BYU students, faculty debate requiring race and ethnicity classes

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BYU students and faculty are currently weighing the pros and cons of making a race and ethnicity class a GE requirement. (Hannah Miner)

BYU students and professors are debating whether making a race and ethnicity class a GE requirement at BYU would do more harm or good.

A change.org petition titled “Have Race and Ethnicity Classes be a Mandatory BYU Grad Requirement” has gained over 18,000 signatures.

BYU senior Kennedy Madrid-Mena started the petition to increase awareness about race and ethnicity on campus. She said when she transferred to BYU, she heard stories from friends about experiencing racism on campus.

“I knew that there needed to be a change, and it needed to start with educating everyone,” she said. “If we are expected to become disciples of Christ and to ‘go forth and serve,’ we need to be educated.”

She emphasized that the petition “was not created to punish a certain group of students but to simply educate everyone.”

Justis Brown, a BYU student from Queen Creek, Arizona, believes that making a class like Sociology of Race and Ethnicity mandatory would do more harm than good since they “tend to promote the idea that non-white people are victims of a savagely cruel system and that white people have a ‘responsibility’ to change it.”

“What I can support are curriculums that present views that support and uplift minority communities rather than present them as victims,” he said. “I’m not saying prejudice isn’t a problem at BYU, it is. I just think the cure being presented is worse than the disease.”

Currently, BYU requires students to fulfill a global and cultural awareness requirement as part of its core curriculum. More than 250 classes fill this requirement. Of those classes, 217 — or 85% — can also count towards another GE requirement.

Madrid-Mena said the global and cultural awareness requirement is insufficient. “While those courses are beneficial, they may not adequately teach a student how to respectfully interact with students of different backgrounds,” she said.

BYU history professor David-James Gonzales said while there are classes that focus on race and ethnicity that can currently count for the global and cultural awareness GE, they’re not well-known on campus.

Instead, he hopes BYU creates a requirement for an interdisciplinary course or series of courses — much like the physical science or American heritage requirements — that deal specifically with race and ethnicity.

“This is a fact — that most of our students that get through BYU do not take any type of course that really teaches them and prepares them to deal with concepts of race, ethnicity and culture,” he added. “If they’re never taught and given the opportunity to explore it academically and then to discuss it with peers and students, that’s a key gap in their knowledge and in their education.”

Grace Soelberg has taken Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, and worked as a teaching assistant for the class several times. She said when she took the class, she was struggling with her own racial identity.

“I am adopted and I grew up with white parents and a white family and a white community, and so I never really grappled with what that means to be black but also to be biracial,” she said. “It has helped me be able to voice my opinion on certain things and be able to teach others.”

She said the responses she’s seen from other student TAs have been “overwhelmingly positive.”

She said a race and ethnicity requirement is needed specifically at BYU, where she said a lot of students “are from Utah and they don’t have a lot of experience with people of color. It’ll give them the opportunity to finally learn about this and be exposed to it, so that when they go out into the world, they will have experiences that won’t be so new to them, and they won’t make stupid mistakes.”

BYU graduate Scott Robbins recently started a change.org petition to “include whites in race and ethnicity classes at BYU” as a counter-petition to the one Madrid-Mena started. The petition seems to originally have been titled “Ban Race and Ethnicity Classes at BYU” based on its URL and currently has four signatures.

“That (requiring race and ethnicity classes) would be a terrible idea,” Robbins said in a Facebook post promoting his petition. “I took these classes at BYU and know first hand they made myself and other white students feel ashamed and belittled to be white.” He added that the classes he took were a graduate seminar in race and ethnicity (SOC 623) and an undergraduate sociology class on race and ethnicity.

BYU sociology professor Ben Gibbs acknowledged that classes about social issues present unique challenges.

“There are worries that if you share what’s in your heart it could be labeled as good or bad by other students or by the professor,” he said. “These are not easy classes to teach and they’re not easy classes to take.”

He said the remedy is to understand where students are coming from, to be as open as possible about biases and to focus on evidence and ideas.

However, a change in the required courses wouldn’t be effective without a larger change on campus, according to Gibbs.

“It’s hard to have courses and instructions about race and ethnicity when we don’t actively recruit and support students from those kinds of backgrounds on campus,” he said. “Any kind of effort with the content of courses at BYU should be married with real effort to expand the BYU experience to as many kinds of students as possible.”

Gibbs said sociology classes aren’t the only classes that are well equipped to handle social issues like race but that fields like history, political science and anthropology are also equipped and that if there’s a demand, departments will find a way to make those classes widely available.

BYU sociology professor Jacob Rugh, who teaches Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, declined to be interviewed. However, he recently tweeted a list of 15 BYU classes about race and racism in the U.S. The list included courses in everything from history and sociology to music and education.

Gonzales teaches some of the classes on Rugh’s list. He hopes that students take these courses to challenges their own beliefs.

“The whole purpose of getting a college education is to be educated, and that means explicitly to learn things you don’t know,” he said. “I would hope that students don’t choose classes just so that they affirm what they already know.”

He’s hopeful about the direction the university is moving in regarding issues of race and inclusivity. “There are literally dozens and dozens of faculty, staff and administrators on campus that are working towards these issues,” he said, adding that creating new curriculum takes time.

He’s also seen that many students are also eager to take courses regarding race, ethnicity, gender diversity and inclusion. “The demand is much higher than the current class offerings that we have,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales said a lot of faculty are hoping for the institutional recognition and support that comes from making a race and ethnicity a GE requirement.

“That’s where the university is saying we are prioritizing this issue, we understand how important it is,” Gonzales said. “Making this a requirement within GE would mean that it would then get this out to so many more students.”

Calvin Westfall graduated with a double major in Spanish translation and European studies in April and plans to start an MA in Spanish at BYU this fall. He is a “firm believer” that race and ethnicities course should be required for graduation. 

He acknowledged that many students may be concerned with adding an additional requirement to BYU’s core curriculum, but his solution is to replace one of the current requirements with a race and ethnicity course.

“Many times students are forced to take classes in fields that they would never touch otherwise,” he said. “However, there is a great difference. I will probably never have to know all the protein sequences in my DNA, but I do and will continue to live in a society in which racial inequalities exist.”

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