“Our job is to repair the world”: A Q&A with Dr. Jane Bolgatz

Dr. Jane Bolgatz is a professor of Adolescence Social Studies. She started her career as an English and Social Studies teacher before earning her PhD at the University of Iowa. She recently discussed her research on race and racism, her personal philosophy, and her favorite books.

What was your dissertation on?
My dissertation was about how teachers and students talked about race and racism in a high school class. At that point I called it “Barriers and Breakthroughs.” Over time, I rethought that idea and realized that the barriers aren’t really barriers; they’re opportunities. A lot of my work since is figuring out how to get people to talk about race and what we need to talk about when we talk about race and racism.

As a teacher, I didn’t know how to get kids to talk about race and racism. It seemed to be a really important thing that people didn’t understand. I didn’t entirely understand it; I didn’t know how to talk about it. Some of it was for my own sake.

How have the resources or information surrounding the topic changed since you started your research?
There is way more people writing about it…well, maybe I just wasn’t reading enough at the time. And they are writing and talking about it very differently.

In the 90s, a lot of people talked about multiculturalism. There was a lot of “heroes and holidays,” meaning we’ll make different foods and celebrate culture.

Now, people are talking much more explicitly about how the goal of these conversations needs to be addressing and ending racism. People are getting clearer about their goals, like tackling the institutional racism. Whereas before, people may simply ask “Do we have a Black Studies course in our syllabus?” they are now more interested in talking about systematic oppression. For example, at Fordham, what are the institutional ways in which whites are privileged by our institutional culture?

What insights have come out from research that might help inform colleges about multicultural issues on campus and help them work to promote change?
Having people learn about what a microaggression is can be very helpful because then they can recognize it in themselves and others.

“Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color.” Those who inflict racial microaggressions are often unaware that they have done anything to harm another person.” (Sue, D.W., Capodilupo, C., Torino, G, Bucceri, J., Holder, A., Nadal, K., & Equin, M. (2007). Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice. The American Psychologist , 62 (4) 271-286.

The goal is not feel judgment because microaggressions are unintentional. The important this is to ask how we can understand the mistakes that we are making, the impact that they are having, and change it.

What was the biggest challenge you noticed in running workshops like you did at the Racial Justice Teach-In at Fordham?
Changing attitudes and behaviors takes a lot of time. White people are taught not to talk about race – they are scared of offending people. In our research, it’s taken me years to get kindergarten teachers to mention race. They are so nervous about it.

In general, people have to catch up on their education. Ta Nehisi Coates, who wrote Between the World and Me, James Baldwin, and other people have said and are saying that we aren’t taught this history. We aren’t taught the history of white resistance to racism or the history of people of color being empowered and being powerful. We certainly aren’t taught the history of white privilege and the oppression of people of color.

Have you seen other examples in schools of things changing?
I had a student in my Teaching and Assessing Adolescents class, where I taught a lesson on microaggressions, whom I later observed during his student teaching. He was teaching an ancient Greek history lesson. After his morning session, I pointed out that the lesson was very heteronormative. He was assuming everyone was heterosexual in the way he was talking about ancient history. He said, “oh I get it that’s a microaggression.”

In the afternoon, I observed the same lesson and he changed his lesson. He talked in a more open way, not assuming that everyone was going to be straight.

That is what I am able to do because of both my position as a field supervisor and as a professor. I can connect the theory from my own lessons to the students’ practice in their fieldwork. Sometimes there is a disconnect between what teacher educators say in the ivory tower and then what actually happens in schools. We try really hard at Fordham to bridge theory and practice.

If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you do for a career?
Oh, I have no idea. I mean, I loved being a high school teacher. I loved it. So, does that count? I have no idea, I just love this job so much. When I was a kid the only reason I wanted to become a teacher is because I couldn’t be a camp counselor year round. Now they have camps year round so I might want to go back and run a year round camp where I get to teach kids how to swim or have kids stay out in the woods and go hiking and camping.

What is your favorite age to work with?
It depends on the size of the group. I like working with adults. I loved working with high school kids.

I don’t really have experience with elementary school kids except the 8-year-old that lives in my house. It is interesting because when you talk to like 4th or 5th graders, there is a way in which they haven’t got all the social jargon. Their thinking and language is different from what the socially used terms are. And those socially used terms change depending on who you are and your generation, like the way I talk about race is different from the way my parents talk about race. You have to have a conversation with the 8 year old so you can have the conversation with the 14 year old.

Do you have a personal philosophy that has grounded you through your work or life?
My dad was the child of a Hebrew teacher so I grew up with some philosophically Jewish teachings about how one should live in the world and be a mensch.

It is just really important to love, and to have fun and make the world better. Tikkun Olam, which is a Judaic concept meaning “our job is to repair the world.”

Do you have an all-time favorite book?
One of my all-time favorite books is Stone Butch Blues. I love James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name.

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