined this aspect of racism before.”

Law student Berneta Haynes said the class helped the students change the way they perceive racial issues to Asian Americans, among other groups.

“We really never talk about Asian people,” Haynes said. “Being in class and hearing stories, I’ve never thought about what stereotype means for Asian students.”

Haynes also said that the class helped her to write in an accessible way to target her audience.

“You are making sure you are constantly aware of the audience,” she said. “We use appropriate catch words, in other words, because there are certain legal words that some people won’t get at all.”

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