Teaching Race: On Stereotypes and Privilege

I am a white woman, an identity I share with the majority of women voters who elected President Donald Trump. I am also middle-class, another aspect of my privilege. There were times when my family was lower-middle-class: my father had been laid off again, and things were tight while we lived on my mother’s smaller salary. Other times, once he’d been working again for a few years, we were solidly in the middle. As the oldest child, I was stingingly aware of the ups and downs of the family’s finances. What I never had to pay attention to, never even thought about, though, was my whiteness. As an adult in the United States, I am still not forced to pay attention to my whiteness, to consider how my racial category affects my daily interactions, my relationships, or my job search.

As a teacher, though, I must find ways to address my whiteness, my socioeconomic status, and my gender in order to engage students around these topics. I must address the fact that mine is not a neutral body, in front of the classroom or in life, and neither are the bodies of my students. In my introduction to cultural anthropology courses, I teach the concept of race to a classroom of people with very different experiences—some are students of color who have experiences with racial inequality; some are white students who have experiences with racial privilege. My American students have experiences shaped by the particulars of racial systems in the United States, while my international students have likely experienced concepts and categories of race different than the U.S. focus on black/white. Also in play are the variety of experiences from differences in ability, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, religious beliefs, and education. A good teacher uses different methods in teaching about postmodernism to hard science or humanities majors, right? But in the real world, especially the world of introductory anthropology courses, we are usually lecturing to both in the same classroom.

This post is an introduction to a new Teaching Tools series that will expand on the dialogue begun in a recent Correspondences session on "Teaching Race.” This series will showcase readings and exercises for teaching undergraduate students about race and racism. The goal of these posts is to connect educators with resources that will enable them to teach a subject that is not always included in introductory courses. Such courses, after all, are the only contact with anthropology that many nonmajors have, and as such play an important role in engaging, attracting, and retaining potential new majors from diverse backgrounds. These courses introduce nonmajors to mind-blowing propositions, like this one: race is a social construct, but it’s also an everyday reality.

I aim, with the help of future contributors to this series like Kyle Harp-Rushing, to continue the dialogue started in the Correspondences session, creating a space for teachers to discuss the aims, challenges, and intersectional contexts involved in teaching about race and racism in the social sciences. Please reach out to us with recommendations for future posts and use the comments section in each post to continue the exchange. I will add my own voice to the dialogue with this first post, on teaching undergraduate students about racial stereotypes and privilege. So far I have centered my own experiences in writing this post, both as a way to connect with readers and to acknowledge my position as a white woman in conversations about race and racism. The question this post raises is: How might we educate students about race and racism from within our own raced experiences?

I struggle with these questions and I am sure I am not alone. I seek to engage students in complex and at times alien topics by using examples of lived experiences. Often, this involves storytelling from my fieldwork in Northern Ireland or my Peace Corps days in Cameroon. But when it comes to teaching about race, if I center the lesson on my own experiences as a white woman then I am pushing aside and even silencing the many raced experiences that differ from my own. I am performing my privilege even as I attempt to address it. Yet the wonderful thing about studying humans is that people speak for themselves—there are millions of resources in which people give voice to their own experiences, from documentaries to podcasts to social-media posts to comedy sketches. Not to mention the many people staring back at us as we lecture! The exercise I describe below aims to shift the focus away from my own raced experiences while emphasizing the voices of my students.

This exercise, which I call a workshop, is meant to be used at the end of one or more lectures on race and racism. Students should already be familiar with the subject. What the workshop does is to move past the academic subject to the lived experience of race, guiding the students to not only connect the educational material to their own lives, but to critically reflect on their experiences. In doing so, the workshop also strives to highlight the privileges attached to whiteness in the United States without centering them.

In advance of the workshop, I assign Chapter 11 from the third edition of Philip Salzman and Patricia Rice’s Thinking Anthropologically: A Practical Guide for Students. The chapter, by Yolanda T. Moses (2010), is entitled “Thinking Anthropologically About ‘Race’: Human Variation, Cultural Construction, and Dispelling Myths.” It is a succinct, wonderful resource for students that lays out a brief history of race as a concept in science, presents cultural comparisons of how race is structured differently in Montserrat and the United States, and discusses ideas for integrating biological and cultural anthropology to study race. The sections I focus on for the workshop, however, are the ones in which Moses deconstructs three myths about race: its biological distinctiveness, its link to athletic ability, and its link to intellectual ability.

In class, we review these three myths and how Moses dispels them. Then, I turn to two brief videos, both comedy sketches, to prime the students for their workshop discussions. Comedy, I have found, goes a long way to relax and engage students in a complex subject. The first is a 1984 Eddie Murphy sketch from Saturday Night Live, “White Like Me,” in which the comedian goes undercover as a white man to see how different life might be. While in his white persona, Murphy gets a free newspaper, a free cocktail during an impromptu party on a city bus, and free money from the bank, in a series of all-white situations. I pair this video with a 2012 sketch from Key and Peele called “White Zombies,” which features comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, along with Kevin Sorbo, as survivors of a zombie apocalypse. They find themselves in a white suburban neighborhood overrun by white suburban zombies, and after Sorbo is attacked, Key and Peele’s characters experience a series of microaggressions from the zombies, who refuse to interact with the two men, let alone eat them. The sketch ends with an all-black backyard party as a white businessman zombie climbs a fence to avoid the partygoers.

Both of these videos focus on the black/white conception of race in the United States, although comedians Key and Peele identify as mixed-race. Pointing this out is a good opening to get students thinking about how they categorize race, as they form small groups for the workshop. Once they are in their small groups, I present the class with a question that each group needs to tackle together: I ask each student to think of two stereotypes about their race (ethnicity usually comes into this as well, since each student self-identifies their race). One of these stereotypes should fit them personally, while the other should be one that they personally break. This is an important balance, so that students are critiquing racial stereotypes as they identify them, and through this also highlighting human variation. As students begin their discussion, I move among the groups to answer questions and support an atmosphere of respectful dialogue. Then, once the groups have finished discussing their answers, I open the floor for an all-classroom discussion.

Responses vary every time, so it’s important to think on your feet and link student responses to the assigned readings and previous lessons—the chapter by Yolanda Moses is a great guide here. For example, the last time I did the workshop in my introductory class, one black student pointed out that she loved fried chicken, which fit with a stereotype of black people. I opened this stereotype up to the whole classroom by asking, “who else loves fried chicken?” Laughter broke out as my students looked around and realized that they all had their hands up, everyone but a vegetarian student. It was a quick reminder of human variation; while we might think of fried chicken as an identifier for race, in fact it has a much broader appeal. Often, students engage directly with the myths highlighted by Moses, such as a black student who pointed out that she broke a stereotype about black people because she was on the college swim team. Encourage students to analyze their responses and relate them to the material.

You will start to notice, usually, that more students of color speak up during the all-classroom discussion, while fewer white students respond. This is often a continuation of a dynamic during the small group discussions: white students having trouble thinking of stereotypes about white people. During the small group discussion, I try not to give too many hints, instead pointing to the categories that Moses emphasizes in describing myths about race: traits we perceive to be inherent, and thus somehow connected to our biology. Only toward the end of the all-class discussion time do I point out the disparity and call on a couple of my white students, asking them about their answers for this question on stereotypes.

Here is where the lesson in privilege hits home, because white students who participate in this workshop often struggle to think of any stereotypes about white people. One white student pointed out the popularity of pumpkin spice lattes from Starbucks and Ugg boots, both of which she likes, but couldn’t think of another stereotype that she breaks. I responded by highlighting the fact that Starbucks and Uggs are marks of consumerism, such that identity is tied to buying specific brands rather than to something we perceive as an inherent trait, like athleticism. This disparity needs to be highlighted as the workshop ends—that students of color can easily identify stereotypes about their race and describe how they personally relate to those stereotypes, since race is part of their everyday experiences in the United States. White students, on the other hand, have the privilege of not being constantly aware of their race in their everyday experiences, or of knowing the many stereotypes against which they are judged as a representative of their race. As class time ends, I usually close with a reminder of Eddie Murphy’s comment that “there are actually two Americas, one black and one white.”

Reference

Moses, Yolanda T. 2010. “Thinking Anthropologically About ‘Race’: Human Variation, Cultural Construction, and Dispelling Myths." In Thinking Anthropologically: A Practical Guide for Students, 3rd edition, edited by Philip Salzman and Patricia Rice, 94−105. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Multimedia Resources