Mobilizing Family Science Departments in Antiracism Efforts

Shardé McNeil Smith, Ph.D., Assistant Professor; Carolyn N. Orson, Ph.D.; Naya Sutton, doctoral student; Jennifer L. Hardesty, Ph.D., CFLE, Professor; and Brianna L. Anderson, Ph.D., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
/ NCFR Report, Fall 2021

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Shardé McNeil Smith, Ph.D.; et al.
From left: Shardé McNeil Smith, Ph.D.; Carolyn N. Orson, Ph.D.; Naya Sutton; Jennifer L. Hardesty, Ph.D., CFLE; and Brianna L. Anderson, Ph.D.

In Brief

  • Unraveling institutional practices requires a multiprogrammatic approach. 
  • Family Science departments must do the hard work of dismantling the culture, practices, and policies that reinforce systemic racism.
  • Climate surveys and a critical, antiracist evaluation of teaching practices can contribute to decentering whiteness in existing departmental practices.


The unjust killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in 2020 created a sense of racial awakening in America that led some companies, institutions, and organizations to take a stand against racism and to reflect on their role in perpetuating a system of inequality. We saw a surge of statements and discussions denouncing racism and promises to do better, including among colleges and universities. Systemic and institutional racism is deeply entrenched in higher education. Although academia is disguised as a meritocratic system, its subtle and overt racist practices inherently reinforce White privilege while marginalized faculty, staff, and students are disproportionately disadvantaged (Burke, 2020).

Family Science programs are not immune from perpetuating systemic racism and must take an active stance of dismantling racial inequalities embedded within their policies, practices, and approaches to studying families. One approach is to adopt an antiracism ideology and engage in antiracism pedagogy at multiple levels. Antiracist pedagogy is an “intentional and strategic organizing effort” in which faculty (and departments) critically reflect on their social position, course content, and approach to teaching (Kishimoto, 2018, p. 551). In this article, we present two strategies that our Family Science department engaged in to begin to unravel the institutional practices that center whiteness. First, we describe our process of developing and distributing an inclusion and diversity undergraduate climate survey. Second, we describe our process of reviewing course syllabi through an antiracism lens. Our goal is to share how Family Science departments can initiate the urgent and hard work of dismantling the culture, practices, and policies that reinforce systemic racism in higher education.

Assessing Departmental Cultural Climate

Guided by critical race theory, we acknowledge that racism is normalized in the education system (Ladson-Billings, 1998), and as such dominant narratives within departments (e.g., White, heterosexual, male) should be critically examined. To identify how these majoritarian narratives are reinforced, we argue that the experiential knowledge from marginalized students is essential to addressing departmental climate (Ledesma & Calderón, 2015). Therefore, the Inclusion and Diversity Committee within our department developed a survey to assess and understand Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) undergraduates’ experiences of discrimination and bias. The HDFS Undergraduate Climate Survey assesses undergraduate students’ perceptions of departmental climate on the basis of their interactions with faculty and peers, as well as their perceptions of cultural relevance, cross-cultural engagement, insensitivity, discrimination, and respect for cultural differences.

A pilot of the survey was completed in the spring of 2019 with a random sample of HDFS seniors over 18 years of age. Starting in the spring of 2021, HDFS sophomores, juniors, and seniors over 18 years of age are eligible to complete the online survey annually. A random selection of HDFS sophomore, junior and senior students were recruited via email by the department academic adviser and reminded to complete the survey through their HDFS courses and follow-up emails. Selected students who do not meet the age criteria and are not HDFS majors of at least sophomore standing were screened out. Students were notified that participation had no bearing on their course grade and was completely voluntary. Faculty and graduate students worked together to select and adapt subscales from existing measures (e.g., Culturally Engaging Campus Environments Scale [Museus et al., 2016]; General and Racial Campus Climate [Reid & Radhakrishnan, 2003]). The Undergraduate Climate Survey includes questions that assess the degree to which all their HDFS courses specifically, and the HDFS department broadly, are culturally engaging, sensitive, and inclusive, as well as students’ level of personal and academic stress, and coping mechanisms. We incorporated open-ended questions asking students to share an example of an experience that informed their answers. Where relevant, we also asked students to identify any sociocultural identities that were “the main reasons” for their experiences (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality/sexual orientation, citizenship status, ability status, religion, socioeconomic status or class). The university’s institutional review board approved all procedures. Given the sensitive nature of some questions, links to on-campus resources were provided throughout and at the end of the survey. Results were aggregated and reported to the department so that concrete steps to address emerging issues could be developed and implemented for sustained change.

Assessing (Anti)-Racism in Syllabi

Inspired by Alyshia Gálvez’s (2020) approach to antiracist teaching, we formed a committee of faculty and students to carry out an initiative to decolonize syllabi in our department. Our goal was to critically interrogate course syllabi through an antiracism lens by asking, “How do antiracism and diverse representation show up (or not) in HDFS syllabi?” This is an essential first step in our ongoing process, as syllabi are forward-facing documents that represent our department’s collective values. If we, as a department, claim to be antiracist, our materials must represent this core value. First, we systematically reviewed 26 syllabi for evidence of explicit attention to diversity and inclusion in course objectives, policies, and assignments. Importantly, the extent to which Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) scholars are represented in assigned readings can be an invisible indicator of whether whiteness is centered and canons of white knowledge are reproduced. Thus, we also coded syllabi for representation of BIPOC scholars as first authors of assigned readings.

Implementing this initiative was challenging. This work requires vulnerability and critical self-reflection as instructors; having our courses evaluated can expose our lack of attention to diversity or centering of whiteness. Department buy-in is critical, which in our experience involved explaining why this is important and sharing aggregate-level findings. Our intent was to conduct a system-level evaluation rather than call out specific courses or instructors. Thus, individual-level feedback is provided to instructors privately. It is important that White instructors do their own hard work to understand antiracism and their own, often unacknowledged contributions to systemic oppression. In the end, however, it is critical that instructors understand that this is not about them, but about Family Science as a discipline, our legacy as a department, and more importantly, dismantling systemic racism. Because syllabi are limited in reflecting what actually happens in our classrooms, our next steps are to evaluate instruction and in-class experiences for a holistic review of anti-racism in teaching.

Implications: A Call to Action

Changes to campus-wide culture, policies, and practices are critical to higher education antiracist efforts. At the same time, there may be unique dynamics reinforcing systemic oppression across intersecting sociopolitical identities within Family Science. For systemic change to occur, change must come at every level of our higher education institutions (Hiraldo, 2010). Consistent reinforcement of antiracist orientation reaffirms our stance as a department and supports student learning.

Incorporating a department-wide survey creates opportunities to learn directly from students’ experiences about existing cultural and institutional practices that marginalize students. Using survey findings, we can better distribute resources to address student needs and nurture beneficial cross-cultural interactions. Crucially, we can improve initiatives that fail to dismantle the racial hierarchies within our department.

Family Science departments can advance antiracist pedagogy by establishing protocols for systematically reviewing course syllabi, acknowledging the diverse places we start from, and holding one another accountable. Syllabi may not fully represent what happens in the classroom and next steps should involve an “on the ground” evaluation of antiracist pedagogy (e.g., teaching observations). Ultimately, as Family Science departments, we can advance antiracist pedagogy in the classroom and make our efforts explicit in our syllabi, thereby reflecting our departments’ commitments to being antiracist.


When employing department-level antiracist initiatives, centering students acts as a counternarrative in which their voices and experiences can be heard accurately. Decentering White voices and embodying antiracist values is essential in department efforts to dismantle structural racism. These principles should guide what is necessarily a multiprogrammatic approach. Being antiracist as a department is an ongoing commitment that takes critical reflection and continuous review of culture, policies, and practices across all areas. Family Science has the potential to play a critical role in cultivating an inclusive environment that helps students feel they belong, are valued, and can fully engage in their learning as their whole selves. Initiatives such as ours are preliminary steps toward utilizing the wealth of resources at historically and predominantly white institutions to enact intentional, antiracist efforts that can restructure higher education to support a multiracial, democratic society.




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Ledesma, M. C., & Calderón, D. (2015). Critical race theory in education: A review of past literature and a look to the future. Qualitative Inquiry, 21(3), 206–222.

Museus, S. D., Zhang, D., & Kim, M. J. (2016). Developing and evaluating the culturally engaging campus environments (CECE) scale: An examination of content and construct validity. Research in Higher Education, 57(6), 768–793.

Reid, L. D., & Radhakrishnan, P. (2003). Race matters: The relation between race and general campus climate. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 9(3), 263.