Defining Terms, Thinking Critically, and Focusing Inward

A Three-pronged Approach to Campus Dialogues on Race

Ray M. Sanchez

Many faculty members across the country are encouraged by the calls for open dialogue by presidents and other campus leaders in light of recent events in our country. At my institution, the college president has fostered dialogue through weekly talking circles and has emailed the campus community saying that these dialogues are a place where we all “can share points of views with others” and where “everyone is equal and everyone belongs.” I am personally appreciative of the words and actions of my college’s president in so far as he has established a tone and a forum for open and honest dialogue.

In order to maximize the benefit of these sorts of open and honest dialogues, however, three critical components are needed. At a bare minimum, institutions of higher education, led by the college president, should model and insist upon these three fundamental principles: defining terms, critical thinking, and an institutional or inward focus rather than an off-campus, external focus.

Defining Terms

Genuine, good-faith dialogue cannot begin, let alone flourish, if all members of the campus community are not defining words in the same way. For example, does the term “racism” mean active prejudice and discrimination only or is it also inclusive of the once-lauded ideal of color-blindness? This question is of no small importance, and varying definitions of the word are at the heart of the impasse that occurs between otherwise thoughtful interlocutors. In a piece in The Atlantic from July 2019, John McWhorter writes,

Today, racist means not only burning a cross on someone’s lawn or even telling someone to go home, but also what feels unpleasant to someone of a race—as in what I as a person of that race don’t like. It has gone from being mean to someone to, also, what feels mean to me. The two may seem the same, but it gets tricky. A white woman admires a black woman’s locks and asks her how she washes them; the black woman gets tired of answering such questions and feels they are intrusive, harmful. Many would instinctively extend the term racist to this interaction, despite the fact that the white woman sincerely admired the black woman’s hair and feels odd being called a racist.1

Slowing down discussion in order to agree upon terms may seem unnecessary to some, but without it, discourse is prone to confusion, and all parties increasingly talk past each other or at each other. When someone commits a micro-aggression—that now-common term thrown around the academy—as the white woman apparently does in the McWhorter example above, we must ask, what is meant by “aggression” and what is meant by “micro”? This is the necessary starting point to open and honest dialogue.

In 2014, the University of California published a list of micro-aggressions which were described as, “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”2 If a well-intentioned, i.e., genuinely curious, honest, and heartfelt student says in class, “There is only one race, the human race,” or “When I look at you, I don’t see race,” how would we discuss this in our open dialogue sessions on campus? Do intentions matter? Is it really hostile for a student to share their belief in the unity and equality of all persons or, as the UC publication describes, are the questions above nothing less than the denials of “the significance of a person of color’s racial/ethnic experience and history”? The words we hear so often used—micro-aggression, institutional racism, white privilege, etc.—must be fleshed out with honest and serious inquiry and clear definitions before the wider call for open dialogues will bear the fruit of shared understanding, where truly “everyone belongs”.

Thinking Critically

If all viewpoints matter, and they all do, and if truth matters more, and it does, then we should be willing to listen, rebut as necessary, listen more, and again rebut in order to refine our thinking in a healthy, academic dialectic of truth-seeking. What the college president and campus leadership should discourage is for any point of view on these recent cultural issues to be presented as obvious and not in the form of argument. If racism is structural because of power differentials and oppression—even in the classroom—then our college communities should examine evidence that informs open dialogue and debate. On the other hand, if it is in fact counter-productive and retrograde to denounce the colorblind ethic—even in the classroom—then our college communities should examine relevant evidence that informs open dialogue and debate as well.

Steamrolling over people in either direction is not at the heart of the high calling of higher education, and doesn’t model for students what open and honest discussion looks like. This is not what we want in the classroom and shouldn’t be what we want within the institution as a whole. Perhaps our colleges should begin the discussion with a return to the question of the purpose of a university. At a recent discussion held at Pearson College in London, panelists discussed two prominent perspectives on the purpose of the university:

  1. The purpose of a university is to be the guardian of reason, inquiry and philosophical openness, preserving pure inquiry from dominant public opinions.
  2. The purpose of the university has changed to a focus on social mobility. University allows more people to transform their lives, if necessary, at the expense of some academic rigour.3

The programs and curricula that are built on each of these perspectives are fundamentally different, leading faculty and students naturally divided over the very education they are offering and receiving, respectively. If the campus president and leadership can encourage a refocus of programmatic and curricular efforts around critical thinking, and if the current open dialogue can be centered around critical thinking criteria, all participants—students in the classroom and the larger community in these newly established “talking circles”—will feel that they can openly share and openly receive. Again, without such a focus, the discussion will lead to one of only sharing perspectives and feelings (however true these feelings may be) but won’t result in listeners turning into participants that are engaging in analysis and significant higher-order thinking, which is absolutely necessary for lasting change.

Robert H. Ennis’s decades-old definition of critical thinking is instructive: “Critical thinking is reflective and reasonable thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do.”4 Too often students are taught what to believe rather than how to think critically in order to formulate their own reflective and reasonable thinking. Do we also want the campus community to simply be told what to believe rather than investigate and analyze truth claims? May it never be so. It is on the foundation of reflective and reasonable thinking that decisions are made about what to believe or what action to take, and without this foundation there is much parroting and slogan-promoting, but very little analysis and activity focused on developing important abilities that both perspectives should emphasize. Ennis posits that critical thinking involves having dispositions such as seeking reasons, trying to be well informed, looking for alternatives, taking a position and changing a position when the evidence and reasons are sufficient to do so, dealing in an orderly manner with the parts of a complex whole, etc. He adds that there are abilities that critical thinkers have, such as identifying or formulating criteria for judging possible answers, judging the credibility of a source, interpreting explanatory conclusions and hypotheses, identifying assumptions, etc.

Adherents of the first perspective on the purpose of university education may neglect application, so that students may be long on sound reasoning skills but short on how a classical liberal education can result in employment. Adherents of the second perspective may only focus on application, so that students may know what kind of career they want but find it difficult to engage others with a common vocabulary, background knowledge, and cultural literacy.

Focusing Inward

Institutions of higher education should begin the discussion of “institutional racism” or “systemic racism” by first taking care of their own home. They need to explicitly and clearly identify their own “institutional racism” first, lest circumstances like exercise ropes in Oakland or garage pull-down ropes at Talladega speedway be excavated and the overwhelming unity and camaraderie amongst students and the broader campus community be destroyed without cause.  

Everyone on campus—after definitions are agreed upon (Defining Terms), and an academic, data-driven inquiry has begun and continues with proper dispositions and attitudes (Critical Thinking)—should be able to answer three essential questions:

  1. What exactly is “institutional racism” — on campus
  2. How exactly does “institutional racism” manifest — on campus
  3. Where exactly is “institutional racism” happening — on campus

The operable term here is exactly and the operable phrase is on campus. If institutional racism is "any institutional policy, practice, and structure in … schools and universities … that unfairly subordinate People of Color while allowing White persons to profit from such actions,"5then we ought to be able to call them out specifically and with haste. Too often there is jargon used that cannot be questioned and inferences made that are so nonspecific as to be considered nothing more than anecdotes. If there are specific instances and/or data-sets, a robust discussion should ensue without fear and trepidation.


Institutions of higher education are places of open and honest dialogue, debate, disinterested inquiry, and analysis of data—all data—without a rush to judgment, and where “everyone is equal and everyone belongs”. Stating this, again and again, is particularly important for the leadership of our institutions, in order to ensure open and honest academic discussion—a genuine exchange of ideas to occur, and not to assume that what any one person holds to be true is obvious. On issues of race and inequities in particular, our institutions need a set of common definitions, so that our conclusions can then be agreed upon. Our institutions also need a set of critical-thinking criteria—critical thinking leads and emotional response follows, not the other way around—which frames our discussions within reasonable and reflective thinking, which then yields reasonable and reflective solutions. Lastly, our institutions need to focus on where “systemic racism” occurs on their specific campuses in order to eliminate it if it exists or dismiss it if it is nonexistent. Taking these three fundamental principles together and applying them, our institutions can foster meaningful dialogue resulting in transformative change. A second, long-lasting benefit is that we will be modeling constructive dialogue and debate for our students, much-needed in this time of slogans and mantras.

1John McWhorter, “Racist Is a Tough Little Word,” The Atlantic, July 24, 2019,

2“University of California Microaggression List,” University of California, Santa Cruz, accessed June 25, 2020,

3“What is the Purpose of a University,”, April 20, 2018,

4Robert H. Ennis, “A Logical Basis for Measuring Critical Thinking Skills,” Educational Leadership, October 1985,

5Sue, D. W, “The Invisible Whiteness of Being: Whiteness, White Superiority, White Privilege, and Racism,” in Addressing Racism: Facilitating Cultural Competence in Mental Health and Educational Settings, eds. M. G. Constantine & D. W. Sue, (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), 15-32.

Ray M Sanchez is the Academic Success Centers Coordinator for the State Center Community College District (SCCCD). He may be reached at [email protected].

Photo by Tony Hand on Unsplash

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