Last spring, the College Curriculum Council approved a new curricular designation of “Race, Power and Privilege” for the 2022-23 academic year. Replacing the University’s “Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan Courses: Race, Gender and Inequality” designation, RPP is meant to highlight “the University’s commitment to the study of race, racial formations, inequality and social justice,” according to a March 2022 Today@Brown announcement.
This semester, there are over 100 courses offered under the RPP designation.
The Herald spoke to students and faculty members about the designation’s goals and impact in addressing racial injustice through course curricula.
From DIAP to RPP
The 2016 Task Force on Diversity in the Curriculum initially recommended an RPP designation with the intent of examining structural inequality and race “within a complex, pluralistic world” through curricular work, according to the Task Force’s 2016 report.
But after several committee members called for the University to “de-center race” in favor of a broader understanding of diversity, the CCC compromised and instated the DIAP designation over RPP.
The CCC’s 2020-21 Working Group on Diversity in the Undergraduate Curriculum made the most recent switch from DIAP to RPP after “reflecting on the increasingly public, racist violence and other national events of recent years,” according to the University’s website.
“RPP is a more powerful version of DIAP,” said Riley Suh ’24, who served as a committee member in the 2020-21 Working Group. “RPP sounds almost radical and DIAP was originally adopted because it’s more broad.”
“There is power in not needing to soften the reality of what we are focusing on and what needs to be acknowledged,” Suh added.
Michael Kennedy, professor of sociology and international and public affairs, said that DIAP — which focuses on a wide range of inequalities — distracts from a focused conversation posed by RPP about why inequalities exist and to what extent they are the result of white supremacy.
“I find it useful to think about the landscape of injustice with peaks and valleys and not with a plain of variation,” Kennedy added. The shift from DIAP to RPP is “making those mountains and valleys a little bit more distinct.”
RPP in the classroom
One of the objectives of the RPP course designation, as outlined on the University website, is for students to apply the “knowledge of critical theories of race, colonialism and power” to their areas of academic interest.
“Within my concentration … we look at narratives, at how a story was written,” said Aboud Ashhab ’25, who is a history concentrator. “We like to say that history is written by victors, but even the way that history is taught has to do with conquerors … and inherently with colonialism and racism.”
Reflecting on his experience this past semester with an RPP-designated course, MES 1222: “Modern Palestinian History,” Ashhab said that the course’s critical analyses of concepts such as nation-states and orientalism ensured that it remained true to its RPP mandate.
Madeline Day ’25, a public health concentrator, said she believes the RPP designation is relevant to her studies because a “major focus within public health is how to achieve health equity” across social strata including race and class.
Day took an RPP-designated course entitled PHP 1680I: “Pathology to Power: Disability, Health and Community” in fall 2022. In the course, “our professor highlighted the fact that there (is) a diverse set of lived experiences” among people with disabilities, Day said.
Suh, who is also a public health concentrator, emphasized the importance of RPP-related subjects regardless of a student’s academic interest.
“There is (not) a single position or job in this world … that would not be benefited by learning about how we exist in the world,” Suh said. “That’s ultimately what these classes are: ‘How do I exist in the world? What does the world look like to other people? And how do we improve upon it for everybody?’”
Effectiveness in the open curriculum
Day said that she always takes note of a course’s RPP designation when registering for classes, particularly when deciding between two courses that cover similar subject matter.
“If I ask the average person in my hallway if they know that RPP is a designation that classes have, I don't think that they would notice because it is in the fine print” on Courses at Brown, Suh said.
According to Suh, members of the 2020-21 Working Group informally discussed making the RPP course designation a requirement, but decided against it partly due to the nature of the University’s open curriculum.
She noted that while RPP is not a formal requirement, the 2020-21 Working Group has taken steps to make these courses more accessible and visible, including increasing the number of introductory and lower-level courses with RPP designations and investing “in support for first-year seminars.”
Kennedy, who is teaching a spring 2023 RPP-designated course entitled SOC 1490: “Power, Knowledge and Justice in Global Social Change,” said that making RPP courses a requirement can compromise the goal of the designation.
“Do we need to educate to empower? Do we need to educate to enlighten? Or do we need to educate in order to fulfill some requirement?” he said. “The latter is a recipe for boredom and meaninglessness.”
Jadyn Ligoo ’25, an international and public affairs concentrator, said she is unsure whether the RPP designation is a successful tool “for the University to show its commitment to supporting scholarship that is critically evaluating how inequalities manifest in our society.”
In lieu of course designations, Ligoo said she “would rather see more funding allocated to supporting scholarships and specific initiatives such as the Africa Initiative.” The Africa Initiative promotes research and teaching in collaboration with African academic partners, according to the initiative’s website.
Kennedy added that student movements can be more effective sources of change on campus than curricular designations. The campus advocacy group Decolonization at Brown “changed the way I teach,” he said.
Regarding the future of the RPP designation, Deputy Dean for Curriculum and Co-Curriculum Sydney Skybetter wrote in an email to The Herald that the College will measure the effectiveness of curricular initiatives like RPP over many semesters.
“Over time, we will deeply consider how the curricular designation has fared and share those findings in the years to come,” he wrote.
Reflecting on the future of RPP, Kennedy said that, while the designation is encouraging, it is “hardly a resolution” to racial injustice.
“The resolution does not come with labels,” Kennedy said. “The resolution comes through meaningful engagements that open up conversation.”
Clarification: A quote in this story previously incorrectly identified the RPP designation as a “resignation.”