University of Vermont

University Communications

Talking Race in the Classroom

Professor Emily Bernard

Emily Bernard says her best writing starts in the classroom. Take the UVM professor and celebrated author’s powerful essay on race, “Teaching the N-Word.”

“The N-word came up in discussion, and hung there, like the elephant in room,” recalls Bernard, a professor in UVM’s English Department, of her African-American biography class. “It was clear to me that we needed a discussion — and the experience that followed deeply informed my writing.”

The essay has been included in a Best American Essays anthology, and continues to be taught in schools across the nation.

“I write about topics that I want to teach,” Bernard says. “For me, writing is about exploring the big questions. Students are, naturally, a source of inspiration, because our discussions follow me outside of class. Ultimately, you hope what you have to say can help others.”

Much of Bernard’s work grapples with race in America, including the “contradictory nature of the black American experience,” she says. “We are deeply American — this country was largely built on our backs — but also somehow always ‘out of place.’ To be black in this country is to constantly be questioning your relationship with this America.”

One of the most powerful antidotes to racism, Bernard says, is “interracial intimacy.” “When people of different races share experiences there is an intimacy and understanding that develops that is crucial for mutual liberation from the shackles of racism.”

She sees her classroom as one of these spaces. “I want to illuminate what already exists inside my students, which is the capacity to be human — and to enlarge their vision.”

At the end of each semester, Bernard gives her students a challenge: “I ask them to be brave, particularly in these times, because they have a responsibility — and the power to make a change. Past generations have done their marches and taken the risks — and now it’s their moment to take a stand on issues of race and equality — to their friends, to their family, to whomever,” she says.

“And what most of my students realize when they leave UVM is they have nothing to lose and everything to give.”