Skip to content Skip to navigation

Reinforcing Racism: Color-Blind Curricula in Higher Education by Nolan Cabrera

 I was asked to write this blog post on the “new racism” of color-blind curricula in higher education. “New racism,” means the way that overt expressions of racial animus have frequently been driven underground even though the underlying structure of White supremacy remains (Cabrera, 2019).  I agreed to write this post, but I also slightly reframed the discussion. Instead of color-blind, monocultural, Euro-centric curricula[1] being “new,” they are the historical norm and critiquing this educational approach was central to the formation of Ethnic Studies.[2] Therefore, I instead use reinforcing racism, as monocultural curricula are nothing new and, in fact, are common and normal. In his classic text, A Different Mirror[3] (1993), former UC Berkeley history and Ethnic Studies professor Ronald Takai specifically addressed this issue and its effects:

What happens, to borrow the words of Adrienne Rich, ‘‘when someone with the authority of a teacher’’ describes our society, and ‘‘you are not in it’’? Such an experience can be disorienting—‘‘a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.’’ (p. 16)

As Takaki illustrates, curricular decisions are value-laden. They send messages about whose perspectives hold value and whose do not, implicitly telling Students of Color that their communities are not knowledge producers.  This approach has the opposite effect on White students. When the bulk of authors presented are White, it reinforces the social illusion that White authors and analyses are superior, creating what Gusa (2010) refers to as “White ascendancy.” This is especially pronounced among White male undergraduates who frequently interpret a lack of racial engagement in their specific disciplines to mean that race is “someone else’s problem” (Cabrera, 2019). Thus, it is critically important to center racial inequality in the higher education curriculum, but it begs a larger question: Who will teach these classes?

Who will teach these classes?

            These curricular controversies have been raging for years, and a frequent question offered by skeptics is, “What if there are no minority authors in my field?” The short retort is simple: They exist, and if you do not know about them, you are part of the problem. A little historical context is necessary. Ever since the formation of Ethnic Studies 50 years ago, people have been making demands on diversifying faculty, curricula, and knowledge production. Yet, the discourse remains the same, “I can’t do anything because there just aren’t enough minority faculty doing this work.” Fifty years seems to be enough time to call “BS” on this rationale, and instead, it seems to be more a matter of will (or lack thereof).

            The other issue skeptics raise is the following, “Well, race is important, but it’s not really part of my field.” This is frequently offered from professors in the STEM fields who mistakenly think that science and racial equity are mutually exclusive ideals. To this, I highlight the following. First, some of the most important and innovative Ethnic Studies developments recently have been at the intersection of STEM and social justice (e.g., Morales-Doyle, 2017). Second, there are pragmatic concerns about this issue for the larger society. For example, what is the Flint water crisis but the intersection of STEM and Ethnic Studies? An awareness of both is necessary to address this continuing disaster, and it is not a unique situation as people exploring environmental racism have been writing about this for years (e.g., Bullard, 2008).

Maintaining the Integrity of Ethnic Studies

            The underlying issue then becomes what to do with this historical legacy because tokenizing the curriculum does not fundamentally alter these racial power dynamics. As I have previously argued, “One cannot simply take out Shakespeare, insert Maya Angelou, and claim the class is meaningful ethnic studies” (Cabrera, 2019, p. 155). Sleeter (2011) reviewed the evidence from Ethnic Studies curricula and found to implement Ethnic Studies with fidelity, one needs to center issues of race, racism, and colonialism, in their curricula, explore the intersection of identity and knowledge production, while validating the intellectual products from minoritized communities – in particular, their struggles for liberation (p. 3).  These components are incredibly important because a lot of what is called “Ethnic Studies” in higher education has drifted from its core purpose of being a liberatory, community-connected form of scholarship to a collection of scholars who study minority groups but not necessarily critically engaging racism or being community-engaged (Hill-Zuganelli, 2016; Rojas, 2007).  Please keep in mind, there are obvious exceptions, and I simply offer this as a statement on trends in the field, reminding readers that not all approaches to diversifying the curriculum are equally effective.

            Finally, centering racism in the curriculum means a change in pedagogical approach as well.  It is relatively common for professors to offer diversity in their curriculum, but they frequently teach it in counter-productive ways.  One can use Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech to make students mistakenly believe that this civil rights icon was actually color-blind in his approach to social justice. Conversely, an instructor can use the same material to explore the underlying causes and consequences of structural racism Dr. King was fighting, while being able to explore the question, “What issues remain from that historical point in time?”  A particularly effective strategy that I have found interviewing White men on the subject of race is a humanizing pedagogy[4] (Cabrera, 2019). That is, while facts and statistics are important in demonstrating the continued significance of racism in contemporary society, putting a human face to the consequences of this oppressive system helps people create empathy across difference.  Please note, I did not say sympathy as this implies social pity, and I have no patience for patronizing views of the oppressed.

Ethnic Studies Moving Forward

            Returning to the point of this blog post, monocultural curricula represents the historical and contemporary norm. This is one of the numerous ways that institutions of higher education structurally reinforce racist norms; however, there are, to borrow from Bush (2011), always cracks in the wall of Whiteness. Ethnic Studies represents one of the most salient challenges to this form of racism, but instructors need to be aware that not all approaches to diversity are equally effective. Rather, centering racism requires addressing both in both content and pedagogy. Some will ask, “Yes, but how can I do this?” I have offered some underlying principles to consider, but I have intentionally not been prescriptive in this post. I do not want to give the mistaken notion that all you need to do is follow 8 steps to have an anti-racist classroom. Ultimately, it is a combination of your will and creative imagination to apply these principles to your locale and break beyond the bounds of monocultural curricula.

            The future of Ethnic Studies in higher education requires both a return to the past and a look to the future. The return to the past entails reestablishing the community connections that were so critical to the formation of Ethnic Studies in the first place.  Again, there are several departments that have continued to maintain and nurture these ties, but they are also not the norm (Hill-Zuganelli, 2016). The future component requires moving beyond the limits of social science and humanities to create STEM-based Ethnic Studies.  This new terrain also means that Ethnic Studies scholars are going to need to critically analyze these developments because implementation is going to be uneven just as it has been in the current K-12 expansion. Within this context, new research on higher education Ethnic Studies needs to document both the successes and failures of this educational approach, continuing to theorize the core components of effective Ethnic Studies curriculum and pedagogy.


Bullard, R. D. (2008). Dumping in Dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality. Westview Press.

Bush, M. E. L. (2011). Everyday forms of Whiteness: Understanding race in a “post-racial” world (2nd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Cabrera, N. L. (2019).  White Guys on Campus: Racism, White Immunity, and the myth of “post-racial” higher education.  New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Gusa, D. L. (2010). White institutional presence: The impact of Whiteness on campus climate. Harvard Educational Review80(4), 464-490.

Hill Zuganelli, D.  (2016).  Chicano Studies:  Proliferation of the discipline and the formal institutionalization of community engagement, 1965 to present. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona.

Morales‐Doyle, D. (2017). Justice‐centered science pedagogy: A catalyst for academic achievement and social transformation. Science Education101(6), 1034-1060.

Sleeter, C. E. (2011). The academic and social value of ethnic studies: A research review. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

Rojas, F. (2007). From black power to black studies: How a radical social movement became an academic discipline.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Takaki, R. (1993). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. Boston, MA: Back Bay Books.






Author biography

Dr. Nolan Cabrera is a nationally-recognized expert in the areas of racism/anti-racism on college campuses, Whiteness, and ethnic studies. He is currently an Associate Professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, and was the only academic featured in the MTV documentary White People. His new book, White Guys on Campus, is a deep exploration of White male racism, and occasional anti-racism, on college campuses – a text Jeff Chang (author of We Gon’ Be Alright) described as “A timely, provocative, even hopeful book.” Additionally, Dr. Cabrera was an expert witness in the Tucson Unified Mexican American Studies case (Arce v. Douglas), which is the highest-profile ethnic studies case in the country’s history.  He has given hundreds of lectures, keynote addresses, and trainings, throughout the country on challenging racism/Whiteness, working through unconscious bias, creating inclusive college campuses, and the expansion of ethnic studies programs. Dr. Cabrera is an award-winning scholar whose numerous publications have appeared in some of the most prestigious journals in the fields of education and racial studies. He completed his graduate work at UCLA in Higher Education & Organizational Change and Dr. Cabrera earned his BA from Stanford University in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (Education focus). He is a former Director of a Boys & Girls Club in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is originally from McMinnville, Oregon.