Bridging the Worlds Between Our Students


No. 8, January 2018, Global Studies Literature Review

Between the World and Me spent three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, won the National Book Award, and has been a new staple of race relations reading lists since its release in 2015. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, a correspondent for The Atlantic and NPR regular, frames his reflections on race in the United States as a letter to his son, reminiscent of James Baldwin’s 1963 classic The Fire Next Time. Coates immerses readers in the contradictions and confusion of growing up black in the United States, a life hued by fear: “Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets” (2015, 42).

Coates’s education at Howard University is highlighted in this memoir as “a port in the American storm” (2015, 54) and a campus that became “the crossroads of the black diaspora” (2015, 55). His time at Howard, which he describes as his first days of adulthood, shaped, changed, and complicated his understanding of history, U.S. culture, and race. It is in his recollections that educators may imagine themselves and the roles they might play in the development of such astute consciousness. The whole of Coates’s adolescent experience, growth as a student, and his dreams now in fatherhood can inform our own fundamental understanding of U.S. culture and, thus, our role as international educators.

Many U.S. students return from study abroad programs with a greater understanding or appreciation for U.S. culture. As we work to abolish barriers for underrepresented students within study abroad, international educators must seriously reckon with the ways students of color will consider and reconsider race as a part of their cross-cultural experience. For students whose experience within a larger context of American white supremacy has been traumatic—a life as Coates has described—reentry itself may be retraumatizing for students without culturally relevant and trauma-informed supports.

For international students arriving on U.S. campuses, international educators should consider providing an introduction to U.S. race relations as part of orientation because many students who would not otherwise consider themselves marginalized or even self-identify as a “person of color” may be categorized as such by the dominant U.S. culture. While Coates traces his family’s intergenerational transfer of knowledge on how to navigate, survive, and thrive amid U.S. white supremacy, international students arrive on our campuses without this same context-specific cultural capital. How can international educators present practical, possibly lifesaving information about U.S. white supremacy without reinforcing it? Does acknowledging the paradigm give it power, or is it negligent to ignore the reality that many incoming students face? Coates struggles with these questions as well, telling his son, “I did not want to raise you in fear or false memory. I did not want you forced to mask your joys and bind your eyes. What I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness. I resolved to hide nothing from you” (2015, 135).

Between the World and Me describes a U.S. culture that incoming international students, and many international educators themselves, are unfamiliar with. The book can help professionals gain a necessary broader cultural understanding of the U.S. and student experience. Engaging with Coates’s narrative may help professionals in crafting inclusive, culturally relevant, and valuable practices in advising and orienting both incoming and outgoing students of color within the current context of U.S. race relations.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2015. Between the World and Me. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.