Speech communication professor Richard Buttny engages his students in discussions on race and racism. The conversations, which often prompt class members to share their personal experiences, allow him to explore racial issues.
Several years ago, speech communication professor Richard Buttny conducted an experiment in his Intercultural Communication class that changed his perspective on race relations on the SU campus. The experiment provided plenty of discussion material for the class and ideas for his ongoing research. |
After his annual showing of the documentary Racism 101,Buttny devised a study to get students to discuss race matters in their own terms. He encouraged students to watch the video with friends and tape the ensuing conversations. Buttny collected the tapes, analyzed the conversations, and has been studying, sharing, and building on the findings ever since. "Many of the issues that came up in the study are still discussed in class," says the College of Visual and Performing Arts professor. "Each year, students generally confirm what I found in the research: Race relations among students can be improved."
The discussions prompted Buttny, author of Social Accountability in Communication,to delve further into the issue. He applied his theories on the discursive constructions of race to the various topics addressed in class. "Given that racism remains one of our country's main problems, I have long been interested in it," he says. "I wanted to see what my methodology of conversation analysis could uncover about the ways people make sense of racism as a discursive object."
In-class discussions touch on such attention-grabbing incidents as the recent conviction of New York City police officers in the beating of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. Those issues are contrasted with students' personal experiences. "We want to see how students make sense of racism on their own terms," Buttny says.
Buttny's initial findings were published in the journal Human Communication Researchin 1997. He says students continue to report that many racial problems surface during one-on-one interactions between people of different races. This "new face of racism" is subtle, but seems to occur frequently, Buttny says. For example, African American students speak about either being over-monitored when they enter a store, or ignored by sales clerks. In contrast, white students don't seem to notice subtle differences in treatment.
Buttny says he is surprised by comments indicating that students have more frequent and rewarding interaction with people of different races in high school than they do in college.
African American students in the study frequently cited respect as an issue, and it continues to be a hot topic of discussion in Buttny's class. "I asked, 'What is this notion of respect?' It seemed like a rich concept for understanding," he says.
Students shared their own tales of disrespectful treatment in a follow-up study. Some were criticized in public; others were refused service or were simply not addressed as politely as other customers. Buttny used his SU research as a springboard for a wider study on the issue of respect between people of different races. His findings will be published later this academic year.
Students also shed light on racial boundaries that are rarely crossed or understood. Buttny examined students' positions on these self-segregation patterns in a study recently published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology."There is a tendency to seek the comfort of what is familiar," he says. "Some people would criticize that kind of behavior, others would justify it, but few had any ideas on how they could change it. People want more interaction, but they don't know how to achieve it."
If nothing else, Buttny says, the class offers students a forum for discussion. "Students want to talk about race, but feel they don't have a venue for it," he says. "Inevitably, the understanding that develops in the class affects the studentsat least on a personal level. They take that understanding with them out into the world, which is a positive thing. As a white researcher, this is an education for me, too."